The Legend of Bill Dark: Guerilla Warfare, Oral History, and the Unmaking of an Arkansas Bushwacker

Article excerpt

THE WAR OF THE REBELLION UNLEASHED a reign of terror, crime, and anarchy in the Ozark foothills of north central Arkansas. There, rival bands of irregulars, along with lawless "jayhawkers" and "bushwhackers," terrorized a defenseless population. One such band was led by Bill Dark of Searcy County. From June 1862 to January 1863, Dark, Captain of Company A, Coffee's Recruits, briefly attempted-in accordance with the orders of General Thomas Carmichael Hindman-to sabotage Federal advances in northern Arkansas and conscript state troops. In the end, however, Dark's efforts only alienated an already hostile population, fueled guerrilla warfare, and hastened his own demise. Indeed, in early 1863, along the banks of the Little Red River near present-day Shirley, Arkansas, Dark and his men were ambushed and killed by a member of a home guard unit. Following the war, Dark's antagonists-the independent, subsistence farmers of Izard, Searcy, and Van Buren Counties-developed a colorful oral history, associating Dark with "all that is degraded and abandoned in mankind."' A Bill Dark legendshaped by time, emotion, and association-soon emerged, blurring historical truth, and portraying Dark not as a Confederate irregular but as a deserter and even a ruthless jayhawker, a term typically applied to Union marauders. 2

The story of Bill Dark, though largely unnoticed by most historians, is important to the historiography of Civil War Arkansas in at least three ways. First, it serves as a paradigm of the way the Civil War was waged in Arkansas between 1862 and 1865. 3 Second, it has been the subject of a bountiful and unique Ozark folk tradition. And third, it reveals the power of postwar revisionism and the romanticism of "the Lost Cause" to transform an embarrassing Confederate into a bandit, and, in some accounts, a Unionist.

John William ("Bill") Dark was born in Arkansas, around 1835. Though his exact origins are unknown, he probably sprang from the numerous Darks who settled south central Tennessee in the early nineteenth century. Dark's name first appears in Arkansas census records in 1850. That year, Dark, aged fifteen, was living in Little Rock with his mother, Dilla Dark, and a government clerk by the name of James Hutchins. 4 No known record exists of his father. Dark's life in Pulaski County during the 1850s was seemingly comfortable. He resided, along with such esteemed citizens as Secretary of State 0. B. Greer and Sheriff Ben Danby, in the City Hotel on Main Street. Though there are no records linking him with either of the two academies in Little Rock, a letter written by Dark in 1862-the only known manuscript by Dark to survive the war-suggests that he had been formally educated. By the mid- 1850s, he was working in Little Rock as a printer. In late 1857, however, Dark's life took a violent turn, beginning a downward spiral that led to prison and, ultimately, his doom.

On November 8, 1857, Dark was indicted in Pulaski County for the murder of Hardy Foster.5 Two days later, Dark, accompanied by his lawyers, Absalom Fowler, Henry Massie Rector, John T. Trigg, and Joseph Stillwell, entered a plea of "not guilty." On January 12, 1858, Dark's legal council petitioned for a change of venue to another county, arguing that "the minds of the inhabitants of this County are. . . prejudiced against the said defendant [and] that a fair and impartial trial of the issue in this case, cannot be had .'6 Judge John J. Clendenin agreed, and the trial was moved to Saline County, where, on October 22, 1858, Dark was found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary. His term was to begin on March 3, 1859.7 It was there Dark-labeled in prison records as an invalid and marked for bad behavior-found himself when Arkansas seceded from the Union in May 1861. There, too, oral tradition found him.8

Oral history is a modem research method that utilizes oral accounts of historical events by witnesses or participants or the information transmitted by them through others. …