George Washington Willson & The Battle of Arkansas Post
Time had forgotten George Wilson until I began constructing my family tree a few years ago. He was only a note on paper; my 2nd great grand aunt Mag’s first husband, killed in the Civil War. The Latter-day Saints’ website yielded a marriage record. But I couldn’t find anything else – no censuses, family trees, or most frustratingly, military records. Then a sharp-eyed librarian noticed that Wilson was spelled with double l’s on the marriage license. This tiny spelling variation had foiled the search engines. Suddenly, I had his age, birth state, enlistment record, date of death and cemetery records.
George W Willson enlisted as Third Corporal in Company K, Iowa 25th Infantry Regiment on August 22, 1862. He was mustered in September 10, married Margaret Jane Smith on October 16, and died in action less than 3 months later during the Battle of Arkansas Post on January 11, 1863, at about 25 years of age. I didn’t expect to find anything more. But then…
One of Margaret’s sisters, Sarah, was my 2nd great grandmother. Sarah married Wesley Calvin Hobbs in August 1862, about 2 months before Maggie & George married. I recently discovered Wes’ Civil War diary among family papers. Below is an excerpt from the diary of Union Captain Wesley C. Hobbs; a first hand account of the Battle of Arkansas Post and the death of his brother in law.
We ran up the river to the mouth of White river ran up that to the “Cut-off” then through that we sailed into the Arkansas river up which we proceeded to Arkansas Post where a strong fort was situated garrisoned by ten thousand men. We arrived here on the ninth day of January 1863 and immediately landed. Co’s K & B were sent out on picket that night under my command. We advanced towards the fort sufficiently near to hear the rebels hard at work felling trees and throwing up entrenchments. When daylight came a force
of about five thousand men were ordered to march and we started with the intention of gaining the rear of the fort and attacking simultaneously with the gun boats in front. After marching most of the day we found it impossible to gain the rear on account of impassible bayous so we were compelled to return. We had just lighted our camp fires and before preparing supper when we were again ordered into ranks and started again for the rear of the fort
by a mud route. Just after we started we came to an open spot near the fort on the river bank and here I witnessed the most magnificent fireworks I ever saw. The gunboats were bombarding the fort and the fort was replying earnestly. The night was dark and as the sheets of flames belched forth from the dark muzzles of the iron monsters pointed with deadly precision at each other the dark waves of the Arkansas and the thick woods
that surrounded it’s shores were lit with the brightness of the noon sun and of a sudden were dark, the darkness being cleared as suddenly by another flash. From ship to fort from fort to ship flew the iron messengers of death. We did not long enjoy this sight as we soon passed into the deep woods and plunged through the swamps. All that night we toiled on mid the darkness under brush and mud and just before daylight we came onto the rebel barracks which
we found empty the enemy having left on our approach and taken refuge behind their entrenchments. They had cooked their breakfast but had not time to eat it. It was soon disposed of by hungry soldiers. The breakfast was good consisting of fresh pork and hominy. During our night march the artillery most of it had been stuck in the mud and it took till noon to get them up. About one oclock we attacked the rebel works simultaneously with the
Gunboats. We commenced the attack by making a charge. The 76th Ohio followed closely by our regiment formed and went on the dead run towards their works. When about half way the rebels opened on us and such a storm of shot and shell poured in upon us I never saw before. The first volley knocked down twelve men out of the center of my Company. I had no time then to stop to see who was hurt but we went on until within about seventy five
yards of the works when the storm became so irresistible that we were obliged to halt. The men immediately sheltered themselves as well as they could and went to firing. At this time I was sitting on a large gum log arranging a squad of my men behind it so that they could fire over it. One of the men John P. Kennet told me that I had better get off there or I would get hit. I told him that I guessed not. I had scarcely spoken when several musket balls struck the log just
under me and knocked me off of the log. I had nothing to do however but to get up again. A few minutes after this the same man saved my life by speaking to me just in time. I was directing the men to silence a battery and was watching this battery with my head above the log when Kennet seeing another battery aiming at our log spoke to me in such a sharp imperative voice that [I] instinctively dropped behind the log. I had scarcely done so when a charge of grape shot skimmed the top of the log and if I had not
moved would have taken my head with it. The battle raged for about three hours when about sundown our regiment and the 7th Iowa were moved around to the right to make another charge. The men were in line the officers had stepped to the front and drawn their swords and the wage forward had been given when the rebels raised the white flag. We were glad of this for we knew that the charge we intended to make would be bloody work.
While the infantry were fighting on the rebel left the Gunboats knocked the fort to pieces and this was the real cause of their surrender. Of the twelve men in my Company who were knocked down was but one killed, three severely wounded and the remainder slightly. The one that was killed was my brother in Law George Wilson husband of my wife’s sister Maggie. Words cannot express my feelings when I was told of this during the fight for I loved him as my own brother. A better man and a better
soldier never lived. He died nobly facing the enemy. He was shot through the brain. We buried him that night after the battle by candle light. Oh what a sad task was that. The powder begrimed soldiers who shoveled the mould upon that noble breast stood around the grave after the sad work and tears rolled down their cheeks. And then what a sad task was it for me the next day to write the heartbreaking news to his wife. Poor George he sleeps upon the banks of the Arkansas. He fell for his country
What nobler epitaph could he have?
There are two cemetery records for George Willson: Little Rock National Cemetery, Little Rock, Arkansas and Burge Cemetery, New London, Iowa. According to Find A Grave Memorial #78476342 for Burge Cemetery, George was 25 years, 6 months old. His military record gives his age as 24 years. I don’t know if his body was correctly identified and reinterred from the “banks of the Arkansas” after the war.
I’m guessing that George’s middle name was Washington. I think I’ve correctly identified his parents and grandparents, and if so, then George wasn’t named after his father or grandfather; a common practice for first born sons of the time. It was also common practice to name sons after important political figures, and our first president was a very popular choice. Period census records are peppered with George W’s; there are lots of George Washington something-or-other in my own family tree.
For more information, contact Sarah
by phone: 415-221-6126
by email: sarah415info(at)gmail.com