The Civil War: Colorful life of Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson, Confederates’ Swamp Fox

Thompson was a dashing figure like many other famous cavalrymen of the Civil War. Photo: Sinking of CSS Thompson at Battle of Memphis

VIENNA, Va., July 4, 2012 — Though thoughts turn today to fireworks and picnics and flag waving, a little known Confederate Brig. General led a sufficiently interesting life to set off a few rockets himself. Born in Harpers Ferry in 1826, General Meriwether Jeff Thompson’s colorful life bears recognition on several levels, not the least is his poetry.
 
He was named Meriwether for his father when he was born, but he liked to skip school and ride on a cart with a local man in town named Jeff Carlyle, much to his parents’ displeasure.
 
In an effort to discourage the association, his family began calling him “Jeff,” and the name stuck. He was known as Jeff for most of his life, and in 1857 had it legally changed.  So much for parental ideas!
 
His mother died when he was 12, and according to family history, at 14 he then attended the J.J. Sanbourn Military Academy in Charleston, W.Va. He had tried for admission to West Point and was denied, and so he began work as a clerk for different stores and concerns in the area.
 
His trips took him to Liberty, Mo., and his job in a store adjacent to the military arsenal first exposed him to military life. By that time his sojourns West had brought marriage into his life, when he met Emma Hayes in 1848 and they moved to St. Joseph, Mo. There he served as the city engineer and then later in charge of the construction work of the western branch of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad.

He was serving as a colonel in the Missouri State Guard or militia when the Civil War began. He had been very concerned when John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid occurred, and then when the Abraham Lincoln came to power, he wisely foresaw that the normal Southern way of life was under attack. He even bought some of the pikes that Brown had accumulated for his men, and took them with him to Missouri.
 
When the Secession Convention was held in Jefferson City, and Missouri refused to join the other Confederate states, he considered returning to Virginia but decided to stay with Missouri and command the militia there. His rank never came from the Confederate army, but from within the militia and he received a commission from Governor Jackson.

CSA Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson.

When the Secession Convention was held in Jefferson City, and Missouri refused to join the other Confederate states, he considered returning to Virginia but decided to stay with Missouri and command the militia there. His rank never came from the Confederate army, but from within the militia and he received a commission from Governor Jackson.
 
Plumed Hat and White Knife
 
It was said that he was quite the dashing figure, since like many other famous cavalrymen, he wore a white plumed hat, had blonde hair like George Pickett, and carried a white-handled Bowie knife. Family records indicate that on May 12, 1861, he cut down an American flag flying over the post office, and this act of rebellion signaled his commitment to the Confederate ranks.
 
In late July of 1861, he was made a Brigadier General of the First Division, Missouri State Guards, in command of the First Military District of Missouri. His area was in the marshy southeastern quarter of the state, and it was said that his complete brashness and clever maneuvering earned him the nickname, “Swamp Fox of the Confederacy,” following in the footsteps of Francis Marion, who was given the “Swamp Fox” sobriquet during the Revolutionary War.

When Union General John C. Fremont decided to free all of the slaves in Missouri (remembering the border state situation) and even issued an “emancipation proclamation” to accomplish it, this did not sit well with Jeff Gordon. Nor did it sit well with the Federal government, who had not been consulted on the matter.
 
Thompson promptly issued a counter proclamation, and assembled a force of some 3,000 to start raiding Union positions near the state line. On October 16, 1861, Thompson led a cavalry attack on a bridge over the Big River in Jefferson County, and then burned the bridge before rejoining his infantry in Fredericktown.

Unfortunately he suffered a defeat there, and had to abandon southeastern Missouri to the control of the Yankees.Fremont did not fare much better, as he was relieved of his command and after being fired, was court martialed. He later received a presidential pardon.
 
Confederate Ship Named for Thompson
 
The Confederate Navy names a ship in honor of Thompson, the CSS General M. Jeff Thompson. The side-wheel river steamer had been converted at New Orleans to a “cotton-clad” ram early in 1862, and joined the River Defense Fleet in Tennessee waters, having seen action in the Battle of Fort Pillow. It was set ablaze by Union warships at Memphis, ran aground and soon blew up.
 
In August of that year, Thompson was captured and sent to Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis, from there to Fort Delaware and ultimately to Johnson’s Island prisoner-of-war camp.

It was while imprisoned that he penned these few lines, as reported in a book of observations of him by a Rev. Hardy, also incarcerated:

“Though prison bars
My freedom mars,
and glittering bayonets guard me round,
My rebel soul
Scorns such control
and dwells with friends on Southern ground.
My heart is light
And spirits bright
and Hope, with her enchanting wand,
Gives visions fair;
And free as air
I roam at will in Dixie’s Land.”

A Friend in “Beast” Butler

It was here that possibly the most unique and interesting events took place between two generals of opposing forces.

General Benjamin “Beast” Butler was in command of the Union troops and therefore in nominal charge of Jeff Thompson in the Union prison. The following story was told in the New York Times of November 1, 1863, in which Butler acknowledges a letter from Thompson, requesting clemency. Butler’s response included the following: “I retain a lively sense of the courtesy and urbanity with which you conducted operations when in command opposed to me in Louisiana, and desire again, as before, to thank you for your kindness to Capt. Thornton [one of Butler’s seconds in command] in sending him home wounded, by which kindness I have no doubt his life was saved.”
 
The letters back and forth continued, resulting in Thompson’s early release, and they also included a letter to Secy. Of War E. M. Stanton, in which Capt. Thornton outlined the steps Thompson took which saved his life.
 
Butler closed by saying, “I found him a troublesome enemy enough but of his humanity, which was in contrast with the conduct of Gen. Taylor, leads me to ask this favor for him at the hands of the government. As I am not much in the habit of asking leniency for rebels, I trust the War Department will take it as a guarantee that this is a proper case for the extension of every indulgence.”

Thompson came back to southeast Missouri and joined forces with Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s expedition and then took the command of “Jo” Shelby’s famous “Iron Brigade.” Unfortunately Price’s invasion of Missouri ended in full defeat at the Battle of Westport in the fall of 1864.

After his release, he surrendered his troops on May 25, 1865. The signing of his parole on June 6, 1865, occurred on a steamboat at Wittsburg Landing, Ark. In true Thompson fashion, he was mounted on his white horse, walked his horse up the gangplank and to the table. He held a pen in his hand, signed the document, and then ordered his troops to sign also.
 
In Volume IX of the Confederate Military History, the section on Missouri written by Col. John C. Moore, contains this description of Jeff Thompson:  “… was a man of ability, but it was not strictly of military order. He excelled in issuing proclamations and manifestoes… his efforts…were a combination of sense and bombast, of military shrewdness and personal buffoonery…which gave his campaigns a decided opera bouffe aspect…His shiftiness and success in getting out of tight places gave him the appropriate name of the ‘Swamp Fox.’”
 
While the foregoing may seem like a left-handed compliment, there is no question that his accomplishments in the War earned him accolades from both North and South.

Thompson’s grave.

After the war, Thompson worked in a variety of positions and was appointed chief engineer for Louisiana, headquartered in New Orleans. In 1876, he left on a trip east to Baltimore and New York. He died of consumption back in St. Joseph on September 5, 1876 and is buried in Mt. Mora Cemetery there.
 
I “discovered” Jeff Thompson as the result of a note from one of my readers, Dan O’Neill of Kennett Square, Pa. a great, great-grandson of Thompson, and I am indebted to him and his cousin, Bob, for sharing family papers with me.
 
Follow the column on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email it’s MBoltz2846@aol.com
 
Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.
 
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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."

 

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