At the outset of the Civil War, 26 year old Larkin Cantrell taught school near Benton, Illinois, about 35 miles from the present-day campus of Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Born in Arkansas, Cantrell was like many in southern Illinois who had extensive family ties in the South. Still, he left his wife Mary and baby boy to join an independent cavalry company led by his fellow townsman, James J. Dollins. By December, 1861, Cantrell was in Cairo, Illinois, acting as company clerk. In a letter to Mary he described firsthand the rapid military buildup that preceded the battles of early 1862. “There is a great bustle here all the while Soldiers by the thousands drums fifes Brass bands and all the din and clamor incident in time of War. ”
As with other independent companies, Dollins’ cavalry company was soon incorporated into regular units: in this case, successively, the 31st Illinois Infantry, the 4th Illinois Cavalry, and finally as Company C, 15th Illinois Infantry. In the midst of these migrations, Private Larkin Cantrell lost his right arm, apparently reenlisted, and was discharged in August, 1862, for having enlisted without his arm. In December the case was brought to the attention of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, and it appears briefly in Volume 7 of the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. The outcome remains unclear. The few letters in this small collection do not refer to a missing arm. And the single photograph adds a little to the mystery. The name Larkin Cantrell is written in ink on the back. Another name, in pencil too faint to read but beginning “LT.” ( lieutenant), also appears on the back. A photographers’ stamp reads “C. C. Giers, Successor to F. N. Hughes, Corner Union and College Sts., Nashville, Tenn.” Research reveals that Hughes did not sell his studio to Giers until December, 1862. Since the uniformed man seems to have both arms intact, who was he?
Larkin Cantrell survived the war, but not for long. He appears in the 1870 census, still teaching school, with Mary, son William, 9, and daughter Louisa, 2. It isn’t clear when he died, but Mary Cantrell remarried in November, 1873.
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