Volume 2, Number 11 - Spring 1967

Bean Cave
Marion County, Arkansas
by Lee Carson Davis

 "It was just noon when we arrived at the cave. The rebels were at their dinner, all unconcious of our approach. When at last they discovered us, they mistook us for a company of their own men which they were expecting, and they did not discover their error until we were in half pistol shot of them. I called upon them to surrender, which they did without firing a gun."

Thus in a comparatively mild manner did a Captain Milton Burch of the 14th Missouri State Militia Cavalry end a period of saltpeter extraction at Bean’s Cave in eastern Marion County, Arkansas. At the peak of production during the Civil War, as many as 100 men may have been employed at the cave while today, only the excavations in the clay floor and walls indicate its former use, and the only inhabitants are some bats and an occasional black snake.

Saltpeter, potash nitrate or potassium nitrate at it was variously named comprised 75% of the weight of a mixture with charcoal and sulfur to produce the black powder used in loading the firearms of the 19th century. Under the conditions found on the American frontier or in the southern states during the Civil War, it was imperative that the gunpowder be produced locally. As Mammoth Cave in Kentucky served that area at an earlier date and the nation in the War of 1812, so Bean’s Cave among others served Arkansas at a later time and the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Mention of Bean’s Cave first appeared in print in 1858 in a report of a geological survey conducted by David Dale Owen, the state geologist for Arkansas. At this time it was estimated that the cave would yield 6.2% saltpeter using the technique of solution from the clay, followed by recrystalization. The nitrate-bearing clay was placed in wooden hoppers and water poured upon it. The "liquor" or "beer" that was drained from the bottom of the hopper was mixed with wood ashes and by a process called lixification was converted I to the valuable potassium nitrate. The resulting liquid was decanted into large kettles and excess water boiled off to produce crystals of the potash.

Moreover the cave was favorably situated for the transportation of the products to market since it was located on the immediate bank of the White River. At the same time Owen suggested that the I earthy residues from the extraction process, due to the percentage of iron oxides present, would "afford a good, durable, red ocher paint having a good body, and being especially well adapted for painting brick walls and outdoor work general

Owen had at this time detailed his assistant geologist, Edward T. Cox, to make a more intensive study of the cave. He reported the cave "seems to have been worked in early times, as an old decayed hopper has been found in it." Cox also mentioned a story related by some of the first settlers in the country ‘that a man by the name of Bean once made niter at this place in partnership with another man, who he is said to have killed in a quarrel, This circumstance, it is believed, caused the enterprise to be abandoned; and to this day, the cave is known under the name of the ‘Bean cave’."

At this time Messrs. Smith and Co. of Elgin, Jackson County, Arkansas, had recently purchased the cave and made arrangements for the manufacture of saltpeter. It was planned to run the niter earth by means of a chute to the bank of the bank of the river where water would be available for the extraction process. Apparently, at either this time or at a later date such a chute was constructed.

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Arkansas and the other southern states were woe-


fully ill-provisioned to fight an extended war. President Davis declared the chief store of powder in the Confederate States was that captured at Norfork, Virginia, and that there was no lead on hand. The Marion County portion of the White River valley was to supply both of these munitions as the war progressed. Bull Mountain, two miles northwest of Bean’s Cave, had been a producer of lead ore since 1819.

On August 7, 1861, General Leonidas Polk reported to President Davis the results of a survey by two New Orleans chemists whom he had commissioned to examine the saltpeter caves on the White River, and Bean’s Cave was presumably included. The chemists reported that any amount of saltpeter could be had there, but the mines were badly worked and the government was paying twenty-five cents per pound for what it could make itself for ten cents. General Polk recommended "that these caves be taken possession of immediately and worked on government account".

Evidently this advice was heeded because the military board at Little Rock sent men to work the cave, and soldiers under the command of Colonel Coleman to guard them. Some of Coleman’s men seem to have ventured some distance up into Missouri, whereupon Liet. Col. S. N. Wood came from Rolla and forced them back. Coleman then gave his attention to the saltpeter mines.

In early April, 1862, as General Samuel Curtis, the Federal commander at the battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas moved east ward to establish a depot at Rolla, Missouri, in preparation for his planned invasion of Arkansas, a detachment under Colonel Lafayette F. McCrillis was dispatched from Forsyth, Missouri, to the area of Bean’s Cave, arriving there April 19th. Near the cave the command was divided and about 40 men under a Captain Drummond of the 4th Iowa Cavalry were sent against the cave. Drummond captured three men thought to be Confederate pickets on the north shore of the river and ordered them to ferry across eight of his men and a Mr. Doyle, the guide. They did so in three canoes under cover of eight of Drummond’s best riflemen. The Federals attacked the saltpeter manufactory injuring it to some extent and burned some associated buildings.

The remainder of the McCrillis force attempted to secure Talbert’s Ferry about three miles below the Bean cave. This ferry, established by an early family of three brothers, Fed, Wat, and Sim Talbert, was an important early crossing point on the White River. About fifty Confederates firing from cover of some log houses across the river resisted the Federal advance and were shelled out of their posistion by use of a mountain howitzer. Later they returned in force and the Union men retreated. The outcome of the skirmish is confused by the reporters, but they agree that a 2nd Lieutenant William A. Heacock, Company F, 4th Iowa Cavalry, and possibly a private were mortally wounded with no Confederate losses being mentioned.

McCrillis also claimed to have captured the Talbert’s and the Bean’s mills and some other ferries, but due to high water couldn’t hold them and returned to West Plains, Missouri.

Later General Curtis moved into Arkansas, captured Batesville on the White River and sent out raiding parties. One of these groups destroyed a saltpeter manufactory fourteen miles northwest of Batesville. These two attacks influenced a letter on July 31, 1862, from I. M. St. John, Major and Superintendent of the Niter and Mining Bureau, to G. W. Randolph the Confederate Secretary of War. St. John stated "the large Arkansas percentage made previous to May 1, 17,000 pounds, cannot appear on our returns until the events of the war permit."

Apparently the Confederates lost little time in rebuilding the manufactory at Bean’s Cave. In a letter to his General-in-Chief H. W. Halleck, General Curtis on November 24, 1862, mentioned the renewed activities and the fact that he had directed a company of cavalry to be sent to destroy the works.

Brig. Gen. Francis J. Herron, commanding the 2nd and 3rd Divisions of the Army of the Frontier at Crane Creek, Missouri, dispatched Colonel D. Wickersham with his own 10th Illinois Cavalry, a-long with the 1st Iowa Cavalry and one battalion of the 2nd Wisconsin, to Marion County Arkansas. After "destroying" the saltpeter works at Bean’s Cave and at Dubuque, they attacked and burned the rebel arsenal and storehouses at Yellville south of the cave. Col. J. Q. Burbridge, the Confederate cavalry commander who had been at Yellville recently, had changed his base of operations, but sixty of his men were taken prisoner. About five hundred shotguns and rifles were destroyed at the arsenal and one hundred good horses were captured, while the inmates of a large Confederate hospital in Yellville were paroled.

Whatever Wickersham’s troops did to the works, the cave itself was resistant to attack and, as it was the most valuable part of the installation, his interruption proved only a temporary inconvenience to the Confederates for within a few days the manufactory was in full operation again.

According to Captain Burch, forty men from Companies D, F, G, and H, 2nd Battalion, 14th Regiment, Missouri State Militia Cavalry under his command left Ozark, Missouri, for Marion County, Arkansas on the morning of December 9, 1862. They were reinforced by sixty men from the enrolled militia stationed at Laurence’s Mill, and the


united command started south at noon on December 10, marching only twenty miles that day. The expedition planned to capture a guerrilla force of seventy five men under Captain Jesse Mooney that was encamped at Talbert’s Ferry. To preserve the element of surprise in their attack they left the road and marched through the woods with the guidance of a free Negro, Willoughby Hall. By dusk of the 11th of December they were within eight miles of the ferry and stopped for food and rest in the forest near a corn field. Lieutenant John R. Kelso and eight men were sent to the home of a rebel by the name of Brixy where two rebels with their guns and one horse were captured. These prisoners disclosed that Mooney’s troop had temporarily disbanded and was not to reassemble again for two days. With this knowledge it was decided to attack the armed band at the saltpeter cave and by midnight the troop was moving again towards Mooney’s house. On the way they captured seven or eight rebels without a-rousing the countryside and just before dawn arrested a rebel recruiting officer by the name of Mings, who had formerly been a lieutenant colonel. At daybreak Captain Mooney with another man was captured at his home with fifteen stands of small arms. Eight horses taken from the militia at Laurence’s Mill were liberated. Another group of the command then arrived with more prisoners, so Captain P. T. Green of the enrolled militia was sent back to Laurence’s Mill with seventeen prisoners and an escort of twenty-five men. The remainder of the command was divided, and half, under Captain J. H. Sallee with Lieut. Bates, went upstream on the north side of the river and waited in concealment, while the other group under Burch crossed the river and approached the cave from the south.

Of the twenty-three men who surrendered at the cave, three were left unable to travel while the others, including their commander, Captain McNamar and seven horses and mules were taken. Five buildings, two wagons, one engine, twenty-six large kettles, six tanks, five hundred barrels of jerked beef and other provisions for the winter, blacksmith’s and carpenter’s tools, some shotguns and rifles, and $6,000 worth of saltpeter were burned or otherwise destroyed. The installation had cost the Confederate government $30,000 and McNamar said that within three days the saltpeter, already packaged, would have been moved away. Encumbered with prisoners and expecting the arrival of some of Burbridge’s command at any time, Burch withdrew. Marching through a steady rain the Federals returned to Ozark, Missouri, on December 15, 1862, having marched two hundred twenty-five mile in seven days.

However, Thomas J. Estes presents a different view of the raid. He claims several men at the powder works were killed, specifically mentioning Hugh McClure and John Tyler. He also states that some men at the works escaped, naming Thomps McCraken and Captain Carrol Pace, who was a brother-in-law of McCracken. Pace was being chased by the Federals a few miles from the works when one of the Federals outran the others and shot Pace, after Pace had first turned in his saddle and shot him. Pace got away and both recovered. The wounded Federal was taken to McCraken’s house by his comrades and left there. It was said that a squad of men went to McCraken’s house to take this man out and kill him. McCracken held them off singlehandedly and threatened to shoot any who entered his yard.

An interesting local legend has arisen concerning one of these raids. According to the story, the people living near the saltpeter cave buried all their money together in a keg when they learned that the Federals were coming. The soldiers scattered the people and took some of them prisoner so that the location of the money was lost and to this day it has never been offically recovered.

In early April, 1863, Captain M. U. Foster of Company G, 7th Missouri State Militia Cavalry with forty-one men raided the area around Talbert’s Ferry and visited the saltpeter works, but after this time the cave never achieved any importance.

As for the kettles, two are on display at a commercial cave in eastern Marion County, and a third is located on a farm between Midway and Gasville in Baxter County where it has been used for many years to scald hogs. All three are broken to some extent, and we can readily believe Captain Burch’s claim to the destruction of the saltpeter manufactory at Bean’s Cave.

References Used:
Britton, Wiley, The Civil War on the Border Confederate Military History Volume X
Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government
Estes, Thomas, Jerome Early Days and War Times in Northern Arkansas
Huff, Leo Elmer, Confederate Arkansas
Ingersoll, Lurton Dunham, Iowa and the Rebellion
Owen, David Dale, First Report of a Geological Reconnoissance of the Northern Counties of Arkansas.
Ross, Margaret, Chronicles of Arkansas in the Arkansas Gazette
Shiras, Francis H., History of Baxter County
Thomas, David Y., Arkansas in War and Reconstruction
War of the Rebellion, The


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