James Yell, major general of
Arkansas state forces, was born on March 10, 1811, in Bedford County, Tennessee,
the son of Piercy Yell and the nephew of future Arkansas Governor Archibald
Yell. The younger Yell was born in reduced circumstances, yet through his own
unaided efforts practically educated himself. After gaining his majority Yell
taught school for three years and served one term as Bedford County magistrate.
Induced by his uncle, Colonel Yell, he moved to Arkansas in March, 1838.
Settling in Pine Bluff, he began a remarkable career as a jury lawyer. Yell was
styled the "Apollo of the bar because of his commanding form and handsome face."
He also was politically active, serving as Jefferson County's state senator from
1842 to 1845. In 1856 Yell was the Whig-American party candidate for governor,
and in 1861 he was an unsuccessful candidate for a seat in the Confederate
Senate. A Bell (Whig) Elector in I860, Yell was nonetheless an active
secessionist. Elected to the Arkansas Secession Convention, Yell assumed the
leadership of the secessionist delegates. Ironically, he led the supporters of
Governor Rector, who had been his political foe not a year before.
Yell was a general in the state militia before the war started. The secession convention elected Yell, the chairman of its military committee, as major general of the newly formed two-division "Army of Arkansas." His military career was short. He commanded five to six thousand state troops in northeast Arkansas in the summer of 1861, troops that were in training and never saw active duty. The governor soon desired to transfer Yell's troops from state to Confederate authority, but Yell protested. Yell went so far as to deliver a speech to the troops, urging them not to transfer to Confederate service unless they themselves voted so. The Arkansas Gazette, while admitting that Yell "is a man of personal courage," thought that Yell should be shot for his conduct, but that "his sublime ignorance entitled him to an acquittal on a plea of lunacy." The Arkansas Military Board (Yell had written the bill creating the board) removed Yell from command on July 23, 1861, and he took no further active part in the war. Disillusioned, he spent his time denouncing the Confederate government as "a fraud and a failure" and used his legal talents to help arrested Unionists. Much of the war he spent with relatives in Texas.
After the war he returned to his Pine Bluff home, where he died of pneumonia on September 5, 1867. It is said that his death was hastened by the burden of his debts, Yell having advanced large sums of his personal fortune to pay and equip Confederate troops. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Bellwood Cemetery in Pine Bluff, his gravesite marked by a brick sepulcher that has long since crumbled away.
Yell's rank of general in the Arkansas state army qualifies him to be considered a Confederate general.
Reference: More Generals in Gray. Bruce S. Allardice. A companion volume to Generals in Gray. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge. LA.