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James Cantey was born at Camden, South Carolina on December 30th, 1818. He graduated at the South Carolina College in 1838, practiced law in Camden, and and had represented his district in the state legislature there for two terms until his departure for the Mexican War as Adjutant of the Palmetto Regiment. Cantey received near mortal wounds in this conflict. He was left among the dead but was rescued by his body servant whose plans were to bear him home for burial. The slave's detection of a faint sign of life caused heroic action that revived his master. For this deed the servant was offered his freedom, which the servant refused.

In 1847 he settled in Alabama. He was to operate a plantation owned by his father. In 1858 he married Mary Elizabeth Benton, niece of John Crowell, Alabama's first Congressman.

He entered the Confederate service as a Colonel of the 15th Alabama Infantry, forming the "Cantey's Rifles".
He served in Stonewall Jackson's famous campaign of the Shenandoah Valley, and received the praise of that exacting commander.
In 1863 he was commissioned General of a brigade which he piloted from Dalton, Georgia to the end in North Carolina, passing in retreat through or near his old haunts in Camden.
After the war he led the life of a planter at his home on the Alabama side of the Chattahoochee River opposite Columbus, Georgia. The first chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Russell County organized at Seale, was named in his honor. He passed away in 1873, interred in a family cemetery at Fort Mitchell.