Meriwether Jeff Thompson (1826-1876)
Meriwether Jeff Thompson (1826-1876) was a brigadier general in the Missouri State Guard during the American Civil War. He served in the Confederate Army as a cavalry commander, and had the unusual distinction of having a ship in the Confederate Navy named for him.
Thompson was born in Virginia into a family with a strong military tradition on both sides. moved to Missouri in 1847 and settled in St. Joseph where he served as city engineer and then as supervisor of the construction of the western branch of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. Following the completion of the railroad in 1859, he was elected mayor of St. Joseph (1857-60). He presided over the ceremony inaugurating the first ride of the Pony Express on April 3, 1860.
Thompson was a colonel in the Missouri state guard at the outbreak of the Civil War. In late July of 1861, he was appointed brigadier general of the First Division, Missouri State Guards. He commanded the First Military District of Missouri, which covered the territory from St. Louis to the southern tip of the state along the Mississippi River, encompassing most of the swampy southeastern quarter of Missouri. His brashness, clever maneuvering and boastful proclamations in the first year of the war earned him the nickname, "Swamp Fox of the Confederacy," echoing the exploits of that other "Swamp Fox," Francis Marion, who gained his fame in the Carolina swamps during the Revolutionary War. Thompson's battalion became known as the "Swamp Rats" for their exploits.
When Union General John C. Fremont issued an emancipation proclamation purporting to free the slaves in Missouri, Thompson declared a counter-proclamation and his force of 3,000 soldiers began raiding Union positions near the border in October. On October 15, 1861, Thompson led a cavalry attack on the Iron Mountain Railroad bridge over the Big River near Blackwell in Jefferson County. After successfully burning the bridge, Thompson retreated to join his infantry in Fredericktown. Soon afterwards, he was defeated at the Battle of Fredericktown and withdrew, leaving southeastern Missouri in Union control.
After briefly commanding rams in the Confederate riverine fleet in 1862, Thomopson was ordered west of the Mississippi and participated in a number of actions before returning to Arkansas and accompanying Gen. John S. Marmaduke on an 1863 raid into Missouri. Shortly after this raid he was captured in Arkansas (August 1863) and spent time in St. Louis' Gratiot Street prison, as well as at the Fort Delaware and Johnson's Island prisoner-of-war camps before being exchanged for a Union general in the spring of 1864.
Returning to southeast Missouri, he joined Major General Sterling Price's Missouri expedition, taking command of "Jo" Shelby's famed "Iron Brigade" when Shelby became division commander. Price's disastrous invasion of Missouri ended in defeat at the Battle of Westport in the fall of 1864.
In March of 1865, Thompson was appointed commander of the Northern Sub-District of Arkansas. He surrendered his troops on May 11, 1865, in Jacksonport, Arkansas.
A ship in the Confederate Navy, the CSS General M. Jeff Thompson, was named in Thompson's honor. The side-wheel river steamer was converted at New Orleans to a "cottonclad" ram in early 1862. It was commissioned in April and sent up the Mississippi River to join the River Defense Fleet in Tennessee waters, seeing its first action in the Battle of Fort Pillow. After being set afire by gunfire from Union warships in the Battle of Memphis on June 6, 1862, the ship ran aground and soon blew up.
After the war, Thompson moved to New Orleans, where he returned to civil engineering. He designed a program for improving the Louisiana swamps, a job that eventually destroyed his health and eventually led to his death in September 1876. He was buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in St. Joseph.