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Thomas Jefferson (Jeff) Williams was a farmer, preacher, and Union officer in the Civil War. He serves as an example of mountain Unionists, and his experiences show how the Civil War affected farm families in northern Arkansas.
Jeff Williams was born in Caswell County, North Carolina, the son of Nathan Williams and Rebecca (Jackson) Williams, a Cherokee Indian. During his childhood, the family moved to Franklin County, Tennessee. Williams married Margaret Ann Hill there in 1832, and the couple had thirteen children.
Williams saw Arkansas for the first time in the spring of 1838, when he and two of his brothers formed part of a Tennessee militia company that escorted several hundred Cherokees west to Indian Territory. Six years later, following the death of his father in 1844, Williams and his large family, along with at least five of his brothers and sisters and their families, migrated to Arkansas, settling in the northern part of Conway County. There, he farmed 160 acres, ran a small cotton gin, and served as preacher for a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Williams supported the Whig Party in the 1850s, even naming two of his sons Daniel Webster and Henry Clay after two Whig leaders. Shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, Williams, who owned one slave at the time, led a county meeting in Springfield, the seat of government in Conway County, in which the participants took a stand against secession but upheld the right of citizens to own slaves. He remained devoted to the Union even after Arkansas seceded and the war began.
With the Confederate Conscription Act of April 1862, pressure to enlist in the Confederate army became intense in Arkansas. Williams led a band of several dozen men from Conway and Van Buren counties who had left their homes to hide out in the bush to avoid conscription. In May, a large Union force under General Samuel Curtis made its way to Batesville (Independence County) from southern Missouri. Williams’s band traveled through Rebel territory and joined Curtis’s army, enlisting for six months in what would be designated Company B of the First Arkansas Infantry Battalion. The company elected Williams as captain and his son Nathan as second lieutenant.
In July 1862, the company marched with Curtis’s men from Batesville to Helena (Phillips County), where they remained camped during the summer and fall of 1862. With 20,000 additional men crowded into Helena during the malarial months of late summer, disease took its toll. Almost half of Williams’s company died of camp diseases, including his two brothers, nephew, and brother-in-law. Williams became so debilitated by diarrhea that the camp surgeon and his commanding officer judged him unfit for service and discharged him in September, but he refused to leave his men. To save the remnant of the battalion, the commander sent Williams and his men upriver to Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri, where they remained until they were mustered out in December 1862.
Williams and the survivors of his company feared they would be killed if they returned to their homes in Rebel territory. They went to southwestern Missouri, where they scouted for the Union army, occasionally making forays into northern Arkansas. In late summer 1863, Union forces took Little Rock (Pulaski County) and moved up the Arkansas River to Fort Smith (Sebastian County). Williams’s band traveled with Union troops to central Arkansas and home. In September, General Frederick Steele authorized the Union men of Conway County to form an independent company, to protect themselves from Rebel threats. During the following seventeen months, Williams led his men in a guerrilla war against bands of Rebels in north-central Arkansas. Called variously Williams’s Raiders or Williams’s Company of Scouts and Spies, the men scouted for the Third Arkansas Union Cavalry, garrisoned at Lewisburg (Conway County).
Williams’s main foe was Colonel Alan R. Witt, who led a band of ragtag Confederates based around Quitman (Cleburne County), located about twenty miles east of Williams’s farm near present-day Center Ridge (Conway County). In the last two years of the war, Witt’s and Williams’s companies waged an on-going feud, as did families in the area known to be sympathetic to either side.
On the night of February 12, 1865, approximately sixty members of Witt’s band surrounded Williams’s home. They shot and killed him when he opened the door. He is buried in Grandview Cemetery near Center Ridge.
For additional information:Barnes, Kenneth C. “The Williams Clan: Mountain Farmers and Union Fighters in North Central Arkansas.” In Civil War Arkansas: Beyond Battles and Leaders, edited by Anne J. Bailey and Daniel E. Sutherland. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Kenneth C. Barnes
University of Central Arkansas
This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.
Last Updated 3/20/2012
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