James Yell (1811–1867)
James Yell was a lawyer, state legislator, and major general in the Arkansas State Militia during the Civil War. Never holding an active field command, he was removed from his position early in the war because of his allegiance to state troops rather than the Confederate government. He did not see action in the war.
James Yell was born on March 10, 1811, in Bedford County, Tennessee. He was the son of Pearcy Yell and Jane Gist Yell, and he was the nephew of Archibald Yell, Arkansas’s first congressman and second governor. Receiving some education, he taught school for three years and also served as a magistrate in Tennessee. He married Permelia Young in Bedford County in 1832, and the couple had a son and a daughter.
In 1838, the family moved to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) at the suggestion of Archibald Yell. James Yell practiced law and represented Jefferson County in the Arkansas Senate from 1842 to 1845. He continued to be interested in politics, running as the Whig-American (a.k.a. Know-Nothing) candidate for governor in 1856. He expressed interest in serving as a senator in the Confederate Congress after secession.
Yell was an early supporter of secession and began to push for Arkansas to join its fellow Southern states. Selected to represent his county at the secession convention, Yell was an ally of Governor Henry Rector, who wanted to lead Arkansas out of the Union.
When Arkansas left the Union in 1861, Yell was serving in the state militia as a major general. The secession convention knew that the current militia system would not be effective against an enemy force, and Yell wrote a law that created a state military board to help ready Arkansas for war. Troops organizing in the state fell under the command of state brigadier generals N. Bart Pearce and Thomas H. Bradley, who were appointed by the board. Pearce began to organize Arkansas troops at Fort Smith (Sebastian County), while Bradley gathered troops at Pocahontas (Randolph County). Bradley was not an effective commander and was eventually removed from his position in the summer of 1861.
As a senior officer in the state militia, Yell was ordered to replace Bradley in Pocahontas. Taking his new position, Yell continued to gather and prepare troops for the defense of the state. The Confederate government placed Brigadier General William Hardee in command of all troops in the state. The troops under Pearce and Yell were state troops, not under the authority to the national Confederate government. Hardee worked with the state military board to create an agreement for the transfer of the troops to Confederate control. Under the conditions of the agreement, each company voted to approve its transfer, and if a majority of men in a unit did not approve, the company was disbanded.
Wanting to maintain state troops rather than Confederate ones, Yell encouraged his troops to vote against entering Confederate service. Once in the Confederate army, the men could be moved outside of the state, but while part of the militia, the troops were tasked with protecting Arkansas alone. As each regiment voted, Yell or militia adjutant general Edmund Burgevin spoke to the men, asking them to reject Confederate service. Some of the men listened to their officers and voted not to transfer. Most, however, joined the Confederate army.
In response to his opposition to the transfer of the troops, the state military board removed Yell from command on July 23, 1861. He did not hold another command during the war and spent most of the next several years in Texas. There, he opposed the Confederate government and represented Union sympathizers who had been arrested.
At the end of the war, he returned to Pine Bluff, where he died on September 5, 1867, from pneumonia. He is buried in Bellwood Cemetery.
For additional information:
Allardice, Bruce S. More Generals in Gray. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Dougan, Michael B. Confederate Arkansas: The People and Policies of a Frontier State in Wartime. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
Huff, Leo E. “The Military Board in Confederate Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 26 (Spring 1967): 75–95.
Wooster, Ralph. “The Arkansas Secession Convention.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 13 (Summer 1954): 172–195.
Henderson State University
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James Yell as an attorney represented slave owner William Daniel, who claimed ownership of his one-time slave Abby Guy, in three jury trials and two appellate cases at the Arkansas Supreme Court. (See the Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry for Guy v. Daniel.) Although he won the 1857 appeal and kept Abby Guy enslaved, he lost the 1861 appeal and she was freed. (See: Mahan, Russell. Abby Guy: Race and Slavery on Trial in an 1855 Southern Court. Santa Clara, UT: Historical Enterprises, 2017.)