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.)

Memphis Rifles: 3-inch bronze guns from Quinby & Robinson

In February 1862, Major William Richardson Hunt approved receipt of over $2500 of ordnance from the Memphis firm of Quinby & Robinson.

The third item listed on the receipt records “1 6 pdr 3 in Rifle Gun” received on February 6 at a cost of $687.43.  (Recall the nomenclature used for other Confederate 3-inch rifles incorporated similar references to the base 6-pdr caliber.)  The 3-inch rifle was one of only a handful, perhaps only three, produced by Quinby & Robinson before the fall of Memphis that spring.  Remarkably two of the guns survive today in Petersburg National Battlefield.

One is on display near the visitor center.

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3-inch Q&R Rifle #33 at the Petersburg Visitor Center

The other is located at Colquitt’s Salient opposite Fort Steadman.

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3-inch Q & R Rifle #34 at Colquitt’s Salient

At first glance the gun presents a clean appearance, with minimal moldings confined to the base ring and knob.  The cylindrical rimbases attach directly to the gradually tapering barrel.  Small numbers on top of the breech (#33 on the piece in front of the visitor center and #34 on the gun in the field) should correspond to a foundry numbers. The stamps on the right trunnion indicate the guns are indeed from Quinby & Robinson.

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Right Trunnion of #34

The year stamped on the left trunnion of each piece, 1862, puts the guns  are in the range corresponding to the receipt shown above.

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Left Trunnion of #34

The thickness of metal at the muzzle suggests the original casting pattern was intended for a larger caliber weapon.

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Muzzle face of #34

The bore features twelve left-handed twist lands and grooves.  Remarkably, neither gun exhibits significant wear of the rifling.

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Bore of #34

The bore measures out at the prescribed 3-inches.

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Bore measure of #33

The breech profile incorporated a base ring, rounded breech face, and a rounded knob with rather thick fillet connecting to the breech.

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Breech profile of #34

The gun sight mounts are no longer attached.  But the fittings indicate the use of a standard hausse seat in the rear and a spike front sight above the muzzle.

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Muzzle of #33

Of the pair, #33 definitely has more “character.”

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Scar on #33

The divot under the lower left of the barrel looks like a battle scar.  But it could also be the result of mishandling.  But it sounds so much more exciting to say some Yankee solid shot ricocheted off the barrel in the heat of some artillery duel.  The damage deformed the interior of the gun and actually warped the bore.

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Bore of #33

Needless to say, #33 won’t be firing any more rounds.

Up until the recent refurbishment of the Petersburg artillery display, #33 sat on the rails between a James Type 2 14-pdr rifle and a Wiard 2.6-inch rifle, allowing for convenient comparison.

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Three field rifles in the old artillery display. #33 in the middle.

The Confederate rifle measures 61 inches long, compared to 74 inches for the James rifle and 52.5 inches for the Wiard.

The external appearance of these two Quinby & Robinson rifles, even if breaking with established patterns, is not unique.  Another pair of 3-inch rifles at Petersburg, produced by A.B. Reading and Brother, from Vicksburg, Mississippi.  I will examine them next.

For want of a nail: McCombs and Company of Memphis

I enjoy browsing through the Confederate Citizens Files online with Fold3.  Before these were placed online, my research was directed to specific folders … usually cannon manufacturers.  But now, with easy access from my home office, I can spend time casually browsing the records.  Sure, it is the boring, gritty details of the war.  Stuff about purchases, receipts, invoices, and payments.  Like this invoice from McCombs and Company of Memphis, Tennessee:

This may be Jim Schmidt’s field, because I read that as “Dr. R. Potts,” the medical director, receiving two wood saws, a hand saw, and a dozen scissors.  Cost the Confederacy $11.75.  The Confederates paid promptly in 1861.  Here’s the check, cut the next day:

As seen from McCombs and Company’s letterhead, the vendor specialized in hardware.  Their business was at the corner of Main and Madison in Memphis (the place has changed a bit in 150 years).

The records might hold other minutia details with more stories to tell.  In April 1862 when McCombs sold a file for a buck and a quarter, they struck through the name of “Hawks, Smith, & Co.” from a few blocks over.

Hard to say if this was because McCombs ran out of stationary, or if this was perhaps referral business.  Or perhaps the purchaser made some switch.  We don’t know what kind of file this was.  But we know it was for an artillery battery.  Oh, and it cost $1.25.

I’d offer, only half in jest, that one could reconstruct the entire Confederacy by way of these records.  Detailed bookkeeping, mind you.  So don’t believe the line that the Confederacy didn’t have the administrative organization that would produce proper records.  Imagine a database tracking purchases and transactions.  Good grief, we could ascertain all the material shortages of the Southern cause down to the tack!

Indeed, when the Confederacy found itself in want of a nail…

… the purchase was recorded.

Why would General Polk need this gun?

Consider this receipt from Tredegar dated October 17, 1861.

The last itemized line in the receipt is “1 – 8in rifle gun” at a cost of $9500. The document further stipulates the gun was intended for General Leonidas Polk in Memphis Tennessee.  The first waypoint on that trip was the Richmond & Danville Railroad depot.

So why would General Polk need such a large rifled gun way out in the western theater at this early stage of the war?

And more directly to the topic of my blog, what design did Tredegar use for this large caliber rifled gun?  Prior to the Civil War tests of large caliber guns (smoothbore and rifled) had met with only limited success.  So what designs did Tredegar borrow from?

First correct answer to these questions wins…. well… wins….