Captain Thomas Jefferson Williams
Arkansas was a divided state in 1862. East versus West; Hill versus Delta; Rich versus Poor. All of these factors were at play in 1862 Arkansas as a Union Army came marching into the state. Many of the small hill farmers had never supported secession and not many slaves were found in western Arkansas. Whether they were morally opposed to slavery or just didn’t want to fight for slavery was inconsequential. When the Confederate conscript officers started rounding up their men, these families decided enough was enough. One of these families that was faced with this dilemma was the Williams brood of Conway County.
The Williams family had came to Arkansas from the hill country of Franklin County, Tennessee in 1844. Jeff Williams and his two brothers, John and Leroy, had first seen Arkansas in the spring of 1838 when they escorted a band of Cherokees to Oklahoma as members of the Tennessee militia. Although members of the military, their family was torn over the removal westward of Native Americans. In fact, the mother of the Williams brothers was a full blooded Cherokee Indian. Six years later, after the death of their father, the family decided to move into Arkansas for a new life.
Clearing land in the hills of northern Conway and southern Van Buren counties, they were among the first settlers in the area. Jeff Williams built a log house on 160 acres in Conway County near the present community of Center Ridge. Unlike many of his neighbors, he could read and write and became quite prosperous for this rocky and hilly country. Jeff preached for a small congregation of the Disciples of Christ and actually was one of two slave owners in the county. Even though a slave owner, he was a devoted Union man during the sectional crisis impacting Arkansas. Williams was actually on a committee that rejected the radicals on both sides and urged Conway County to remain loyal to the Union. His brothers in Van Buren County were just as pro Union. Led by the hill counties, Unionists were able to defeat the first vote for secession in March 1861. However the convention agreed to secede if war broke out between President Lincoln and the states that had left. After the firing on of Fort Sumter, a second convention in May took Arkansas out of the Union and into the Confederate States of America.
Despite the anti secession feelings, Conway and Van Buren counties began to organize for the war. A number of local companies joined the Tenth Arkansas Cavalry near the county seat of Springfield. As Confederate forces began to move, some unionists started forming underground peace societies. Local authorities began to arrest these men and their families became persecuted by pro Confederate groups.
After the Union victory at Pea Ridge in early March 1862, General Samuel R. Curtis moved south and then east toward the Mississippi River. On May 4th, the Army of the Southwest stopped in Batesville, Arkansas. As this threat loomed across the state, Arkansas Confederate leaders responded with compulsory military service for men aged eighteen to thirty-five. Much of their forces had been sent east of the Mississippi River so they needed men to oppose Curtis. By the end of May, conscription agents were swarming the hills looking for recruits who they forced into the army. Although Jeff Williams was too old to be drafted, he had three sons and three sons-in-law of conscription age. His son Leroy actually enlisted in a company to keep Rebels from killing his father, but deserted soon after and came home.
By early June, Jeff Williams and about forty men from Van Buren and Conway counties had banded together and made their way through rebel lines to join General Curtis at Batesville. Another group arrived a few days later. Jeff Williams’ band of followers included his four sons, three sons-in-law, two brothers, four nephews, and a brother-in-law. When asked later about this, Leroy Williams said, “All of us were pretty well kin folks….We ran away from Conway County to prevent being conscripted by the rebel army.” Curtis was quick to recognize these new volunteers. Just one day after arriving in Batesville, they were in Federal uniforms and drawing equipment and rations. Hundreds of other men soon joined Curtis at Batesville. Authorized to muster volunteers for six or twelve months of service, Curtis recruited four companies of six month men.
After camping in the Batesville area for almost two months, General Curtis was running out of supplies so he decided to move out. Many of the Arkansas volunteers were not happy about this because they felt like they were joining the Union army to defend their homes. Now they were moving further from their homes and families. After a week of marching, the Army of the Southwest engaged a force of Confederates at Cache River near Cotton Plant. Confederate losses were estimated at about 200, while Union losses were less than 70. Although Williams and his men experienced no casualties in this three hour battle, General Curtis decided to move southeast. The Union men marched into Helena during the middle of July 1862.
Once in Helena the morale and health of the Arkansas hill men declined quickly. Helena was over crowded with not enough food or medicine. Diseases were rampant in the mosquito filled swamps and bayous around the city. Soldiers began to fall ill every day. Hospitals filled up and the death toll increased. The four companies of Arkansas recruits were mustered into service as the First Arkansas Infantry Battalion. The men from Conway County became Company B and Jeff Williams was elected captain. His oldest son Nathan became second lieutenant. Although the Arkansas men elected one of their own to be battalion leader, General Curtis made Lieutenant Colonel John C. Bundy their commander. The men grumbled at this slight by Curtis and would really never accept Bundy. Promised they would be cavalry, many of the men had brought horses from home. Now they realized this also wasn’t going to happen. Their animals began to die or were stolen or confiscated by Federal authorities. Although being on the Mississippi River allowed easy access by boat for supplies, the army was hemmed in at Helena. Confederates were constantly harassing the Union army. The First Arkansas drilled but did nothing else. They simply remained in camp as other regiments were sent out on patrols. For the home sick hill farmers Helena must truly have seemed like “Hell on the River.” One union veteran described Helena in the following way, ” a sickly detestable village” and “the resort of gamblers and rogues of all grades and capacities.” Dysentry, pneumonia, typhoid fever, measles and other camp diseases started taking the men. Leroy Williams said nearly all of his company “were dead or nearly dead at Helena from diarrhea.” Captain Williams became so sick with chronic diarrhea that General Frederick Steele, who had replaced Curtis, discharged him from the service. He refused and stayed with his men though. By October 20th, there were not enough healthy men to perform camp duties, and the army ordered the entire First Arkansas Battalion removed from Helena to Missouri. They traveled by boat up the Mississippi River and arrived at Benton Barracks in Saint Louis on October 28th. The men remained there until mustered out of service on December 31, 1862.
After six months of service in the Federal army, about 150 of 382 members of the First Arkansas Infantry Battalion had died of disease. None died in battle. Of the 75 men in Jeff Williams Company B, 34 died. Both of Thomas Jeff Williams’ brothers did not survive. He also lost a nephew and brother-in-law.
Stranded in St. Louis, Jeff Williams and his remaining men decided that it was too dangerous for them to cross through Confederate territory for Conway County. Instead they made their way to Springfield, Missouri where they would join a large number of Unionist refugees who had fled Arkansas. Getting word to the remainder of his family at home, he was able to get them to meet him in Missouri.
Although not officially in the Union army anymore, Jeff and his men continued their war with the Confederates by serving as scouts. After the Battle of Helena, Federal forces advanced south into Arkansas from Springfield. Jeff Williams and most of his company, along with their families, returned home to Conway County. On September 15, 1863, General Steele authorized the Union men of Conway County to form themselves into a company for the purpose of protecting themselves and their families from Rebel violence. Jeff Williams became this company’s captain and commander. A U.S. Mustering officer swore the men into service at the Union camp near Lewisburg. Jeff’s son Nathan would be first lieutenant. Although still unhappy with the way they had been treated by Curtis, the Williams family knew they would be killed by Rebel guerrillas called “bushwhackers” if they stayed at home without defending themselves. Jeff Williams had reason to worry. At about the same time as Captain Williams was organizing his new company of Union men, a Confederate officer named Colonel Allen R. Witt was doing the same thing nearby in Quitman, Arkansas. If Union men called these Confederates “bushwhackers”, they responded by called their enemies “jayhawkers.” Both sides would live off the land and soon became mortal enemies. By 1864, law and order had completely broken down in the region around Conway County. Murders were committed on both sides along with numerous other crimes. This violence soon came close to Captain Williams. William Day Williams, another brother of Jeff, had tried to stay out of the war and didn’t join the rest of the family in the First Battalion or the later company. This didn’t stop him from being attacked though. He and his son Frank were captured. The Confederates killed William and threw his body in the White River. They then released young Frank with a message for his uncle Jeff: “Quit killing men, or we’re going to come get him.”
Outnumbered, the jayhawkers and their families stayed close to a union garrison at Lewisburg. During General Sterling Price’s raid through western Arkansas, Colonel Witt rejoined regular Confederate service. Things became safer for the Williams family, but this wasn’t to last. After the Rebel defeat at Westport, Missouri, Witt and his men returned home. Once again the hills rang out with shots as the two sides battled each other. In early 1865, Colonel Witt decided it was time to get rid of Jeff Williams. On the night of February 12, 1865, Witt and about sixty of his men surrounded the log home of Williams. There was no where to go. Turning to his wife Margaret, he said “My time has come.” As he opened the front door, guns in had, a volley of shotgun blasts struck him. Killed instantly, his wife in a horror grabbed his pistols and threw them into the fire so the rebels wouldn’t get them. Some of the Confederates attacked Margaret and his son Leroy’s wife who was pregnant. None of his other son’s were present. They had came for Jeff Williams indeed.
Enraged and vengeful, Leroy Williams pursued Witt’s men as they moved west toward Dover, Arkansas. Over the next few weeks, Leroy killed a number of these men who had murdered his father. He killed three men as they watered their horses at the Point Remove Creek. Leroy shot at least four more when he found them camped along another creek. Family members long remembered how Leroy could ride with a gun in each hand, holding the reins of his horse with his teeth. The next day, he was joined by other members of the Williams company along with a section of the Third Arkansas Cavalry, Union. Over the next few days, the Union men chased the bushwhackers toward Clinton and Quitman. Witt escaped, but stories tell that Leroy alone killed sixteen of his Father’s killers.
The war ended in 1865 but it would take longer before peace would be restored to the hill country around the Williams’ homestead. Both sides returned and an uneasy peace fell across the valleys and creeks. Civil War in the back country of Arkansas was hard and it took years for the anger to subside between the families. Years after the last guns had fired, Leroy Williams was asked how many men he had killed. He responded by saying, ” Too many, but I lack three more.” Jeff Williams had led his family and followers in the anti secession movement before the war, been elected and served as their leader in the disease ridden camps of Helena, and finally met his end at his own home. So was the war in Arkansas.
Bailey, Anne J. & Sutherland, Daniel. Civil War Arkansas: Beyond Battles and Leaders. The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville. 2000. pages 155 – 175
Barnes, Kenneth. Jeff Williams (1811 – 1865). “The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture” University of Central Arkansas. 2013. https//:www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net