Postings and marker entries are down a bit as of late. I’ve made what should be, but due to events has not been, the annual trip to the family homestead in the “boot heel” of Missouri. I grew up here in real “cotton country” within the bottom lands of the St. Francis River, sharing that bit of common background with the likes of C. Vann Woodward and Johny Cash!
My family home is in Dunklin County, just south of the county seat of Kennett, Missouri. Growing up, I learned the cycle of the seasons based on the activities in the fields behind our house. Winter wheat, soybeans, cotton, milo, and the occasional watermelon patch. My first summer jobs were working those fields. My family’s oral history featured stories of hot days chopping or picking cotton. Luckily things were far more advanced by my time. I can say that I tried my hand once at hand picking cotton, just to see if it were as bad as Grandma said. Fifteen minutes later, I was praising the mechanical cotton picker machine as one of the world’s great technological advances!
But where’s the Civil War hook? Well there wasn’t much going on in Dunklin County in 1861-65. That’s mostly due to the lack of people in Dunklin County in that period. The “boot heal” of Missouri was mostly swamp at the time. Some low ridges offered high ground, suitable for small farms. But nothing like the plantations seen elsewhere in the deep south. Still, the war found its way into this backwater. As with many parts of Missouri, the southeastern counties were frequented by irregular forces raiding, often without any specific military objective. The county actually seceded from the state, taking the name “The Independent State of Dunklin” for a short time after 1862. Confederate Col. M. Jeff Thompson operated in the area, gaining what is largely a romantic title of “Swamp Fox of the Confederacy.”
Occasionally a “formal” military force would appear and operate briefly. In March 1863, a column of Missouri State Militia (Federal) under Col. John McNeil ventured into the St. Francis River valley to clear out Thompson. Without any major engagements, McNeil did report reaching the town of Kennett, spending a couple of days scouting the surrounding area. His official report detailed the capture of 60 Confederates, 250 small arms, 65 horses and mules, and quite a large cache of supplies. Nothing like the major operations happening further east in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Virginia at this same time.
Two months later, McNeil returned to the area, chasing Confederate General John S. Marmaduke’s command, who was returning from a raid through Missouri. The two sides fought a small engagement on May 1-2, 1863 at Chalk Bluff, a crossing over the St. Francis River about 15 miles north of Kennett, where the river cuts through Crowley’s Ridge. The site today is partly preserved. Both Arkansas and Missouri maintain recreation areas at the crossing site. But the land around has changed drastically over time. First off the river has shifted course several times. Second, the swamps were drained, turning cypress stands into cotton fields. I seriously doubt any veteran of the engagement, should they see the ground today, would recognize much. Still I’ll see what I can muster for a “trip report” in a later posting.
During the period of irregular warfare, the county court house in Kennett was burned. Now this was not some major building in terms of size, rather just some log structure. However, the county would not get another court house for several decades. A frame building erected on the same site burned in 1872 (two years after it was built). After many years of debate, a brick courthouse was built in 1892. That building was in turn replaced in 1938 by the present day structure as part of a WPA project:
Note the art deco styling. I’ve been asking for near on forty years about the “Viking ships” above the columns, with no answers. The tree to the side of the courthouse is a victim of the recent ice storms that swept through.
Ok, not major battles. In fact, not even minor battles. Just scrapes and skirmishes. But the stories and lore surrounding these place names were enough to spark the curiosity of a young kid growing up, and help create a lifelong interest in the Civil War.