Jeff Thompson, Fort Delaware’s poet laureate

Date Published: 
May 2, 2014

The name “Jeb” Stuart is immediately recognizable to many Civil War enthusiasts as the flamboyant Confederate cavalry commander whose heroics often were trumpeted in newspaper headlines. In comparison, Jeff Thompson was equally dashing and performed daring exploits for the South as a cavalry commander, yet he is known only to a selective few having operated out of the limelight in the vicinity of the Mississippi River.

M. Jeff Thompson (he abbreviated his first name, Merriwether) was born in Virginia in 1826, but settled in Missouri as a young man. He worked as a railroad engineer before serving as mayor of St. Joseph, Mo., in the late 1850s. When hostilities erupted between the states in 1861, Thompson publicly displayed his Southern sympathies by cutting down the Union flag from the post office flagpole.

Thompson organized a cavalry battalion, became a brigadier general in the Missouri State Guard and began using guerrilla and bushwhacker tactics against Union troops. He became known as “The Swamp Fox” for his operations in the marshy southeastern portion of Missouri.

When the Union army began to apply pressure in Tennessee, where Thompson’s cavalry were operating at the time, he received orders to cross the river into Arkansas. As sometimes happens with fearless leaders, he traded security for comfort by staying in a virtually unguarded town.

Learning about his presence from spies in the area, Union Brig. Gen. Edwin S. Canby sent a raiding party that captured the careless Thompson and his aides. After spending time in Union prisons in Missouri, Ohio and Maryland, he eventually landed at Fort Delaware.

Thompson later wrote about his Civil War experiences, a portion of which W. Emerson Wilson published in a booklet, “Jeff Thompson in Fort Delaware.” During a three-month stay at the prison, Thompson “messed” with other high-ranking Confederate officers “in comfortable quarters within the Fort.”

When Mrs. Barney Ingraham, a sympathetic woman from New Castle, provided him with a much-needed pillow for sleeping, the grateful prisoner penned a response in rhyme that included these lines:

Last night my dreams were full of pain,

My visions were of blood.

I fought my battles o’er again

And ’mid the dying soldiers stood

But now kind friend, this pillow soft

Will soothe this aching pain

And visions of this horrid kind

Will never come again.

Obviously, Thompson had time to fill, for he assumed the role of “poet laureate” at Fort Delaware and collected the poems of other prisoners. Some of what he wrote there and at other times during the Civil War is included in issues of Fort Delaware Notes (FDN), the annual publication of the Fort Delaware Society — a group dedicated to preservation and interpretation of the historic fort.

In April 1864, Thompson wrote an autobiographical note on a photograph for a lady in New York (FDN, February 1997):

My Father’s father was a Rebel

And my Mother’s father was a Rebel too

So when the South called out her soldiers

Pray what else would you’ve had me do

But buckle on my father’s sabre

And seize at once his trusty gun

And strike a blow for Southern freedom

Like Old Virginia’s faithful Son.

While in the Union prison at Johnson’s Island, Ohio, he wrote this satirical ditty about obtaining provisions to supplement the normal prison fare (FDN, February 2002):

All those who want good things must know

That Joseph Reynolds is our “Sutler”

And those who want some whiskey too

Remember Foster is the “butler.”

And to have a good time, all you need

Is Money, and he will spend it

And if you then don’t like your feed

You’d better cut your throat and end it.

Thompson and other officers were designated as hostages and sent from Fort Delaware in June 1864 to Morris Island, S.C., in retaliation for what was considered the endangerment of captured Union officers imprisoned in Charleston in the line of fire. While sweltering on the cramped prison ship suitably named Dragon, which had reached Hilton Head, S.C., he wrote a lament with these closing lines (FDN, February 2004):

But I’m very tired — of this all fired

Run of miserable luck

And don’t care a Damn — how soon Uncle Sam

Chooses to try my pluck

For I may as well — be killed by a shell

As perish on this ship

And I’m sure to die — some day by & by

So damn ‘em! Let ‘em rip!

Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson’s luck had a sudden turn for the better. He and a few other officers were exchanged for Union prisoners and released to Confederate authorities before the ship reached Morris Island. He thus returned to action, survived the war and lived to write his memoirs.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.