Pocahontas Expedition

Location: Randolph County
Campaign: Pocahontas Expedition
Dates: August 17–August 27, 1863
Principal Commanders: Colonel Richard G. Woodson, Third Missouri State Militia Cavalry (US); Brigadier General Meriwether “Jeff” Thompson, Missouri State Guard (CS)
Forces Engaged: Third Missouri State Militia Cavalry, First Missouri Cavalry, Second Missouri State Militia Cavalry, Eighth Missouri Provisional Enrolled Militia, Second Arkansas Cavalry (US); Missouri State Guard Brigadier General Meriwether “Jeff” Thompson and Staff, Unknown Confederate Elements (CS)
Estimated Casualties: None (US); 6 killed, 56 prisoners (CS)
Result: Union victory

The Pocahontas Expedition was an attempt to gather intelligence regarding the location of Confederates in northeastern Arkansas. During the expedition, Union soldiers conducted a raid in Pocahontas (Randolph County) on August 24, 1863, that resulted in the capture of Brigadier General Meriwether “Jeff” Thompson of the Missouri State Guard, thus temporarily hampering Confederate actions in the region.

While the Union army struggled to win control of the northern half of Arkansas during the Arkansas Expedition (Little Rock Campaign) from mid-July to August 1863, Confederate regulars and guerrillas continually struck targets and occupied cities in northeastern Arkansas and southeastern Missouri. Consequently, Union forces in Missouri raided Arkansas to disrupt guerrilla activities and challenge invading Confederate commands. In August 1863, Union Brigadier General Clinton B. Fisk, commander of the District of Southeastern Missouri, sought intelligence regarding the whereabouts of various Confederate forces rumored to be scattered from Batesville (Independence County) to the Missouri bootheel. Critical to Fisk’s defense of southeastern Missouri, this raid also provided opportunities to engage Confederate forces that could have been used in the defense of Little Rock (Pulaski County).

The Pocahontas Expedition began on August 17, 1863, when Colonel Richard G. Woodson, who was commanding the Third Missouri State Militia Cavalry, received orders to march a detachment to Greenville, Missouri, to rendezvous with a battalion moving west from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and strike into Arkansas. Joining the 100 men from the First Missouri Cavalry, 125 from the Second Missouri State Militia Cavalry, 50 from the Eighth Missouri Provisional Enrolled Militia, and 25 from the Second Arkansas Cavalry, Woodson moved the combined 600-man force toward Pocahontas on August 20. Crossing into Arkansas meeting no resistance, the column slowed only when Lieutenant J. H. Burnett, commanding the First Missouri Volunteers, routed a small party of Confederates in northern Randolph County on August 22.

Approximately four miles from Pocahontas, a slave informed the Federals that Brigadier General Thompson was at the Saint Charles Hotel in the lightly defended city. Spreading his column out to detect the presence of Confederates, Woodson moved quickly toward Pocahontas, hoping to capture the unsuspecting Thompson. Realizing his forces were moving too slowly to surprise Thompson, Woodson detached Captain Henry C. Gentry with sixty men of the First Missouri Volunteers to dash forward and capture him. Scattering a few Confederate guards on the road leading to Pocahontas, Gentry stopped near the edge of the city to wait a short time for Woodson to catch up to his small column. After no sign of Woodson, Gentry determined to move in alone and surprise Thompson.

As the Union forces rode into Pocahontas, the majority of the Confederates in the area were completely unaware of their presence. Gentry’s command easily surrounded the Saint Charles Hotel without incident. Recently ordered to recruit volunteers to form a Missouri Brigade by the exiled Missouri governor Thomas Reynolds, Thompson was carefully studying maps when his adjutant-general noticed the Federals approaching. Keeping his composure, Thompson ordered his maps burned while he destroyed a few documents from his desk. Riding to the front window of the Saint Charles Hotel, Gentry informed Thompson of his capture. Thompson politely obliged, as he had no means of escape or resistance, directing Gentry to take his sabre, which was propped in the corner of the room. Besides Thompson, a number of other Confederates were surprised at the Saint Charles Hotel, including Pocahontas physician Dr. Michael Beshoar, who had just transferred to Thompson’s command in early August. Additionally, Lieutenant John Miller of Crandall’s Regiment entered the town after dark and presented papers to Thompson, at first believing that the Federals were prisoners.

Arriving in Pocahontas, Woodson was presented with the fifteen prisoners taken in Pocahontas. Determining not to risk losing Thompson by extending his march, Woodson remained in Pocahontas until midnight before ordering the column, now with a total fifty-six prisoners and thirty horses, northward.

While pleased with the raid, Woodson did show some concern about the actions of some Union troops in his report to Fisk. He reported that a detachment of the First Missouri Volunteers stole from citizens and prisoners alike. Dr. Beshoar reported even more malfeasance in his personal journal. His business, Beshoar & Putnam, and several others were looted. Also, the Federals set fire to several non-military structures in Pocahontas, including the office of the Advertiser and Herald.

The capture of Thompson slowed recruitment efforts in the region and eliminated him as a threat in the region until he was exchanged on August 3, 1864. A number of other officers and men from Randolph County were also detained and a number of valuable horses confiscated during the raid. While Pocahontas fell deep into Union territory after the capture of Little Rock and Fort Smith (Sebastian County), a small number of small skirmishes, raids, and guerrilla actions continued around the city for the remainder of the war.

For additional information:
Beshoar, Baron B. Hippocrates in a Red Vest. Palo Alto, CA: American West Publishing Company, 1973.

Monaghan, Jay. Swamp Fox of the Confederacy: The Life and Military Services of M. Jeff Thompson. Tuscaloosa, AL: Confederate Publishing Company, Inc., 1956.

Mueller, Doris Land. M. Jeff Thompson: Missouri’s Swamp Fox of the Confederacy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.

Stanton, Donal J., Goodwin F. Berquist, and Paul C. Bowers, eds. M. Jeff Thompson Memoirs. Dayton, OH: Morningside Books, 1988.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 22, Part I. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1891.

Derek Allen Clements
Black River Technical College


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