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John Albert Pearson Jr. was the last man to be appointed as an officer in the Confederate States Marine Corps during the American Civil War and may have been the only Arkansan to serve as a Confederate marine officer.
John Albert Pearson Jr. was born in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) on November 5, 1845, the son of John and Mary Pearson. His father had created the prototype for the first revolving pistol from designs by Samuel Colt, and Pearson was learning the gunsmith trade when the Civil War began in 1861. Pearson, though only fifteen years old, joined the Third Arkansas State Troops on May 21—fifteen days after Arkansas seceded from the Union. Pearson was with the Third Arkansas when it fought in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, on August 10, and he suffered a bullet wound to the thigh during the fighting—one of 109 casualties of the 500 men in the Third Arkansas.
Pearson had met Confederate Brigadier General James McIntosh when he was a U.S. Army captain serving at Fort Smith before the war, and McIntosh had offered the young man a position on his staff prior to the fighting at Wilson’s Creek. Both he and Brigadier General Ben McCulloch urged Pearson to seek a cadetship—defined by historian David Sullivan as “roughly the equivalent of a West Point education in the field”—with the Confederate army where he could better learn the craft of warfare, offering to endorse his efforts. However, both officers were killed in the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862. Following that fight, Pearson joined the Third Louisiana Infantry, whose commander, Colonel Frank Armstrong, took an interest in the young soldier. Pearson stayed with the Third Louisiana when it moved east of the Mississippi River, finally leaving the regiment on July 15, 1862, when he was discharged because of his age.
Pearson then offered his services as a volunteer aide-de-camp to Armstrong, who by then had been promoted to command the cavalry division of the Army of the West. Pearson petitioned Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph seeking a cadetship, and Armstrong sent an enthusiastic letter of support that was signed by several other officers. He wrote both President Jefferson Davis and Congressman Grandison D. Royston in September 1862 to press his case for a cadet position, again without result. Pearson rode with Armstrong as the cavalry division campaigned in Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi in 1862, and Pearson was again wounded, this time only slightly, in the Battle of Corinth on October 3, 1862. Pearson continued to seek a cadetship from officials in Richmond, Virginia, now with the support of Brigadier General N. Bart Pearce, who had also fought at Wilson’s Creek, but again with no response from the Confederate government. Pearson returned to the Trans-Mississippi, perhaps hoping his goal of cadet status would stand a stronger chance west of the river, and served on the staffs of Brigadier Generals William L. Cabell and James Fagan before, in July 1864, heading east for a post in the Confederate marines.
Pearson arrived at Richmond on September 26, 1864, and though he had not yet been formally appointed as a marine officer, he was posted with Company C at Camp Beall on the James River eight miles south of the Confederate capital. A fellow officer wrote that “he seems to be a very clever young gentleman, and barely 20 years of age. He is very intelligent and will no doubt prove quite an acquisition to our Corps.” Pearson’s appointment finally worked its way through the Confederate bureaucracy, and he was formally nominated as a second lieutenant in the Confederate States Marine Corps on November 10, 1864. The Senate confirmed the appointment, to rank from October 8, on November 23—the last appointment of a Marine officer by the Confederate government. He commanded Company C until December 14, when a senior officer replaced him.
In February 1865, Pearson was hospitalized with “debilitas,” a term for a physical breakdown, and he was still in the Naval Hospital when the Confederates abandoned Richmond on April 3. Fires that had been started by retreating Confederates spread to the hospital, and Pearson and other invalids were forced to flee the building; he suffered a relapse after finding safety in the Medical College Hospital. He transferred to Jackson Hospital, which had come under the control of the Union army, on April 12. Signing his parole on May 5, he left the hospital and stayed at the home of James Thomas Jr., a wealthy Richmond resident, for several weeks as he continued to suffer physical debility.
Despite his father’s pleas that he remain in Richmond until fully recovered, John Pearson headed for Fort Smith, arriving home in early July. He never recovered his health and died on December 1, 1865. He is buried at Fort Smith’s Oak Cemetery.
For additional information:
Donnelly, Ralph W. Biographical Sketches of the Commissioned Officers of the Confederate States Marine Corps. Richmond, VA: Little Print Shop, 1973.
Stiles, John C. “Some Marines.” Confederate Veteran 33 (January 1925): 179–180.
Sullivan, David M. “John Albert Pearson, Jr.: Arkansas Soldier and Confederate Marine.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 45 (Autumn 1986): 250–260.
Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 7/19/2018
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