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Saturday November 18th 2017

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Gettysburg infantryman, James Francis Towner, Remembered and Honored 147 years later

By Sue Hunter Weir

In April 1932, members of the Minneapolis Cemetery Protective Association (MCPA) ordered a military marker for James F. Tower, a man they believed to have been a Civil War vet. When the marker arrived they had it set on the grave of a man named John K. Tower where it has been ever since. No one, it seems, noticed that the first name on the marker was James, not John. Private James Francis Towner (not Tower), the man that the MCPA thought that they were honoring, has been buried in an unmarked grave in a different section of the cemetery since 1865.

Private James Francis Towner was a veteran of Company K 1st Minnesota Infantry; he was mustered in at Fort Snelling on April 29, 1861. James Towner was one of the 215 (out of 265) men from the 1st Minnesota who were wounded at Gettysburg in July 1863. The inscription on the 1st Minnesota’s monument at Gettysburg sums up the vital contribution that these men made to the Union cause: “In self sacrificing desperate valor this charge has no parallel in any war.” James Francis Towner was one of the men who made that charge.

He recovered from his wounds and re-enlisted on March 23, 1864. Six months later he was captured by Confederate soldiers at Reams Station and sent to a prison camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. Like thousands of other Union soldiers in the camp, he suffered from chronic diarrhea caused by unsanitary conditions (an estimated 5,000 unidentified Union soldiers died in the camp and are buried in mass graves nearby). Towner was transferred to a Confederate hospital in Richmond, Virginia on February 25, 1865. Medical staff realized that he would never be well enough to return to his military unit; he was paroled at Coxey’s Wharf on March 10, 1865 and began his journey home. He never made it. On April 5, 1865, he died at LaCrosse, Wisconsin, only 160 or so miles from home. He was 21 years old.

By all accounts James Towner was a dutiful son, the sole support of his mother, Mrs. Catherine Ames, and his three half-sisters. He gave the $100 bounty that he received for enlisting to his mother; she used part of the money to buy a cow. (Towner’s father had died in 1853, and his mother married Edwin Ames). After her son died, Mrs. Ames filed for a pension stating that she and her three daughters had been abandoned by her second husband and were destitute. Although she took in boarders and did laundry, she didn’t earn enough to feed and clothe her family. She was awarded a pension of $8.00 a month, but that was taken away from her after a family dispute. One of her daughters “clandestinely married” a man named Petrie. Mrs. Ames openly disapproved of the marriage, and one of Petrie’s relatives retaliated by reporting Mrs. Ames to the pension office. She claimed that Mrs. Ames was not destitute, that she was still married to a man who was able to support her. Mrs. Ames appealed the decision, and her pension file contains 75 pages of letters and depositions vouching for her good character and supporting her claim that she and her daughters had been abandoned. In one deposition, her husband was colorfully described as “the most worthless vagabond in the city.” Several people claimed that Ames had fled the city in order to avoid being prosecuted for larceny. The case was ultimately resolved in Mrs. Ames’ favor.

Private James Towner’s body was brought back to Minneapolis shortly after he died and buried in the north end of Lot 56, Block C. His “vagabond” stepfather, Edwin Ames, died in 1882 and is buried in the south end of the same lot.

Whether or not John K. Tower, the man with the wrong marker, was a veteran is still unclear. A man with the same name enlisted in a Rhode Island but we need to do more research to prove that he is the “right” John K. Tower.

In the next month or two Private James Francis Towner will finally get his marker. When he does, Friends of the Cemetery will hold a dedication ceremony—the date and time will be announced in a future issue of The Alley.

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