Sometimes in collecting, a mundane acquisition takes a new position in your collection’s importance after a little research and a lot of luck. In March 2017, I noticed a 1840 Model French musket with bayonet on an on-line auction. I already had one in my collection, but this one was priced extremely low and I was specifically interested in the markings on the bayonet. I left a bid.
No one else bid. I sent my money, and it arrived in the mail. Both pieces were in typical “attic-stored condition,” which is what I like. However, the musket I already had was a little nicer, so I decided to keep the bayonet and sell the musket.
I took it to a small local show and found no interest, so it came home again. On Wednesday of the following week, I received a surprise package in the mail containing a note from the person who sold the gun. He wrote that he had neglected to include this information about the Civil War veteran that had owned the two relics.
JAMES EATON: GOLD MINER, SOLDIER
The information was in the form of a 50 page college paper written for a history class at Southern Illinois University by James M. Neal in 1978. The paper was wonderful! It was the story of James Eaton.
Born in Lawrenceville, Illinois, in March 1831, Eaton lost his mother when he was just 9 years old. His father immediately married a woman with whom James didn’t get along. She was a horrible cook.
By the age of 10, he couldn’t take it anymore. He walked about 40 miles to Terre Haute, Indiana, and sold his rifle, giving him enough money to hire transportation to Tecumseh, Michigan, where his grandparents lived. He stayed with them for four months before returning home to Illinois.
When he arrived, he found his father’s situation had changed. His stepmother had died, and his father had married for a third time.
James was pleased to find that his latest stepmother was a master of the culinary arts. He stayed with his father and stepmother while continuing his sparse education. By the time he was 17, he was able fill in as a teacher at the local school.
When gold was discovered in California the spring of 1848, it caused a fever to spread across the country. James and two of his friends were profoundly affected by the fever. His father bought them a wagon and team of oxen. In April 1849, they left for California with the wagon loaded with provisions.
California turned out to be a miserable disaster for James. After 4 years of almost starving while being lied to, stolen from, and cheated on, he returned home.
Happy to be home again, he still entertained thoughts of returning west. To quell this desire, his father gave him 160 acres of unimproved land.
Another inducement to remain in Illinois came about after his sister introduced him to one of her friends, Cynthia Lewis. They started courting and were married about a year later.
By this time, James had erected a small cabin and cleared 20 acres. Over the next 4 years on the farm, the couple had three children — as well as crop failure and poor prices. The young couple was wallowing in debt.
In April 1861, civil war broke out. Spurred by the patriotic fever, a celebration was planned for May 20 in Sumner, a little town that had sprung up close to the farm after the railroad had come through in 1854. The event was to culminate with the train leaving town filled with local volunteers heading to Springfield, Illinois, to enlist.
Apparently, James had been looking at enlistment during the few months since war broke out as an avenue to a paycheck. He had only found out about the train on the day previous but had made hurried plans to take the family to town and make a decision about his future while there. Cynthia was not pleased with this idea. Leaving her with the children and risking his life for a paycheck was not what she felt was the answer to their problems. Nevertheless, when the train left Sumner, James was in one of the freight cars with the other recruits.
The train had hardly cleared the station when an announcement was made that Illinois had shut off new enlistments. The train was going to St. Louis where the recruits could join Missouri regiments. Illinois had filled its quota of the federal manpower request. Missouri, however, was not receiving enough volunteers to fill theirs. Some of the Illinois boys threatened to jump off the train, but James Eaton relaxed in the thought that the paycheck was the same, regardless of the name of the unit.
The train arrived in St. Louis that evening. The next day, James became a member of Co. G of the 7th Missouri Volunteer Infantry.
As it turns out, the 7th was just what Cynthia would have wanted for her husband. During the next 2 years, James spent more time guarding facilities than fighting battles. Guard and provost duties occupied most of the time.
He walked the Shiloh battlefield days after the battle, and then moved back and forth between Memphis and Jackson, Mississippi, until becoming involved in the Vicksburg operation.
He was hit in the back by a spent ball while retreating during a skirmish around Jackson. The ball had penetrated his belt but luckily, not his skin.
He had been hospitalized in St. Louis with pneumonia brought on by exposure during a mix up in guard duty assignments during the winter of 1862. He had been hastily discharged from the hospital before he was fit for duty when the hospital was overwhelmed with casualties from the Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson battles.
With no place safe to recover, he bought a train ticket home and was temporarily “AWOL.” He wrote his commanding officer and promised to return to the regiment when fit for duty, which he did.
During the Vicksburg campaign, bouts of heat exhaustion plagued James with the last one in early July. When his regiment paraded into Vicksburg, he followed in by ambulance.
A medical board deemed Eaton unfit for duty. Within a few days, he was discharged from the 7th and placed in the Invalid Corps. He was moved north where he worked as a prison guard and clerk until discharge on June 13, 1864.
He returned home to Sumner to find that his house had burned and the farm was in disarray after 3 years of neglect. These facts — and his desire for a paycheck — drove him back to enlist in the Veteran Reserve Corps (VRC) for another year. Originally assigned to Co. K, 7th Regiment VRC, he joined the 9th regiment of United States Veteran Volunteers on April 13, 1865, for another year of service, after which his army pay and military life came to an end.
EATON'S LIFE AFTER THE CIVIL WAR
In the ensuing years, life on the farm became a little easier. His father left him with some property and money — enough to pay off the debts that plagued him.
By 1884, James and Cynthia had 7 more children with several old enough to help on the farm. James belonged to the W. E. Panabaker Post 681, Grand Army of the Republic, in Bridgeport, Illinois, where he filled the office of Secretary for many years.
All of the children left home except for one son,Wilford, who was handicapped by a childhood injury. In 1904, Cynthia died. Sometime during this period James, with the help of Wilford, started writing his memoirs. In the end, they had written down a 200 page record, now preserved in the public library in Vincennes, Indiana (it was from that record that James Neal developed his college paper). Eaton’s wartime remembrance is straightforward and matter-of-fact, containing no critique of generals or tales of amazing exploits or courage.
The Eaton papers include some GAR records from the later years of the post. Wilford took over Post’s record keeping as the roll of members declined. A handwritten document included in the collection is dated May 3, 1919. By this time it appears that only 3 active members in the Post with Eaton being the commander. The document transferred all post records and property upon the death of the last veteran member to Wilford. James Eaton died on February 27, 1920, two weeks prior to turning 89.
RESEARCHING THE FRENCH IMPORT MUSKET
At that point, I had read the college paper; visited with James M. Neal, the author of the college paper; and I was back in contact with the person who sold the relics online looking for more information.
The seller told me that he had been asked by an elderly friend to help him dispose of the musket and bayonet. He hadn’t given any thought to the fact that there would have been more value for the weapons had he stated that there was a known provenance.
He gave me the name and phone number of James Eaton, the grandson of the Civil War veteran. I called and had a nice conversation but found that he never had any interest in family history and could offer nothing more. All he knew was that it had come to him through his family from his grandfather. He had no heirs so he decided to dispose of it before his death.
Though I had enjoyed a great history lesson, as a collector, I now had more questions: Was the musket issued to James Eaton while he was a member of his final VRC unit? Was it a GAR color guard or ceremony weapon? While I suspect the latter, I can’t rule out the possibility that someone gave it to him or he purchased it as surplus.
As could be expected, the VRC was often issued obsolete or withdrawn weapons of US and foreign origin. The French musket could fit that scenario. Was the VRC given the same opportunity to buy a rifle/musket for $6 at discharge as common soldiers?
The possibility that the weapons came to Eaton through the GAR post is also credible. Multiple GAR posts where I live obtained muskets during the 1880s and 1890s. At least three of these posts are known to have had Belgian-manufactured Piedmontese muskets for their ceremonies. The GAR post in Tuscola, Illinois, was located in the Douglas County Courthouse.
Built in 1913, a ground floor room was provided to the Tuscola Post. The room remains today as it was used by the GAR with all of their post belongings still on display. The artifacts include 6 Piedmontese muskets and a Pattern 1853 Enfield. The post records include information about the purchase of the Belgian muskets and the later donation of the Enfield.
Another is found that was from the Newman, Illinois, post and one more from a veteran who enlisted and spent his life locally but where his GAR post membership is unknown.
In the document transferring all of Eaton’s GAR post property to Wilford Eaton, there is no mention of any firearms. Furthermore, no mention of a firearm in Eaton’s memoirs.
For now, I can rest with the satisfaction that a story is attached to the weapons even though it is a puzzle with pieces that seem to be hopelessly lost. As collectors, we search constantly for a connection and bond to the past. We rarely have the opportunity to enjoy the luxury of discovering information that strengthens that bond.
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