John Bell Rankin Senior

by Danella Dickson

John Bell Rankin Senior was born about 1798 in Augusta County, Virginia, the son of James and Mary (Kerr) Rankin. He married Elizabeth Sheets on February 2, 1820, in Augusta County and they were the parents of seven children.

In 1860 John and Elizabeth were living in Augusta County with their eighteen year old son John Jr. and two married daughters. Census records list John’s occupation as farmer but later military records say he was a millwright, probably he was involved in both occupations.

On April 17, 1861, as Virginia went through the process of leaving the union, John Bell Rankin Senior, at the age of sixty enlisted in Company C, 5th Virginia Regiment (Mountain Guards). We can only wonder if this enlistment was prompted by patriotism or concern for his 20 year old son, John Bell Rankin Junior, who enlisted at the same time. The men were sent 125 miles by train to Harper’s Ferry where they were mustered in. John B. Sr. enlisted as a drummer; possibly he had previously been a member of a local band. On June 15, 1861 he was discharged from the 5th Virginia Infantry and returned to Augusta County.
On July 23, 1861 John B. Sr. re-enlisted as a drummer in Company H, 52nd Infantry. The military rank of drummer was the equivalent of being a private. The drummer was an integral part of any military unit, needed to establish communication and keep order among the men in the field. Certain drum beats communicated messages that were conveyed for a long distance – such as reveille, breakfast call or bedtime. The drummer was responsible for drum calls used for assembling officers for meetings and sounding retreat in the midst of a battle. A drummer was always located near a high ranking officer ready to alert the troops of upcoming movements.

Soon after John Bell Rankin Senior’s enlistment in the 52nd Virginia Infantry he was notified of the death of his twenty year old son, John Bell Rankin Junior, who died July 25, 1861 from what was described as inflammation of the brain. John Bell Rankin Sr. served the remainder of 1861 during which time the 52nd took part in several battles, the roster for March and April, 1862 recorded his absence due to illness. He was discharged July 24, 1862 at Liberty Mills, Virginia. According to the Certificate of Disability the sixty three year old man was described as six feet, two inches tall, with a fair complexion, blue eyes, and grey hair. The military record stated “during the last two months said soldier had been unfit for duty sixty days”, the order was signed by Captain John D. Lilley.

John Bell Rankin Senior died in Spring Hill, Augusta County, Virginia on July 26, 1863. He was buried next to his son, John Bell Jr., in the family cemetery located on the Rankin farm. The graves were still marked in 1963 when visited by family members. The cemetery is now known as the Burnett-Rankin Cemetery. Elizabeth Sheets Rankin continued to live in Augusta County and died there between 1870 and 1880.

Courtesy of J.B. and Ramona Roberts