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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Civil War adventures of James Earp

James Earp was the older brother of famous lawman Wyatt Earp. He never earned the fame of his gunslinger brother, or even the lesser notoriety of Virgil and Morgan Earp. Jim, as most people called him, worked as a saloon keeper in Tombstone but didn't participate in the Gunfight at the OK Corral or the subsequent Vendetta Ride.

I never knew much about him until I started writing a book on the Earps for Osprey Publishing, due out in 2013. It turns out Jim saw service in Missouri during the Civil War. When the war started, he enlisted in the 17th Illinois Infantry, a Union outfit that soon marched into war-torn Missouri.

On October 21, the 17th Illinois saw its first major action at the Battle of Fredericktown in southeast Missouri. Confederate General "Swamp Fox" Thompson was in the area with 1500 men and had burnt an important railroad bridge. The 17th Illinois and some other units went after him.

Thompson placed his rebels along a wooded ridge overlooking the road on which the Union troops were approaching. A smaller detachment with three cannon stood in plain view in a cornfield next to the road as bait. The Union column arrived and attacked the Confederates in the cornfield. The 17th Illinois advanced on the enemy center as two other units attacked either flank. After some heavy fighting, the rebels retreated, but the Union troops soon came under a galling fire from the rebels hidden on the ridges.

Despite this, Thompson saw he was outnumbered about two-to-one and that he needed to withdraw. The 17th Illinois managed to capture one of the cannons in the cornfield, an old iron 12-pounder that was out of date, although not as rickety as the wooden cannon used at another battle in Missouri!

Being in the thick of the fight, the 17th Illinois suffered several casualties. One of them was James Earp. He took a bullet in the shoulder that crippled his left arm for life. He was invalided out and spent the rest of the war recovering and working various jobs. He joined his brothers in Tombstone in 1879, where the family gained their place in history. James died in California in 1926.

Numerous online sources say he was wounded on October 31, but the battle was in fact on October 21 and I cannot find any record of a battle involving the 17th Illinois for October 31. I suppose, then, that he was wounded at the actual Battle of Fredericktown and not some skirmish ten days later. I could be wrong, though. I'm in England at the moment and away from my collection of Civil War books!

Two other Earp brothers, Virgil and Newton, also enlisted in the Union army. I'll try to find out more about their experiences for future posts.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Which movie was more accurate then - Tombstone or Wyatt Earp?

    1. I've only seen Tombstone so I can't compare. Tombstone was fairly accurate, considering it was a product of Hollywood. The opening Mexican wedding scene was fiction, though.

    2. "Tombstone" is the better of the 2 movies, but "Wyatt Earp" is more of the complete story.

  2. Such awesome tidbits of history. Thanks for sharing all of your findings. Just might come in handy when I get to revising this inherited western MS I have. :)

    1. Western MS? (ears perk up) Do tell!
      Also, where did you get that Projects in Progress widget for your blog? I could use one of those.


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