A COLD SWIM ACROSS WHITE RIVER
By S. C. Turnbo
This chapter is the sequel to the death of the men at the Alph Cook that we have told about elsewhere and shows that in war days a human enemy was more to be dreaded then attacks from wild beasts. In certain cases men would brave all sorts of danger to shun the appearance of death from other sources. This is human nature. In some cases the danger encountered in an effort to save life was worse than the one they were trying to avoid. The perils that many men passed through without being killed seems miraculous. The terrible risk of galloping their horses down rough hillsides and over ledges of rock, crossing gulches and hollows at breakneck speed, or plunging into swollen streams in midwinter to escape an infuriated enemy is told many times over. The races on foot or on horseback to avoid being shot occurred hundreds of times in the Ozark region. Events of this kind will be read in history as long as our nation exists. These stirring scenes of the bloody days of our Civil War will never be forgotten and the stories of them will be reiterated from generation to generation as long as people are able to tell it.
We have said that this chapter is the sequel to the bloody and terrible scene enacted at the Alph Cook Cave during the dark hours of the close of the great conflict and we add other information relating to this as told me by John (Jack) Ellison who said that he was present in the cave just before the killing of the men was done. The following is his account of it. On the day the attack was made a snow several inches deep lay on the ground and the weather was cold. During the early hours after sunrise clouds obscured the sky, but later on a northwest wind swept the clouds away and the sun shone bright and the snow glistened. There were twenty-five men, more or less, in the cave who had collected there from time to time, for the cave was in such an out way place that a number of men considered it a safe retreat from the enemy. On the day the federals made the attack and a short while before they appeared, John May, a citizen of Taney County, Missouri, and who lived on White River below the mouth of Beaver Creek, advised Alph Cook to evacuate the cave before it was too late, giving as his reasons "that a small force of the enemy could lay siege to it and guard the mouth of it and starve out any armed force that would attempt to defend themselves in the cavern and would be forced to surrender and shot down like dogs." Cook was considered by the men as their leader and Mr. May had advised him carefully and wisely. But Cook would not heed the advice given him by his old friend May and refused to leave the cave. It wan then that John May informed him that he intended to vacate the cave if he had to go alone and made preparations to mount his horse which was standing with the saddle on at the mouth of the big, roomy entrance. At this Joe Webb and myself told Mr. May that we would go with him. All the other men decided to stay with Cook. Some of the men claimed that there was less danger to remain in the cave than to evacuate it, and so they put their faith in the council of Cook. And we three led our horses down the mountainside into the hollow where we mounted them and rode away. After we had rode near three-fourths of a mile from the cave we heard several shots in quick succession and the shouting of men and we knew at once that the enemy had arrived and were attacking and killing the poor fellows that we had just left. We had just got away in time, and knowing that the enemy would follow our trail in the snow, we hurried on toward the river. The killed there besides those who is already mentioned as we learned afterward were Ed Weaver and Billy Johnson. Those who were taken prisoners and sent off were Ed Johnson, Anderson Moore, and John Wheeler. The last named was a son of Bill Wheeler who lived on Taney City Ridge near Taney City, Missouri. All the rest of the men were set free. Now to our ride through the deep snow and over the rough ground to the river. The snow impeded our progress, but we urged our horses along as fast as their weak and hungry condition would permit. In the course of a few hours we reached the bank of the river at Dubuque and found that the village was entirely deserted. The river was swollen and was about six feet past fording which almost dumbfounded us, for we had a better chance to escape if we could cross to the opposite shore for we were better acquainted with the hills and roughs on the north side than on the south side. It was almost certain death to remain on the south side. If we could manage to cross over we might save our lives. No doubt the enemy was in pursuit of us and would arrive in a short time, and after a short chase would lay us in the snow cold in death, for in our condition the resistance we could offer would be feeble. If we turned in another direction the enemy would certainly overhaul and shoot us to death. John May was our leader and we had implicit confidence in his leadership, and we told him to lead the way and we would follow. "Well, boys," said he, "our only chance to escape is to cross the river." Though I and Webb had just told him to lead us and we would willingly go with him,, but we exclaimed, "how can we succeed in getting over unless we had a canoe" for there was not a, craft of any kind in sight, and Mr. May answered "We can swim over." Oh, horrors, it seemed like death to remain there and we certainly die by drowning and freezing if we attempted to swim across the ice cold stream. May said that it was better to die in cold water than give the enemy the pleasure of shooting us to death and boast over our dead bodies. This settled it., and hurriedly placing small bits of leather on the tubes of our guns and pressing the hammer of the lock down on the leather to keep the breech in the guns dry and after stopping up the muzzles of the guns with pieces of cloth torn from our saddle blankets, we tied the guns to the pummels of our saddles with the barrels hanging down and fixing the bridles and stirrups so that the horses feet would not get tangled up, we were ready to enter into the cold, swift running stream. Mr. May lead the way and as he started down the bank to the river, he remarked in a solemn way, "Men, we must cross over or die in the attempt." When May reached the edge of the water, he stopped and got behind his horse and took hold of his tail and urged him forward into the water, and he and the horse was soon in the embrace of the muddy stream. It was a desperate undertaking, but May said that it was sweeter than facing the bullets of the enemy and as soon as he give us room we followed suit and began making for the other shore. How we contrived to reach it I never can explain except that we held to our horses tails and they pulled us across. It was awful work for our weak and jaded horses to have to battle against the ice cold waves, but it was war and war meant to kill and destroy. Onward swam the horses through the rapid current and we held to their tails for dear life. We could see the horses heads and the breech of our guns ever now and then as they would "bob" up and down out of the water, and it was all we could do to prevent ourselves from strangling. The water beat us far down stream and it seemed an hour before we reached the other side, but I suppose it was only a few minutes when we crawled out of the water. We found that we were more than one-quarter of a mile below the village. When we got on shore we shivered and shook. Our bodies grew numb as well as shaking. We felt like we would freeze to death. We must do something to rouse the circulation or we would freeze to death. And we managed somehow to mount our cold, shivering beasts and rode across the bottom in the Jake Nave Bend to a deep gulch in the hills where there was a shelving rock with some dry wood under it. Here we stopped. Part of our powder in the powder horns was found to be dry and we hunted around and found some dry leaves and small sticks and other material that rats and other small animals had carried into the crevices in the rocks, and with this and the dry powder, a flint rock, and a piece of steel we flashed and struck until we had a little smoke, then a little blare, and we piled on fuel as fast as the fire would bear it without smothering it out until we had a roaring fire which began to relieve our cold and shivering limbs. We did not stop gathering wood until we had a pile of dead cedar and other dead wood that we pulled out of the snow, and kept up a warm fire during the remainder of the day and throughout the long hours of night, and dried our clothes, blankets, saddles, guns, and other things. We remained here twenty-four hours without anything to eat for ourselves or horses. Though we needed something to eat very bad, yet we felt more sorrow for our starving horses than for ourselves. We knew that we must leave there and seek food for ourselves and provender for our weak and jaded animals and so we left our comfortable quarters and warm fire. As soon as we had lead our horses to the top of the hill, we mounted them once more and after a slow ride of several miles through the snowy hills we reached a small cabin occupied by a man and woman who gave us food and something for our horses, which made us feel very grateful toward the men and his wife. After we had ate to our satisfaction and our horses had eat enough we left the settlers fireside greatly refreshed, and remounting our horses again, we bid our host and hostess adieu and began our journey toward Batesville, Arkansas, and after much suffering from cold and hunger we arrived in the near vicinity of that place and finally surrendered to the federal authorities who were stationed there. These are some of the hardships I and others had to undergo at times during the four years of death, destruction, cold, and hunger in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri." said Mr. Ellison.
Springfield-Greene County Library