An Arkansas Tale
It was a cold, breezy January day when Capt. Thomas Hamilton McCray came to Clinton seeking volunteers for his new battalion. Thus far it had been a hard winter as patches of snow clung to hillsides protected from the sun. It wasn’t the finest day to be out but McCray had orders to raise a company of loyal minded Confederates in Van Buren County, Arkansas. McCray was highly motivated. Coming from a Tennessee slave owning family, he had moved west in the early 1850's starting up a cotton mill and cloth manufacturing business near Little Rock. He continued the family tradition of slave master. In his warm wool Confederate overcoat, sporting a goatee and a commanding posture, Thomas McCray looked over his potential recruits who were arriving from all parts of the county. McCray had confidence and the ability to make men follow.
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Located in the north central part of Arkansas, with its rough, broken surface, sloping hillsides and high plateaus, Van Buren County sits on the southern edge of the Ozark Plateau in the Boston Mountains. The county seat at Clinton was separated from the state capitol at Little Rock by miles of forested hill country containing numerous rivers, bayous, creeks, ravines and few roads. At that time, Van Buren County covered an area over1200 square miles including what is now Cleburne and part of Stone County. It had a population of approximately 5,157 whites, 200 slaves and a number of Native Americans, most of which were immigrants themselves from the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations. The majority of settlers who had been moving into this region since the first quarter of the 19th century were descendants of Appalachian pioneers. Many of these self-sufficient Southern individualists immigrated from the states of Tennessee and Alabama.
Two of Captain McCray’s eager recruits were Mace and Asa Williams. Mace, Asa and their siblings were born in Blount County, Alabama. Their father Josiah Russell Williams was born in Tennessee about 1804. Josiah’s people originally immigrated to Chester County, Pennsylvania in the very early 1700's, moving into East Tennessee in the late 1700's. They again resettled in north east Alabama sometime around 1810, while the territory was still in ownership of the Cherokee People. The Williams family earned their living primarily by farming and foraging, establishing residence in Blount County, sometime after 1819. In the very late1840's that restless frontiersman spirt drove Josiah, with his nine children, west to Arkansas. He traveled unaccompanied by his wife, Jane McMurray, who had died in 1848.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Josiah and family were farming 120 acres in Cadron Township, just west of Crossroads, a few miles north of Quitman. The north fork of Cadron Creek meandered through its center. Due west, adjacent to the Williams farm, was the Elihu Sanders homestead. Elihu’s son, James Crawford Sanders was married to Elizabeth Marcrum, sister to Violet Marcrum, Mace’s future wife. The Marcrums had been in Blount County, Alabama in the1830's, moving to the Alabama-Mississippi border before their migration to Perry County, Arkansas. Later in the war, when Union forces controlled Perry County, Violet and another sister, Nancy, moved onto the Sanders farm near Cadron Creek.
Prior to the war, people did well in this land of abundance. Farming provided most crops one would need to live. Corn grew well in season as did beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, onions and more. Most families raised sorghum cane, producing their own molasses. Wild Bee honey was another source of sweetener. Chickens, geese and duck were common barn yard fowl. The woods around not only supplied folks with wood products for construction, but also game. Besides deer and bear; squirrel, possum, ground hog and rabbit were put on the table. Cadron Creek and its tributaries offered fish, water fowl and fur. Boys were taught to hunt and trap at a young age. Herbs and roots were gathered for seasoning and medicinal purposes. Hats, baskets, and other woody utensils were made from forest materials.
With exception of the larger communities, schools and churches were few and far between. In 1860, Arkansas recorded only 26 schools in the entire state. Most educating of our rural Arkansas ancestors was done at home. Knowledge of the woods and the ways of a hunter gatherer, livestock husbandry and the ability to make a crop mature, were essential skills. Self reliance and pride were passed from parent to child. The oral tradition of story telling and music making were the elders way of passing down their heritage.
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Secession was not an easy decision for Arkansas. The state’s Democratic Party had splintered into two factions, each trying to be the party of Southern Rights and pro-slavery. The basic Southern Democratic platform was well accepted by most of the state. But in the north central and north western regions, southern state’s rights may have been popular but pro-slavery and secessionist views were not.
Van Buren County like most counties in the hill country was not suited for plantations. Corn was the main cash crop. The best cotton land was in the central and southern parts of the state and the best of that around the river delta region. As a result there were no Planter Elite residing in Van Buren County. The majority of the residents were in the lower middle class or poor. Only about 29 or 30 families in the county had slaves. Most of this small group of upper middle class owned, on the average, one or two. There were a few wealthier families who owned four or more. The Josiah Williams family fit snugly into the non slave owning lower middle class majority.
Slavery was not a paramount issue to most folks of the Ozarks and in fact many slave owners in the northern counties opposed secession. It was a combined feeling of Union loyalty and the belief they had more to lose from a war with the North than their poorer neighbors. Giving up a couple of slaves was a small price to pay for peace and prosperity. Most Unionists from the region believed a war of rebellion against the United States would utterly devastate and destroy Arkansas. By wars end, this prophecy would come true.
During the 1850's, Arkansas had become known as the land of opportunity. With the future looking bright, the state in general prospered. In the mountains to the north, folks were living in an unconfined and bountiful paradise. Class division found in the southern part of the state, where planters dominated society and politics, was not prevalent in this mountain society. While poorer, the social structure was more egalitarian and easy going.
The Ozark way of farmer/hunter/gather provided most the needs of a family. Corn grew easily and the woods and streams were rich with bounty. Ozarkers lived by the simple rule “live and let live.” What was going on outside the region was of little importance. Folks concerned themselves with life at home and focused on issues of a local nature.
There was little federal government influence in the Arkansas hill country and state government rarely made an appearance. Local government for the most part was run by friends, neighbors and relatives who supported the ideals of Jackson and Jefferson. County tax was not a serious burden on the citizen. State and federal taxes were practically unheard of.
The threat of war, in the minds of most in northern Arkansas, meant a threat to the Ozark way of life. Unionist, secessionist and those in the middle agreed on this point. All were equally independent and individualistic. If war was to break out, this meant possible invasion and occupation by Federal troops from far away. These troops were not viewed as fellow countrymen but as foreigners. Subjugation by outsiders would be more than they could bare.
After the deep southern states seceded in early1861, a convention was convened at Little Rock. Delegates from across Arkansas heatedly debated the virtues and pitfalls of secession. Eventually a consensus was reached. Should the North attack or coerce the seceded southern states, then Arkansas would have no choice but join the Confederacy. The convention held back a vote for secession.
The delegation’s hand was pressed when Confederate forces shelled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, April 12, 1861. The day after the Federal fort surrendered, newly elected President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops including 780 to come from Arkansas. Arkansas Governor, Henry Rector responded by saying, “The demand [for troops] is only adding insult to injury. The people of the state are freemen, not slaves, and will defend to the last extremity, their honor, lives and property against Northern mendacity and usurpation.” The delegation reconvened. Out of 75 members, 70 voted for secession. Four of the five dissenters, after much ridicule and chastisement, later changed their vote in favor of secession.
Arkansas seceded from the Union on May 6, 1861. A few radical secessionists from Van Buren County had already left to join Confederate units elsewhere. Many of those in the region who were loyal to the North had gone to Missouri or Kansas to join the Union Army. Some formed into local guerrilla bands referred to by secessionists as Jayhawkers, who viewed their Confederate neighbors as spoilers and traitors. Pro-Confederates employed fear mongering as the primary enlistment tool inspired by self interested planters from the cotton region.
A peace society had been formed in the northern counties. Locals called them the “Yeller Rag Boys” because they tacked yellow ribbons on their gates or trees. The peace party, not necessarily a unionist movement, had members in Van Buren County but pro-Confederate bands arrested and expelled them. In some cases Yeller Raggers were pressed into the Confederate army. Neutrality would become unacceptable to both sides. The seeds of civil war were sewn deep in the hill country of Arkansas that spring of 1861. Harvest time would yield a bitter savage contest of killing followed by reprisal and revenge killing that would last into the 1870's.
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Captain McCray grimly eyed the men and boys who had come to Clinton that blistery cold January day in 1862. It was his charge to turn these mountain farmers into a fighting force. Volunteers arrived excited and enthusiastic, packing a wide variety of personal rifles and shotguns. One fellow had a home made pike and many brought their hand made long knives know as Arkansas Tooth Picks. In spite of the fact that most of their old flintlocks and squirrel rifles were unfit for combat, Ozark men knew how to use their weapons and were reliable marksmen. The unit would be known as McCray’s Sharpshooters.
Confederate Arkansas feared an invasion by Federal forces deploying in southwestern Missouri. McCray had recruited men from several other north central counties. It was now time for Van Buren County to give her best. On January 22, 1862, Company D of McCray’s four company battalion was formed. The Williams brothers were among the first recruits. Asa, age 19, became the company musician, Mace, age 17, a rifleman.
Violet Marcrum’s two brothers, Bud and William, had already joined Solon Borland’s 1st Battalion Arkansas Mounted Riflemen, enlisting in Perrysville, Arkansas. Borland’s Battalion would later become the hard riding Third Arkansas Confederate Cavalry, serving under Nathan Bedford Forest and Fighting Joe Wheeler. Williams’ neighbor and future in-law, James Crawford Sanders along with his brother in-law William Pitts Bennett had joined the 36th Arkansas Infantry.
Training began near Clinton. Troops were housed in churches and homes in the community. They had few provisions and no standard issue uniforms. Local women organized sewing parties, stitching together garments that resembled uniforms but most men wore what they were wearing when they enlisted. Captain McCray used his own funds to purchase large quantities of food for all his companies and had acquired a number of decent rifles. On January 25, 1862, the battalion of five companies totaling 300 men was officially organized. McCray was elected to rank of major and battalion commander.
In early March, the Union Army in Missouri went on the offensive. It crossed the border into north west Arkansas. Major General Earl Van Dorn had recently been given command of the Trans-Mississippi military district by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. A graduate of West Point, Van Dorn earned rank and distinction during the war with Mexico in the 1840's. His ambitious demeanor reflected his mint julep sipping, aristocratic Mississippi upbringing. Being a Mexican War fellow veteran and personal friend of Jeff Davis by no way impaired his advancement to commander of the “Army of the West.”
General Van Dorn moved his army to north western Arkansas to meet the Federal threat. He believed after turning back the North’s invasion of Arkansas, he would sweep in and liberate Missouri. Events didn’t go as expected. Van Dorn would experience defeat at Pea Ridge and Elkhorn Tavern, Arkansas.
McCray’s companies weren’t part of Van Dorn’s Pea Ridge excursion and remained in Van Buren County for the time being. Bud and William Marcrum were with the 1st Mounted Rifles camped near Pocahontas in Randolph County. They too were not called to go with Van Dorn. Drilling and training continued. The men discussed strategies and prepared for the defense of their homes and the state.
Humor and tall tale telling was at the soul of the rural southerner. The men could sit by the fire for hours trading stories. One tall tale may have gone like this:
“ Asa, tell that story brother Hiram told us, ya know the one bout the big panter a follerd him
home one night.” Asa thought a minute then said, “ya mean the one wherr Hiram had no gun, nur nuthin?” “ Yah, that un!” Mace said excitedly pointing his finger at Asa.
“Well,” Asa started, “one afternoon Hiram went over tuh the big hollar, bout six miles from home. He figurd he’d stay the nite wuth that feller called Mule Killer. Thought maybe next day theyd go deer huntin or sump’m. When he got there early that nite, the mans wife said her husband had gone tuh town tuh get supplies. He be back tamarr she said. Well Hiram said he couldn’t stay twas bout to leave when the woman tried to tuh git him to stay. Yuh know Hiram, how proper and the like he is. He cuddnt stay the nite wuth her, besides she been makin eyes a him fur yarrs, hind her mans back. Welp, it was a brite moonlit nite and Hiram had our best coon dog, Damn You, whit him. I’ll tack my dog and go home thank yuh. Oh no! she said yuh don’t even have no gun nur nuthin, let me give yuh a rifle. I don’t need no gun, he say, just tah walk home, sides I got my tuff ol coon dog. Sah Hiram tuk his dog an heeded for our hoose. He didn’t git to fur when Damn You, who been laggin behind, cum a runnin as fast as he could, flyin trough the air a hollerin real loud ever time he hit the ground. That dum thang run right under Hirams feet and a tripped him tuh the ground. He jumped up an looked back. A big panter was stairin right at him an the coon dog. The big cat made a lunge past Hiram an tried to take the dog, did it several times. It jist seemed to want ol Damn You. Well the dog started crawlin up Hirams leg, then up his back, howlin with a pitaful sound that made Hirams ears ring. Finally the thang went off a ways, just stood thar with its big heed and long tail. The dog was skeerd tah deeth not to mention Hiram! Welp, Hiram reached in tah his pocket an got out his little folding knife. Here he wuz, miles from home with no gun nur nuthin but a miniature pig sticker. Hiram and Damn You slowly backed on down the road. This thang would faller him for miles, walkin right a long wuth him an not takin it’s eyes off the dog. In time, the panter fell back an Hiram wasn’t sure if that thang fallerd him to our cabin er not. Couple days later some fellers kilt a big cat not fur from the farm, said it wuz the biggest panter anybody had seen anywheer in whole damnd world”.
After the Confederate defeat in north western Arkansas, Van Dorn believed he could still invade Missouri from the east. Orders were relayed to McCray. He and his Sharpshooters were on the move. When winter changed to spring, the inclement weather turned from freezing rain and snow to more freezing rain and less snow. Small creeks flooded, becoming swollen rivers. Bayous and swamps became lakes as primitive roads became mud bogs capable of swallowing and encasing wagons, horses and men.
Company D loaded its meager supplies in a couple of wagons and marched northeast toward Jacksonport. Abruptly the plan changed and the Sharpshooters turned south east toward Des Arc on the lower White River. They arrived and set camp at Clarendon down river from Des Arc some time by late March.
The Marcrum brothers were camped along the Current River just above Pocahontas. Borland’s First Mounted Infantry now designated the 3rd Arkansas Cavalry moved south toward Des Arc under the same miserable conditions, arriving April 16.
The word was out among the troops. They were to leave Arkansas for the war east of the Mississippi. Brigadier General Pierre G. T. Beauregard had ordered the Army of the West to Memphis. Anger and frustration ran through the ranks of all units. The men believed Arkansas and their homes were to be left defenseless. This was a serious point of contention. Many felt they had been misled and betrayed by their government. Major McCray himself didn’t appreciate his orders and would repeatedly request transfer back to Arkansas. During March and April, twenty-nine men deserted McCray’s Battalion, eight more went AWOL, and were later dropped from the rolls.
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At Clarendon the men camped and awaited orders. Mace and Asa maintained their commitment to the cause though some of their friends had gone home. On April 8, Van Dorn’s Army of the West began its departure for Memphis, Tennessee. McCray and his boys moved out April 15. Soldiers and supplies were ferried by steamboat down the White River, to the Mississippi and up to Memphis.
Because of the rush to Memphis and shortage of steamers, the 3rd Cavalry was dismounted and ordered to leave their horses behind. The troopers became indignant. For a cavalryman to be reduced to an infantryman was a low blow. Cavalry was thought to be the elite prestigious wing of military service, conjuring visions of glory and greatness in the field. Confederate commanders had to assure the men they would have their horses returned to them at the earliest opportunity, guaranteeing that while dismounted they would be given all the respect and benefits allowed a cavalryman. The 3rd Cavalry begrudgingly marched aboard their transport and steamed off for Memphis.
The eastern Confederate Command had hoped that Van Dorn’s army could be brought east to Tennessee in time to prepare and fight General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union forces at Shiloh. But by the time they arrived in Memphis, the battle had come to an end. More than 80,000 men, both Union and Confederate took part in the fighting at Shiloh, of which one in four were killed or wounded. The Union prevailed at a heavy price, revealing Grant’s determination to win at all costs. The Confederacy lost one of its top commanders, General Albert Sidney Johnston.
The Confederate army was forced to retreat toward Corinth. Corinth is situated in the northeast corner of Mississippi at the junction of two major and strategic railroads. The land around Corinth was low and swampy, a breeding ground for fever and disease. Smelly foul water, insects, damp ground and disease were awaiting the men.
The Army of the West left Memphis around April 22 to join General P.T.G. Beauregard and his command at Corinth. The men were each issued 100 rounds of ammunition and at least five days rations. Van Dorn was ordered to take his army south along the Mississippi and lay torch to cotton stockpiles to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.
On arrival at Corinth, Van Dorn and his army was temporarily placed under the command of General Sterling “Pap” Price from Missouri. The Army Of The West was formally organized. McCray’s Battalion was assigned to the First Brigade of Major General J. P. McCowan’s Division. The division was made up of Arkansas and Texas infantry, mounted and dismounted cavalry plus one artillery battery per brigade.
McCowan’s battle flag was a version of the Scottish national flag, a white Saint Andrew’s cross on a blue field. Some regiments stitched “Arkansas” and their regimental numbers along the border. Others, as the campaign progressed, added names of towns and battles of importance.
The 3rd Arkansas Cavalry remained under Van Dorn’s divisional command. Three companies from an infantry battalion were added to the 3rd Cavalry making it a full regiment. New elections were held and the previous officers including, commander Colonel Solon Borland, apparently didn’t meet the trooper’s approval and were not reelected to continue their leadership. Colonel Samuel G. Earle was elected Commander and Anson W. Hobson as Lt. Colonel, second in command.
General Beauregard consolidated his forces and prepared to make a stand against the oncoming Union Army. Union forces moved slowly and cautiously allowing Beauregard time to reinforce and dig in. Confederate forces were greatly outnumbered by the Union forces nearly two to one. The arrival of the Arkansas and Texas troops boosted morale and expectations. Confederate spirits were enthusiastic and optimistic. Officers made motivating speeches and sent messages to their commands. General Braxton Bragg spoke: ”You are again to encounter the mercenary invader who pollutes the sacred soil of our beloved country . . . . Such a foe ought never conquer freemen battling upon their own soil . . . . We have then, but to strike and destroy . . ..”
The Yankees moved on Corinth with great caution. Commanding General Henry Halleck delayed and procrastinated allowing Beauregard to dig in and prepare his defenses. Union General John Pope, the same commander who later met a disastrous defeat at the second battle of Bull Run, Virginia, was moving ahead with his usual and somewhat reckless confidence. General Halleck, alarmed by Pope advancing too far and too fast, advised him to slow down.
Beauregard deployed pickets in a six-mile radius of Corinth with divisions placed at key positions. Van Dorn was sent to the right flank to meet General Pope’s advance. McCowan’s Division was first positioned a few miles to the southeast of the small communities of Rienzi and Jacinto. On May 3, Union troops arrived and began an artillery assault on the Confederate positions. It appeared as though the big fight was about to begin. That night a cold storm moved in, making troop movement and communications difficult. The men nervously held their ground but the battle was postponed.
Two days later Van Dorn’s and McCowan’s divisions were moved further east near Farmington, Mississippi. Again the Confederates endured the cruel terrain and weather, awaiting an eminent attack from the Federals. On May 8th, Pope’s troops moved into Farmington. Battle lines were drawn. Van Dorn moved foward, forcing back Pope’s pickets. Several related skirmishes took place that day involving the McCray’s Battalion and the 3rd dismounted cavalry, but the anticipated large scale battle never happened. Union forces gained ground, then the Confederates pushed them back. Farmington was a nothing lost, nothing gained encounter. Pope retreated, the Confederates moved back toward Corinth.
The month of May continued with disease and pestilence taking their toll. During the month 48 deaths were reported for McCray’s Battalion. The 3rd also suffered its share of losses. Many more were sick on the front lines or in the hospital at the rear. Brigadier General J. L. Hogg, 1st Brigade of McCowan’s Division, died of “camp fever.”
Two more companies were added to McCray’s Battalion at the end of the month and the unit was designated the 31st Arkansas Regiment of Infantry. Elections were held, officers and enlisted staff chosen. Major McCray was enthusiastically elected colonel.
The “Siege of Corinth,” as this action would be called, came to an end when Beauregard ordered an evacuation. Confederate forces withdrew in the middle of the night. The 31st Regiment left its position May 28 at 2:00 a.m., retreating south toward Tupelo, Mississippi. When General Halleck finally got the courage to order a charge on the Confederate positions at Corinth, he found a deserted city. Stores and supplies the Rebels couldn’t take with them had been destroyed. General P. T. Beauregard’s retreat from Shiloh to Corinth and then the abandonment of his position at Corinth infuriated Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. Soon after, he would replace Beauregard, arguably one of the better Confederate field commanders west of the Appalachians, with one of his favorites, General Braxton Bragg. The North Carolina born Bragg, while serving as a U.S. Artillery commander in the Mexican War, became a close friend of the now Confederate president. Not being a popular officer, Bragg barely survived two assassination attempts by troops while serving in the United States Army on the frontier prior to the Civil War.
Members of the 31st Regiment with the rest of McCowan’s Division marched south to Baldwin, Mississippi, then on to Tupelo a few days later. Concerned that Federal forces would occupy central Tennessee, Bragg ordered McCowan to Chattanooga. With Federal activity and occupation in northern Alabama, the Rebels could not take a direct route to their destination. The division moved south from Tupelo. Traveling by train in open cars, they arrived in Mobile, Alabama. Continuing on by rail, the haggard army reached Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 2. The 3rd Arkansas Cavalry would stay, for the time being, in Mississippi. In Tennessee the 31st found conditions were much better. The regiment marched to “Camp McCowan” four miles west of Chattanooga. Fresh water, dry ground and warm weather was a welcome relief to the force. For nearly a month the men relaxed in camp, recuperating from their ordeal in Mississippi. For those who were literate, the spare time allowed for reading and letter writing. Furloughs were issued and men took trips to town to sight see and relax. Company musicians and regimental bands made music in the warm summer evenings. It was common for a musician to play his fiddle for officers in their quarters. Company musician Asa Williams probably and perhaps with the help from his brother Mace, entertained comrades with tunes like Soldiers Joy, Lonesome Indian, and Bonaparte’s Retreat.
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Meanwhile, the homeland in Arkansas was in turmoil. Not long after Van Dorn’s army departed for the east, Federal gunboats steamed up the White River toward Des Arc and Clarendon where the Williams and Marcrum brothers had camped. Battles and skirmishes raged across the country. With most locally organized units having been sent east to fight beyond the Mississippi, Van Buren County was practically defenseless. Major towns and ports along the White River were falling under Federal control. Hit and run guerrilla tactics soon became the mode of warfare in northern Arkansas.
In absence of Van Dorn, Confederate General Thomas Hindman was given military command of Arkansas. The general’s main concern was to stop the northern invaders. He worried little about the sentiments of the people and to a far less degree their well being. Hindman declared marshal law, stores and supplies were confiscated, men conscripted and deserters executed. Hindman formed units referred to as “Partisan Rangers.” These men were to keep order in the out lying reaches of the state. At first they hunted down Yankee marauders and Jayhawkers, spied on Federal positions and attempted to restore law and order to a country that was rapidly turning toward anarchy. In a short time they became as much a problem as a solution. Many Rangers degenerated into looters and murderers, all in the name of the Confederate cause. These so called “patriots” gave no quarter to soldiers or civilians of either side.
With Confederate forces moved from Van Buren County, bandit and Jayhawker raids were soon taking place around Clinton and along Cadron Creek and the Little Red River. Union Loyalists raided homes and farms, seized food and supplies, took prisoners and on occasion murdered adult and teenage males suspected of disloyalty. The women of Van Buren County soon learned to hide food and necessities protecting their families the best they could. With their men away at war, women would group together for safety, all helping with farm duties and chores at one residence then moving together to the next. One family tale tells of the Marcrum and Sanders women returning home after working at another’s farm. When the women entered the house, one went to the bedroom and noticed the soles of a man’s boots showing from under the bed. She silently motioned to her sisters to go outside, whispering what she had seen. They went on to the next farm to stay, returning a couple of days later. The intruder was gone, apparently leaving the place as he found it.
While the Arkansawyers relaxed in the heat of summer at camp near Chattanooga, the Confederate Brass made plans. Retaking Kentucky was foremost on their mind in 1862. Kentucky had succumbed to the Union nearly a year before. Although it had not seceded from the Union, the state was considered Confederate by the South. This would be a glorious campaign of liberation. For the new offensive, the army was reorganized. Colonel McCray had been advanced to brigade commander but without a promotion to brigadier general. Somehow his elevation to a higher rank was overlooked. It contributed to McCray’s frustration and resentment of his commanders. For this campaign. McCray’s brigade, including the 31st Regiment was temporally transferred from McCowan’s to Thomas J. Churchill’s Division.
Orders were given and the men prepared three days rations, the plan being to forage for supplies on the march. Although they were to march even further from their homes and families in Arkansas, the prospect of regaining Kentucky appealed to the men. Enthusiasm soon replaced camp boredom. Since many were barefooted, it was a relief to know the first part of their trip north would be by train.
The army moved out to Loudon, Tennessee, then Knoxville, arriving August 8th. A week later the men began the march to Kentucky along the eastern side of the Cumberland Mountains. They crossed into Kentucky at Rogers’ Gap about 15 miles west of the Federally held Cumberland Gap. Colonel McCray rested his brigade at Cumberland Ford. The troops were exhausted and low on supplies. About the only thing to eat were “roasten ears”of corn and poor quality beef. Foraging was not going well. The Union Army had used up most supplies in the region and had destroyed any thing useful that couldn’t be taken with them. Most locals of the gap region either were Union supporters or didn’t want any part of the war. They offered little help to the Confederates.
The march continued north toward Richmond, Kentucky. Union forces skirmished with the advancing Rebel Army but no full scale actions occurred. When wounded or sick solders were left behind, the Federals moved in and took them captive. The tired and worn out Confederates arrived near Richmond, August 29. Brigadier General Churchill wrote of the troops, “We admire that higher courage which enable them to undergo without murmur the fatigues and provisions of one of the most difficult marches of this war ....With their almost bare feet .... did these gallant men trudge along, inspired only with the desire to being led against the invaders of their homes and the oppressors of their liberties.”
It was a clear and beautiful day even though it had been a hot, humid summer thus far. Temperatures had reached and exceeded one hundred degrees. The 30th of August was to be no different. There had been engagements the previous day between Confederate General Patrick Cleburne and Union General William Nelson’s forces.
Two divisions were moved against Union positions at Richmond. While Cleburne’s division awaited Churchill’s command to form up, Captain Douglas’ Texas artillery carefully and with deliberate aim shelled Nelson’s positions, not wasting a shot. At 9:00 a.m., McCray’s men marched to the enemy’s right flank. Cleburne pressed the Yankee’s center and the day’s onslaught had begun.
The Arkansas 31st with the rest of the brigade, lay in a skirt of woods near the turnpike leading to Richmond. To their front was a large force of freshly recruited Union soldiers, green and inexperienced. The Rebels had traveled more than a thousand miles, many of those miles on foot. They had been prepared to fight at Corinth only to be ordered to slip away in retreat. They had endured the march, hunger and bad weather, not to mention the anxiety and worry about their homes and families in Arkansas. Tension and frustration accompanied the boys of the 31st. They were looking for someone to take it out on. McCray ordered a volley fired and quick reload. It seemed as though all battlefield noise had ceased when McCray shouted “Let’s go boys, CHARGE!”. The men sprang to their feet. A deep feeling of release was felt by all. Just like an old Celtic charge out of Europe’s past, the Reb yell could be heard for miles. Nearly two millenniums before, this same sight and sound struck gut wrenching fear into well trained and disciplined Roman troops.
The Union lines for a moment held at first. It looked as though a gallant stand was to be made. When McCray’s men smashed into their ranks, the Yankees ran from the field. In the chaos, like a covey of frightened quail, the young Union troops raced frantically back toward Richmond, the Confederates yelling and jeering in close pursuit. General William Nelson had just ridden into Richmond from the rear. Nelson must have weighed three hundred pounds or better. His poor horse sucked for air under the load. As the General rode bewildered into the confusion, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Nelson pulled his sword from its scabbard and began slapping his retreating men on their backs with the flat side of the blade. “Cowards! You are all cowards!” he screamed. “Are you going to let a mob of undisciplined degenerates whip you today?” General Nelson was able to regroup part of his command. As he rode his sweat-laden horse back and forth in front of his men, he continued to berate them. “What are you afraid of? These rebels can’t even hit a target as big as me.” Just then, when he turned to make one more pass before his men, a minnie ball struck the General in the thigh. To his horse’s relief, Nelson was lowered from the saddle and taken to the rear.
Nelson had ordered his troops to regroup and form up near a cemetery at the south edge of town. McCray moved his men forward to a tree line at the edge of a large field near the cemetery and faced his opponent. The men were prepared to attack but the Yankees began to lay down a thick hail of lead. The air was full of rifle shot and minnie balls. Even though out numbered Colonel McCray had his orders to take the Union position. Leaving the cover of the woods, McCray pressed forward under fire. It was nearly 200 yards to the enemy. A little more than half way was a fence line. McCray stopped his troops at the fence and they took cover. “Lay still” he ordered.
Thinking the Confederates were whipped, the Union columns began to move forward. Upon command, the Rebs rose, fired and reloaded three times. Blue coats began falling all along their line across the field. After hunting squirrel back home, a full sized man with a polished brass medallion at his heart was a relatively easy target. As the Confederates fired, some of them let out with a high pitch shrill as though calling hogs in from the woods.
The Yankees managed to regroup and fire off a volley toward their enemy. The tired but excited Confederates hugged the earth, trying to melt into the turf as the return fire whizzed overhead. Again the order came, “CHARGE!” and as before, the Arkansas 31st Infantry, rose to the occasion. Later Colonel Thomas McCray would write, “My command was ordered to load rapidly, mount the fence and charge which was admirably and gallantly executed ..... It is impossible for me to speak in terms of too high praise of the gallantry and intrepid valor of the officers and the privates of this command.”
Once the men had cleared the fence, the Union ranks faltered and soon fell back. General Nelson’s tirade must have worked on a few. A hand full of Union soldiers hid behind rocks, trees and any other kind of shelter. They fired and reloaded, desperately trying to slow the Confederate advance. It was to no avail. The Rebs weren’t going to quit that day.
In a very disorderly manner, the Yankees fled in all directions leaving behind 500 dead and wounded. McCray’s losses were 140 dead and wounded. A Confederate cavalry unit intercepted one large frightened mass of fleeing Union soldiers. Half surrendered on the spot. Abandoned and taken as prize were wagon loads of supplies including several thousand Springfield rifles, 300,000 rounds of ammunition, food, clothing and, to the mens delight, shoes.
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Success at Richmond, Kentucky was a real boost to the morale of Bragg’s Confederates. The victory not only replenished needed supplies, but it gave new life to the Confederate cause and campaign. Eyes were set on the northern horizon and the Ohio River. On its north bank, lay Cincinnati, the southern gateway to the State of Ohio and the North.
Union forces were in rapid retreat, leaving behind even more supplies. The Federal command feared the worse: an invasion of the North. Citizens in Cincinnati prepared themselves for a siege. Thousands of Ohioans poured into the city to help put up a defense. Before long, Cincinnati, “The Queen City,” had more than 55,000 defenders.
Confederate General Churchill moved his division north to Lexington, Kentucky. Marching down the main street of Lexington, the boys of the 31st were trumpeted with cheers by an elated population. Considering the Confederates their liberators, women greeted the soldiers with flowers and care packages, accompanied with hugs and kisses. To the tune of Dixie, old men took off their hats while others wept in gratitude. Confederate flags danced in the breeze.
A few days later, the 31st, as part of the Confederate advanced point brigade was within four miles of the Ohio River and Cincinnati. After experiencing a great victory at Richmond and being received as heroic gladiators and liberators, it must have been an utterly surreal feeling when General Bragg gave the order to turn about and march south.
Federal Forces had reinforced Louisville, Kentucky and Cincinnati. Their rapid transfer of troops from Tennessee strengthened Union lines in Kentucky, placing them in position to launch a counter offensive to halt the Confederate advance.
The Confederate supply line was stretched and its army spread thin. Federal forces were moving north from the Cumberland Gap. Churchill’s division including the Arkansas 31st rushed south to meet them. Churchill set an ambush for the advancing enemy, but the Feds sidestepped the trap. The whole Kentucky campaign had collapsed. The Confederate command was not willing to risk total annihilation of its army. After failure to obtain a decisive victory at Perryville, Kentucky, Bragg seemed to have lost his nerve and a full retreat was ordered.
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Back in Mississippi, General Earl Van Dorn was making ambitious plans for the retaking of Corinth. He would drive the Union Army either out of Mississippi or to its center where they would be forced to surrender. Either way, Van Dorn’s army would then march into western Tennessee taking pressure off Bragg’s retreat and perhaps reversing the situation.
Yankee engineers in the meantime had strengthened the defenses around Corinth turning the city into a formidable stronghold. The Confederates advanced toward the city Van Dorn’s overall plan may have been sound but it lacked intricate strategic planning. The general’s leadership had at least two chronic defects. He rarely informed his anxious subordinates the details of his battle plan and he didn’t make good use of reconnaissance.
On the morning of October 3, 1862, Van Dorn, to the shock and surprise of his officers, ordered a massive frontal attack on the outer defenses of Corinth. The 3rd Arkansas Cavalry, still dismounted, as part of Col. Dabney Maury’s division, charged the center. The defenders opened up with all they had. Concentrated musket and artillery fire poured down on the determined Butternuts. The field became littered with bodies clad in gray. To the surprised of the Federals, their defensive positions were overrun. As the late afternoon sun began to set, the Rebs had beaten back their opponents. Night fell on an exhausted and over extended Confederate army. It may have been a poor decision by Van Dorn but he decided to postpone till morning the taking of Corinth.
On the morning of the 4th, after a four-hour artillery barrage on the city, Van Dorn ordered his troops forward against the last Federal defensive positions outside Corinth. Once again he neglected to reconnoiter enemy positions, which left him unsure where his foe’s strength lay within the city.
With a Texas regiment on their right, the Arkansawyers advanced. Again Union firepower ripped them to pieces. Troopers of the 3rd Regiment went down like hay cut with a scythe. In spite of all the carnage and losses, they continued forward. The constant bloodcurdling Reb yell rung out over the screams of the wounded and dying. By some miracle Bud and William Marcrum’s lives were spared.
The Federal line once again caved in. However, the command of the 3rd had been nearly obliterated, preventing the regiment from entering the city. Those regiments who did enter Corinth, for the most part, were slaughtered by Union reinforcements which had arrived during the previous night. Van Dorn called off the attack. Recall was sounded and the courageous survivors withdrew.
After the battle of Corinth, the 3rd regiment refused to go on as foot soldiers. With a formal plea to his commanders, regimental chief, Colonel Samuel G. Earle gained the return of his men’s horses. The 3rd Arkansas was mounted Cavalry again.
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The Cumberland mountains already had its first snow in late October as Bragg’s men crossed the Gap making their retreat toward Chattanooga. They marched day and night at times. The exhausted Arkansas 31st made camp near Loudon, Tennessee, despondent and unsure why they had left Kentucky so abruptly.
The men were in poor condition and again short of food and necessities. Foraging provided only the bare essentials. The warehouses and stock yards in Loudon were full but the Confederate government had reserved all for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. To add insult to injury, the 31st Regiment was ordered to guard these provisions.
In mid November, one officer from each company was sent on a foraging detail to procure clothing and supplies for the regiment. Lieutenant Thomas Cullum represented Company D. The detail never returned. Two months later they were listed as absent without leave and in April, ‘63 dropped from the rolls.
The fall months of 1862 were harsh. Snow and rain harassed the men and many were sick in the hospital. The whole 31st Regiment, all companies included, was reduced to 131 men. Time passed slowly with little action. Tension was high among the disgruntled Confederates. Fights and bickering, episodes of absent without leave and outright desertion plagued the Rebel army as winter approached.
After the loss at Corinth, with his command taken from him, General Van Dorn faced a court of inquiry but later charges were dropped. It wasn’t long before his superiors found another assignment for him. It was an appointment more befitting his leadership capabilities: that of a cavalry commander. The dapper general was once again in the saddle and headed for Holly Springs, Mississippi.
General Grant had plans for taking Vicksburg. The river port city was the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. If taken, the Union would have full control of the entire river. Federal supply lines were stretched thin with Confederate cavalry raids a constant threat to the flow of war materials. To help alleviate this problem, Grant had established the largest supply depot for the whole western theater at Holly Springs. Van Dorn with 3500 mounted troops moved toward Holly Springs. His attack was to be stealthy and swift. He brought along no artillery to slow his pace. The 3rd Arkansas Cavalry joined up with Missouri regiments for the assault. Scouts reported all was quiet in Holly Springs on the evening of December 19th. So far the mission had gone undetected.
Early the next morning before full daylight, the raiders managed to slip past Yankee pickets and charged full speed into town. A Mississippi brigade went right up the middle. The Missourians and Arkansawyers acted as mounted infantry, riding to their battle position, then dismounted to fight any Yankee who dared to confront them. They fired an accurate volley of lead at their surprised and disoriented counterparts. The enemy threw down their arms and surrendered without even an attempt to fight back. The Mississippians raced to the quarters of the Federal cavalry tearing into them while many tried to put on their pants. The Feds managed to get men into their saddles and launched a counter attack. Swinging sabers and firing revolvers at their Southern foe, the horsemen in blue, some dressed only in their under-ware, made their escape from town.
It is said that Mrs. Julia Grant, wife of Ulysses, was staying in town with some friends. Van Dorn assigned some Texas men to guard and protect her. As a gesture of Southern honor and chivalry, Mrs. Grant was released and returned to her husband behind Union lines.
The raid on Holly Springs was the largest haul of supplies made by either army during the entire war. Nearly a million dollars worth of supplies was seized by the Confederates. Rebel cavalrymen ransacked the storehouses. Troopers ate themselves sick, took new clothes and bedding and equipped themselves with new Colt revolvers while Van Dorn regained some of his previous prestige. That evening the Rebel raiders rode north, the roadway lit by the flames of Holly Springs burning.
Grant was forced to postpone his plans for Vicksburg. Withdrawing his troops north, the tenacious general returned to his headquarters at Memphis to rethink his strategy. In the meanwhile, Bragg had moved into central Tennessee. He reorganized his Army and felt he could sit out the winter without fear of a major confrontation with the Northern army. How wrong he was. Union General William S. Rosecrans, fearing Bragg would move on Nashville, marched his force into the Tennessee Capitol. Assuming Bragg had gone into winter hibernation and reckoning the Confederate general assumed the same about him, Rosecrans carefully began planning an advance on the Confederate front in central Tennessee.
Bragg’s main force settled in and around the charming picturesque town of Murfreesboro. He positioned outlying forces along a defensive front stretching over a fifty miles. The 31st Infantry, after being returned to McCowan’s Division, camped at nearby Shelbyville, to the rear of Bragg’s line. Murfreesboro was an upscale southern town and the Rutherford County seat. The staunchly Confederate community sported fine bricked homes, oak and elm lined streets and a vibrant social life. The citizenry greeted their protectors with open arms. Officers were entertained with gala balls and lavish dinners. The streets hummed with jubilant life and good cheer.
The weather was clear with warm breezes as Christmas approached. By Christmas day the skies were turning overcast, signaling a pending storm. The weather change went unnoticed by the party goers at Murfreesboro. Liquor, ladies and dancing preoccupied the Butternuts as though the war had come to an end. In contrast, Rosecrans somberly laid out the final details of his plan. Early on the morning of December 26, the Union army left Nashville.
Rosecrans’ march didn’t go unnoticed. Rebel cavalry detected the move, sending word back to Murfreesboro. Feeling overconfident with his defensive posture, misreading Rosecrans intentions, Bragg did little at first. As the skies darkened over Murfreesboro, Confederate yuletide cheer came to a soberly end. Union advance columns clashed with Confederate outposts. Rebel units were ordered in and repositioned. December 30th found both armies lined up on opposite banks of Stones River, a few miles north west of Murfreesboro. McCowan’s Division was moved to the Confederate left but the 31st Arkansas didn’t march under the bonnie Divisional flag. The regiment had been left behind at Shelbyville. The lack of officers made the 31st less battle ready, leaving the role of rear guard more suitable.
For three bitterly cold days, the viscous battle raged along and on both sides of Stones River. On the 4th day, January 2, while not tactically defeated Bragg ordered a retreat. He believed his enemy had been reinforced and didn’t want to risk depleting more of his exhausted army. His officers concurred with his decision, but the troops believed they had won. It was beyond their imagination Bragg would just give up Murfreesboro and retreat.
While the timid Bragg pulled his main force back toward Chattanooga, the Third Brigade of McCowan’s Division joined the 31st at Shelbyville. There they would endure the rest of winter. The 3rd Arkansas Cavalry under Van Dorn would continue to harass the enemy. Van Dorn’s activities would eventually take them to a fight at Thompson’s Station, Tennessee. There, a narrow victory for the Rebs was only made possible by Nathan Bedford Forrest. In a command shuffle, after the action at Thompson Station, General Forrest would be given a portion of Van Dorn’s troopers including the 3rd Arkansas Cavalry. This would be the last the Arkansas horsemen would see of the “Mississippi General.” Van Dorn would be shot to death by a jealous husband a few weeks later.
General Forrest was a cavalryman’s cavalryman, a no-nonsense, “lets get in there and whip some butt,” leader. He was a living legend and one of the most impressive cavalry commanders the North or South ever saw. Unfortunately his martial reputation was tarnished by his indifference to the execution of black Union soldiers taken prisoner and his charter membership in the Ku Klux Klan after the war. After Thompson’s Station, fighting on in Tennessee, Forrest would lead his cavalrymen to a smashing victory at Brentwood and the sacking of Franklin, slowing Yankee progress against Bragg.
By spring, 1863, General Grant had moved again into position at Vicksburg. Nearly four months of siege and attacks would follow. Grant’s advance on the fortress city forced the Confederates to pull troops from Tennessee. Immediately men were transferred from central Tennessee west to Mississippi. The Arkansas 31st was sent back to its starting point via the same route they had come but in reverse, through Chattanooga, south to Atlanta, Georgia, down to Mobile, Alabama and up to Meridian, Mississippi. The regiment arrived at Jackson, Mississippi, May 20.
Union General William T. Sherman had earlier taken Jackson, the state capitol, leaving it in ruin as he with drew. It was just a taste of what was to come. Sherman’s scorched earth tactics left nothing for the Rebs, whose food and supplies were dangerously low. Clothing and uniforms were in tatters and many of the men were barefooted again. The 31st moved through Jackson to Livingston, a few miles north west.
Just west of Jackson was the Big Black River. The main Federal force was between the Big Black and Vicksburg. If the Confederates could defeat the Yankees west of Jackson, Vicksburg and that part of the Mississippi would be saved. As it turned out the Rebels at Jackson were under siege themselves. Throughout the spring, Union attacks and skirmishes took place regularly. Unlike Vicksburg, some supplies and provisions managed to make it to Jackson and the surrounding area.
The Confederate generals knew Vicksburg could not hold out forever. The Federal siege had cut communications with the city. A large scale Confederate attack was Vicksburg’s only hope. A plan was adopted and date set for July 5th. In the afternoon of the 5th, orders were given to prepare to move out at a moment’s notice. There was excitement in the air as the men were in positive spirits. Sometime just after 1:00 p.m., a courier on his way to headquarters passed by the regiment telling them Vicksburg had surrendered on July 3. The defenders of Vicksburg had no idea that a Confederate army was poised to come to their rescue. The order to advance on the Union positions was withdrawn. Word still hadn’t reached them about Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, coincidently on July 3. Grant turned his complete attention on Jackson a few days later. The Confederates soon withdrew. Demoralized and depressed, the 31st Arkansas left Jackson, Mississippi July 16th. The news from Gettysburg, along with pleas and horror stories from home, rekindled talk of desertion. The “Glorious Southern Revolution” was doomed. Many a soldier reckoned there was little virtue continuing the fight while their families starved at home victims of a savage guerrilla war that raged across southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.
With exception of elite planters, profiteers and some businessmen, many in the South were starving. Rich men bribed conscription officers or bought their way out of service by paying a substitute to serve in their stead. Planters were excluded from conscription in order to plant and harvest food crops for the people and army. From the very beginning of the war, cotton and tobacco prices had skyrocketed. Most planters ignored their commitment to feed the cause, continuing full scale cotton and tobacco production. Two thirds of their harvest was smuggled to the North, reaping outlandish profits. Speculators and profiteers bought the lions share of what food crops were grown and resold them at exorbitant prices, often only accepting gold, silver and Yankee greenbacks as payment.
The common Confederate soldier could see the injustices. It had always been but now clearly apparent to so many they were fighting a rich man’s war. Their service to the “Noble Cause” had in fact sacrificed the security and safety of their homes and families. Though the men of the 31st didn’t mutiny, it’s fair to say dissension and discord spread through the ranks. Due to casualties of war, illness and desertion, by the end of July 1863, the 31st Arkansas Infantry was reduced to about 70 enlisted men. Of its original 300 members, the number is even less. During the month of August, 18 men deserted while 12 others were “in arrest,” nearly half of the regiments remaining force. Mace and Asa Williams, along with three other men from Van Buren County, left for home on August 4, 1863.
As for the Marcrum brothers, while they shared the same realities with the Williams’, they continued their commitment. Even though they, too, had endured extreme conditions and hardships, in contrast to members of the 31st Infantry, the two young cavalrymen had experienced for the most part exhilarating success. While the Williams boys lay in swampy ground swatting mosquitos near Vicksburg, the Marcrums and the 3rd Cavalry were wreaking havoc on the Union, cutting supply lines, burning bridges, taking prisoners etc. One day Forrest’s Cavalry Brigade might be in East Tennessee, two days later Central Tennessee, and a couple of days after that Northern Alabama, burning and sacking Yankee property all along the way. There was a stark contrast in conditions and morale between cavalry and infantry.
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If there was one thing Bragg did right, it was his use of cavalry. But his decision to abandon the citadel at Chattanooga has been questioned and scrutinized by historians. The loss at Vicksburg left the Confederates in a world of hurt enabling Union forces to consolidate. Now General Rosecrans was advancing in full strength toward the south eastern portion of Tennessee. General Bragg left Chattanooga, withdrawing his forces toward northwestern Georgia with the Yankees in hot pursuit.
Rosecrans moved swiftly, attempting to maneuver his force in a way to divide Bragg’s army. Again, Forrest’s cavalry came to the rescue. Not only did the prolific cavalryman foil Rosecrans’ plans but he devised a way to turn the table on the Yankee general. Forrest urged Bragg to make a move but Bragg failed to act. Rosecrans found good ground of his choosing along Chickamauga Creek and waited for the Confederates to make the next move. Bragg reluctantly came to the conclusion a showdown was inevitable and positioned his army to face the Yankees along the opposing side of the creek. The Confederate front stretched more than six miles with Forrest was positioned on Bragg’s far right. Skirmishes took place all day, September 18th, and by night fall the line of battle was defined. The following day, skirmishing and maneuvering continued all along the front with Forrest in a fierce fight on Rosecrans’ left, eventually pushing back the stubborn Yankee defenses. The 3rd Cavalry was called in from picket duty that night, ordered to dismount and join Forrest’s line in the dark. At 9:00 A.M. September 20th 1863, the quiet was broken by an eruption of screaming Rebels charging Union positions. With some of the bitterest bloody fighting to take place in the entire war, the two forces wrestled for victory.
Out maneuvered and unnerved, Rosecrans’ boys in blue frantically fled the slaughter house completely demoralized. With the 3rd remounted, Forrest nipped at their heels as the fleeing Yankees raced toward the safety of Chattanooga. The routed Federal army had left nearly seventeen thousand casualties in the woods along Chickamauga Creek, the Confederates even more.
Over the next month the 3rd Arkansas Cavalry served Forrest in two capacities. The boredom of picket duty would alternate with “in your face” campaigns against the enemy. One day picketing a bridge or roadway, the next day riding in the shadow of their aggressive General, cutting down any Yankee who dared or unwittingly crossed their path.
In late September 1863, Bragg reorganized the cavalry corps in the west, installing Major General Joseph Wheeler in top command and ordering Forrest to turn over his troopers to the new chief. Forrest was livid. He furiously rode to Bragg’s headquarters and denounced his commanding officer. The two had never been pals and Forrest was far from Bragg’s favorite. As far as the outraged cavalryman was concerned, this was the last straw. Forrest barged into the command tent, sticking his forefinger in Bragg’s face and in so many words, not only berated the general but suggested that if he should ever cross him again it would cost him his life. Bragg said not a word as Forrest, with only his staff officers, rode west toward Mississippi.
Joe Wheeler hadn’t acquired the names “War Child” and “Fighting Joe” for nothing. He understood the role of cavalry and fully enjoyed mixing it up with the enemy. Earlier, in October 1862, at age 26, Joseph Wheeler was promoted to brigadier general and within three months, major general. It was primarily Wheeler who defended Bragg’s rear in the retreat from Kentucky, allowing the Confederates to escape nearly unscathed. While Forrest was being praised for his achievements by Tennesseans, Joe Wheeler’s exploits were front page news in northern newspapers. While Yankee cavalry out numbered Wheeler’s forces two, three or more to one, Rosecrans bitterly complained to his superiors that he was short handed in the number of cavalry in his department. Nathan Bedford Forrest might have been truly slighted by Bragg, but Joe Wheeler, nevertheless, earned his assignment. Embittered at first, the 3rd Arkansas Cavalry rode off into the setting sun behind their new general and their new general wasted no time getting to the job at hand.
After their defeat at Chickamauga, the Federals withdrew to Chattanooga. Confederate forces had them surrounded and under siege. Joe Wheeler’s mission was to cut and destroy supplies destined for the beleaguered fortress. Wheeler raided and pillaged his way in a wide arc around Chattanooga west to Murfreesboro. His hard riding cavalry destroyed more than 1500 wagon loads of Union supplies, burned bridges, tore up railroads and captured hundreds of Federals. Contrary to their commander’s policy, the Rebel cavalrymen relieved their captives of anything and everything of value.
In early October, two Federal cavalry divisions under Generals George Crook and David Stanley took action, determined to end Wheeler’s frolics. Crook and Stanley closed in on Wheeler north of Murfreesboro. In an attempt to divert his enemy and allow time for his main body to escape, Wheeler turned loose his best and brightest, A.A. Russell’s Brigade, comprised of the 3rd Arkansas, Fourth Alabama and 1st Confederate regiments.
With the 3rd riding point, the daring Graybacks galloped head on into Stanley’s Division. They struck the surprised Federal’s at full speed. Before they could jerk their pistols, the Yankees were engulfed by howling Rebel horsemen firing their revolvers point blank into their ranks. Frightened riderless horses frantically raced off the road into the woods. The 3rd rode through the enemy ranks but before the Bluecoats could pull themselves together, they were hit by a second wave of Confederate cavalry. The Rebs didn’t bother looking back, they knew the roadway had been emptied of anything living. Russell drove his brigade nearly ten miles before calling a halt, giving rest to their horses. He set up a picket line while waiting for the Yankees to make the next move. With the remainder of his division, Stanley pursued the enemy with stubborn determination. With dismounted cavalry in advance and mounted cavalry bringing up the rear, the Yanks approached Russell’s pickets. After a moment’s thought, Russell ordered the 3rd to line up and draw pistols. At full gallop the 3rd rode over the Yankees on foot, cutting them down with their pistols. Continuing on, without the slightest loss of speed, the gray horsemen rode to the top of a rise with sabers drawn and struck the mounted Yankee column advancing on the other side. Sabers clashed, pistols cracked and Yankee saddles were emptied. Sensing time was up, the 3rd disengaged and road out the way they came. The stunned, surviving dismounted Yankees still in the roadway were cut down with sabers like they were straw stuffed practice dummies. To everyone’s amazement, not a single Confederate was lost. Russell’s brigade, with special thanks to the 3rd, successfully delivered enough “shock and awe” allowing Wheeler’s main column to slip away.
Some historians believe the Confederate Cavalry was the finest cavalry the world has ever seen. Action that day near Murfreesboro lends credence to this belief. In fact, had one been riding with the likes of “Fighting” Joe Wheeler and Nathan Bedford Forrest, one may have gotten the impression the Confederacy was winning the war. However, winning was far from reality.
The Confederacy was dying. The war west of the Appalachians was all but lost. Arkansas and Missouri were under Federal control and there were little or no coherent Confederate battle plans to alter the situation. Federal ironclad gunboats freely plied the waters of the Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers. Former Confederate supply lines were severed and Bragg’s ragged army desperately clung to life in the eastern hill country of Tennessee. And yet, Wheeler and his cavalry continued to show willingness to close with the enemy, taking every opportunity to engage with ferocity and courage. During the bitterly cold winter of 1863/64, conditions for the Rebel horsemen were at its worst. Relying mostly on foraging, the troopers were starving. The lack of blankets, clothing and other necessities made survival seem near impossible.
William and Bud Marcrum’s names appear on the 3rd Arkansas Cavalry muster roll for the months of January and February 1864, never appearing again. There are two slightly different family stories that attempt to explain why. One tale tells of their going home on furlough and the other going back to Arkansas for supplies. Men did go home on furlough and in the beginning of the war, among other Arkansas regiments east of the Mississippi, the 3rd did send men home for supplies. Confederate cavalrymen generally had to provide their own horses and replace losses, whatever the cause, at their own expense. That might mean they went home for a remount. Maybe the brothers went home for horses and supplies or just simply to see their family. Whichever way it was, they definitely went home and they never returned to their unit and the war east of the Mississippi.
In September 1863, Little Rock had fallen to the Union. Arkansas Post, the last Confederate stronghold on the Arkansas river had fallen earlier in the year, leaving the entire river and its flood plane under Yankee control. Far from whipped, Confederate forces across the state continued their resistance.
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What the Williams and Marcrum brothers found upon their return home to Arkansas is uncertain. We can easily assume the scene was grim. Finding their elders and women folk anxious, stressed and uncertain, surviving like barn yard fowl scratching the earth for subsistence. The young men had no choice but to attend to their families.
One cannot question the courage of Mace and Asa Williams nor that of Bud and William Marcrum. The embattled veterans had marched all over kingdom come, experiencing hardships and deprivation they had never previously known. When exposed to combat, all met the challenge. So many of their comrades had given their lives and many more their good health to the cause. The four kinsmen had given their best.
The cabin stood solo in the hollar. Candle light warmly glowed through its cracks and one window. Smoke gently rose from the chimney and hung in the air, trapped by the boughs of the surrounding trees. As the returning soldier approached, he wondered if he was truly home or was it the same reoccurring dream he had dreamt most every night since he had gone to war. With an anxious pounding heart, he prayed, “oh, grandfather of creation, if this is but a dream, then let me sleep for eternity in the presence of my home.”
Nothing is known about the Williams and Marcrum Brothers return trip home from Tennessee. It had to have been a perilous journey. Union and Confederate patrols were always on the lookout for deserters. If captured, summery execution was not that uncommon. We can only assume it went ok for them. Many deserters came home to join local militia or state regiments, serving to protect their homes as they had intended in the first place.
The 31st Arkansas Infantry went on to fight infamous battles and campaigns such as Chickamauga, and the Atlanta Campaign. The regiment was consolidated with other units to become the 4th Arkansas Confederate Infantry and concluded its service in North Carolina at the end of the War.
Colonel McCray, at the time of consolidation, September 1863, got his wish and was relieved of duty and sent back to Arkansas. He led Confederate units near Helena and north-east Arkansas, fighting mostly a guerilla style war.
Casualty records for the original volunteer companies of the 31st Infantry were, 180 dead, 29 wounded, 13 captured. Of the 180 who died only 19 were reported killed in action. Most of the remaining balance of the regiment was listed as deserters, AWOL or absent (primarily due to illness). It’s not clear how many actually served till wars end, but it was a very small number.
The 3rd Arkansas Confederate Cavalry continued to serve under General Joseph Wheeler till his farewell address in North Carolina on June 29, 1865. Wheeler, with a select detail of men, escorted the fleeing Confederate President Jefferson Davis into Georgia. The rest of his command broke up into small bands and attempted to elude Union patrols as they rode for their homes. Most were captured and pardoned.
During the time the Williams and Marcrum brothers were east of the Mississippi, much of the enthusiasm many the residents of Van Buren County may have had for the war, subsided. Those who were fighting for southern rights found themselves fighting for the right simply to exist . Family members on the home front were caught up in a desperate struggle to feed and clothe themselves.
Regular troops, Confederate and Union alike, foraged the country side, confiscating food, supplies, farm animals and implements. Irregular and guerilla units did the same but left behind far more death and destruction. It was common for renegades to kill young boys who’s age would soon make them old enough to take up arms and seek revenge. The raid that had taken place along the Little Red River in spring 1862 included the Cullum farm. Captain William Cullum of Co. D, 31st Infantry, home on furlough, had just left his home to return to his unit. The Jayhawkers rode into the farm and harassed his wife, Eliza Presley Cullum. They confiscated food stuff and took prisoner young Jasper Cullum and his 14 year old Presley cousin. Jasper managed to escape but his cousin was murdered. (Cullums and Presleys are kin to the Marcrums and Williams)
Confederate raider Bill Dark rode the northern counties including Van Buren. He had been the captain of Co. A in Col. J. T. Coffee’s Recruits. Dark, a prison inmate at Fort Smith at the outbreak of war, was a viscous psychopath. Given the choice to serve time for prewar crimes or join the Confederate Army, Dark chose the latter. Col. Coffee expelled him because of his brutal actions. While conducting a raid on a farm in Van Buren County north of Shirley, Bill Dark was killed by 15 year old Jim Berry. Jim and other young boys from the area, too young to be in the regular army, joined a home guard led by elder Christopher Columbus Denton.
Small home guard like Denton’s sprung up throughout the Ozarks. Frequently Confederate deserters or men mustered out for health reasons joined these groups. They protected against both Union and Confederate predators. Late in the war, the Union command at Little Rock gave support to many of these guards, including Denton’s, giving them guns and ammunition. When possible, Confederate officials did the same. Confederate General Jo Shelby, it is said, gave Jim Berry the revolver with which he killed Bill Dark.
Research has uncovered nothing about the lives of Mace and his brother Asa for the remaining months of 1863 after their desertion in August. In January 1864, they both are found on the roster of the Fourth Arkansas Mounted Union Infantry, stationed at Batesville, Independence County, Arkansas.
The Fourth Mounted Infantry was organized by Independence County resident, Elisha Baxter. Baxter, a slave holder himself, was run out of the state by diehard secessionists for his middle of the road position on succession. He fled to Union controlled Missouri. While in exile, Baxter transformed into a staunch Unionist. He returned to Independence County with hopes of organizing a regiment of true loyalist to the Union Cause. Baxter began recruitment for his Regular Mounted Infantry in December 1863. For the most part he filled his ranks with Confederate deserters, many, if not most of whom he conscripted. It is not clear nor may it ever be known how or under what circumstances Mace and Asa became members.
There is not much written about Baxter’s Fourth Arkansas Mounted Union Infantry. The primary service of the Fourth was guard duty and defense of Batesville but often the unit was sent on forage and scouting missions. It is thought that discipline problems plagued the unit. When Union Col. Robert R. Livingston from Nebraska, commander of the district in and around Batesville Arkansas, reviewed the troopers of the Fourth, He wrote, “They rally around the flag with little enthusiasm”. Lt Col. T. G. Black 3rd Missouri Volunteer Union Cavalry also wrote about the Fourth, “I think that the sooner recruiting can be stopped the better, as they will injure the Government more than they can possibly benefit it”. If these men were pressed into service against their will, that would explain the problem. Also, whether in Confederate or Union service, men from the hill country were extremely free spirited and never did fully accept military discipline and order. With all this said, Col. R.R. Livingston would report later that the best scouts in north central Arkansas could be found in Baxter’s Fourth. Also, in a report, Livingston would refer to our relative Asa Williams as gallant.
Batesville had changed hands between Confederate and Union forces several times. Its Citizenry never knew which flag to grab when they heard the rumbling of advancing troops and cavalry. The Union reoccupied the city late 1863 with intent on keeping it. Batesville, was one of the oldest white settlements in that part of Arkansas. It sat on the bank of the White River making it an important port town. Early settlers and supplies came through Batesville as North Central and North Eastern Arkansas were colonized. The community had become the cultural center of the region, sporting schools, churches, theaters and offered many marketing opportunities. I wouldn’t call it Paris but compared to the rest of the region, it was up-town and up-scale. Union troops who had spent some time in the Ozarks, when arriving at Batesville, were relieved to be back in “civilization”.
While the city and the White River south of Batesville were Union secured, the countryside belonged to the Confederacy. Confederate Cavalry Commander, Col. Thomas Freeman roamed almost at will through out Northern Arkansas. Freeman, a Missourian, led men from Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas. Union forces were on the lookout for Freeman’s command. On or about January 19, word had come to Livingston that some of Freeman’s men were operating north-west of Batesville in the vicinity of Lunenburg in adjoining Izard County.
Livingston sent Captain Thomas Baxter, brother of Elisha, with a detachment of about 40 men of the Fourth Arkansas Infantry. Asa Williams and maybe brother Mace was with them. Baxter encountered Freeman’s men and pressed their position killing or wounding 4 and capturing 2. Not knowing the strength of his enemy, T. A. Baxter decided to withdraw.
Somehow Asa got separated from the rest but was seen alive and in good health after the skirmish. In correspondence with his commander, dated Jan. 21, 1864, Captain Baxter would report Asa as missing in action, asking others to keep an eye out for him. On Jan. 26, 1864, Col. R. R. Livingston wrote, “The man reported missing in Captain Baxter’s report was killed while gallantly refusing to surrender to superior numbers. He killed his man before being disabled.” Asa was the only Union casualty of the day.
Twenty years later, in 1884, Asa’s father Josiah, applied to the Federal Government for a parents pension for Asa’s service in the Fourth Arkansas Mounted Infantry. In the application, Josiah described Asa’s death as “gun shot wound in the hands of the enemy”. The pension was never granted.
By spring 1864, The Union foothold was lost in the Batesville area. Livingston, having failed to win the hearts and minds of the Confederate majority in the country side and unable to subdue Confederate forces operating in the region, retreated south to Deval’s Bluff. In late May, abruptly, the order was given to disband Baxter’s Fourth. Members were simply discharged and told to go home. Those who had strong Union feelings were offered enlistment in other regiments. The remainder were left in an uncomfortable situation, seen as traitors by some and not quite loyal enough by others.
After the turn of the century, Mace made at least two applications for pension, based on his service in the Baxter’s Fourth. Both Applications were denied. Senators from Arkansas unsuccessfully petitioned the government to recognize the unit and grant pensions. To date, the Federal Government has yet to recognize or reinstate the Fourth Arkansas Mounted Infantry as a Regular Unit in the United States Army.
Elisha Baxter went on to be elected Senator and then Governor of Arkansas, 1872 through 1874. Baxter promised to restore the vote to disenfranchised Ex-Confederates and became an ally of The Democratic Party, in effect facilitating the Antebellum Aristocracy’s regain of power in Arkansas at the end of the reconstruction period.
In early 1865, Bud and William Marcrum were visiting their sisters at the Sanders farm. Their sister, Elizabeth Caroline had married James Crawford Sanders. After the start of the war, the Marcrum sisters moved to the Sanders Farm on Cadron Creek a couple miles west of Crossroads and neighboring farm to Josiah Williams. William had just left the farm when a band of Loyalist Yankee Jayhawkers, lead by the notorious Leroy “Dick” Williams, (no relation), from Conway County rode upon him. According to one family account “Wild Dick” , as he was known around there, asked William who he was. William answered, “ I am William Marcrum”. Dick then shot him in cold blood. His sisters ran to him but he was dead. Bud jumped on his horse and rode after the band of raiders. Bud soon over took them. With a revolver in each hand, he rode through their ranks firing wildly. Bud then turned his horse and rode back through, emptying his weapons. He later said he wasn’t sure if he hit any of them, his horse was jumping so and he was just too angry. When Bud viewed his brother’s body at the side of the road, he said “at least William died like a man, facing his killers”.
Later, according to family legend, Bud was on detail to procure arms and ammunition (I’m not sure who for). He was several miles south of Quitman near Muddy Bayou, when he was bushwhacked and killed. A local farm woman buried him near by. When Bud’s sisters heard the news, they took a wagon to the Bayou and retrieved his body and brought him home. It is said that family friend Charley Cottrell was with Bud ( after the war, Mace’s older sister Nancy Jane would marry John Cottrell).
There is a record of a Pvt. J. C. Sanders, born in Tennessee, enlisted at Clinton, paroled June 5, 1865 as a member of Col. A. R. Witt’s 10th Arkansas Cavalry, based at Quitman. Perhaps James Sanders, Bud Marcrum and Charley Cottrell had joined Col. Witt’s command as well. Col. Witt’s 10th was the last organized Confederate unit in Van Buren County still in resistance at the end of the war.
Mace and Violet were married July 1, 1869. They had seven children; Sarah (Sally), Mary (Mollie), Pinkney (Pink), Tom, Washington (Wash), John and Nehemiah (Maury). Violet died in 1884. According to the 1920 census, Mace was living with his son-in-law Daniel Bloomfield and daughter Mollie Bloomfield, Faulkner County, Arkansas. Mace Monroe Williams died in 1925. By the 1930's all of Mace and Violet’s offspring had migrated to California. Most settled in the Merced-Winton area of the San Joaquin Valley. Mollie with her husband Daniel, settled in Hemet, Riverside County, California.
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From the darkness, the soldier quietly stepped into the cabin. Warmth from the fireplace embraced him as the dim candle light illuminated the familiar surroundings. Adrift in the air, aimlessly floated a tinge of smoke and the aroma of burning tobacco from his father’s pipe. It was no longer a dream when the spoken words reached his ears, “Oh my son, your finally home”.
The History of the Thirty-first Arkansas Confederate Infantry by Ronald R. Bass,
Published by Arkansas Research, Conway, Faulkner County, Arkansas, 1996
The War Child’s Children, A Story of the Third Arkansas Cavalry, by Major Calvin R.
Collier, USAF (Ret), Published by Pioneer, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1965
Campaigns of Wheeler and His Cavalry, Written and Published under the auspices of Wheeler’s Confederate Cavalry Association, edited by W.C. Dodson, Hudgins Publishing
Company, Atlanta, Georgia, 1899
Van Dorn, The Life and Times of a Confederate General by Robert G. Harje, Published by
Vanderbilt University Press, 1967
The Yellar Rag Boys by Luther E. Warren, Library of Congress 92-60833 1993
The Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas by Mark K. Christ, Published by University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 1994
Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Arkansas in the Civil War by Bobby Roberts and Carl Moneyhon, Published by University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 1987
Civil War Arkansas, Beyond Battles and Leaders, Edited by Anne J. Baily and Daniel E. Sutherland, published by the University of Arkansas Press, 2000
The Williams Clan’s Civil War: How an Arkansas Farm Family Became a Guerrilla Fighting Force, by Kenneth Barnes, Pages 188-202, from the Book, Enemies of the Country, Edited by John C. Inscoe and Robert C. Kenzer, Published by The University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 2001
The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Arkansas, by Carl H. Moneyhon,
University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 2002
A Peoples History of The Civil War by David Williams, Howard Zinn Series Editor, Published by the New Press, New York, 2005
Official Records of the War of Rebellion, 128 Volumes, U.S. War Department, Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. 1880-1901
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The story of “Hiram and the Panter” is based on an old Ozark Mountain tale retold by my grandfather Ervin Leola “Slim” Bloomfield. A version can be found in Authentic Ozarks Stories, Collected and Transcribed by Dr. Roy Edwin Thomas of Higden, Arkansas, 1972, Published by the Old Buck Press, Conway, Arkansas, 1994
The story of the Marcrum sisters encounter with the intruder at their farm was handed down by the Sanders family, as was the story of the killings of William and Bud Marcrum. Williams, Marcrum and Sanders family genealogy came from several sources including, family knowledge, federal census’s and military records gathered by myself and cousin Janet Williams of Winton, California.
The poem, “Soldier of the Hallar” is based on a reoccurring dream I have had all my adult life.
Special thanks to my friend John Lightmas for proof reading my work and the hours we have spent talking and sharing our knowledge of the American Civil War.
Graphics and art resources, collected from thevintagechannel.com archival CD.
Copyright © Rick Cook
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