With the election of a lanky Illinois lawyer to the presidency in November of 1860, the die of change was cast. The country held its breath as a new word found prominence in the national lexicon; succession. First one, then a half-dozen Southern states performed the pen-strokes severing the sacred ties of Union. Arsenals and other Federal property came under seizure by these states. On April 12, 1861, South Carolina troops fired upon and forced the surrender of a stubborn little garrison called Ft. Sumpter. Meanwhile, Missouri endeavored to remain clear of these entanglements, a resolution of neutrality initially being passed by the 1861 State Convention. Yet within Missouri, the coals of war dully smouldered.
A fiery but hitherto obscure U.S. Infantry commander, named Captain Nathaniel Lyon, had been given orders which effectively gave him full military control of maintaining peace within the state. When Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson called out the State Militia for regular drill, Lyons perceived that it was a direct response to his buildup of Federal troops around St. Louis. The militia yet flew the United States Flag, but their talk, indeed the street names of their Camp Jackson, were decidedly Confederate. In addition, they had the support of an alarmingly vocal, pro-secessionist segment of the citizenry. Captain Lyon could not abide the insolence or the armed threat the militia presented, and chose action.
On May 10, Captain Lyon moved his men to encircle Camp Jackson, and demanded the surrender of all within. Lyon then marched his captives through the emotion-charged, crowded streets of St. Louis, towards the arsenal. Someone said something, someone said replied, and words led to bricks led to bullets. In moments, twenty-eight civilians, two of Lyon’s own men, and three militia prisoners were dead, more people were wounded, and Missouri would bleed for years to come.
John’s thoughts on all this are mere food for speculation, but his cousin Peter F. Clark was also witness to Lawrence County’s troubles, and in his later years sketched his memories of the war. Peter did not write of the Camp Jackson tragedy, but he did record how a citizens’ meeting at the local schoolhouse resulted in the formation of a company of home guards. Peter Clark was elected as its captain. Compiled Service Records for Captain Clark’s Independent Cavalry, MO Home Guard, include his younger cousin John S. Poindexter as a Private, enlisted May 25, 1861 at Mt. Vernon, MO.
Cousin Peter wrote that the little company immediately armed and mounted itself for duty, and found ready work scouting the area for guerillas, and seizing arms or ammunition from suspicious persons or parties. His account also indicates the arrest of “suspects,” until General Franz Sigel arrived at Mt. Vernon with three regiments of Missouri soldiers. Captain P. F. Clark and his company were promptly accepted as guides and pickets for Sigel’s command. Although documentation has not yet come to light, Clark indicates that unnamed members of his command were with Sigel at the battle of Carthage, MO on July 5th. However, the unhappy result of this scrap was that exhausted Union troops staggered back to Mt. Vernon on the evening of the 6th, wondering why those rascally Missouri State Guardsmen had not run away, as planned. Whether or not John was also present is unknown, but such a setback had to rankle loyal young Union men.
Upon Sigel’s return to Springfield two days later, Captain Clark’s home guard found itself the sole protectors of Union interests in Lawrence County. There could be no clear-cut lines in such duty, where neighbor faced neighbor across deadly differences and loaded guns. Where once men passed each other on the road with a cordial nod, now they kept shotgun in hand and a wary eye on roadside thickets. Where toothless arguments once battered across pickle barrels in the general store, now shots smashed from shadows and tree lines.
By August 11, Clark wrote, word of the Union defeat at Wilson’s Creek reached them, along with the intelligence that the entire Rebel army lapped towards them like an evil wave. General Sigel was now in full retreat towards St. Louis. Furthermore, rumor reported a force of 800 Confederate troops, under a Colonel Payne, was heading straight for Mt. Vernon. Captain Clark’s 100 men ~ which included John Poindexter ~ had no hope of withstanding such odds. Nor could the Home Guard expect any mercy from their local Confederate neighbors, against whom they had been arrayed. The men left under cover of darkness, and rode three days to safety at Fort Scott, Kansas.
Army command there did not seem to know quite what to make of them, this little band of independent Missourians. Peter wrote that enlistment in a Kansas regiment was the only choice offered, which the Missouri boys indignantly refused. Evidently a convenient change of post commanders eased the Lawrence County fellows’ plight, and they again found work as scouts. Yet John Poindexter’s service terminated on September 1st, and one assumes he again found his way home.
How John and his family wintered is not known. General Fremont failed to hold southwest Missouri for the Union, and cousin Peter’s memoirs describe an autumn skyline streaked with black pillars of smoke from burning homes and barns. Southern sympathizers took revenge on those who had dared support the Union cause, and John’s uncle Christopher Clark was bludgeoned over the head, for failing to reveal his son Peter’s whereabouts. Many Unionist families began to flee the state, and as October smouldered to a close, John bid cousin Peter farewell for the winter. The entire Clark family had pulled up stakes for safety in Illinois. Perhaps John kept close company with a rifle and pistols, and spoke to no one who was not a proven friend.
Just weeks short of John's twenty-fourth birthday, the guns thundered at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, not forty miles south of his home near Mt. Vernon. A week later, he joined the Union Army, enlisting on 16 Mar 1862 at Springfield, MO.
He mustered into the dashingly-named Richardson's Mountain Rangers, taking his place in Company C, with Captain Hargrove commanding. John seems have made a good trooper, as in early May he was appointed to the duties of Sergeant. The first few weeks were no doubt rather grand, the new Ranger battalion riding tall and jaunty under their equally jaunty Colonel John M. Richardson. The Rebels were scoundrels and seemed to scatter into the brush as proper scoundrels should. Of some discomfort was the mysterious military osmosis by which the Mountain Rangers lost their proud name, to become the 14th Regiment, Missouri State Militia Cavalry. Perhaps not the most fetching title, but that is the army way, and they soldiered on.
Possibly the picnic ended at Neosho on May 31, 1862. What transpired there was a hot, confusedlittle affair, which no doubt shocked the young soldiers with the idea that war was perhaps not entirely glamorous. Among other things, they learned that the Rebels employed Indians, genuine, wild, screaming Indians, and they could fight. One supposes John was a sober young man, when July saw him receive the stripes of a 1st Sergeant. Later that fall, a skirmish near Mt. Vernon on September 19 must have been equally unsettling to him, personally, being entirely too close to his own home and family.
The 14th was at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Ark. on December 7, and by then the young cavalrymen were thoroughly awake to the grim, dark realities of war. They next took part in the defense of Springfield, MO on January 8, 1863, where the 14th Missouri State Militia Cavalry suffered 3 killed, 16 wounded, and 3 missing.
In March of 1863, the 14th MSM Cavalry was disbanded by order of the War Department. Reasons for this disbandment are not clear to this writer, but may have been a combination of a shrinking regiment, along with more total Militiamen than the State of Missouri could afford to pay for. The members of the 14th were shuffled to other units and John, with many of his comrades, found himself in the 4th MSM Cavalry. The 4th was originally organized at St. Joseph, MO in early 1862, and had been also present at Springfield. At the time of this transfer the 4th was in service in Central Missouri, duties including guarding the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Upon joining them, John appears as a Private in Co. M, then Co. L, so evidently his previous rank as 1st Sergeant died with the old 14th. His new commanding officer was a man of some prestige, and possibly a political appointee to the 4th MSM, in the form of former Missouri Governor-turned-Colonel George H. Hall.
Yet there possibly was controversy in this transfer, for as John would later write, the men of the disbanded 14th MSM thought they were thus released from service. He claimed that the men had even turned in their weapons, and that he felt this transfer might even be illegal. Evidence of this confusion may lie in the fact that some men were so late reporting to their new units, they required official amnesty from charges of desertion. Yet John had his orders and he was a soldier and so he reported for duty. He was not happy, but he was there.
In June of 1863, the brittle fields of winter had become softly green with the approach of summer, and John received a 20-day furlough for Illinois. It is the writer's belief that John at this time moved his teenaged sister and recently-widowed mother out of war-torn Missouri, and to safety amongst family in Illinois.
Yet that twenty days seemed to work a change in John, the soldier who had obeyed orders even when he might question them. He returned to the army as required, but on July 27 he simply walked away from the 4th Missouri State Militia Cavalry. It was a rather long walk, as the military did not catch up with him until February 22, 1864, and then it was in White Hall, Illinois. Oddly, it was an Enlistment Agent who arrested him. Possibly John felt so disaffected by his irregular transfer that he attempted to reenlist in an Illinois unit. However, official records do not give us such detail. All that is known for certain is that by March, Private John S. Poindexter was lodged in the military lockup at Jefferson City, awaiting court martial.
The military system marches to its own plodding drummer, as John found to be so. Finally, on March 15 he found the audacity to write to Major General Rosecrans himself, appealing for an investigation into his case and detailing what he felt was the injustice he had suffered. While his case abruptly resumed motion, the army did not agree. In April, John stood before a court martial and received his sentence. Six months in prison, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and he would be further docked ten dollars a month for the six months of his imprisonment. It could have been much worse, and much, much more permanent.
On May 2, John heard the doors of Myrtle Street Prison at St. Louis clang shut behind him. They would stay shut for even longer than he realized. As yet, he had not quite got the hang of the military prison machine, and fumed mightily that a loyal soldier such as himself could be so misused. Within the week, he wrote a scathing letter to a cousin back home in Mt. Vernon, venting his feelings on pretty well every aspect of the military justice system. The cousin never saw this letter, but the Office of the Provost Marshal General did. Thereupon it seems that John's paperwork sort of ... got misfiled.
October came and with it the grey chill of autumn. The young soldier-turned-prisoner counted the days until his six months would be up. Soon, very soon. And then he got the bad news. His sentence, he was told, had not been properly approved. He promptly wrote an anxious inquiry to a Col. John DuBois of the Assistant Adjutant General's Department. The reply came back quick and stern. In military-speak, the General Order promulgating the sentence of Private John S. Poindexter was dated July 20, 1864. In other words, his six-month sentence began in July, not April, and would not expire until January of 1865 - three months later than anticipated. One should use prudence, it seems, if one chooses to exercise one's freedom of speech in the army. Also, it might be particularly well to reconsider thoughts of desertion, when one's regimental commander is an ex-governor.
Letters written in late November of 1864 reveal a very lonely, contrite young man, struggling to shake a prison illness, who wishes only for the welfare of the Union, and to see friends and family again. Mournfully he writes, "I have learned this much since my incarceration that the way of the transgressor is hard." On January 20, 1865, as belatedly scheduled, John walked free at last.
He returned to duty after his sentence was served, rejoining the 4th MSM in its current station at Sedalia, and remained with them in Co. B until the middle of March. John mustered out scant weeks before the war ended, when his 3-year term of service expired on 16 March 1865, at Warrensburg, MO.
Home again as a civilian in Lawrence Co., John married on 26 Nov 1867 to Miss Louisa Stroud. Despite the stain on his military record, John evidently retained pride in his service, and is recorded as
Vice President of the Union Soldiers of Lawrence County, upon its organization in August 1879. This former soldier lived a peaceful life as a farmer until his death on 19 May 1922. He is buried beside his
wife at Ash Grove, in Greene Co. Missouri. They had no children, yet he has kinsmen who remember him with pride.
Written by his 1st cousin 4x removed, Gloria M. Atwater