James B. Likens, early East Texas lawyer and veteran of two wars, was born in Morgan County, Georgia, in 1829. His parents were Thomas M. Likens (born 1800 in Tennessee) and Hester F. Likens (born 1795 in Maryland). The Likens family moved to Henderson, Rusk County, Texas, sometime during the early 1840s.
At age seventeen in 1846, Likens enlisted in Capt. Samuel Highsmith's Co. K, of Col. William C. Young's Third Texas Regiment during the Mexican War. According to Highsmith's biography, his company participated in the battles of Palo Alto, Monterrey, and Buena Vista as part of Gen. Zachary Taylor's command. After returning home from the army in 1847, Likens read law in the law office of Likens and Estill (Thomas M. Likens and W. H. Estill) in Henderson.
On July 19, 1853, James B. Likens married Salina A. Cameron in Henderson, and by the time of the 1860 census, two children had been born into the household—Mary E. (born in 1855) and Benjamin O. (born in 1856). A terrible fire in the Henderson business district on August 5, 1860, caused heavy losses to the Likens family and led James B. Likens to move his family to Sabine Pass later that year.
Likens opened a new law office in Sabine Pass and built up a practice in the thriving seaport town by April 1861, when the Civil War began. On April 20, 1861, Sabine Pass organized a 102-man militia company designated as the "Sabine Pass Guard." Likens enlisted as a private but was soon elected captain, probably because of his active combat experience during the Mexican War. In September1861 Captain Likens visited Gen. Paul 0. Hébert's Confederate headquarters in Galveston and requested permission to organize a battalion of Texas volunteers at Sabine Pass. General Hébert not only granted his request but also promoted him to major of the battalion, at the same time inducting Likens's troops into the Confederate Army. Soon Likens’s Battalion had six companies assigned to it; two hailed from Sabine Pass, and others came from several Southeast Texas counties. In June 1862 Likens resigned in order to enroll a battalion of cavalry; and Capt. Ashley W. Spaight of Company F was promoted to lieutenant colonel of Spaight's Battalion of Texas Volunteers.
Major Likens moved into several Central Texas counties and enlisted a battalion of cavalry known as Likens’s Cavalry Battalion. On October 23, 1863, his unit was merged with Burns’s Cavalry Battalion to form the new Thirty-fifth Texas Cavalry Regiment, and Likens was promoted to colonel.
In January 1864 the Thirty-fifth Texas Cavalry Regiment patrolled in the San Bernard-Matagorda-Brazos River district. In March 1864 Colonel Likens and his unit were transferred to Gen. Richard Taylor's Army in Western Louisiana, where it soon engaged in a dozen battles and skirmishes along the Red River (see RED RIVER CAMPAIGN), beginning with the battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864, and ending with the battles of Yellow Bayou in May 1864 and Morganza in September 1864. In February 1865 the regiment was ordered back to Beaumont, where it was soon dismounted. The regiment was mustered out of service on May 27, 1865, at Harrisburg. Colonel Likens was paroled at Sabine Pass on July 12, 1865.
After the war, Likens moved to Beaumont where he formed a law firm with George W. O’Brien, a fellow officer from Confederate Army. In 1870 Likens resided in Beaumont as an attorney-at-law, having assets of $5,000 in real estate and $500 in personal property. His wife had given birth to another son, Donald James Likens, born in Beaumont on December 18, 1868.
The Likens family moved soon after 1870 to Houston, where the last of the family's three sons, Robinson Likens, was born. During the family's residence in Houston, daughter Mary married Edward W. Bryant in Harris County on December 13, 1875. Also while living in Houston, Likens formed his third and last legal partnership with Charles Stewart.
Likens was a longtime member of the Masonic Lodge and served as grandmaster of the Henderson district lodges during the 1850s. James B. Likens died in Houston on September 18, 1878, and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery, where a Veterans Administration stone marks his grave.