Vol. IV, No. 4, Spring 1991 / Vol. V, No. 1, Summer 1991

Guerrillas, Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers in Northern Arkansas During the Civil War

By Leo E. Huff

Lt. Col. Leo E. Huff (U.S.A. Ret.) is Professor Emeritus of military history, Southwest Missouri State University. He is a member of the OzarksWatch advisory board for the Civil War issue.

[Editors note: A longer version of this article originally appeared in The Arkansas Historical Quarterly and is reprinted here by permission]

The Civil War in Northern Arkansas, in the purest definition of the term, was not fought by organized armies dressed in blue and gray. Rather, it was fought by small bands of unorganized individuals, owing allegiance primarily to their own leaders. It was a war between friends and neighbors; no quarter was asked and none was given. It was characterized by murder, arson, robbery, pillage and ambush. The two northern tiers of counties particularly were dominated and overrun for most of the war by thieves and freebooters.

These outlaws might call themselves, as best suited their purpose of the moment, Confederates or Federals, although they belonged to no regular army. When they raided and robbed the families of Confederates, they were ostensibly in the Federal service; when they preyed on families of Union sentiments, they appeared as Confederates. These groups generally were called "guerrillas," although the Confederates preferred to use the term "partisan rangers" for those irregulars of Southern sentiment.

An order published by the Union headquarters in St. Louis directed that whoever was convicted of being a guerrilla would suffer death by sentence of a military commission. It was customary for both Federal and Confederate authorities to summarily execute notorious guerrilla leaders when they were captured. Frequently the leaders were shot "while attempting to escape." At other times, a hanging was preceded by the formality of a drumhead court martial. Unless caught in the act of committing a crime, the privates of a guerilla band sometimes were imprisoned rather than executed, as it was considered that these poor, misguided souls had been deceived by their leaders.

The term "Jayhawker" seems to have originated about 1849 in Illinois when members of a wagon train starting for the California gold fields remarked that they would just jayhawk their way across the plains. This train became somewhat famous and its members became known as jayhawkers. The expressions "to jayhawk" and "jayhawkers" spread and were applied to roving bands of Kansans in the bloody pre-Civil War days. Early in the war the term was revived and was used to designate the meanest and lowest specimens of mankind. A jayhawker was a robber, a thief, a rogue and an assassin. The term seems to have been applied initially to General James Lane and the men of his Kansas brigade, who achieved notoriety for their indiscriminate plundering and burning in Missouri. The Confederates later expanded the term to include Union guerrillas, outlaws, Federal soldiers who engaged in acts of looting, and even some of the Union generals themselves.

The term"bushwhacker," meaning a bushfighter, was used principally by the Federals to designate the lowest and meanest type of guerilla. The term lived on into the days of the Wild West as an expression of contempt for an assassin who killed from ambush. The guerilla or bushwhacker has been described as nondescript in appearance, with clothing the color of the soil and a slouched hat turned up at the front and rear. A double barrel shotgun rested on his shoulder or swung from his saddle horn, and a pair of Colt's revolvers hung from his belt or stuck out of his waistband. He was mounted on the best horse that he was able to steal.

The Federals had different kinds of rebel forces to deal with in territory they were trying to occupy and pacify. These included regular Confederate forces, men returning to their homes or men going south in groups to join the Confederate Army, and organized guerrilla bands directed by a leader.

Most guerilla leaders held Confederate commissions of some sort. The function of a guerrilla band was often similar to the privateer on the high seas. They were commissioned to prey upon inland commerce, to destroy public property such as supply trains, and to impede Federal troop movements.

Bushwhackers, for their part, generally operated singly or in bands of up to a half dozen. They usually stayed near their home and fired on Federal troops from bluffs or other inaccessible points. A favorite target of the bushwhacker was a lone Federal soldier on courier duty, or small escorts for supply trains.


Though we may make distinctions between guerrillas and bushwhackers, Federal commanders often did not, and tended to regard them, and treat them, the same. Although some Federal commanders granted to Confederate guerrillas and bushwhackers the formality of a drumhead court, Brigadier General John McNeil favored immediate execution on the spot. McNeil announced from his headquarters in Fort Smith on November 17, 1863 that the organized forces of the Confederacy had been driven from the country. The only enemies remaining, he said, were guerrillas and bushwhackers who had no claim to be treated as soldiers.

When the telegraph line running from Springfield through Fayetteville to Fort Smith was frequently cut, McNeil, in harsh retaliation, ordered that every instance of the cutting of the wire would be considered the deed of a bushwhacker, and for every such act some bushwhacker prisoner would be hung on the telegraph post where the wire was cut. The number of executed bushwhackers was equal to the number of cuts in the wire. Furthermore, the nearest house to the place where the wire was cut, if the property of a Confederate sympathizer and within ten miles, would be burned.

A detachment of Federals marching through occupied territory, without thought of an enemy being near, might be fired on suddenly by a party of Confederate guerrillas and suffer casualties. The detachment commander's first thought was likely to be that the family living in the house nearby had been giving aid and comfort to the enemy--which may or may not have been true. The Federal officer then quite likely ordered the house to be burned without making an investigation to determine whether the occupants of the house were in sympathy with, or knew anything of, the enemy. The bushwhackers frequently were not caught, since they were mounted on fine horses and could rarely be overtaken if the got beyond the range of the Federal Sharps carbines.

Confederate authorities actively encouraged the formation of guerrilla units, and so must bear part of the blame for some of these bands getting out of hand and turning outlaw. General T.C. Hindman, for example, while commanding the Trans-Mississippi District, published an order June 17, 1862, calling upon all citizens not subject to conscription to organize themselves into "Independent Companies" for more effective annoyance of the enemy. The companies were to arm themselves and commence operations against the enemy in that part of the district where they lived, without waiting for special instructions. Hindman directed that it would be their duty to cut off Federal pickets, scouts, foraging trains, and to kill the pilots, and others on gunboats and transports. Hindman's predecessor,

General John S. Roane, a former governor of Arkansas, had encouraged the formation of companies of "Partisan Rangers." Whatever the name, Partisan Rangers or Independent Companies, their mission was guerrilla warfare.

One of the notorious bands of Confederate guerrillas that infested northwest Arkansas was led by James Ingraham, or Ingram. This cunning and almost illiterate guerrilla harassed the Federals in the Fayetteville area by constantly ambushing their trains and mail carriers. Numerous detachments of loyal Arkansas troops were sent after Ingraham, but he always evaded them.

At one time or another, Ingraham kept almost an entire Union calvary regiment clanking around over the mountains in search of him. The Federals wore out their horses in fruitless chases but Ingraham and his band seemed to have an endless supply of fresh, swift mounts.

Buck Brown was another Confederate guerrilla captain who scourged northwest Arkansas. In April 1864 a party of ten men from the 1st Arkansas (Union) Calvary was herding stock near the Prairie Grove battlefield when they were surprised by twenty-one of Buck Brown's guerrillas. The latter were dressed in Federal uniforms and pretended to be friends from the 14th Kansas Cavalry. After a round of handshaking and engaging the bluecoats in conversation, the guerrillas at a signal began shooting and killed all but one of the unsuspecting Federals.

Four of Buck Brown's men engaged in this episode were later captured and executed by a firing squad at Fort Smith on July 29. None of the four condemned men was more than nineteen years of age, and all had belonged to the Confederate Army before turning outlaw. The youngest admitted that he had killed twenty-one men.

It was not until March 1865, after many fruitless expeditions had been sent after him, that a detachnt of Federal troopers overtook Buck Brown and his band near Ann Mills in Benton County. In the ensuing skirmish, Brown and three of his men were killed and the remainder were scattered, although fourteen had been killed a few days earlier.

William J. "Wild Bill" Heffington of Yell County was a well known Union guerrilla leader who operated along the Arkansas River Valley, but who occasionally appeared in northwest Arkansas. He was a cool and daring woodsman who deserted from the Confederate Army and rallied a bold band of followers. Wild Bill apparently was loyal to the Union and cooperated with the Federals. Yet he and his band of jayhawkers were primarily freebooters who terrorized the area with their killing and robbing. The band caused a panic in Dardanelle by making their bold depredations within three miles of town. In early June, 1863, Wild Bill and his gang, some 125 strong and aided by a small force of Federals, held a fortified position on Magazine Mountain and defied a Confederate calvary force which had been sent against them.


William Dark of Searcy County was another Union sympathizer who led a gang of outlaws that terrorized those within their sphere of operations. Dark, at the beginning of the war, was serving a sentence in the state penitentiary at Little Rock when he was released on condition that he join the Confederate Army. Dark soon deserted and raised a band of brigands in Searcy County to prey upon the countryside. He foiled all efforts of a company of home guards, or regulators, to capture him, but was killed by a small boy as he approached the home of two Confederate soldiers who were visiting their families. Dark's gang dispersed and fled the country after his death.

Captain Martin D. Hart probably was the most noted Federal guerrilla leader who operated in Arkansas. Certainly he has been a controversial figure ever since he met his death by a hangman's noose at the hands of the Confederate authorities in Fort Smith in January 1863. Hart and his guerrilla band terrorized western and northwestern Arkansas during the winter of 1862-63 with their plundering, robbing and killing. Hart has been called a Texas renegade, a fiendish murderer, a vile traitor and a notorious jayhawker. Perhaps he was all of these. Also, he has been called a brave patriot, a loyal Texan and a martyred hero. Since there are two sides to every controversy, it is possible that Hart was at once both a villain and a hero, depending upon the point of view. Nevertheless, Hart's exploits earned him a death at the end of a rope and grave far from home in the Fort Smith National Cemetery.

The character and motives of Martin Hart perhaps will never be known. In home neighborhood in Greenville, Hunt County, Texas, Hart had accumulated a large fortune, and was loved and respected by the people there. He was a lawyer and a former Texas legislator. Either because he believed that he was about to be arrested for treason against the Confederate States, or because he desired to remain loyal to the Union and fight for his convictions, Hart left Texas about August 26, 1862 for the North accompanied by a squad of followers. Arriving at Union headquarters in Springfield, Missouri sometime later, Hart applied for and obtained a captain's commission and authority to raise an independent company of calvary to fight against the Confederates in northwest Arkansas.

During this period in the Springfield area, Colonel M. La Rue Harrison was raising a Federal regiment of Arkansas volunteers, the First Arkansas (Union) Calvary. This unit, composed mainly of loyal Arkansans who had fled to the North, was the first of nine loyalist Arkansas calvary and infantry regiments formed during the war. Some of these Arkansas regiments participated in campaigns with the Union Army against the regular Confederate forces, but mostly they were used to garrison isolated outposts and to chase Confederate guerrillas. According to the United States War Department records, 8,289 Arkansans in blue were officially on the rolls.

Harrison's regiment took to the field at full strength early in October 1862, with the multiple mission of garrisoning Fayetteville, the post at Elk-horn Tavern, and chasing the notorious bushwhacker, Captain James Ingraham, and other bands of Confederate guerrillas which were harassing Federal supply lines and Union.sympathizers. Hart and his independent command began their adventures in Washington and Benton counties at about the same time. Hart seems to have been based at Elkhom Tavern with a mission of hunting down Confederate guerrillas and bushwhackers.

Early in January, 1863, Hart and his men turned their steps southward, reportedly to raise the First Texas (Union) Regiment in his home area. For some reason Hart became delayed in western Arkansas, perhaps to obtain recruits among the Unionists in that part of the state. Or perhaps his men convinced him that a bit of jayhawking and murdering of leading Secessionists in the area would be a splendid undertaking. In mid-January 1863, Hart and his band of 30 to 40 Texas and Arkansas adventurers plundered and terrorized several leading citizens in the Fort Smith area and murdered at least two prominent Secessionists, Edmond Richardson and De Rossey Carroll.

Hart did not confine his activities exclusively to civilians. He was also a thom in the side of General William Steele, the Confederate commander of the area, by looting his supply trains cutting his communications with district headquarters in Little Rock. In one instance, Hart captured and paroled twenty men from the rearguard of Colonel J.W. Speight's regiment and plundered his wagons about twenty miles from Fort Smith. Steele was concerned that the many Union sympathizers in western Arkansas would aid Hart and make communications with Little Rock difficult if Hart and his band were not captured.

A worried Steele sent 220 cavalry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel R.P. Cramp, in pursuit of Hart. He did not expect much success, however, because the ground was covered with eight to twelve inches of snow. Cramp's advance guard encountered a member of Hart' s band and represented themselves as Texas refugees who were anxious to join forces with Hart. The guide then led Crump's force to Hart's camp on the Poteau River. Crump quickly surrounded the camp, in an abandoned mill and blacksmith shop, and Hart together with sixteen of his men surrendered. Of the remainder, a few escaped and one was killed.

The group was taken to Fort Smith, where Crump convened a court martial which tried and sentenced to death Hart and his lieutenant, a man named Hays. Hart and Hays were executed on January 22, 1863, and the remainder of the band was sent to Little Rock !o prison. Hart and his men apparently were operating m Arkansas on the orders of the Union authorities.


On Hart's person when he was captured were found two letters to Hart from Union General F.J. Herron, written in December. In the first letter, Herron advised Hart that he was sending a 76-man detachment to reinforce Hart in clearing the White River area of northwest Arkansas of Ingraham's band. Herron ordered Hart not to take any prisoners, although to bring back Ingraham alive if he could. Herron further advised Hart to burn Mudtown because guerrillas had fired on Union mail carriers from that area.

Many of the Confederate officers, and the Union officers also, were as cruel and heartless as the guerrillas that they hunted. Confederate Lieutenant Colonel G.T. Maddox related episodes regarding the cruel methods employed by his superior, Colonel Sidney D. Jackman, a former Baptist preacher and a member of Jo Shelby's brigade. Maddox at times led a guerrilla band who frequently dressed in Federal uniforms in order to move more easily through occupied territory. Early in the spring of 1864, Maddox and 100 picked men from Shelby's brigade were ordered by General Sterling Price to accompany Colonel Jackman into northwest Arkansas and. southwest Missouri in an effort to recruit a brigade. While en route, near Searcy, Arkansas, the group captured three men and a young boy who were suspected of being Union guerrillas. Jackman hung two of the men and the boy, and the remaining prisoner agreed to take Jackman to their leader, a man named Meeks. Jackman's group then surrounded Meeks and his men who were asleep in a log cabin. Meeks' men were shot down as they ran out of the cabin in their nightshirts. About fifteen were killed, one was captured, and Meeks was wounded but escaped. Jackman hung the prisoner to the eave of the cabin and then burned it down.

A short time later, three men were found hiding in a cave and Jackman had them brought out and shot. By this time, Maddox and Captain Robert Marchbanks, a former member of William Quantrill's gang, both of whom had strong stomachs, became sickened of Jackman's cruel treatment of prisoners. They resolved to leave Jackman at the first opportunity and hoped that Jackman would be killed, but he went through the war without a scratch.

Confederate guerrillas fared no better than Union guerrillas if caught. On February 20, 1864, Brigadier General John M. Thayer, commanding the Union Frontier Division at Fort Smith, ordered the commander at Fayetteville to hunt down and hang or shoot every guerrilla caught in the vicinity where the mails were captured or the telegraph lines were cut.

Guerrillas and soldiers were not the only ones to suffer in the merciless bush warfare. Union Colonel William Weer, commanding the 1 st Division of the Army of the Frontier, had a program for improving community relations, which was by no means unique. Weer's forage trains were repeatedly fired upon along the Osage Fork of Kings River by outlaws who hid in the bushes, and who were encouraged and aided by the inhabitants of that vicinity. Lieutenant R. Carpenter with a detachment of the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry was sent on an expedition to that region. On April 4, 1863, from Carrollton, Weer ordered Carpenter to destroy every house and farm owned by Secessionists, together with their property that could not be used by the army. He further directed the detachment to kill every bushwhacker that they could find and to bring back the women and children with provisions to support them. The detachment performed its work well against the defenseless inhabitants, and destroyed forty buildings and houses. Carpenter offered the women and children wagons to move their possessions and provisions to his camp, but they contemptuously refused the Union hospitality.

A citizen of Chicot County probably expressed the sentiments of many long-suffering residents of Arkansas when he wrote to Confederate General D.H. Reynolds in October 1864, complaining that: "We have been tossed and tumbled about considerably by both the Federals and our own soldiers and then by bands of independent marauders---calling themselves 'guerrillas' and having authority from almost any or every general in the Confederacy or out of it...."

The discouragement of the relatives at home and their attitude toward guerrillas was reflected in their letters to soldiers. Two samples from a Confederate mail bag captured at Indian Bay in Monroe County, Arkansas, in early March 1864 are quoted below. A pious sister wrote to her brother:

Parson Nolan is our sercut rider now. He says that God has plainly promisedto be on our side, an drive the accursed Yankees from off our soil. Parson Nolan is a splendid preacher, but it don't look to me as if God was drivin the Yankees any too much outen Arkansas just now. There's one thing I don't like at all, and that is the gerrilla bisness. They don't do any good at all, and just rob everybody. Parson Nolan prayed agen em at our house last Sunday, and I was right glad of it, for that sneaken thief Robinson was there, and pa says he is nigh onto the meanest man in Arkansas. May you live happy, die happy and get into the everlastin kingdom above.

A father expressed his opinion:

I tell you, my son, this country has gone up, and the sooner things get righted up the better for all of us. The citizens who have taken the oath [Union loyalty oath] have not suffered near as much as those who have not. In my opinion Gen. McRae [Confederate General Dandridge McRae[ has done ten times more harm than good, and only makes the Fed s worse; both sides emulate each other in robbing, killing, and destroying. Whatever you do, my son, do not come home: your safest place is in the regular army. The reports you hear about Southern soldiers being about here are false. McRae's men are no better than gangs of robbers. The Feds are showing them no mercy.


The enforcement of the Confederate conscript law caused many men to take to the brush and band together in the mountains in order to avoid service in the army. Although these bands were called jayhawkers by the Confederate authorities because of their plundering and murdering, they were not particularly pro-Union. Generally these bands were interested only in brigandage and in avoiding the draft. Many of the members were Confederate deserters. The apparent objective of some bands was to plunder and steal, and sell their booty to the Federals.

Many guerrilla leaders held Confederate army commissions, commanded independent companies, and cooperated fully with the Confederate authorities. yet in the eyes of the Federals, such bands were no better than bushwhackers because they plundered defenseless Unionist inhabitants and ambushed unwary bluecoats who ventured too far from adequate support.

Depredations by guerrillas and outlaws in Confederate controlled Arkansas were bad enough, but conditions were worse in that part of the state occupied by the Federals. The Fort Smith newspaper reported that in a large portion of western Arkansas hardly one farm house of three had any occupants; and of tho se occupied, not one of three had any male inhabitants. Many of the finest farms were abandoned by their Secessionist owners who went south. Other farmers moved to town because of their dread of the bands of bushwhackers and robbers that infested the country.

It is not known how much of the state's population was lost through temporary or permanent emigration during the war, but it was considerable. The refugees fleeing southward mostly went to Texas, while those going north settled in Missouri, Kansas, and the new states in the northwest. In the summer of 1864, it was reported that a constant exodus of refugees for other parts of the Union had been going on for months. Every steamer and wagon train leaving Fort Smith and Little Rock was filled with families compelled by the ravages of war to seek a place of safety where they could live in peach, even if in poverty.

The thousands of refugees leaving for the North felt that they had no alternative except to emigrate. They could not live in safety outside of the military posts, and starvation faced them within the posts. On August 8, 1864 a refugee train of about 1,500 people, the largest up to that time, left Fort Smith for the northwest states. Although thousands left northwest Arkansas during 1864 for the North, several thousand refugees still remained who were dependent upon the United States government for support. It was estimated in March 1865, from the official returns of rations issued, that almost as many rations were issued to refugees as to Union troops in Fort Smith, Van Buren and Fayetteville.

Shortly before the war ended, a novel experiment reminiscent of early pioneer days was begun in the war-ravaged counties of northwest Arkansas. Early in 1865, Colonel M. La Rue Harrison, Union commander of the 1st Arkansas Calvary Regiment at Fayetteville, began to organize the farmers in that part of the state into armed agricultural communities called "Post Colonies," for their protection against Confederate guerrillas and bushwhackers. The men of the various settlements were enrolled and consolidated into Home Guard companies, elected their own officers and were armed. They then selected a site for the colony where water and pasturage were abundant, and where 1,000 to 4,000 acres of cultivated but abandoned land were located nearby. Next, they built a stockade which contained a storehouse for food and ammunition. The farmers' families were then moved into the neighborhood and houses were built for them near the stockade. Crops were raised under the direction of the colonists to prevent bushwhackers from living off the country. The colonies contained about 1,600 men under arms living in communities of from 50 to 100 inhabitants in Benton, Washington, Madison, Carroll, Newton,Marion, and Searcy counties. Working colonies were established at Union Valley, Prairie, Walnut Grove, Mountain, West Fork, Mount Comfort, Elm Springs, Pea Ridge, Osage, Huntsville, War Eagle, Rich,land, and Brush Creek.

John Nichols prior to his execution in Jefferson City, Missouri, October 30, 1863. The charge: Being a Confederate guerrilla and bushwhacker. Note leg bandages, leg shackles and guard's revolver. Photo courtesy Dr. Tom Sweeney.

The war ended before the colonies had a fair chance to prove their worth. Their supposed capability of putting abandoned crop land back into cultivation and of repelling guerrilla and outlaw bands might have proved to be an excellent solution to the problems facing the rural inhabitants of northwest Arkansas if instituted earlier.

As the war dragged to an end, the guerrillas, bushwhackers and jayhawkers became even bolder and more lawless, if such were possible. Deserters from both armies joined men of the brush in forming gangs of outlaws whose sole objective was to pillage, torture, and murder defenseless civilians and lone soldiers. Both Unionist and Secessionist newspapers in Arkansas in the closing months of the war were filled with descriptions of murderous outrages committed against soldiers and civilians by these marauders.

Although many people fled from their homes in northern Arkansas, others stayed behind wanting only to be left alone. But this was impossible in a war in which there could be no neutrality. War was a grim, dirty business, and it was even more grim in the almost forgotten theater of guerrilla warfare. As all too frequently happens in war, the defenseless civilians were usually the ones to suffer the most. The blueclad or grayclad soldier at least had a gun in his hand with which to defend himself from a guerrilla ambush. That is if he survived being cut down without warning with a bullet in his back. But the civilian in an isolated farmhouse, whether of North-em or Southern sentiment, had no such protection. He and his family were fair game as objects of robbery and murder by bloodthirsty outlaw bands calling themselves Federals or Confederates, and who sometimes belonged to one or the other of the armies.

If guerrillas, jayhawkers or bushwhackers despoiled their homes, the inhabitants might fight back as best the could, go into the brush, or flee north or south. Some though could not flee, and stayed behind permanently, in an unmarked grave, or with no grave at all. Remaining also, as grim reminders and bearing mute testimony that civil war truly had come to northern Arkansas, were the blackened chimneys standing like sentinels among piles of ashes. The entire Missouri-Arkansas border area had become almost a desert. The Little Rock Arkansas Gazette aptly described the desolation still existing in northwest Arkansas as late as August 1866:

Wasted farms, deserted cabins, lone chimneys marking the sites where dwellings have been destroyed by fire, and yards, gardens and fields overgrown with weeds and bushes are everywhere within view. The traveler soon ceases to wonder when he sees the charred remains of burnt buildings, and wonders rather when he beholds a house yet standing that it also did not disappear in the general conflagration. Such was the terrible intensity of the recent civil war ....


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