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Meriwether “Jeff” Thompson was a brigadier general in the Missouri State Guard who served and led troops in Arkansas during the Civil War, ultimately surrendering the troops in the northeastern part of the state in 1865 after earning a reputation as a wily commander.
Meriwether Thompson was born on January 22, 1826, in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, the son of U.S. Army paymaster Captain Meriwether Thompson and Nancy Slaughter Broadus Thompson. As a youth, Thompson would skip school to accompany a black deliveryman named Jeff on his rounds, which led his family to begin calling him by that name. His friends soon followed suit, and after moving to Missouri in 1847 he had his name legally changed to M. Jeff Thompson. That same year, he married Emma Catherine Hayes; they had four children.
Thompson moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1848 and worked as a clerk, grocer, real estate agent, and county surveyor. He was elected mayor of St. Joseph in 1857 and proved an ardent secessionist, cutting a U.S. flag down from in front of the St. Joseph Post office on May 12, 1861. He was elected as brigadier general of the First Division of the Missouri State Guard in July 1861; though he lobbied for that rank in the regular Confederate army for the rest of the war he never received it, despite leading Confederate forces at the brigade level and higher.
Thompson led his troops in irregular warfare in the Missouri bootheel early in the war, where he won the nickname “Swamp Fox” for his successful raids against Union targets after which he and his men would fall back into the region’s many swamps. Thompson was defeated in a stand-up fight with Federal troops at Fredericktown, Missouri, on October 21, 1861, and by early 1862 he and his troops had been pushed back into northeastern Arkansas. Thompson was then ordered to Memphis, Tennessee, and after that city’s fall was sent to Ponchatoula, Louisiana, as a base to harass Union forces in New Orleans.
He was back in Arkansas by early 1863 and participated in John Sappington Marmaduke’s failed second Missouri expedition in April. Thompson received permission from Confederate officials to recruit a brigade and was in the process of doing so when he was captured at Pocahontas (Randolph County) on August 22, 1863. He was imprisoned at Johnson’s Island, Ohio, and Fort Delaware in Delaware, where he wrote poetry and arranged entertainments for fellow prisoners before being exchanged on August 3, 1864.
Returning to the Trans-Mississippi, he participated in Sterling Price’s ill-fated invasion of Missouri in October, leading General Joseph O. Shelby’s “Iron Brigade” while Shelby commanded a division. Thompson commanded those troops in the fighting at Westport and Newtonia, Missouri, and Mine Creek, Kansas, during the raid and made it safely to Texas and Arkansas at its conclusion. He was placed in command of the Northern Sub-District of Arkansas in February 1865, holding that position as the Confederate armies east of the Mississippi collapsed. He formally surrendered his command, ordering them to report to Wittsburg (Cross County) and Jacksonport (Jackson County) on May 11, 1865, to turn in their arms. Thompson was present at Jacksonport and excoriated his troops in a blistering speech in which he said “you have been lying in the swamps until the moss has grown six inches long on your backs” and told them “to raise a new generation of boys who will be better men than you have been.”
Thompson moved to Memphis after the war, working as a grocer before moving to New Orleans, where he was named chief engineer of the state Board of Public Works. The New Orleans climate exacerbated health problems he had developed as a prisoner of war, and he moved back to St. Joseph, where he died on September 5, 1876. He is buried in St. Joseph’s Mount Mora Cemetery.
For additional information:
Allardice, Bruce S. More Generals in Gray. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.
Larson, Douglas E. “Alfred Gales and the Third Minnesota in Arkansas.” In “The Earth Reeled and Trees Trembled”: Civil War Arkansas, 1863–1864, edited by Mark K. Christ. Little Rock: Old State House Museum, 2007.
Perkins, Russell S. “Thompson, M. Jeff.” In Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854–1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Online at http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/thompson-m-jeff (accessed January 17, 2019).
Stanton, Donal J., Goodwin F. Berquist, and Paul C. Bowers, eds. M. Jeff Thompson Memoirs. Dayton, OH: Morningside, 1988.
Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 1/17/2019
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