Mountain Federals

aka: Mountain Feds

Mountain Feds were Arkansans, primarily from the Ozark and Ouachita mountain regions, who remained loyal to—and fought for—the Union in both conventional and irregular military units during the Civil War.

As the threat of war grew following the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, Arkansas was divided amid calls for secession. Residents of the lowland areas, where there were large plantations and the majority of the state’s enslaved population lived, tended to be in favor of leaving the Union, while the people of the upland regions, few of whom owned slaves, were opposed to secession. In fact, when delegates were selected for the state’s secession convention in early 1861, the majority were Unionist in their tendencies, and the convention voted against seceding. When Lincoln called for volunteers after Confederate forces attacked the Union base at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the convention reconvened and voted to join the other slave states in leaving the United States. As volunteer companies formed to fight for the new Confederacy, loyal Unionists in north-central Arkansas formed the Peace Society with the intent to avoid Confederate service and protect their homes. Arkansas Confederates actively suppressed the Peace Society, arresting dozens and forcing them to join the Confederate army. Many of those men would later desert and serve in Union regiments from Arkansas and Missouri.

Two events forced the Union men of Arkansas to fight the Confederacy actively. The Confederate Conscription Act of April 16, 1862, made service mandatory for men aged eighteen to thirty-five. Then, Major General Thomas C. Hindman on June 17, 1862, issued General Order 17 authorizing the formation of guerrilla units to hinder the Federal Army of the Southwest during the Pea Ridge Campaign. Zealous conscription officers forced many Union men into hiding, while the irregular units created through Hindman’s orders proved to be as dangerous to Unionist civilians as to the U.S. military. As a result, many Union men and their families fled to Missouri for the protection of U.S. forces, and many of the men enlisted in the military.

At least 8,789 white Arkansans served in the Union army (of the seceded states, only Tennessee had more native sons fight for the Federals), and the majority of them were from the mountains of northern Arkansas. The first Arkansas unit formed was the First Arkansas Union Cavalry, which was recruited from Unionist refugees in Springfield, Missouri, and mustered into service in July 1862. The Second Arkansas Cavalry began recruiting after Union troops occupied Helena (Phillips County) on July 12, 1862, and the majority of the Arkansans serving in that regiment hailed from the Ozarks and the Ouachitas. The Third Arkansas Cavalry formed in the Arkansas River Valley in late 1863 and early 1864, recruiting many of its troops from Unionists in the mountainous areas along the valley. And the Fourth Arkansas Mounted Infantry formed at the same time, largely recruited from Unionists in the counties near Batesville (Independence County).

By early 1864, an Iowa soldier in Helena would report on this unit that “the ‘Homeguards,’ or, as they call themselves, the ‘Mountain Feds,’ have done good service and are Still increasing in numbers.” All four of the Union cavalry regiments would see extensive service in counter-guerrilla operations in the mountains of Arkansas. Ultimately, Arkansas would supply ten infantry regiments or battalions, four cavalry regiments, and two artillery batteries for Union service, and 1,713 of these white troops would die during the war.

As was the case with the Confederacy, irregular troops also fought on the Union side during the Civil War. A company of Unionists under Captain Andy Brown of Arkadelphia (Clark County) operated in the Ouachita Mountains until it was decimated in a fight at McGraw’s Mill in Montgomery County in early 1863, after which the survivors made their way to Fayetteville (Washington County), and some enlisted in the First Arkansas Infantry (US). One of the best-known irregular companies was Captain Jeff Williams’s Company of Scouts and Spies, which would cooperate with the Third Arkansas Cavalry in operations against Confederate guerrillas and Colonel A. R. Witt’s Tenth Arkansas Cavalry (CS) in the mountains north of the Arkansas River Valley in 1864 and 1865.

Many of the Unionists in western Arkansas were conscripted into the Confederate army, and in the Action at Devil’s Backbone on September 1, 1863, they fled from the battlefield. Brigadier General William Cabell described those troops as “either deserters from other regiments or conscripts or jayhawkers forced into service,” and Cabell’s force dropped from 1,250 to 900 men following the battle. Colonel William Cloud of the Sixth Kansas Cavalry, reporting from the newly occupied Fort Smith (Sebastian County) soon after, wrote that “my office has been constantly thronged by Mountain ‘Feds,’ deserters from the rebel army, who deliver themselves up.” A week later, as Cloud led a force toward Dardanelle (Yell County), he reported that “we were joined by six companies of Union men, about 300 all told, with the Stars and Stripes flying, and cheers for the Union” and including “three officers and about 100 men, who had fought me at Backbone, under Cabell.” Unionists from the area would flock to Fort Smith for the remainder of the war, many joining the Union army in a region infested with bushwhackers and guerrillas.

After the war ended, many of the erstwhile foes of the Mountain Feds feared retribution. A. R. Witt, who had fought Jeff Williams’s band in the mountains north of the Arkansas River, refused to surrender until such independent squads were disbanded and requested that Union troops from outside Arkansas make up the state’s occupation force as opposed to “men of this state, who have personal grudges.” This acrimony between Mountain Feds and former Confederates would help fuel violence in the region during Reconstruction.

While it is difficult to assess the exact number of Union men who fought outside of the regular Federal forces, Adjutant General A. W. Bishop acknowledged their efforts in 1867, writing that “though compelled by oppression and violence to leave their homes, [they] were accustomed to take refuge among the hills and in the woods, and no extent of persecution succeeded in driving them from the State. Commonly known as ‘Mountain Feds,’ they were true to the Union under the most discouraging circumstances…and although it would be difficult, if not impossible, now to recount their exploits, they will be long remembered in Arkansas as men whose loyalty was put to the severest test, shining out conspicuously when the federal arm was not outstretched for their relief.”

For additional information:
Barnes, Kenneth C. “The Williams Clan: Mountain Farmers and Union Fighters in North Central Arkansas.” In Civil War Arkansas: Beyond Battles and Leaders, edited by Anne J. Bailey and Daniel E. Southerland. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Christ, Mark K. Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

Johnston, James J. Mountain Feds: Arkansas Unionists and the Peace Society. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2018.

Mackey, Robert R. The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861–1865. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

Patrick, Jeffery L., and Michael L. Price. “Life with the Mountain Feds: The Civil War Reminiscences of William McDowell, 1st Arkansas Cavalry.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 64 (Autumn 2005): 287–313.

Report of the Adjutant General of Arkansas, for the Period of the Late Rebellion, and to November 1, 1866. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1867.

Robertson, Brian K. “Men Who Would Die by the Stars and Stripes: A Socio-Economic Examination of the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry (U.S.).” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 69 (Summer 2010): 117–139.

Scott, Kim Allen, ed. Loyalty on the Frontier, or Sketches of the Union Men of the South-West with Incidents and Adventures in Rebellion on the Border. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.

Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas


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