DeValls Bluff’s Civil War tales include guerrilla in drag who infiltrated Union dance

Readers with good memories may recall that back in January, I wrote a piece about a trip along U.S 70 on a cold winter day with my dear friend Jim von Tungeln of Lonoke. I mentioned that we visited DeValls Bluff in Prairie County, but a report on that part of the journey would have to wait.

The wait is over.

I’ve done a lot of reading lately about DeValls Bluff, population 520, which overlooks the White River. The town is named for Jacob M. DeVall, whose name first appeared on Prairie County tax records in 1851, according to the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Much of my reading has focused on the Prairie County town’s role during the Civil War, a role that cannot be overstated. The encyclopedia notes that other than Helena, “no other town in eastern Arkansas held such strategic importance to the Union army during the Civil War as did DeValls Bluff.”

After Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele and his troops captured Little Rock in September 1863, DeValls Bluff served as a vital link in supplying the capital city with troops and materiel.

One might think the Arkansas River would have been the preferred route to Little Rock, but the river could become too shallow for passage. By contrast, the White River was dependably navigable, so troops could come up the river to DeValls Bluff and ride the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad to the capital some 50 miles to the west.

For a second dose of firsthand research, I met Jim one Friday morning in April at Lonoke’s outstanding Grumpy Rabbit restaurant, and after we each had a plate of fried catfish, we set out on another trip to DeValls Bluff.

Unlike our first visit, the second time we rolled into town the weather was pleasant, U.S. 70 being lined with crimson clover and trees bearing leaves in just about every imaginable shade of green. We pulled off the highway at a small park in the downtown area and checked out four historical markers.

One marker displays a facsimile of a letter Steele wrote from the town shortly before attacking Little Rock. “Having reconnoitered the different routes,” he wrote, “I have decided to commence my line of operations at this point, and have moved the depot and hospital here to-day. … The two gunboats which are to remain here can defend the flanks, and an intrenchment [sic] can be thrown up in the rear which will make the place tolerably secure against any force that will be likely to annoy us as we are pushing the enemy to the front. The buildings here do not amount to much, but there is considerable lumber, and by sending to Clarendon for more, we can erect tolerable shelter for the sick and the supplies.”

Thereafter, thousands of Union troops would occupy or pass through the town for the war’s duration.

Another marker provides sketches of nine military men with DeValls Bluff connections, including Howell “Doc” Rayburn, a Confederate who arrived in Prairie County with the 12th Texas Cavalry in 1862. He fell ill with a fever and was left behind when the 12th Texas moved on. Regaining his health, he led guerilla fighting in Prairie and White counties.

Rayburn seems to have been audacious, and for this part of the story, we’ll turn to an account in the encyclopedia, which presents what it calls his “most celebrated legend”: In December 1864, Rayburn “told his men that if he could make it through a Union picket line that evening, he would be their Santa Claus.” Being small, some 100 pounds, with blue eyes and long blond hair, Rayburn dressed as a woman and attended a Federal officers’ Christmas dance in DeValls Bluff. “After an evening of dancing, Rayburn made his way to the corral, where he mounted a horse and stampeded enough for each man of his command to receive a horse for Christmas.”

I should note the phrase “celebrated legend.” It might be true — or it might not — but it makes for a good story to tell around campfires.

The exact date and circumstances of Rayburn’s death are unknown. Born about 1841, the encyclopedia entry states, he likely died either in 1865 or 1866, possibly of tuberculosis or from being shot by an acquaintance. Where he is buried also is unknown, although it’s possibly in the Des Arc area.


Leaving the park, we stopped again a short distance up the highway to study two markers related to the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad. I learned that by 1862 only two sections of the railroad were complete and were the only rail lines in Arkansas. The first line ran between Hopefield, just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, and Madison (St. Francis County).

Confederates used the railroad to move soldiers to Memphis until Federal forces captured the city in June 1862. The other segment, the one transporting troops and supplies to Little Rock, was often attacked and sabotaged by Confederates.

The afternoon was fast getting away from us, so we headed back, roughly following the long-gone railroad’s route west.

 Gallery: DeValls Bluff’s Civil War legacy

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Later, I did more reading and found another interesting DeValls Bluff connection: Logan Holt Roots.

Born in Illinois in 1841, Roots joined the 81st Illinois Infantry and eventually was designated a brevet lieutenant colonel for meritorious service. He served on Gen. William Sherman’s staff in Georgia and then, according to the encyclopedia’s entry about him, “came west with Sherman, formed a military attachment in Arkansas where he remained, and left the military in 1866.”

Roots was busy the next several years. He acquired a plantation near DeValls Bluff. He was active in Republican politics, campaigned for the Arkansas Constitution of 1868, and was elected to the U.S. Congress, representing the 1st District. He was defeated in an 1870 re-election bid, but soon was appointed by President U.S. Grant as marshal of the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas headquartered in Fort Smith.

On Aug. 9, 1871, Roots married Emily Margaret Blakelee, a New York native who grew up in Illinois. Their time in Fort Smith was short. The encyclopedia entry states, “Political rivalry and charges of scandal led to [his] removal as marshal in 1872.”

The couple then moved to Little Rock, where he became president of Merchant’s National Bank, later named the First National Bank of Little Rock. He stayed with the bank most of his life. He was the first president of the Arkansas Bankers Association in 1891.

The couple had seven children. Four died in infancy.


Logan Roots remained busy in many financial enterprises, the Episcopal Church and Masonry, but perhaps his most visible legacy relates to a property trade he negotiated in 1892. The federal government ceded the arsenal grounds, now known as MacArthur Park, to the city of Little Rock, and the state ceded 1,000 acres north of the Arkansas River to the federal government. It was a fine location for a military post, gazing down on the capital from atop Big Rock Mountain in what one day would become North Little Rock.

Roots died May 30, 1893, at age 52, after a short illness. He is buried in Little Rock’s Oakland and Fraternal Historic Cemetery Park.

Four years after this mover and shaker’s death, President William McKinley ordered that the new military grounds be named in his honor. Today, the area, which includes a veterans hospital and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is best known as Fort Roots.

Sonny Rhodes is a mostly retired journalism professor who likes to walk and visit historic places.