Editor’s Note — Throughout the month of July, this series will take a look at the stories behind the names that are memorialized on several of Scott County’s bridges. July is the month in which America celebrates her independence and freedom, and many of those who have had bridges named after them in Scott County have served their community and their nation faithfully in either the armed forces or law enforcement. The series begins with the Col. Joe Cecil bridge over New River. Part of the information for this story is reprinted from a Veterans Day 2017 edition of the Independent Herald.
“When you say Medal of Honor winner, who do you automatically think of?” asks Scott County Veterans Services Officer Ron Keeton. “You think of Alvin C. York.”
Sgt. Alvin C. York, the Fentress County native whose World War I bravery is known far and wide, is in many ways the pride of the Cumberlands. But Sgt. York isn’t the only Medal of Honor winner from this region. Scott County’s Joseph Samuel Cecil — who hailed from a strong military family in the New River community — also won the prestigious award, America’s highest military honor. But, for various reasons, his service has gone unrecognized.
Thousands of Scott Countians drive across the U.S. Hwy. 27 bridge at New River every day. It is the biggest bridge in Scott County on the 94-year-old highway, which stretches from Miami, Fla. all the way to Indianapolis, Ind. But, even though many of those motorists see the sign affixed to either end of the bridge — “Colonel Joe Cecil Bridge,” it reads — few pause to think about the man whose name is on the sign, or what he accomplished.
“I don’t think people know that we have a Medal of Honor winner here,” Keeton said.
In fact, most Scott Countians probably don’t know the story of Col. Keeton. But he was an American hero.
Born in the New River community in 1878, Cecil served in the Spanish-American War as a non-commissioned officer before later serving in the Phillipine-American War.
It was in the Philippine Islands on March 7, 1906 that Cecil earned the Medal of Honor. He was serving at the head of a column that was launching an assault, and he personally carried a wounded man to a sheltered position, outside the line of fire. He also carried the body of a soldier who was killed beside him to the sheltered position.
Cecil was at that point a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s 19th Infantry, in action at Mount Bud Dajo in the Philippines. He first served in Company H of the 4th Tennessee Infantry, rising to the rank of corporal and then sergeant. He was transferred to the 19th Infantry as a second lieutenant in 1899.
The New River Cecils are among the most decorated military families in all of America. Their combined service began in the Civil War and lasted through World War II.
Judge Beatty Cecil (1849-1931), Col. Cecil’s father, fought in the Civil War and was later elected Scott County Judge. All five of his sons served in the military. Among them:
• Commander Henry Barton Cecil graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1910 and was killed on the U.S.S. Akron in 1933 when his blimp crashed amid a thunderstorm. He was one of 73 men who died in the crash. The Jackson, Fla. naval air station is named Cecil Field in his honor.
• Lt. Col. Tom Cecil (1885-1974) fought in World War II and was a career Army officer. He retired to Danville, Ky. And is buried in the Reed Cemetery at New River.
• Col. James J. Cecil (1893-1976) fought in both world wars. He was a medical doctor, and spent 26 years on the medical staff at Patton State Hospital in California. he was a captain in World War I, and a major in World War II. He is buried in the Mountain View Cemetery in San Bernandino, Calif.
• John Riley Cecil (1875-1961). He had four children, Carl Otho Cecil, George Beatty Cecil, Austie Cecil and James Cecil. He moved to Indiana, and is buried in the Reed Cemetery at New River.
Following his service in the Philippines, Col. Cecil was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Calvin Coolidge.
He later served in World War I, as well.
Col. Cecil moved later moved to Hartford, Conn., where he died in August 1940 after falling from a sixth-floor window. The medical examiner determined his death to be suicide. He was 62.
Although there’s a memorial for Col. Cecil in the Reed Cemetery where so many of his relatives are buried in his native New River community, his body was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Two years later, his wife, Caroline Scenck cecil, died and was buried beside him.
The Cecil brothers were the grandsons of Samuel Cecil and Priscilla Martha Thomas Cecil, and Bailey Buttram and Lucendia McCoy Buttram. While their father, Beatty Cecil, served as county judge from 1902-1910, he also served as Scott County sheriff in the 1880s, and was later elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Tennessee State Senate. He passed the Tennessee Bar Exam and practiced law for more than 40 years.
In the Civil War, Judge Cecil served in the 7th Tennessee Mounted Infantry for the Union Army. He hiked from his New River home to Nashville to enlist in 1864.
Judge Cecil was married to Paula Elmira “Polly” Buttram Cecil (1858-1938). She is buried in the Reed Cemetery at New River.