Trans-Mississipping

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.”

M Jeff Thompson
M Jeff Thompson

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:

Dunklin County Courthouse
Dunklin County Courthouse

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.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “Trans-Mississipping

  1. Enjoyed your post. Very interesting. I grew up in Kennett. I remember in the 70’s the Bank of Kennett would put out a wall calender. On the back of that calender there would be an old map of Dunklin County. On the map it showed a place called “West Kennett”. It was located where the railroad tracks crossed the St. Francis River. I remember walking with some friends where the tracks used to be out to the river but we could never find any physical evidence of West Kennett. It was a long walk from the levy to the river through the swamp. Have you ever heard of West Kennett or have any information related to why or if that place existed? Thank you for your research and for sharing it.

    1. Jeff,

      Nice to hear from some who also knows where Kennett is!

      I know those bank maps all too well. In my time “West Kennett” was just a place name. A service station and junk yard just this side of the levee.

      Historically, the location was a log mill, processing timber pulled from the bottom lands. A rail spur ran out to the mill. I know it crossed half the way over the bottom to the main channel. Don’t know if it actually connected to anything on the Arkansas side.

      Craig.

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