John Cecil (1822–1884)
John Cecil was the first elected sheriff of Newton County. He joined the Confederate army at the beginning of the war and later led dangerous guerrilla units in northwest Arkansas. The Union army wanted to capture him badly enough to burn down the city of Jasper (Newton County), and they enlisted Cecil’s younger brother Samuel to help snare him.
John Cecil was the eldest son of Joseph and Margaret (Buttram) Cecil, born on April 10, 1822, in Morgan County, Tennessee. He had three brothers and five sisters. Joseph Cecil and his family migrated to Arkansas prior to 1837 and settled in Carroll County, part of which became Newton County in 1842. Three of John Cecil’s uncles also migrated to Arkansas with large families, which gave him extensive links with established families in Newton and nearby counties. All of these families owned land and farmed in this area.
Cecil married Mary Davis (or Davies) in 1845. Her birthplace is listed as Missouri, but nothing else is known about her family. They had five children between 1846 and 1858.
Cecil was basically a farmer who owned considerable land in Newton County. In 1846 to 1850, and again from 1856 to 1858, he was the elected sheriff, a position that must have given him excellent knowledge of the entire county and the people in it. He was described as well loved and respected.
When Arkansas joined the Confederacy in May 1861, Cecil enlisted in a Confederate cavalry unit. He probably fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge, where several of his close relatives were killed. In 1862, General Thomas Hindman received approval from Confederate president Jefferson Davis to form independent guerrilla units in northwestern Arkansas. Their goal was to harass Union forces and keep the western frontiers open. Cecil was chosen to lead one of those groups. He knew the territory and was not afraid to strike and then disappear. The Union army committed extra resources to destroying his group, resulting in an increased presence in Newton County and the destruction of Jasper.
Cecil’s immediate family did not share his dedication to the South. Cecil’s brother James enlisted in the Union army. His youngest brother, Samuel, enlisted in a Union unit commanded by Captain John Bailey. He was undoubtedly of great help to the Union army since he probably knew most of the sites where his older brother’s raiders might be camped. Billie Hardaway’s novel One Small Drum (1982) gives a fictionalized account of the John and Samuel Cecil rivalries. They fought against each other in skirmishes at Whitley’s Mill and Limestone Creek.
Cecil was never captured or prosecuted after the war. He lost his land, and his home was burned. He probably had no ties left with his parents, and he left Newton County forever. By 1880, he was living in Eureka Springs (Carroll County), in a home next door to the mayor and relative by marriage, John Carroll.
Cecil died on June 4, 1884, and is buried next to his wife and other family members at the “Cecil Cemetery,” located north of Kingston (Madison County) on a farm that once belonged to his son, William Hiram Cecil. The epitaph for their tombstone reads: “A loving father and mother dear / Two faithful friends lie buried here.”
For additional information:
Hardaway, Billie Touchstone. These Hills, My Home: A Buffalo River Story. Bossier City, LA: Everett, 1991.
Lackey, Walter Fowler. History of Newton County, Arkansas. Independence, MO: Zion’s Printing and Publishing, 1950.
Martin, Norman R. Civil War in Newton County: In the Heart of the Ozarks. Searcy, AR: Martin Press, 2001.
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