Ventura’s Forgotten War Hero

SumnerGrave2By Richard Senate

June 19, 2013

                He lies buried in what is today nicknamed “Dog Park” by the people of Ventura.  The cemetery, officially named Memorial Park, holds the remains of  thousands, many are war dead. Today this site is used by dog owners to let their animals run free and poop where they will.

Many see this as a complete disregard of the honored dead and it has moved some to suggest that the soldier who won America’s greatest medal, the Medal of Honor, be dug up and moved to a spot where he would be respected.  But who was this hero and what did he do to earn this medal?

His name was James Sumner. He wasn’t even born an American.  He was born in 1840, in London, where he lived  until the age of 28, when he came to the United States.

Like many newcomers, Sumner tried his best, living for a time in Chicago.  Not finding work, he enlisted in the US Army.   Sumner was placed in the cavalry and sent to Fort Bowie, Arizona Territory.

After training, Sumner was assigned  to Company G of the 1st US Cavalry.  His unit was called upon to suppress the Apache Chief Cochise who was raiding settlements in the Chiricahua Mountains.  The Apache War was perhaps one of the worst of the Indian Wars. No prisoners were taken by both sides.  It is little studied today and only a few John Wayne movies tell the story of this terrible conflict.

In 1869, the Cavalry engaged Cochise and his “hostiles” in a running firefight that included ambushes and hit and run attacks. During the battle, Private Sumner was wounded in the left shoulder.  Twelve days later, Sumner’s unit was again ambushed.  In the action, two troopers were killed and the officer in charge was wounded.

In the heat of battle, 18 attacking Apache warriors were killed.  Private Sumner was singled out for his gallantry under fire despite being wounded again. After being awarded the Medal of Honor, Sumner was discharged from the service because of his wounds. Sumner was given a small pension on June 13, 1870.

Little is known of James Sumner in the years that followed. It can be assumed that he drifted around the Southwest. In 1888, he was living in Los Angeles, California. In 1903, Sumner was living in Saticoy.  By 1907, he was working in that Atherton Saloon on Fifth Street, Oxnard.

Failing health and poverty forced Sumner into the Ventura County Poor House.  It was there he passed away at the age of 72 on July 5, 1912.  Sumner was buried in a donated grave without a headstone.   Few came to the graveside to witness his simple pine box lowered into Ventura’s rich soil.   Few in Ventura knew how much he gave to his adopted land.

Sumner’s grave remained anonymous and forgotten until June 30, 1990 when the Medal of Honor Society and the local chapter of the American Legion placed a metal marker on the grave site.   It was an honor long overdue.

Richard Senate is a Citizens Journalist living in Ojai.


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