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Museum Musings: Civil War soldier provides eyewitness accounts

By David Holsted, published in the Harrison Daily Times April 30, 2020

Joseph Bailey was part of a detail ordered to fill canteens from a spring along Wilson’s Creek. The young man from the Crooked Creek valley had not been a soldier for long, and what he saw next was his introduction into the terrible war that would affect him and many others.

“While filling canteens, a wagon was drawn up near the spring; passing by the hind end of the wagon, which was open, I beheld the ghastly forms of a number of dead Confederate soldiers. Looking at the upturned faces of these men from which the lifeblood had ebbed away, stained as they were with blood and dust, the grime of battle, what a picture for the inexperienced eyes of a boy fresh from the peace and quiet of the old country home!”

Bailey penned those words almost 60 years later in a memoir of his Civil War experiences. Several manuscripts of Bailey’s story still exist, including one at the Boone County Heritage Museum, a logical place, because Bailey was a native of Boone County.

One of the latest versions of Bailey’s story is “Confederate Guerilla: The Civil War Memoir of Joseph Bailey,” edited by T. Lindsay Baker. In his preface, Baker credits the assistance of the Boone County Heritage Museum, the Boone County Library and a number of local people, including Troy Massey and Judge Roger Logan.

Bailey’s memoirs are filled with remarkable insights into the life of a Civil War soldier. He devotes considerable space to his experience as a guerrilla fighter in the Ozarks. His is one of the few eyewitness accounts of guerrilla warfare, most participants being hesitant to speak about it, whether out of fear of retribution or other reasons.

Joseph Bailey was born in 1841 in Polk County, Tennessee. His grandfather, William Bailey, had served in the American army during the Revolutionary War. According to Baker’s notes, the Bailey family still has in its possession a wooden fife that young William played as a Revolutionary soldier.

In 1853, Bailey’s family left Tennessee and went to Carroll County, Arkansas (an area that would later become Boone County) to join two sons who had already settled there. Bailey’s father, John, bought several hundred acres of land near the present town of Harrison and engaged in farming.

When the Civil War broke out, John Bailey, like so many others in the area, remained loyal to the Union. However, his five sons supported the Confederacy.

“With tear-dimmed eyes and aching hearts, my parents bid good-bye to their five sons, who volunteered for service in the Confederate Army; little hoping for the safe return of all of them,” Bailey wrote.

Young Joseph Bailey joined a company that was organized in his area. It was made up almost entirely of farmers, ranging in age from 16 to 40. The company was called the Joe Wright Guards, named for Josephine Bonepart Wright, who along with Bailey’s sister, Malinda Jane, made the first Confederate flag in that part of the country.

As a soldier in the regular Confederate army, in addition to Wilson’s Creek, Bailey saw action at Pea Ridge; Corinth and Iuka, Mississippi; and at the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana.

In addition to the Yankees, Bailey and his comrades faced another foe at Port Hudson.

“To add to our discomfort,” he wrote, “especially at night, were swarms of mosquitoes that were terribly annoying. Often our faces in the morning looked like a patient just broken out with measles. As a slight protection, the boys would burn cotton or cotton rags when they could get them, near their heads all night.”

Many of his descriptions of the war were heartbreaking. One such scene was at Port Hudson.

“In the ditch in front of one short angle of our works, I counted twenty-seven dead men and two shaggy Newfoundland dogs, who had followed their masters to death.”

Bailey was captured at Port Hudson, but managed to escape. He went back to north Arkansas, where he joined a band of guerrillas.

It was said that southern guerrillas were less concerned with the Confederacy than they were with protecting their homes and families.

“As a rule,” Bailey said, “they were well-mounted, superb horsemen and experts with pistols, their main reliance in action. The character of warfare carried on along the border, quarter seldom being asked or given, developed a type of desperate fighters, equal to any of like character the world ever produced. There was practically no attempt at discipline. Every man went and came at his own sweet will, but all obeyed with promptness the order of their chosen officer while on duty.”

Bailey, as with most of the guerrilla fighters, attached great importance to his horse. Wild Bill had been captured from the Federals, he said.

“He was of medium size, fleet of foot, a splendid saddle horse, and endowed with wonderful powers of endurance. To say that I became strongly attached to Wild Bill is but a mild expression of my feelings toward him. And I somehow felt he had, in a limited degree at least, a fondness for me.”

Many “acts of barbarous cruelty” occurred in the Ozarks during the Civil War. Sick and wounded men were dragged from their beds and murdered in front of their families. House burnings became an almost daily occurrence, leaving women and children to seek shelter in stables or corn cribs. Bailey’s own family had its farm destroyed by Federal troops.

Once, Bailey and other guerrillas attacked Federal supply wagons, killing two officers. One of the Federal officers was Henry C. Kelly.

“Only a few days prior to this affair,” Bailey said, “this man Kelly had in a boastful way said to my sweetheart, Miss Mary Baines, who home was nearby, ‘We will get your Rebel Captain some of these days and put his head on a pole.’ Such is the fortune of war. He fell at the hands of the man whose head he threatened to put on a pole.”

In another incident, Bailey described how Federal cavalry had murdered two Atchley brothers, who lived along the Carroll-Newton county line, in front of their wives and children, and had dragged a sick youth named Tyson from his bed and killed him in front of his mother.

In retaliation, Confederate guerrillas, in what became known as the “peach orchard scrap, surprised the Federals and shot them.

“To make sure in the darkness that none should escape, pocketknives were brought in use and jugular veins severed.”

After the war, Bailey, who had married Mary Baines in 1864, returned to Boone County. He farmed and became a merchant in Bellefonte.

In 1890, the Baileys moved to Texas. Bailey invested some money in rural property around Seguin, Texas. When oil was discovered, he had a steady income for the rest of his life.

It was while living in Austin, Texas, that Bailey was encouraged to create his memoirs. He dictated them to a stenographer, who prepared the initial transcripts in 1920.

Mary Bailey died in 1927. Bailey died in 1930. The ashes of Joseph and Mary Bailey were returned to Arkansas and buried in Bellefonte Cemetery.

Bailey’s parents and at least one brother are buried in White Church Cemetery.

This is article is part of a series about Boone County history and provided by the Boone County Heritage Museum. The museum is located at 124 South Cherry in Harrison. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday. Closed on Sunday and Wednesday. For more information on the museum, call 741-3312 or email

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