Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Eloquent Brevity: The Arkansas Campaign Diary of Henry Elliott Thompson

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Eloquent Brevity: The Arkansas Campaign Diary of Henry Elliott Thompson

Article excerpt

A GREAT DEAL OF MEANING CAN be conveyed with a simple cliché, which probably explains why people are so fond of using them. "Words fail me" is a hackneyed phrase so loaded with implications of wonderment or horror that most listeners have little trouble filling in the blanks from the context in which it is uttered. The well-known reluctance of combat veterans to later reflect on their experiences often results in similarly brief expressions, requiring historians to provide contextual understanding by using documentation created closer to the time of the referenced action. A good example can be found in an 1880 letter that Capt. Augustus H. Pettibone, a Civil War veteran of the 20th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, wrote to an old comrade. "I always cry when I think, or rather try to talk, about Prairie Grove."1 While Pettibone's comrade fully grasped all that was implied in that terse phrase, those of us in the twenty-first century who would comprehend its brevity must dig further. Fortunately, Pettibone's correspondent, Cpl. Henry Elliott Thompson, provided the means to do exactly that. By a remarkable combining of diary and reminiscence, Thompson left a record that adds to a body of enlisted men's stories from the Civil War's Trans-Mississippi theater, which one historian has described as "scarce as hen's teeth."2

Henry Elliott Thompson, a Wisconsin farmboy who joined Mr. Lincoln's army in 1862, encountered such a variety of locales and conditions during his enlistment that he may be considered as something of a generic Civil War enlisted man. Thompson's service took him from the Ozark Mountains to the Vicksburg bluffs and from the chaparral desert of the Rio Grande frontier to the sandy beaches of Mobile Bay, a journey of more than 7,000 miles over the course of the war. In each place he recorded his experiences, making his surviving testimony interesting in the aggregate but particularly important for the study of the war's prosecution in Northwest Arkansas, for which a dearth of enlisted men's diaries appear to have survived. Before taking a closer look at Thompson's story of the Prairie Grove campaign, though, we need to understand the circumstances from which it emerged, and how he composed the document that allows us to get a glimpse of what Captain Pettibone could not bring himself to utter.

As with so many foot soldiers, we know very little about the specifics of Thompson's life before and after the Civil War. Henry and his twin brother, Joseph, were born on March 13, 1841, the fourth and fifth children of Hugh and Martha Thompson of Cooperstown, Pennsylvania. A tailor by trade, Hugh Thompson moved his growing family from Pennsylvania to Ohio before settling in Pleasant Valley Township, Marquette County, Wisconsin. At that time, the Badger State had yet to shed many of the characteristics of its frontier stage of development. Throughout the 1850s, settlers continued to penetrate the dense hardwood forests surrounding its scattered western settlements to carve out subsistence farms. Shortly after their arrival in Pleasant Valley, the Thompsons were lured to the broken country flanking the Bad Axe River in the far western portion of Wisconsin. There, the Thompsons established a farm in Vernon County near the hamlet of Springville. Henry and his brother grew to manhood clearing the forest, plowing the soil, and performing all the other backbreaking labor required on a newly established farmstead. Apparently, they also found time to attend school, since Henry's diaries evidence a literate man of some artistic talent.3

During the presidential election of 1860, Wisconsin for the most part embraced the newly minted Republican party and the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln. Aware of the likely consequences of a Republican victory, residents formed various local militias in the months preceding the balloting. La Crosse, the largest town near Vernon County, saw the mustering of a volunteer artillery battery, manned by prominent local volunteers such as Albert Webb Bishop, a transplanted New York attorney and tireless worker for the Lincoln candidacy. …

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