Wednesday, January 25, 2017

James J. Hawthorne was one of Wilcox County's toughest Confederate fighters

Lelia Hawthorne's grave in California.
Not that long ago, while exploring the historic Camden Cemetery, my young son and I came upon one of the most impressive Confederate graves in Southwest Alabama, the final resting place of James J. Hawthorne.

Tomorrow – Jan. 26 – will mark the passage of Hawthorne’s 177th birthday, and I think there is little doubt that he was one of Wilcox County’s toughest Civil War veterans.

According to the slab over this grave, which is adorned with the Southern Cross of Honor, Hawthorne was the son of Dennis L. and Margaret Hawthorne. He was born in Camden on Jan. 26, 1840, and he died in Thorsby in Chilton County on Sept. 10, 1906. During the Civil War, he served in Co. D of the 3rd Alabama Cavalry and between 1861 and 1865, he fought in at least seven major battles, including Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Atlanta and Bentonville.

As I often do, I turned to noted Civil War expert Steve Stacey of Monroeville to see if he had any additional information about this tough Rebel fighter buried in Camden. According to Stacey’s research, Hawthorne was actually born on Jan. 26, 1845 (five years later than what’s on his grave marker), and he enlisted, with the consent of his father, as a private in the Wilcox Mounted Rifles on April 25, 1861. Hawthorne’s horse was valued at $175, and his other equipment was valued at $20, Stacey said.

The Wilcox Mounted Rifles, who were also known as the Wilcox Mounted Dragoons, were commanded by Capt. Thomas Farewell Jenkins, another notable soldier from Wilcox County, and they left Camden on April 25, 1861 for Montgomery where they were officially assigned to Co. H of the 7th Alabama Cavalry. Co. H was initially assigned to picket duty on the Gulf Coast near Pensacola before they were sent to Tennessee in November 1861. Five months later, in April 1862, the unit fought at the Battle of Shiloh, and a short time later, the unit became part of the 3rd Alabama Cavalry.

Hawthorne was eventually promoted to the rank of Fifth Sergeant and was named the 3rd Alabama Cavalry’s regimental color bearer on June 30, 1863. Selection for service as color bearer was a high honor because it was an extremely dangerous job suited for only the bravest of soldiers. These flag-carrying soldiers were targeted frequently by enemy rifles and cannons, and color bearers were expected not to turn and run in the face of oncoming enemies. As you would expect, the mortality rate for color bearers was very high.

Four of the battles on Hawthorne’s grave marker – Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Atlanta and Bentonville – were fought after Hawthorne was named color bearer, and if he in fact served as color bearer in all of those major engagements, it is truly remarkable that he survived. The last battle on his grave marker, the Battle of Bentonville, ended on March 21, 1865 at Bentonville, N.C., less than three weeks before Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va. Later, Hawthorne was listed among the Confederate stragglers captured at Selma by the 7th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, and he was paroled in June 1865, according to Stacey.

A little over one year later, on Aug. 1, 1866, Hawthorne married Lelia C. Jenkins in Wilcox County. Due to her husband’s service, Lelia Hawthorne, would go on to receive a Widow’s Pension, while living in Chilton County, Stacey said. If my research is correct, Lelia Hawthorne moved to California around 1915 and died two years later from a lung condition. She is buried in Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach, Calif., more than 2,000 miles away from the grave of her husband of 40 years.

Before I close out for another week, I think it should be noted that James J. Hawthorne was the recipient of the Southern Cross of Honor. This post-war honor was given to members of the United Confederate Veterans by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The first ever Cross of Honor was bestowed on Capt. Alexander S. Erwin of Athens, Ga. on April 26, 1900, so Hawthorne would have received his sometime between that date and the time of his death at the age of 61 (or 66).

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