An old saying suggests that the winners write history. Time seems to have a way of rewriting it. June 2012 will mark 150 years since the death of Jehu Chastain, a missionary to the Cherokees. Born in South Carolina and his early life in north Georgia, Jehu was sent to preach to the Cherokees and ended up following after them on the trail of tears. He was possibly sent to northwest Arkansas as he was charged in 1836 with the task of preaching to the native Indians in the company of notable Cherokee preachers such as Jesse Bushyhead, widely respected tribal leader and missionary.
Since Elder Chastain was white, he didn’t venture into Indian Territory as a settler, but did settle on patent lands near the present day Fairmount Cemetery. He was in the company of other Georgia settlers, including family and in-laws. I won’t attempt to name them all in fear of omitting one, but the early name of the community was the “Georgia Flats” and it later became known as “Fairmount” because so many of the immigrants were from Fairmount, GA. Jehu was born December 30, 1801 and died July 20, 1862. The date of death was between the Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove Battles. At the time of his death, the Union was fighting a significant action near Fayetteville, Arkansas, which they eventually took under Federal control.
As Civil War broke out, the sympathy of the Chastain’s was with their native South, although I found no tradition that they were slaveholders. Elder Chastain was more than 60 at the time of the war. His youngest son was among families that were fighting for the South. Jehu Thomas Chastain, the youngest son, fought with the Cherokee Rifles under Cherokee leader Stand Watie, as did many of the whites in western Benton County. I have found no evidence that the elder Chastain was mustered into any formal units but local partisans often banded into Home Guards. In any event, few people traveled alone openly. And even when working the fields, residents keep a wary eye on anyone approaching. Lawless bushwhackers and jay hawkers often masked themselves as informal soldiers but were little more than horse thieves and robbers.
Jehu Chastain was apparently part of a group of men who were attacked near Springtown, Arkansas, and all but Jehu escaped. The circumstance of that gunfight and the outcome remain in doubt. But three versions, at least, have come to light, and the last one revealed in the past five years, is a startling departure from either of the other two histories of the event. We will address each one as they appeared.
There is some lore that this story was told more than 100 years ago by a newspaper editor who called himself the “Old Fisherman.” His version appeared in an early area newspaper.
Published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly “Pioneer” Vol. 20 # four, Fall of 1975, page 123 is a story of the Battle of Springtown. The source was the author of a letter. He was Roy J. Taylor, brother of Ruth Wasson, who was the Springtown postmistress prior to the closing of that post office in the 1970s. Roy stated that since the young men had gone off to battle, “The old men who were left behind banded themselves together in what is now knows as “guerilla warfare” and decided to fight back…” against Union soldiers plundering the livestock of the remaining families.
Roy then goes on to say “The next regiment through was a calvary unit…[the battle] took place approximately one mile west of Springtown. He describes this as “500 yards” south of the northwest corner of Sec. 7- Twp. 18N- Rge. 32 W, which places it at the intersection of Hwy. 12 and Fairmount Road. Mr. Taylor then reports that “some six or eight Northern soldiers” were killed and buried 250 yards north of the battle. He claims there were “field stones marking the mass grave before the road went through.” He finishes by saying, “There was one old man from Arkansas killed. His name was Rev. Chastain and he rode a mule into battle. He was buried some two miles south of the battle ground.” That burial was the first burial in what is now Fairmount Cemetery. According to one variation reported to me orally, some say the mule Jehu rode was white.
The second story was told by the grandfather of the author, Arthur Shields. Arthur did not believe that they were engaged in a battle. Rather the men banded together to go to the post office in Springtown, which was the closest mail post. They traveled for protection rather than attempting to fight. According to his story, they had stopped to water the horses and mules. Bushwhackers approached them and in attempting to mount his mule, Jehu was delayed as the mule balked or shied. This allowed the bushwhackers close enough to shoot Chastain, but he mounted his mule and made it home before dying.
When I started researching this, there was a suggestion that the attacking Union soldiers were cavalry from the Kansas 11th. But in researching the Compendium of the Civil War, a huge multi-volume glossary of war correspondence in all theaters, I found no reference to a “battle” at Springtown.
The Compendium can be found at the Pea Ridge National Battlefield library. The work is sorted by date. It contains the war correspondence between bonafide units and commanders including when anyone was killed or engaged in a pitched battle. It became obvious that the Kansas 11th in July was an infantry unit and had not been deployed to Arkansas yet. They were converted to Cavalry in October, several months after Jehu’s death. But irregulars were common and often mustered and commanded in loosely regulated units.
Many Southern troops were stationed in Texas or Southeastern Oklahoma. Families fled this area and settled in Texas to avoid the bloodshed. Many stayed on in Texas. In researching the other side of my family tree, I found a letter in the Stewart family website on Our American Families. Stewart had linked back to my previous article on the death of Jehu. There was a letter from the daughter of one of my ancestors, who was married but remaining in Arkansas while her husband was stationed in Texas. What she wrote sheds a whole new light on the death of Jehu Chastain. This is spelled as written.
The feds has been in here several times since you left home. They have been fired on many times. Several of them has been kiled. They was shot at one time and they surrounded the thicket where the men was and shot at them. Killed old man Chasteen. Shot him six times and after he was dead Esq. Wimpy stuck his boyonet throug him. The rest of the men got away.
-Amanda Lavina Maxwell nee Williams, letter dated Aug 9, 1862
If this was not the same “old man [Jehu?] Chasteen,” then who could it be? There were no other Chastain families in the 1860 census, and the Chastains near Rogers supposedly came to the county well after the Civil War. And the time line fits perfectly. This was only three weeks after the date of Jehu’s death. Were it before or several months later, then it would almost certainly have been someone else.
Clearly, if shot six times and stuck with a bayonet, it’s also unlikely he escaped only to die at home. And where was he? Amanda was the daughter of David Williams who lived south of Bentonville and slightly to the west and southeast of the Morning Star community building. That’s a long way from Springtown. Did news travel that well, especially during such times? Possibly. Or it is possible that Amanda lived further south and west near the Osage Mills which is much closer to Springtown than Bentonville.
David Williams had to leave the area after being threatened with tar and feathers by the Nail and Farrar families who were confederates. Williams had refused to take sides and as a blacksmith, shod horses for either union or confederate sympathizers. He walked to Texas after fleeing in the night when warned of the plot. His wife was unable to follow in a wagon because of flooding rivers. She and his daughters returned home and most of the livestock and horses were stolen to sell to the Union Army that was bivouacked almost in their front yard just off the old Butterfield Stage route.
Amanda’s letter also raises the question about Union soldiers dying. The tone of the letter suggests that while six or eight soldiers may have died, it implies that they died one or two at a time in ambush at different times. Nothing suggests they were killed at one event and were buried en masse.
There is a small cemetery called the Hall that is 250 yards north of Flint Creek. It is obliterated but the main stone contained three names. Alfred Twiggs moved the stone to Fairmount nearly 100 years ago. It contains the name of John Hall, his wife, and daughter. Halls’ wife and daughter died in the 1860s. It would seem unlikely that he would have buried them in a mass grave with soldiers, nor would be a mass grave normally been dug far from a camp.
Which story is closest to the truth? I concluded that Mrs. Maxwell’s letter is likely describing the death of Jehu Chastain. It seems probable that the event occurred near Springtown. It is unlikely that Mr. Chastain made it home before dying. He almost certainly died on the spot. I would also think that he was the only casualty of the event and that the “Union Soldiers” were possibly a scouting or foraging party from either troops stationed near Bentonville or near Maysville. It is possible that these soldiers were a local Unionist “home guard” who met up with another “home guard” from the Sesch (nickname of Secessionist.) That would explain why no report on the event could be found in the Compendium. And I find it unlikely that any such number of Union soldiers were buried near the site of the battle.
Despite these facts coming to light, it is still difficult not to imagine, that if I had been alive on July 20th, 1862 and standing where my home just north of Fairmount sits today, somewhere in my line of vision that I would have seen an old man slumped over his saddle trying to make it home and die in the arms of his grieving wife. And that mule would be white.
Terrel Shields, May 2012