Burning of Hopefield

Location: Crittenden County
Campaign: Vicksburg Campaign
Date: February 19, 1863
Principal Commanders: Captain Joseph K. Lemon (US); None (CS)
Forces Engaged: Steamer Mill Boy, USS Cricket, Sixty-third Illinois Infantry (US); None (CS)
Estimated Casualties: None
Result: Union victory

This punitive expedition relates to Union army efforts to secure Memphis, Tennessee, as a supply and hospital base capable of supporting ongoing operations against Vicksburg, Mississippi. It stands as an early example of the shift toward hard war tactics that would increase throughout the remainder of the war.

The decision to burn the village of Hopefield (Crittenden County), directly across the Mississippi River from Memphis, had roots in events initiated in January 1863, including a similar expedition conducted against Mound City (Crittenden County). In early January, under orders from Trans-Mississippi Department commander Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes, Captain James H. McGehee led his unattached company of Arkansas cavalry on an extended raid through Crittenden County with orders to scout the region, burn all cotton deemed vulnerable to capture, and generally annoy the Union enemy along the Mississippi River.

McGehee’s command rode east out of Austin (Lonoke County), burning cotton en route to the river. On January 6, they captured the steamboat Jacob Musselman on the Arkansas shore opposite Memphis. McGehee ran the boat fifteen miles north to Bradley’s Landing in Crittenden County, where his men captured a flatboat loaded with livestock. They removed the livestock and other valuables and burned both vessels. On January 11, McGehee set five Union navy coal boats adrift and sank them downriver. At the same time, he captured the steamboat Grampus No. 2 just off the Memphis wharf and ran the boat to Mound City. Before they burned it, McGehee’s command plundered many items from Grampus No. 2, including the ship’s bell and $1,000 in greenbacks from Captain Thomas Chester.

On February 16, McGehee captured another flatboat thirty miles from Memphis loaded with 600 ounces of quinine, 200 ounces of morphine, six pounds of opium, five pounds of ipecac, five Navy revolvers, 450 rounds of ammunition, and 3,000 percussion caps, as well as six pairs of gauntlets. On February 17, he captured the tug steamer Hercules and seven coal boats while they sat out a dense fog along the Arkansas shore directly opposite Memphis. McGehee burned the vessels when intense fire from Union gunboats at the wharf prevented him from running them downriver. At the end of the raid, McGehee established a camp at Marion (Crittenden County).

The destruction of Hercules convinced Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commander of the Union army’s Sixteenth Corps with headquarters at Memphis, that the village of Hopefield served as “a mere shelter for guerrillas.” In retaliation, Hurlbut ordered Brigadier General James C. Veatch to organize a punitive expedition designed to eliminate Hopefield as a guerrilla base. Veatch ordered Captain Joseph K. Lemon to transport four companies of the Sixty-third Illinois Infantry to Hopefield onboard the recently chartered side-wheel steamer Mill Boy, under escort of the gunboat USS Cricket, with orders to burn the entire village. Veatch’s orders to Lemon seem to express a degree of misgiving about the expedition and hard war tactics, as his instructions specifically prohibit insults or depredations against village residents. He noted that Hurlbut’s orders required the harsh measure.

Lemon’s detachment—consisting of companies C, D, E, and F—embarked for Hopefield on February 19 at 10:00 a.m. In accordance with orders, Lemon established a strong guard around the village and informed residents of the “destiny of their village.” Lemon allowed residents one hour to remove personal items, and the men then burned every house in the village. One barn blew up due to a concealed cache of gunpowder. At the livery stable, Lemon’s men captured sixteen horses, nine mules, and ten cavalry saddles. Lemon and his men returned to camp by 5:00 p.m. Lieutenant Martin K. Cook of Hurlbut’s staff retained one particularly fine horse, as per Hurlbut’s orders. Lemon turned over all other captured stock to the quartermaster, Captain William N. Walker, to await ownership claims by loyal citizens.

Partisan activity continued along the river in the vicinity of Memphis during the Vicksburg Campaign, but harsh tactics such as those employed by Hurlbut offered an effective countermeasure. Reestablished after the war, Hopefield endured as a rail and ferry connection to Memphis until flooding and the construction of new terminals and bridges downriver forced its abandonment in the early twentieth century.

For additional information:
Demuth, David O. “The Burning of Hopefield.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 36 (Spring 1977): 123–129.

Gibson, Charles Dana, and E. Kay Gibson. Dictionary of Transports and Combatant Vessels Steam and Sail Employed by the Union Army, 1861–1868. Camden, ME: Ensign Press, 1995.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1888.

Robert Patrick Bender
Eastern New Mexico University–Roswell


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