Meriwether (Jeff) Thompson

Meriwether ("Jeff") Thompson, one of the more colorful figures in a colorful army, was born on January 22, 1826, at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His father, Captain Meriwether Thompson, was a paymaster in the U.S. Army; his mother, Nancy Slaughter Broadus, was a distant relative of George Washington. Young Thompson moved to Liberty in Clay County, Missouri, in 1847 and a year later to St. Joseph. There he was a clerk, grocer, county surveyor, real estate agent, inventor, mayor of St. Joseph, and railroad president.

An energetic and voluble secessionist, Thompson led secessionist activities in northeast Missouri and lobbied in the state capitol for secession. In July, 1861, while on his way to Richmond to offer his services to the Confederate government, Thompson was elected brigadier general of the 1st Division of the Missouri State Guard. He led an irregular force in the swamps of southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas for much of the war, gaining fame as the "Swamp Fox." Thompson was also famous for his eccentricities, his theatrical air, and his appreciation of strong liquor. One contemporary remembered that "Gen. Thompson was a man of ability, but it was not strictly of a military order. He excelled in issuing proclamations and manifestoes. ... His efforts, whether written or spoken, were... a combination of sense and bombast, of military shrewdness and personal buffoonery. They . . . gave his campaigns a decided opera bouffe aspect." On October 21, 1861, Brigadier General Joseph B. Plummer's bluecoats attacked and defeated Thompson's ragtag division in an engagement at Fredericktown, Missouri. In March, 1862, Thompson's ill-equipped, irregular forces skirmished with the Union army of Brigadier General John Pope as the latter advanced down the Mississippi River to New Madrid and Island No. 10. Largely driven out of Missouri, Thompson and a band of followers crossed the Mississippi and fought on in such diverse locales as Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Transferred back to northeast Arkansas in the fall of 1862, Thompson again led a number of raids against Union detachments. On August 22, 1863, near Pocahontas, Arkansas, a Union patrol captured him. Imprisoned at Johnson's Island, Ohio, Thompson was not exchanged until August 3, 1864. He immediately returned to the Transmississippi. In the fall of 1864 Major General Sterling Price’s cavalry corps left Arkansas for a raid into Missouri. Thompson joined the raid as a volunteer. However on October 6, 1864, General Price ordered Thompson to take command of a crack brigade of Missouri cavalry that had lost it’s commander. This assignment by Price was irregular and curious—he was putting his best unit (the " Iron Brigade" formerly commanded by Brigadier General Joseph Shelby) under the control of a person who was not even a Confederate officer—and can only be explained by his great respect for Thompson's abilities. Thompson proved to be a very competent cavalry commander as he led the Iron Brigade in the Battles of Westport, Mine Creek, and Newtonia. In the winter of 1864, while in camp in Arkansas and Texas, Thompson occasionally was placed in command of Shelby's entire division. In February, 1865, Thompson was assigned to command the Northern Sub-District of Arkansas. He had hardly arrived in the district when the news of the surrender at Appomattox completely demoralized the district's southern sympathizers. On May 11, 1865, Thompson surrendered himself and his entire command.

General Thompson settled in Memphis after the war and tried his hand at running a grocery. In 1867 he moved to New Orleans and was soon appointed chief engineer of that state's Board of Public Works. That employment shattered his health. Returning to St. Joseph, he died there on September 5, 1876, and is buried in Mount Mora Cemetery in St. Joseph.

Heitman, Wood, SHSP, and CV all list Thompson as a Confederate general. Although Thompson commanded Confederate troops as a general, his end-of-war parole gives his correct rank—brigadier general, Missouri State Guard. During the war Thompson repeatedly petitioned President Davis for promotion to brigadier general. The president repeatedly refused.

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Reference: More Generals in Gray. Bruce S. Allardice. A companion volume to Generals in Gray. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge. LA.