Postcards: McCuistions exemplified Civil War, in which ‘brothers fought against brothers’

By Linda Emley

With spring comes one of my favorite pastimes, visiting old cemeteries. The following story is about one from Ray County that is on my “to do” list this spring.
There is a field northeast of Millville that was once owned by Benjamin Franklin McCuistion. It’s legal description is Township 54, Range 26, Section 31. Ben was born in Tennessee in 1808 and died in Ray Country in 1901. He was a farmer who came to Ray County around 1830 and owned over 600 acres. Ben and 9 members of his family were buried in a family cemetery on his farm.
It is appropriately called the McCuistion Cemetery, but this story is not about Ben McCuistion, it’s about the two son-in-laws that are buried here with him, Henry Renfro and Lafayette Branstetter. This is the story of two brothers-in-law who went off to war, one a Confederate soldier and 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 a lot in common besides their father-in-law.
Ben McCuistion was a slave owner in Ray County, so it was no surprise when his son and nephews joined the Confederate Army. His son-in-law, Lafayette Branstetter, was a Democrat who came from a family that owned slaves, but he joined the Union Army. He enlisted in Mercer Co. Mo 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 was a farmer who went to Lexington to enlist in the Confederate Army in 1861. He wrote home 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 seventy-five miles in two days and nights, only eating two meals in that length of 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 one-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 six 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 Renfro.”
The Jefferson McCuistion mentioned in this letter was a brother of Henry’s wife Martha. Gwinn, Gabe, Leasle and Alex 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, 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 one of the 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.
620,000 American sons died in the Civil War. More were killed by disease than battle wounds. An estimated 50,000 men who survived the war were amputees. Henry Renfro was one of those men.
Life was not easy for the Confederate boys after the war. Henry’s son told a story about his father being dragged off one night to be killed. Two of the McCuistion sisters pleaded and clung to Henry so “tenaciously” that his life was spared.
It was hard for America to heal after the war, but Henry Renfro and Lafayette Branstetter proved that life went on for those who fought for the North and the South. They were buried side by side with their wives and their father-in-law in the McCuistion Cemetery.
Per the 1881 Ray County History Book, Henry Renfro lived a good life after the war. “He was paroled June 26, 1865, and returned home to Ray County, arriving July 19, 1865. During the first three years after his return from the war, he farmed, and then, going to Millville, entered the drug trade with Doctor Quarles.”
Henry and Lafayette’s children lived in a new world, thanks to the soldiers who fought in a war that will always be remembered as the war “where brothers fought against brothers.”

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