Thomas James Purdie was born at the family home, Purdie Hall, on the bank of the Cape Fear River, near present day Tarheel, NC on June 22, 1830. He was the second son and third child of James Bailey Purdie and Anna Mariah Smith Purdie. The couple would eventually have four children born at Purdie Hall before the death of James Bailey in 1835. Purdie Hall, which still stands today, is a two story Georgian style house, which was built by James Samuel Purdie, grandfather of Thomas Purdie, between 1803 and 1807.
The Purdie family was one of wealth and prestige, affording Thomas the opportunities and advantages which were, at that time, only available to children of wealthy families. His father died when Thomas was only five years old; so he was reared under the watchful eye of his mother during his formative years.
Little is known of the early life of Thomas except that recorded in local accounts, such as a neighbor's diary. These accounts indicate that Thomas was a well-respected young man, who collected books and helped tend his family's vast land holdings on both sides of the Cape Fear River.
In 1855, at the age of twenty-five, Thomas built a home for himself on family land several hundred yards up river from Purdie Hall. Family papers reveal that his new home had a large library to accomodate his lust for reading and for accumulating books. Thomas was able to live in his new home for only six years when the Civil War began. One can imagine that those six years were among the happiest as he tended the family farms and indulged himself in his quest for knowledge. By 1860, as revealed by the census, Thomas had become among the wealthiest men in Bladen County. The Thomas Purdie house no longer exists.
When the Civil War began after the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, Thomas enlisted as a private in the Bladen Guards of the North Carolina Militia, entering service in May, 1861. The Bladen Guards were called into service by North Carolina Governor Ellis immediately after Purdie's enlistment. He reported to Wilmington, serving throughout the fall and winter at Fort Fisher and Zeke's Island at the New Inlet entrance to the Cape Fear River. Thus began his service in the army of the Confederate States of America, which terminated in his death at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863. Purdie's unit became part of the Eighth North Carolina regiment, which soon was re-designed as the Eighteenth.
The Eighteenth Regiment came under the command of Brigadier General L. O'B. Branch, and it was initially assigned to protect the coasts of North and South Carolina. As a measure of the confidence and trust which he inspired in his fellow soldiers, Thomas Purdie was soon elected as captian of his company. (At that time, junior officers were elected by their company peers). Following several rapid promotions, Captain Purdie became Lt. Colonel Purdie in April, 1862.
The Eighteenth Regiment, with its new Lt. Colonel, was sent by rail to Virginia in May 1862 and immediately became a part of General Stonewall Jackson's "foot cavalry." The Eighteenth served with General Jackson in the famous Shenandoah Valley campaign for a short time, after which time Jackson's corp was ordered to Virginia by General Robert E. Lee and participated in the Battle of Hanover Court House, and later in what became known as the "Seven Days Campaign" around Richmond. The Eighteenth Regiment and Lt. Colonel Puride were engaged in all of the battles of the seven days campaign, when the Union army under General George B. McCellan was attempting to capture the Confederate Capital. The seven days battles ended in the retreat of the Union army to the banks of the James River. Concerning Colonel's Purdie's execution of command during the Seven Days campaign, there can be no doubt that he led his troops with competence and bravery. After the battle of Malvern Hill, (part of the seven days campaign) it was not long before Colonel Purdie took full command of the Eighteenth. Col. Robert H. Cowan, then in command, wrote in his report: "Where all behaved well it is difficult to make distinctions...still I desire to make special mention of my lieutenant-colonel, Thomas J. Purdie. He was everywhere in the thickest of the fight, cool and courageous, encouraging the men and directing them in their duty. His services were invaluable."
After the conclusion of the Richmond campaign, the Eighteenth North Carolina regiment and Lt. Colonel Purdie fought at the battle of Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas (Bull Run) in August, 1862. Second Manassas ended with a great Confederate victory over the northern army then under the command of General John Pope.
In September, 1862, the Eighteenth North Carolina participated in the invasion of Maryland and the bloody battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg). General Jackson's corp, including Lt. Coll. Purdie's regiment, initially had been sent to Harper's Ferry, Virginia by General Lee, to reduce the fort and capture the Union troops occupying Harper's Ferry. This was accomplished, and brought about the surrender of over 12,000 Union troops. Immediately after the surrender, Jackson's corp made a rapid march to Sharpsburg, arriving just in time to rescue the Confederate troops from an impending defeat. The action at Sharpsburg included the infamous battle of Burnside's Bridge, in which the troops of Lt. Col. Purdie participated.
The battle of Antietam produced the greatest one day casualty list in American history, the Union suffering over 12,000 casualties, and the Confederates over 10,000. The battle ended as a tactical draw, but it was a strategic victory for the Union. Shortly after the battle, President Lincoln, who had been delaying issuing the Emancipation Proclamation until after a Union victory, felt the outcome of the battle justified the issuance of the proclamation.
After Antietam, Lt. Col. Purdie was appointed a full colonel as a reward for his courage in leading his regiment in the battle. Colonel Purdie retained his rank of colonel until his death at Chancellorsville in May 1863.
In November, 1862, new Union commander General Ambrose Burnside attempted to overcome the entrenched Confederates at Fredericksburg, Virginia. The battle resulted in a major Confederate victory. Colonel Purdie was successful in helping to hold the right wing of Jackson's corp against the Union charge. "I cannot speak in too high terms of the gallantry of Colonel Purdie, who was slightly wounded" wrote Brig. General James H. Lane, Purdie's superior, in a December 23, 1862 report on the Fredericksburg battle.
After resting during the winter months of 1862-63, the Eighteenth regiment participated in the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Chancellorsville was General Lee's greatest victory; but in it he lost his "right arm" when General Stonewall Jackson was mistakenly shot by Confederate soldiers under the command of Colonel Purdie. Purdie believed that General Jackson was a Union officer leading a charge against Purdie's part of the Confederate line, and an order was given to "commence firing." The error was soon discovered, but the cease firing order came to late to prevent General Jackson from being struck twice by mini balls fired from the rifles of Purdie's men. Jackson died eight days later, May 10, 1863 as a result of the wounds he suffered from musket fire from Purdie's men.
The next day after the fatal wounding of General Jackson, Colonel Purdie was leading his regiment with sabers drawn in a pre-dawn charge against a breastwork of twenty-eight Union cannon on Fairfield Heights. As he was encouraging his men both by word and example, he was stuck in the forehead from close range by a minie ball fired by a Union sharpshooter. Colonel Purdie was killed instantly. Union troops, momentarily retaking their position, stripped the body of Colonel Purdie of his revolver and braided officer's coat. His body was shortly recovered by his troops when retook the position.
Following the battle, General Lane, Purdie's immediate superior, wrote on May 11, 1863 as follows:
"Never have I seen men fight more gallantly or bear fatigue and hardship more cheerfully. I shall always be proud of the noble bearings of my brigade in the Battle of Chancellorsville - the bloodiest in which it has ever taken part, when the Eighteenth and Twenty-eight North Carolina gallantly repulsed two night attacks made by vastly superior numbers - its gallantry has cost it many noble sacrifices, and we are called upon to mourn the loss of the gentle, but gallant and fearless Col. Purdie, who was killed while urging forward his men."
Colonel Purdie's body was carried to Richmond and thence sent by rail from Richmond to Wilmington, and from there by steamer to Purdie Hall. He was laid to rest in the family cemetery near his home after a funeral service at Purdie Methodist Church. The funeral Service was held on May 10, 1863, the same day as the death of General Jackson from the wounds he received at Chancellorsville.
One who attended Purdie's funeral paid tribute to him in the North Carolina Presbyterian magazine as follows:
"Thinking it wrong for the gallant dead to pass away - when their deeds, founded in virtue, have merited the highest honor, I send you a brief history of the gallant Col. Thomas J. Purdie, 'One good deed dying tongueless murders a thousand that wait upon that.' The reticence natural to him concealed many latent virtues - His benevolence was the most unselfish and kin, and he spared no pains to make all around contented and happy. All the members of the 18th N.C. Troops will testify to his kindness, and at late hours of the night he would visit the tents to quell any disorder; his powers of persuasion were so great that he seldom had to use harsh means to bring a soldier to his duty.
Thus ended the short but heroic career of Colonel Thomas J. Purdie. In honor of this gallant North Carolinian, Fort Fisher named the seaface artillery emplacement containing the mighty 8 ton Armstrong Rifle Cannon, Battery Purdie.
Many Civil War historians believe that if General Stonewall Jackson had not been wounded at Chancellorsville and had thus been available for service at Gettysburg in July 1863, that Gettysburg may well have resulted in a Confederate victory, and with it have caused a different final result in the Civil War.