Civil War Sesquicentennial Historical Marker to be placed in Poinsett County

Thursday, February 20, 2014
Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson

(Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part article about Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson, who will be honored with an Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Historical Marker this spring.)

The Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission (ACWSE) approved the application for an Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Historical Marker to be placed in Poinsett County.

The ACWSE commemorated the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War with a variety of programs exploring the State's Civil War history and its impact on communities around the state.

The Historical Marker program is designed to promote telling stories of what happened in each county of Arkansas during the war. The topics in the program ranged from military activities, to significant people, to manufacturing activities, and each marker placed within the counties will document pieces of local history. The ACWSC hopes to see at least one marker in each county before the commemoration ends in 2015. The Marker is scheduled to be placed in the spring of 2014, at the Poinsett County Courthouse, honoring Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson.

For the past two years, Ms. Sylvia Evans and Mr. Leonard Filbert Pickle have left no sources unread regarding Poinsett County and the War Between the States. The research has produced documentation to prove the activities of General M. Jeff Thompson's command in Harrisburg and Poinsett County.

Meriwether M. Jeff Thompson was born on Jan. 22, 1826, at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, now West Virginia, to Meriwether and Martha Slaughter Broaddus Thompson. He died on Sept. 5, 1876, at St. Joseph, Missouri and is buried at Mount Mora Cemetery. The gravesite is located in Road Island south- east of Section L. His tombstone reads: Brigadier General, The Missouri Swamp Fox. He married Emma Catherine Hayes (1825-1886). They had two children, Henry Bolivar Thompson (1852-1901) and Marcie A Thompson Bailey (1860-1937).

Thompson was a Brigadier General in the Missouri State Guard during the American Civil War. He served the Confederate Army as a cavalry commander, and had the unusual distinction of having a ship, the CSS M. Jeff Thompson, in the Confederate Navy named for him.

Meriwether "Jeff" Thompson was born into a family with a devotion to the military. Thompson's forefathers on both sides had been officers in the Revolutionary War and one of them was a kinsman of George Washington.

He moved to Liberty, Missouri in 1847 and St. Joseph the following year, beginning as a store clerk before taking up surveying and serving the city engineer. He later supervised and surveyed the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. Thompson served as St. Joseph mayor from 1857-1860. He presided over the ceremony inaugurating the first dispatch of the Pony Express on April 3, 1860.

Mr. Thompson made friends everywhere he went. During his travels, he invented a pistol lock similar to one which later appeared on Colt's revolvers. He invented an improved brake for railroad cars, a "mitre gauge" and a "hump brake."

Thompson was a colonel in the Missouri State Militia at the outbreak of the Civil War. In late July 1861, he was made a Brigadier General of the First Division, Missouri State Guards. His area of command in the southeastern quarter of the state, and his boldness and clever maneuvering earned him the nickname "Swamp Fox of the Confederacy," following in the footsteps of Francis Marion, who was given "Swamp Fox" during the Revolutionary War.

When General John Fremont issued an emancipation proclamation supporting freeing the slaves in Missouri, Thompson declared a counter-proclamation and his force of 3,000 soldiers began raiding the Union forces positions near the border. Thompson led a cavalry attack on the Iron Mountain Railroad bridge over the Big River near Blackwell in Jefferson County, Missouri. After the bridge was burned, Thompson retreated to join his infantry in Fredericktown. Thompson was defected at the Battle of Fredericktown, where he withdrew his troops, leaving Southern Missouri in Union Control.

Early in 1862, the Confederate Navy named a ship in honor of Thompson, the CSS General M. Jeff Thompson. The ship had been a side-wheel river steamer converted to a "cotton-clad" ram. The ship had been selected by Cpt. J.E. Montgomery to be part of his River Defense Fleet in Tennessee. On Jan. 25, 1862, New Orleans Cpt. Montgomery, convert her into the "cotton-clad" ram by placing a 4-inch oak sheath with a 1-inch iron covering on her bow, and by installing double pine bulkheads filled with compressed cotton bales. After, her completion on April 11, 1862, she steamed to Fort Pillow, Tennessee, where she operated in full swing defense of the river approaches to Memphis, Tennessee. On May 10,1862, Cpt. Montgomery, traveling with his seven other fleets included CSS General M. Jeff Thompson, attacked the ironclad gunboats of the Federal Mississippi Flotilla. The Confederates, had taken ramming tactics at Plum Point Bend, the CSS Thompson was only able to assist with her guns.

With shortage of coal fuel, unwilling to destroy his boats, determined to fight, and against all odds, the battle continued and Cpt. Montgomery was unable to retreat to Vicksburg, Mississippi. During the "Battle of Memphis" General M. Jeff Thompson took on heavy shelling. The ship was set on fire by the Union Warships, she ran aground and was left abandoned by her crew. Her charred remains of wreckage were left half buried and half sunk.

Thompson was reassigned to the Trans - Mississippi region. There, he engaged in a number of battles before returning to Arkansas in 1863 to accompany Gen. John S. Marmaduke on his raid into Missouri. Thompson was captured in August 1863 in Pocahontas, Arkansas, and spent time in St. Luis Gratiot Street Prison, from there to Fort Delaware, then Johnson's Island, prisoner-of-war camps, before being exchanged for a Union General in the spring of 1864. Sterling Price's Missouri expedition, taking command of "Jo" Shelby's famed "Iron Brigade" when Shelby became division commander.

On Oct. 21, 1864, Marmaduke's command marched toward Independence by the main road. Shelby hoped to flank the Federals, march into Independence seven miles away, and possibly cut off their retreat. The Federal line held out through all the fighting. The Federal line withdrew. Thompson's regiment bivouacked in the fields beyond the town. They were without food and water. According to Thompson, Shelby's riders were too tired to do any looting. The Confederates were tired and hungry but confident they could push ahead. They had driven the Federals out of their breastworks east of Independence. The troops were eager to take Kansas City and Westport. They wanted to raid all of Kansas. Both Marmaduke and Shelby found the fortications on the ridge west of the Big Blue impregnable. Marmaduke's men poured across the ridge against the Federals. Jackman and Thompson hit the retreating Federals again and again. By dark, Curtis' men had been force into the woods alone Brush Creek, a stream just south of Westport. The battle continued with advancements and retreats. Pleansanton had blasted Marmaduke out of Byram's Ford. The Federals cut Shelby's division from the rest of the army.

Thompson regrouped and charged to fight, when he met Shelby, who pointed them to the west, not from the east where Pleasanton was expected. This detachment came from Westport and penetrated Shelby's position. The Confederate troops were in danger of being cut in half from both east and west. Thompson charged the line, and General Shelby said, "charge yonder line, and break it or the army is lost."

Prices' disastrous invasion of Missouri ended in defect at the Battle of Westport in fall of 1864.

In Arkansas, General Fagan marched away from Prices' Army with his entire division. Price turned west in a snowstorm and went into the Great Plains of Indian Territory. After crossing the Arkansas River, the men were told to destroy their canoes, Thompson felt they were safe, but little did he know their was the issue of food shortage.

(Check next week for part two of the story.)

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