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Trimble was a restless soul, a Culpeper Virginia native who had gone west and been appointed to West Point out of Kentucky, then attached himself to his beloved Maryland. A graduate at the age of twenty, he served in artillery branch of the Old Army for ten years, then in 1832 doffed his uniform and entered the exploding railroad industry, where there was unlimited opportunity for a fiery competitor like himself. In the nearly thirty years before Civil War came in 1861 he engineered construction on a number of railroad lines in the Mid-Atlantic region and became a distinguished superintendent.
In the early weeks of the War Trimble did not sit idly behind his desk. He used his acumen to try bring victory to the South in one quick stroke by burning all the railroad bridges north of his adopted Baltimore, thereby obstructing the passage of Northern troops bound for Washington and rendering the capital defenseless. When that failed and it became clear that Maryland would not secede, he went home to Virginia. In May 1861 he enlisted in the Engineers and went to work constructing battery emplacements. Although Joe Johnston initially had a low regard for his military abilities, Trimble managed to get himself commissioned brigadier general by August and placed with a brigade by November 1861. He waited through the winter on the Rappahannock line.
Trimble's first chance to show what he could do came the next spring in "Stonewall" Jackson's Shenandoah Campaign. He "saw the elephant" in the climax of the campaign at Cross Keys on June 8, 1862. There, out in front on the right side of Ewell's line, he drew an attack by Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont's Federals. Trimble ordered his men to wait until the last possible second to fire. The entire brigade then blasted a volley into the faces of the Yankees, who staggered, then turned and ran. When they didn't return, Trimble was irked. He went after them, and advanced until he was a mile ahead of the other Confederate brigades. Not yet content, he insisted heatedly on a further attack. Ewell refused his request but remembered his ardor: "Trimble won the fight," he would confide later, "and I believe now if I had followed his views we would have destoyed Fremont's army."
To the men Trimble appeared old and cranky, with an eccentricity of dress which made him right at home in the command of the spectacularly eccentric Maj. Gens. "Stonewall" Jackson and "Old Baldy" Ewell. Once, when someone mentioned the subject of "fancy soldiers," Jackson pointed to Trimble, "sitting on the fence, with black army hat, cord and feathers, [and said] 'There is the only fancy soldier in my command.'" Another distinguishing feature was his bull voice. One of his men remembered, "Trimble gave the loudest command I ever heard, to 'Forward, guide center, march!' I could hear the echo . . . for miles."
At Gaines' Mill, Trimble's next battle, he showed more of the same spirit in attack as Cross Keys. At Malvern Hill, he vainly begged asked Jackson to let him make a night assault, unwilling to give up without one more effort where 5,000 Confederates already lay crumpled on the ground.
Jackson's command proceeded immediately from the Peninsula to face the threat of Maj. Gen. John Pope's army to the northwest. There, in the early stages of the Second Manassas Campaign, Trimble routed one Federal brigade at Freeman's Ford on the banks of the Rappahannock. Later, after Jackson had mercilessly driven his flying column around Pope's army and into his rear, Trimble volunteered his exhausted brigade for one more march to the Federal supply depot at Manassas Junction. Jackson gratefully accepted. Trimble's men, numbed with lack of sleep, aching and foot-weary, made the extra march, then rushed forward and captured two Federal batteries at the end of it. In September, after Trimble was wounded in the Battle of Second Manassas (hit above the left ankle by an explosive bullet), Jackson remembered, and wrote:
I respectfully recommend that Brig. Gen. I.R. Trimble be appointed a Maj. Gen. It is proper, in this connection, to state that I do not regard him as a good disciplinarian, but his success in battle has induced me to recommend his promotion. I will mention but one instance, though several might be named, in which he rendered distinguished service. After a day's march of over 30 miles he ordered his command . . . to charge the enemy's position at Manassas Junction. This charge resulted in the capture of a number of prisoners and 8 pieces of Artillery. I regard that day's achievement as the most brilliant that has come under my observation during the present war."
The trouble was, according to law Trimble could not be promoted or assigned to command a division until he was well enough to serve with troops. Here, finally, his age disadvantaged him--his wound developed infections and complications, and he healed slowly. True to form, Trimble went on the offensive from his sickbed, writing enraged letters to the Adjutant General and Secretary of War, demanding his promotion at once. The letters and demands bore fruit. On January 19, 1863, Trimble was promoted to major general and given command of Jackson's Stonewall Division, though he had still not recovered. In fact, in April he fell sick again, and Maj. Gen. "Allegheny" Johnson was given Jackson's division after the Battle of Chancellorsville in May. Meanwhile, Trimble was given command of the quiet (Shenandoah) Valley District.
When Lee's army marched across the Potomac a few weeks later, however, Trimble could not remain in his quiet backwater when battle was promised in Maryland or Pennsylvania--an area he knew like the back of his hand from his railroading days. He rode north, joined Lee in the third week of June, and after he wore out his welcome at army headquarters, rode further north and joined his old chief, now Lieut. Gen. Ewell, in Carlisle on June 28. He immediately volunteered to take the capital of Pennsylvania--about whose defenses or garrison he knew absolutely nothing--single-handedly, with one brigade! On June 30, however, orders came from Lee for the army to concentrate, and Ewell moved south with the nettlesome Trimble always at his ear.
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