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He fought alongside Vernon Countains

Thursday, April 27, 2006

He was Cedar County's first sheriff, played a pivotal part in the Battle of Wilson's Creek, fighting alongside Col. DeWitt C. Hunter and his Vernon Countians, and there gave his life. He will be commemorated, and his new gravestone dedicated, Saturday in a ceremony staged by the Col. John T. Coffee Camp No.1934 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

James H. Cawthorn (sometimes spelled Caw-thon) came to Cedar County from Tennessee in 1841 or 1842 and took up fertile land along Sac River, working it with slaves.

The story is told that on April 7, 1845, officials of the newly organized Cedar County sat on a sycamore log "near the mouth of Bear Creek, where Owen's Mill later stood" (not too far east of present-day Stockton), and were sworn into office by a justice of the peace. Among them was James Cawthorn, the county's first sheriff and tax collector.

In early 1861, as the nationwide sectional crisis spread to Missouri, 52-year-old Cawthorn entered the proConfederate Missouri State Guard. Officers then being chosen by the troops, he was elected lieutenant and later captain of Company D, Fourth Cavalry Regiment, Eighth Division. Clearly he was popular, for on July 4 he was elected colonel of the regiment.

In the rainy wee hours of August 10, the Missouri State Guard under Gen. Sterling Price, along with regular Confederate forces under Gen. Ben McCulloch, were camped along Wilson's Creek, a few miles southwest of Springfield, aiming to attack the Federals in the town when day broke. But the Federal commander, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, although outnumbered, beat them to it. As dawn approached, Lyon's troops were closing on the Confederate camp.

"A mile or so ahead of him, Col. James Cawthorn, leading the Rebel advance guard, was nervous, perhaps because he realized that there were no pickets out. To allay his concern, he ordered a patrol out at daylight. They had proceeded almost a mile when they bumped into scouts leading the Federal force. The patrol hurriedly returned with this surprising news. Cawthorn immediately dispatched word of the Federal movement to (the division commander Gen. James) Rains, and ordered Col. De Witt Hunter, with about 300 men, forward to determine whether or not the federal force was in strength.

"Hunter, a 31-year-old native of Illinois, had made Nevada, Missouri, his home. His unit had been raised in Vernon County, and its six companies bore names, such as Vernon Rangers and Vernon Guards, that reflected their strong community-level identification." Neighbors back home, Hunter and Cawthorn thus were well-matched leaders of the first Confederate units to be engaged. Their actions took place on what would afterwards be called Bloody Hill, though their own casualties remained surprisingly and mercifully light.

Advancing to the top of a ridge forming the northern spur of Bloody Hill, Hunter spotted the main Federal force. After sending word to Cawthorn of the enemy's approach, he formed his men in line atop the spur. "Had the terrain been more favorable, he might have considered making a 'spoiling attack'." But a ravine separated the two forces, and his command would have experienced difficulty facing a superior enemy enjoying artillery support.

"Yet his defensive action had nearly the same effect as a spoiling attack, as the line he established on the high ground forced the Federals to halt. This gave Cawthorn time to sound the alarm and organize the rest of the division's mounted troops." Coming under artillery fire, Hunter fell back toward his unit. Cawthorn, on hearing the artillery, deployed the remainder of his force, about 600 men, to block any advance. When Hunter reached Cawthorn's position, he was ordered to dismount his troops, move the horses to the rear, and place his men in the already established battle line. Their position was good, but as one soldier in four held horses, fewer than 700 Missouri State guardsmen stood in line between the enemy and the unprotected Southern camps.

Seemingly Cawthorn acted entirely on his own initiative. His actions, ably supported by Hunter's, delayed and diverted the Federal advance, allowing the Confederates to recover from their surprise and bring their superior numbers to bear. They began to prevail after Gen. Lyon was killed around mid-morning, al-though the seesawing fight went on all day.

It was a costly Confederate victory. And among the casualties was Col. James Cawthorn.

Toward the end of the battle, he was "mortally wounded" in the foot. He died eight days later, of "a combination of postoperative problems and disease" in "the hospital" at Springfield, where, futilely, his leg had been amputated. (One can't help wondering just what "the hospital" amounted to, and what primitive medical horrors went on there.)

Through the chaos of war, his family managed to get his body home to the family farm, located northeast of Caplinger Mills, on the east side of Sac River. Over time the farm changed hands and the Cawthorn family burying ground was lost track of. But old-timers retained vague memories of having seen the stones on the former Cawthorn land.

On a chilly Jan. 10, 2005, half-a-dozen dedicated souls convened on the site. Rather like graverobbers in A Frankenstein movie, they probed and prodded with rods and shovels, and were rewarded by turning up, not quite Col. Cawthorn, but the shallowly buried broken pieces of several gravestones. The top part of one stone was missing, but the remainder bore the dates "Born May 3, 1809, died Aug. 18, 186 1," and a nearby footstone bore the initials "J. H. C."

One could hardly ask for firmer proof that here indeed lay the remains of Col. James H. Cawthorn.

Eldon Steward procured a veteran gravestone for Col. Cawthorn, but unfortunately satisfactory arrangements for its placement could not be made with the present landowner. Accordingly, it's being placed in the cemetery at nearby Caplinger Mills.

The dedication ceremony will take place at 11 a.m., Saturday, April 29, at the cemetery, located just south of the church in Caplinger Mills. Distant descendants from far and wide are expected to be present. The public, too, is invited.