James Sexton spent his youth in Chicago. Both of his parents died within a short time of each other in 1861. Ann Sexton died March 22, and Stephen Sexton followed her on April 9. The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861. Even though he was only seventeen, James Sexton enlisted one week later on April 19, 1861 when the first call for volunteers for the Union Army went out. After completing a three month enlistment, he was appointed a sergeant and authorized to recruit Company I, Fifty-first Volunteer Infantry, of which he was to be Captain. In June, 1862, he was transferred to Company E, Sixty-seventh Illinois Infantry, and promoted to a lieutenancy, and within three months thereafter was elected Captain of a company recruited under the auspices of the Young Men's Christian Association of Chicago, which became Company D, Seventy-second Illinois.
James Sexton commanded the regiment at the battles of Columbia, Duck River, Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee, and in the Nashville campaign. But it was the Battle of Franklin that was the singular event of the war for Sexton.
The Battle of Franklin was fought on November 30, 1864, at Franklin, Tennessee, as part of the Franklin–Nashville Campaign of the American Civil War. It was one of the worst disasters of the war for the Confederate States Army. Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee conducted numerous frontal assaults against fortified positions occupied by the Union forces under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield and was unable to break through or to prevent Schofield from a planned, orderly withdrawal to Nashville.
The Confederate assault of six infantry divisions containing eighteen brigades with 100 regiments numbering almost 20,000 men, sometimes called the "Pickett's Charge of the West", resulted in devastating losses to the men and the leadership of the Army of Tennessee—fourteen Confederate generals (six killed or mortally wounded, seven wounded, and one captured) and 55 regimental of commanders were casualties. After its defeat against Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas in the subsequent Battle of Nashville, the Army of Tennessee retreated with barely half the men with which it had begun the short offensive, and was effectively destroyed as a fighting force for the remainder of the war.
When stories of the Civil War are told, the events in the Battle of Franklin are often overshadowed by the Battle of Nashville. To make sure as he said that, "history will do justice to the brave men who fought in the ranks," Sexton wrote his own story of the Battle of Franklin that was published by Samuel Harris, who had been a 1st Lieutenant in Company A of the 5th Michigan Calvary. It is a short book, only 24 pages, but well worth reading. If you wish to read it, you can find a copy here:
The Seventy-second Illinois was involved in seven battles and eleven skirmishes, being under the enemy's fire one hundred and forty-five days. It went out with a force of nine hundred and sixty-seven officers and men, and came back with three hundred and thirty-two. During its three years' service it had received two hundred and thirty-four recruits—more than two-thirds the total number mustered out at the close of the war.
In 1865 Col. Sexton was assigned to duty on the staff of Gen. A. J. Smith, Sixteenth Army Corps, acting as Provost-Marshal, and served until the close of the war, leaving a record which will compare favorably with that of any officer from Illinois. At Spanish Fort, on the 8th of April, 1865, Colonel Sexton's left leg was broken by a piece of a shell which exploded over his head. He also received gunshot wounds at Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee.
Soon after his return to Chicago, Sexton became involved in the foundry business. In 1867 he created a stove foundry with partner John Jackson at 178 Lake Street. The Great Chicago Fire of October, 1871 destroyed the facility and Sexton Partnership is shut down due to little insurance on the company. Before the fire reached the Sexton foundry, Sexton’s men tossed the foundry molds into the Chicago River for protection. He later retrieved the molds and was able to continue production.
In 1872 James Sexton met Henry Cribben. By this time Sexton has re-capitalized and reopened the stove foundry on Erie Street. In 1873 Sexton and Cribben joined together to found the immense stove factory Cribben, Sexton & Company. Originally located in the old foundry on Erie Street, the business manufactured steel and cast iron parlor stoves, cooking stoves and heating stoves for both wood and coal. By 1880, the business was producing 40,000 units a year and was wildly successful. At the turn-of-the-century, stoves were the big-ticket consumer item. At that time, wood burning stoves, and especially coal burning stoves, were cutting edge technology and provided services and functions that had only recently been luxuries.
But it was not all war and work for James Sexton. On the 22d of February, 1868, Colonel Sexton married Miss Laura Louisa Woods (1849-1876), daughter of William Woods (1812-1890) and Dorcas Sophronia, nee Case (1823-1911). Her father was of English birth, and the mother a lineal descendant of Revolutionary soldier and representative of one of the earliest American families. With his first wife, James Sexton was blessed with four sons: Stephen William (1869-1922), George William (1872-1922), Ira James (1874-1925), and Franklin Tecumseh (1876-???). Laura Woods Sexton died on September 24, 1876. Here is her Death Notice from the Chicago Daily Tribune:
In 1878 James Sexton remarried. His bride was Augusta, nee Loewe (1856-1934), who was of German extraction. With his second wife, James Sexton was blessed with five daughters: Laura Augusta (1879-????), Mabel Nevada (1881-????), Leola Logan (1885-????), Edith M. (1888-????) and Alice E. (1891-????).
In 1889, James Sexton was appointed Postmaster of Chicago by President Benjamin Harrison, a post he held for five years, serving through the time of the Worlds Columbian Exposition of 1892-1893, when the volume of mail handled under his supervision reached an enormous amount.
Cribben, Sexton and Company continued to expand and the company broke ground on the Universal Building at 700 Sacramento in 1898. That building still stands, and the current owners have put together a nice tribute to Henry Cribben and James Sexton. You can read about it here:
Unfortunately, that same year, ill health caught Sexton and he sold his portion of the business to Cribben’s son, William Cribben.
In addition to his family, his business and his public service, James Sexton was extremely active in the G.A.R. While photographing graves I would often see the initials "G.A.R." on a tombstone. I knew that they stood for Grand Army of the Republic, but that's about all I knew.
According to Wikipedia, the "Grand Army of the Republic" (G.A.R.) was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army (United States Army), Union Navy (U.S. Navy), Marines and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service who served in the American Civil War for the Northern/Federal forces. Founded in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, and growing to include hundreds of posts (local community units) across the nation, (predominately in the North, but also a few in the South and West), it was dissolved in 1956 when its last member, Albert Woolson (1847-1956) of Duluth, Minnesota, died. Linking men through their experience of the war, the G.A.R. became among the first organized advocacy groups in American politics, supporting voting rights for black veterans, promoting patriotic education, help to make Memorial Day a national holiday, lobbying the United States Congress to establish regular veterans' pensions, and supporting Republican political candidates. Its peak membership, at more than 490,000, was in 1890, a high point of various Civil War commemorative and monument dedication ceremonies. It was succeeded by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (S.U.V.C.W.), composed of male descendants of Union Army and Union Navy veterans.
James Sexton was elected as the Commander of the Illinois Department of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in 1888 and Commander-in-Chief of the GAR in 1898.
In addition to the article announcing his death, the Chicago Daily Tribune published this tribute to James Sexton:
Col. Sexton's body was returned to Chicago to lie in state in Memorial Hall of the Chicago Public Library. Mrs. Sexton requested that the services be kept simple, so the G.A.R. ritual was read at Memorial Hall and several speakers paid tribute to him. Col. Sexton was entitled to be accompanied to the cemetery by a procession with formal marching of troops, but again Mrs. Sexton refused. The services at the graveside of Rosehill Cemetery were again simple, with the G.A.R. ritual read and a memorial volley of shots fired.
Several newspapers noted that President McKinley sent flowers from the White House to the funeral.
The story of James A., Sexton is a familiar one - that of an ordinary person being called to do extraordinary things. Though mostly forgotten today, Sexton is just another example of one of Illinois' finest sons.
James A. Sexton, soldier, statesman, patriot - may he rest in peace.