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Story Archives: Col. Jim's final imposture 60 years after his death
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|Col. Jim's final imposture 60 years after his death|
(Fifth & Final in a Series)
By Jack D. Elliott, Jr.
As the Natchez Trace Parkway began developing, Walton became increasingly alienated from the Natchez Trace Association that he had founded.
Feeling unappreciated and increasingly restless, he began envisioning a new and more grandiose project that would overshadow the Parkway through absorbing it into an elaborate network of four parkways that converged like a great pin-wheel at a hub at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He subsequently announced that a meeting of delegates from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee would be held in Florence, Alabama on March 22, 1934 to organize a new parkway association.
At a promotional meeting in Nashville -- far from the growing tensions in Mississippi, Walton was in his element -- lionized by politicians and press. Upon returning home, he gloated to his readership that "If I had stayed in Nashville much longer I would have gotten the idea I was somebody. The Governor -- the newspapers, Associated Press, and Kentucky Weekly Publishers loaded me with honors and congratulations. Kentucky Publishers conferred on me the title of 'knight of the Natchez Trace.'" Despite the momentary fanfare, however, the plan went nowhere.
In May, Colonel Jim showed up in Columbus, Mississippi to present a progress report on his parkway scheme. After allying himself with Birney Imes, editor of the Columbus Commercial Dispatch, he announced that the Natchez Trace Parkway should be constructed through Columbus 30 miles away from the original Natchez Trace! Feeling disaffected from the movement that he started, he intended to retaliate against his opponents by moving the Parkway and leaving its supporters to stew in their juices. Immediately after the plan was revealed, the editors of the Eupora and Houston newspapers howled that Editor Imes was attempting to steal the Parkway. The question of historical truth had always been of little concern to anyone, and in this case Columbus loved the prospect of getting the Parkway for itself.
However, the towns that stood to lose the Parkway were not pleased. Editor Ned Lee of Eupora's Webster Progress launched a retaliatory volley stating that Birney Imes and Jim Walton "know less about the history of Mississippi than any two men to be found anywhere. They proved it . . . when they used nearly a whole edition of the Columbus Commercial-Dispatch trying to move the Natchez Trace over to Columbus.'" Lee derided Walton, informing his readers that "We have often laughed at the International Hobo's inexpert twistings of historical facts." Of course Lee had not complained when Walton's "inexpert twistings" had been to Webster County's advantage. Only six months earlier when Walton was being lionized by the press Lee had written that "the colonel probably knows more of [the Trace's] history than any historian living."
After this humiliating rebuke, Walton's column disappeared from the Eupora newspaper. His actions infuriated more people than Ned Lee and served to burn any bridges remaining between him and the Natchez Trace Association. Nonplussed, he moved on to other projects. In 1938, the year that construction began on the Parkway, he off-handedly noted to a reporter that he had been offered the directorship of an international highway project that would connect Norfolk, Virginia to the Panama Canal Zone. He was, he noted, considering the proposition.
In the 1930s Walton never mentioned having a Confederate military record although he constantly talked about his exploits. In fact he had probably been too young to serve. However, in 1943 with advancing age and with no family, he applied to the State of Mississippi for a Confederate pension and received it. Not surprisingly his only documentation was his own personal testimony . . . for what that was worth. Although his pension application claimed that he had enlisted in Virginia in December 1864, his story proved contradictory. According to a later story he had been wounded at the Battle of Dogtown MO which was actually fought prior to his claimed enlistment date! Captured and believed dead by his comrades -- so he claimed -- his name was stricken from the company rolls, and "it cannot be found there now.! Indeed a convenient story to account for not having a service record.
Once a self-proclaimed veteran, he lived the role to the hilt. He became active in veterans' organizations which were by then reduced to only a few doddering old men. Not only was he active, but he worked his way to the top of the ranks serving as Commander of the Mississippi Division of the United Confederate Veterans and Major General of the Army of the Tennessee, an organization composed of veterans from six states. The latter position promoted him from Colonel to General Walton. During his last years, he lived occasionally at the State Confederate Veterans' Home at Beauvoir in Biloxi but spent his last days in the East Mississippi Insane Hospital in Meridian. When he died there on August 30, 1947, newspapers across the state ran obituaries for the old "Confederate veteran" and "Knight of the Natchez Trace." However, in Eupora the Webster Progress was conspicuously silent.
Walton was buried in the veterans cemetery at Beauvoir. Although the state had for decades purchased headstones for Confederate veterans, by 1947 the program had long ended. So he lay for sixty years in an unmarked grave. However in June 2007 the Beauvoir organization received free VA markers for the last nine men buried there who were assumed to be veterans. Fortunately for Colonel Jim, no one looked too closely at his service record, and so no one discovered that he wasn't a veteran. If they had, he would not have been eligible for a free marker. So sixty years after his death, Colonel Jim Walton pulled off one final imposture and received a headstone for military service that had never been rendered.
Over half a century later when the Natchez Trace Parkway was finally completed in 2005, Jim's name was not mentioned at the opening ceremonies. However, his old friend T.T. Martin mused "How I wish I could drive Jim along the Trace, perhaps stopping now and then to dip up a little branch water to mix with his [corn] squeezings." He would have loved it . . . and had quite a story to tell (and sell).
(Jack Elliott is historical archaeologist for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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