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Civil War foes laid to rest side-by-side

Bt Linda Emley

There is a field northeast of Millville that was once owned by Benjamin Franklin McCuistion. Its legal description is Township 54, Range 26, Section 31. Ben was born in Tennessee in 1808 and died in Ray County in 1901. He was a farmer who came to Ray County around 1830 and owned over 600 acres.

Ben and nine members of his family are buried in a cemetery on his farm. It’s called the McCuistion Cemetery, but this story is not about Ben McCuistion. It’s about his two son-in-laws buried there with him, Henry Renfro and Lafayette Branstetter. The brother-in-laws went off to war, one a Confederate soldier and the other a Union boy.

Ben McCuistion had four sons and six daughters. His youngest son Oliver died in 1860 at the age of 6. His next two sons, Oscar and Green, were too young for the Civil War. His oldest son, Jefferson, was 26 and he went with his cousins to fight for the Confederate army.

Lafayette Branstetter married Ben’s daughter, Margery Jane, in 1853. Margery’s younger sister Martha married Henry Renfro in 1859. I’m sure Lafayette and Henry shared many family dinners and were friends before the war. They were both farmers and went to the Christian Church, so they had much in common.

Ben McCuistion was a slave owner in Ray County, so it’s no surprise when his son and nephews joined the Confederates. His son-in-law, Lafayette Branstetter, was a Democrat who came from a slave-owning family, but he fought for the Union. He enlisted in Mercer County and was a sergeant in Capt. Bradley’s company  A.

We don’t know much about Lafayette’s war days, but we do have many details about Henry Renfro because his wartime letters survived for us to read 150 years later. In 1930, the letters were in the possession of Henry’s son Charles, but I don’t know where the original letters are today.

Henry Renfro went to Lexington to enlist with the Confederates in 1861. He wrote to his wife from Springfield Jan. 10, 1862: “Dear Martha, I take the present opportunity of informing you that I am well and hoping this may find you enjoying the same blessing. I have nothing of interest to write you. I had a pretty hard trip in getting here from Lexington having made a forced march of 75 miles in two days and nights, only eating two meals in that time, with the Federals dodging close in our rear. It was said that they were within four miles of us at one time, 6,000 in number. How true it was I can not tell, but I am satisfied that if it had not been for aid sent to us by General Price, we would have all been captured there being only about 2,800 of us together and only about half of them being armed. Martha, I have been sworn into the Confederate service for 12 months, where I think every true Southern man should be that can leave home. When I left home, I did not expect to remain in the service more that 3 months, but when I got to Lexington, I found that I could not go in the State Service for less than 6 months, and the Confederate service for 12 months. I belong to Capt. McDowell’s company. Jefferson, Gwinn, Leasle and Alex are all well, and are in the same mess with myself. Well, I must bring this to a close. I will come home to see you, as soon as I can. Do not let this time seem long, I want you to kiss Jenny for me and do not let her forget me. I will write to you every opportunity, and if you have a chance, write to me. Nothing more at present, but remain yours until death. Henry” 

The Jefferson McCuistion mentioned in this letter was a brother of Henry’s wife Martha. Gwinn, Gabe, Leasle and Alec McCuistion were Martha’s cousins.

Jefferson died in 1876 at Walla Walla, Wash. Gwinn died in 1916 at Barton County. He was a member of the Whig party, but after the war he became a Democrat. Gabriel died in 1915 and was buried in Texas. All five of Gabe’s sons had names that reflected his political beliefs, Thomas Harrison, Benjamin Franklin, Owen Price, Edward Jefferson and Franklin Price. Leasle died in 1889 in Mountain Grove. Alex was elected Ray County Clerk in 1874 and was a businessman in Richmond until his death in 1913. All of these men survived the war, but a few of the other McCuistion cousins were not as lucky. Elisha McCuistion died in the hospital, on Nov. 5, 1864 in Marian, Ala. of wounds received in the Confederate service in the Battle of Altoona Heights, at Union Town, Ala. Another cousin, William McCuistion, died in 1865. One family tradition said he was a Confederate spy.

More of the Renfro letters can be found in book 1 of Ray County Chapters, which is a collection of Jewell Mayes’s 1930 articles from the Richmond Missourian. This book is available at the Ray County Museum.

Around 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War – more  killed by disease than wounds. An estimated 50,000 war survivors were amputees. Henry Renfro was among them.

Life wasn’t easy for Confederates after the war. Henry’s son told a story about his father being dragged off one night to be killed. Two McCuistion sisters pleaded and clung to him so “tenaciously” his life was spared. It was hard for America to heal, but Henry Renfro and Lafayette Branstetter proved the war was over and life went on for those who fought for both sides. They were buried side by side with their wives and father-in-law in the family cemetery.

Henry and Lafayette’s children lived in a new world, thanks to the soldiers who fought in the war that will always be remembered as one “where brothers fought against brothers.”

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