Guerrilla Executions of 1864 (Fort Smith)

Four young Confederate-allied guerrillas were executed on July 29, 1864, at Fort Smith (Sebastian County) for the murder of a civilian and for a fatal attack on an outpost of the First Arkansas Cavalry (US) by bushwhackers wearing Union uniforms.

On April 7, 1864, ten men of Companies A and E, First Arkansas Cavalry (US) were guarding the regiment’s corrals at Prairie Grove (Washington County) when a group of men wearing blue uniforms and purporting to be from the Fourteenth Kansas Cavalry Regiment approached them; these men were actually members of Major William M. “Buck” Brown’s band of Confederate irregulars. The Unconditional Union newspaper reported that the Arkansas troopers “shook hands and conversed with them. All at once the bushwhackers commenced shooting our men down, and succeeded in killing and mortally wounding all but one, who made his escape to tell the mournful tale.” Colonel Marcus LaRue Harrison reported that all of the First Arkansas men were killed and that he had sent a detachment in pursuit of the guerrillas.

Major Charles Galloway and around twenty-five First Arkansas troopers followed the trail of a party of the bushwhackers to the home of A. Jackson Copeland and his wife Margaret, where Copeland and three others had ridden after the attack. After a fierce gunfight during which the guerrillas stymied an attempt to burn the house and Margaret Copeland acted as an intermediary between the guerrillas and the troopers, Copeland and his comrades accepted Galloway’s offer for the men to surrender and be treated as prisoners of war.

Instead, Copeland, William Carey, John Norwood, and James H. Rowton were tried before a military tribunal in Fayetteville (Washington County) on April 14, 1864, and convicted of killing the First Arkansas cavalrymen as well as a civilian named John Brown, who was gunned down by a group of guerrillas. They were sentenced to death and sent to the Federal base at Fort Smith to await their execution.

While there, post chaplain Francis Springer spent considerable time with the condemned men. He noted that “the average of the ages of the bushwackers [sic]…is only Nineteen years and nine months; yet they all had been volunteers in the rebel ranks previous to the battle of Pea Ridge.” Springer also helped write letters for Norwood and Carey; the latter admitted he was “a pretty bad boy” and had been present when Brown was killed, adding, “I don’t think this was against the rules of war.”

On July 29, 1864, the four men, seated on their coffins in wagons, were taken to the place of execution outside of Fort Smith, preceded by a band and sixty-four men of the Thirteenth Kansas Infantry Regiment who had been detailed as a firing squad and accompanied by Springer and other base chaplains. The four men “were arranged in line by the side of their coffins, and the charges, findings, and sentence of the Military commission were read to them by the judge advocate.” After praying with the chaplains, Copeland, Norwood, Rowton, and Carey had their eyes bandaged and hands tied behind their backs. The Kansas infantrymen fired, and “four lifeless bodies were prostrate and bleeding by their coffins.”

The executions of the four guerrillas outraged other members of Buck Brown’s company and intensified the irregular conflict in the state. One young bushwhacker wrote that “this squad of boys with all others, had turned loose all the federal Soldiers they had captured that winter…and none were ever known to kill a prisoner. So from then on there was no more surrendering of our boys; neither did we ask them to surrender.”

For additional information:
Christ, Mark K. “‘It was simply a fight to the death’: Civil War Record (1861–1865) of J. Montgomery Wilson.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 80 (Spring 2021): 53–109.

Furry, William, ed. The Preacher’s Tale. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2001.

Unconditional Union, May 6, 1864, p. 3.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 34, part 1, pp. 876–877. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1889.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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