For September 29, 1864, the itinerary of Major-General Sterling Price’s Army of Missouri read:
September 29 (Camp No. 30). – Passed through Caledonia and Potosi. At the latter place General Shelby fought and captured ____ Federals. The enemy, who left Pilot Knob under General Ewing, hearing of Shelby being in front, moved off to the west. Marmaduke and Shelby started pursuit last night. General M. Jeff. Thompson arrived in camp. Rumors of Steele leaving Little Rock doubted; distance twenty-two miles.
A fair march of twenty-two miles, but not quite up to the “foot cavalry” standards perhaps. Not mentioned in the itinerary, a force of Confederate cavalry ranged out to Cuba… Cuba, Missouri that is… and destroyed a portion of the Southwest Branch Railroad.
So on this day 150 years ago, M. Jeff Thompson arrived back at the “front” and in the midst of Major-General Sterling Price’s Missouri Campaign. Perhaps it was fitting that Thompson should participate in the last great campaign in Missouri, as he had been an active part of the war in the Trans-Mississippi from the start.
He was born Meriwether Thompson in Harpers Ferry, [West] Virginia, but the moniker “Jeff” came from a childhood association. Thompson attended J.J. Sanbourn Military Academy in nearby Charlestown as a teen, but failed to receive an appointment to West Point. Working as a store clerk in several communities, Thompson eventually took up residence in Liberty, Missouri. There he transformed himself into an engineer, working for the city and helping to lay the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. He’d presided over the ceremonies inaugurating the Pony Express in April 1860. So he was a person of some prominence in pre-war Missouri.
Pre-war military activity included service in the Missouri State Guard with the rank of Colonel. As with many throughout the south, Thompson reacted to John Brown’s Harpers Ferry Raid and began to advocate secession. That advocacy transformed to direct action on May 12, 1861 when Thompson cut down the American flag from the St. Joseph post office and tossed it to a cheering crowd. This, and his political connections, secured the command of the First Division, pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard. His commission as “Brigadier-General” came from Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and not from the Confederate government.
Operating in the swampy bottom lands in southeastern part of the state, Thompson received the nickname “Swamp Fox.” Though not as successful, by any measure, as the Revolutionary War “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion, Thompson was able to make his presence known. Among other things, his operations proved an obstacle to early Federal operations along the Mississippi River axis. In particular he was a thorn in the side of one Brigadier-General U.S. Grant during those early days of the war.
In June 1862, he added “naval commander” to his resume. He led a portion of the Confederate ram fleet, which included one warship named after him, in action at the Battle of Memphis on June 6. After that defeat, without a command Thompson served in various staff capacities. During Brigadier-General John S. Marmaduke’s April 1863 raid to Cape Girardeau, Thompson’s engineering skills enabled the Confederate force to escape over the St. Francis River at Chalk Bluff.
Later in August Thompson was captured in Kentucky. Though still not a “Confederate general” by virtue of the state commission, Thompson was among the “generals” sent to Morris Island in June 1864 in response to the fifty Federal prisoners in Charleston. After exchange on August 3, Thompson returned to the west. But he did not make his way to Price’s command until very late in September.
With Price’s advance into Thompson’s old stomping (or dare we say “swamping”?) grounds, Thompson was a favorite for some command. But all the seats were spoken for. On October 2, Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby proposed combining one of his regiments and a separate battalion as a command for Thompson, using those formations as the nucleus to form a full brigade with the recruits. But before that could take place, Colonel David Shanks, commanding Shelby’s old Iron Brigade, was wounded in action at Prince’s Ford. On October 6, Thompson received orders to take over the famous Iron Brigade… OK, Phil Spaugy, not THE Iron Brigade, but Shelby’s Missouri Iron Brigade.
As Price’s raid into Missouri progressed through the fall, Thompson joined so many “returning” characters who would share the spotlight in one of the largest (particularly in terms of geography covered) campaigns of the war.
(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, page 644.)