Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Life with the Mountain Feds: The Civil War Reminiscences of William McDowell, 1st Arkansas Cavalry

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Life with the Mountain Feds: The Civil War Reminiscences of William McDowell, 1st Arkansas Cavalry

Article excerpt

DURING THE CIVIL WAR, Arkansas contributed an estimated 60,000 soldiers to the Confederate States of America. Union sentiment remained strong in northwest Arkansas, however, and the state is also credited with sending approximately 10,000 men to the Federal army, constituting ten infantry regiments or battalions, four cavalry regiments, and two artillery batteries.1 The most famous of these unionist regiments was the 1st Arkansas Cavalry, an organization composed mostly of refugees from northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri. Marcus LaRue Harrison, a thirty-two-year-old New Yorker and member of the 36th Illinois Infantry, was authorized to recruit the 1st Arkansas Cavalry in 1862. Commissioned a colonel, Harrison began organizing the regiment in June at Springfield, Missouri, and by October had raised the required twelve companies.2

During the unit's three-year existence, the "Mountain Feds" of the 1st Arkansas spent the majority of their time patrolling the region between Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Springfield as scouts for Federal forces.3 They also fought Confederate guerrilla bands and regular forces and actively protected pro-Union civilians. Despite being routed at the battle of Prairie Grove in December 1862, the troopers of the 1st Arkansas quickly recovered and, in the words of a recent historian of the guerrilla war in Arkansas, "became the primary counter-guerrilla unit in the northern part of the state. "4 Yet, apart from scattered official reports and a few other contemporary pieces of evidence, little is recorded of the activities of the 1st Arkansas.

Fortunately for historians, Priv. William E. McDowell, a member of Company G, penned his recollections of army life for a small Missouri newspaper, the Crane Chronicle, in 1915 and 1916. In his nine letters to the Chronicle, McDowell did not attempt to write a comprehensive unit history but instead recalled certain incidents during his service with Union forces, first as a member of the Stone County (Missouri) Home Guards in 1861 and then as part of the 1st Arkansas from 1862 until 1865. Despite the selective and inevitably retrospective nature of McDowell's recollections, his short newspaper contributions provide details about the experience of an ordinary soldier in Arkansas and help capture the unique character of the Civil War in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas.

One of twelve children, William E. McDowell was born on January 31, 1840, in Stone County, Missouri. His parents, Wiley and Margaret Williams McDowell, had moved to southwest Missouri from Kentucky in 1838. They began farming along Flat Creek, one mile northeast of the town of Cape Fair. In 1852, McDowell s mother died. Two years later, his father married a widow, Nancy Dennis, and moved to a farm near Galena. A staunch Democrat and well-known member of the community, Wiley lived on that farm until his death in 1875.5

As a young boy, McDowell worked on the family s Ozarks farms and in a sawmill. In spring 1861, with the sectional crisis gripping the nation, McDowell declared his loyalty to the Union by enlisting in Capt. William A. Carr's Company B, Stone County Home Guards. The company served in Stone and Barry Counties but disbanded on November 6, 1861. Many members of the Home Guards subsequently served in other Union organizations (one source even claimed that every man in the Stone County Home Guards enlisted in one of the other regiments that formed in northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri). Given the close proximity of Stone County to Arkansas, many of its citizens joined the 1st Arkansas.6

By spring 1862, McDowell had returned to farming and planted a crop along the White River. He found it difficult to tend his crops, however, as he was constantly dodging bushwhackers. In fact, he was taken prisoner twice and temporarily held by the rebels. McDowell soon grew tired of this "mixture of farming and warfare" and decided to take up arms once again to defend the Union. …

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