Thomas Churchill was a familiar name in Arkansas in the Civil War. The Kentucky native rose to brigadier general and was involved in some of the largest battles west of the Mississippi River.
Thomas James Churchill was born in March 1824, on a farm just outside Louisville, Kentucky. Churchill was born into a very large farming family. He was one of sixteen children. The family worked hard on the farm, and the children all attended local schools.
As a young man, Churchill studied at St. Mary’s College, graduating in 1844. He later received a law degree from nearby Transylvania University. By that point, 1846, America was at war with Mexico. Eager for adventure and serve his country, Churchill quickly enlisted in the army. He was made a lieutenant in the First Kentucky Mounted Rifles, and his unit rode off to Mexico. They had made it to Little Rock for a brief stop when he chanced to attend a reception by Judge Benjamin Johnson, honoring the officers coming through the area. It was here that he met his future wife, Ann Sevier, daughter of Sen. Ambrose Sevier, who would also help secure the later peace treaty between the U. S. and Mexico.
The war did not go well for Churchill. He was part of a scouting party that was captured by Mexican troops in 1847. He spent the next several months as a prisoner until released.
Still taken with Ann Sevier, he returned to Arkansas after the war and married her in 1849. He settled into life as a planter. Churchill did not seek any political offices, but he remained politically connected. In 1857, President James Buchanan appointed him as postmaster for Little Rock. It was a prestigious and lucrative position that he served in for four years.
After Arkansas seceded in May 1861, Churchill quickly organized the First Arkansas Mounted Rifles. He was colonel, and the unit soon jumped into action. Eleven states had seceded by this point, and strong support for secession lay in Kentucky and Missouri though both states proclaimed their neutrality instead of seceding. Gov. Claiborne Jackson of Missouri, however, insisted on joining the Confederacy in spite of the stand of the Unionist legislature. By July, he had been removed from office but organized the Missouri State Guard to force Missouri out of the Union. Churchill and the First Arkansas Mounted Rifles moved into Missouri to assist.
Jackson, Churchill, and other Confederate units met at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield in Southwest Missouri, on August 10 to challenge Union forces. This was one of the first major battles west of the Mississippi River. Combined Confederate forces outnumbered the Union Army by more than two-to-one. The Union Army took heavy casualties after three Confederate charges and withdrew from the field. However, by the next month, Union forces rallied and retook their advantage, forcing Churchill and his troops out of the state.
On March 7 and 8, 1862, Churchill and his forces fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Northwest Arkansas. His mounted troops were ordered to fight as regular infantry, which ended in a Confederate defeat. In spite of this, he received a promotion to brigadier general later that month.
He was assigned to command the fortress at Arkansas Post. Though the town itself, the one-time capital of Arkansas, was sparsely populated, the strategic position at the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers was vital to Confederate forces. On January 9, 1863, Union forces staged a combined infantry and naval attack. Churchill organized what forces he could, but manpower was severely depleted. He was outnumbered ten-to-one. Two days later, he was forced to surrender. He and the survivors were taken prisoner. After three months in a prison camp, he was exchanged and released.
After his release from a POW camp, Churchill was given a field command again. He faced his next major test deflected the Union’s Red River Campaign of 1864. Union forces attempted a two-pronged approach to take Shreveport, Louisiana. Churchill led Arkansas troops to deflect a major Union drive at Pleasant Hill on April 9. With Union forces retreating in Louisiana, Churchill and Gen. Kirby Smith turned north toward Camden to check the Union drive from the North. By April 30, Confederates had driven Union forces to the Saline River. Churchill’s forces had chased the Union Army for miles and were unable to coordinate an effective attack at Jenkins Ferry. The Union Army was able to escape across the river toward Little Rock.
In March 1865, he was promoted to major general. However, with the Arkansas Confederate government’s surrender and the Confederate government all but gone, it was an empty gesture. When the war ended weeks later, he quietly returned home. His wartime popularity would translate into political success in the postwar years.