150 years ago: The burning of Hopefield, Arkansas

Major-General Stephen A. Hurlbut was tired of dealing with Confederate guerrillas operating just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee. On the night of February 17, 1863, Captain James H. McGehee’s unattached Arkansas cavalry attacked the tug Hercules as it lay off Hopefield. McGehee captured the tug and several coal barges, but had to burn them due to heavy fire from the Memphis side of the river.

This was not the first time McGehee had raised havoc using Hopefield as a base. On January 6 his troopers captured the steamboat Jacob Musselman, ran her up river, and burned her. The raiders returned on January 11 to attack another steamboat, the Grampus No. 2. They scored another, more beneficial target on February 16, thirty miles below Memphis, in the form of a flat boat loaded with medical supplies.

From the Federal perspective, Memphis and Hopefield were in the rear area. The residents of Hopefield had taken the oath of allegiance, as had those in many other river ports along the Mississippi. Yet, Confederate guerrillas continued to operate along the river. On more than one occasion, rifle fire from a river town prompted the Navy to harsh measures. Guerrillas attacked the steamer Catahoula, which was not even involved with military business, in October 1862. The incident prompted Major-General William T. Sherman to order an expedition “to destroy all the houses, farms, and corn fields” downstream from Hopefield in order to dissuade the guerrilla bands.

However, up to December 1862 the guerrilla bands seemed more the irregular sort which takes advantage of the chaos of war. But now McGehee’s activities seemed a bit more regular than irregular. Hurlbut’s Sixteenth Corps was charged with the security of west Tennessee, particularly Memphis which served as a base for Major-General U.S. Grant’s operations downstream. That in mind, Hurlbut decided to clear out the “shelter for guerrillas” opposite Memphis. He ordered Brigadier-General James Veatch, commanding the District of Memphis, to cross a force and burn out Hopefield on February 19.


Veatch dispatched four companies of the 63rd Illinois Infantry, under Captain Joseph K. Lemon, to performed the duties. Lemon later reported:

… I proceeded with four companies of the above-named regiment viz, Company C, commanded by Captain [W. M.] Boughan; Company D, commanded by Lieutenant [J.] Isaminger; Company E, commanded by Captain H. H.] Walser; Corn puny F, commanded by Lieut. A. Davis, and the gunboat Cricket, to Hopefield, Ark.; placed a strong guard around the village, and, after giving the inhabitants one hour’s notice of the destiny of their village, the lighted torch was applied and the place was consumed. There were no depredations committed, neither were any insults offered to the inhabitants. In the livery stables I found 15 head of horses, 9 mules, and 10 saddles, and, as they were said to be owned by citizens of Arkansas, I took them under charge. I turned over 15 head of horses and 9 mules to the quartermaster, Captain Walker. One fine horse was kept by Lieutenant Cook, of General Hurlbut’s staff, by order of Major-General Hurlbut.

From the far shore, Hurlbut reported a large explosion when the fires reached a barn with a stash of gunpowder. With the presence of gunpowder, fine horses, and saddles, the Federal’s fears were confirmed – Confederates were not only operating from Hopefield, but being supported by those living there. Lemon offered to transport the citizens of Hopefield back to Memphis. But, if accounts written after the war are true, none took that offer.

The destruction of Hopefield did curb Confederate activities opposite Memphis. While irregular forces continued to operate, after February 1863 the pressing concern of Federal commanders was smuggling activities.

Certainly the burning of Hopefield fits into the hard war approach which Federals increasingly turned to by mid-war. But before anyone starts talking about the devilish Yankees who burned out everything, we should consider the full context. Much in the same way the presence of Brigadier-General William Barksdale’s Mississippi sharpshooters triggered a destructive reaction from Federals at Fredericksburg in December 1862, the presence of McGehee’s cavalry in Hopefield served a catalyst for the Federal reaction in February 1863. We might debate the conventions of war in regard to civilian property, as those existed in the 19th century. But the situation at Hopefield that winter defied those conventions, leaving a story every bit turbid as the muddy waters that flowed by that river town. And Hopefield was not a singular occurrence.

After the war, Hopefield was rebuilt. But railroad bridges over the river, changes to transportation patterns, and changes in the river itself eventually left it a ghost town.

Hopefield, which no longer exists, was opposite Memphis, roughly where the Interstate-40 “DeSoto Bridge” crosses into Arkansas.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 22, Part I, Serial 32, page 232.)