Some recent discussion on this board concerning Cocke’s Arkansas Regiment has reminded me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, i.e., posting this researcher’s lament on the subject of Arkansas regimental designations. Cocke’s regiment is a good example of what has caused so many researchers so many mind-numbing problems.
In discussing and writing about the Civil War, it’s sometimes necessary to establish a benchmark from which to proceed; otherwise, the discussion gets bogged down in endless explanations before the real subject at hand can even be addressed. Although John B. Cocke commanded “Cocke’s Regiment” for only a little over three months, and although the historically accurate designation should be “39th (Johnson’s, Polk’s, Hawthorn’s, Cocke’s, 6th Arkansas, 6th Trans-Mississippi, 20th Arkansas, 21st Arkansas, and Hailey’s, Perkins’ and Tumlinson’s independent cavalry companies briefly organized as a battalion) Regiment Arkansas Infantry (whew!), historians before our time adopted the shorthand of “Cocke’s Arkansas Regiment.” They did this because the U.S. Department used this designator to catalog the service records of the men who served in the regiment.
In the early 1900’s, an army of War Department clerks pored over hundreds of thousands of Confederate army records—muster rolls, payrolls, quartermaster and commissary receipts, prisoner of war records, etc., etc.—and painstakingly extracted individual soldier information from them to create a Compiled Service Record for each Confederate soldier. This was a monumental task, and one of the most valuable services our Government rendered to future generations of researchers. As the Irish say, “Praise be to them, and their seed, breed and generation.”
But, those clerks had to deal with some pretty confusing records—especially Arkansas regimental records—and so they came up with cataloging and naming conventions that have bedeviled us to this very day.
For some reason, they decided to classify the records of the 39th Regiment Arkansas Infantry under the designation “Cocke’s Arkansas Infantry.” In fact, John B. Cocke was the last known colonel of the regiment, and only served as such from about January to April 1864, when he was killed in action at Jenkins’ Ferry. Cocke was preceded in command by Colonels Albert W. Johnson, Cadwalader Polk, and Alexander T. Hawthorn, and the official records use these colonels’ names at various times in referring to the regiment. At the battle of Helena, for example, it appears in the order of battle and after-action reports as “Hawthorn’s Arkansas Regiment.” The Trans-Mississippi Department frequently used the name of the regimental commander, rather than a numerical designation, in its official correspondence, especially when it comes to Arkansas regiments. This probably made all kinds of sense at the time, but a century later we need a score-card to keep up with what outfit we’re discussing. It is for these reasons, that most researchers have grudgingly adopted the U.S. War Department classification of “Cocke’s Regiment” as the benchmark for this regiment, just so everyone can read from the same sheet of music.
The propensity for the TMD’s using the name of the current commander to identify a regiment may be due to the utter confusion of Arkansas numerical regimental designators. If I ever wrote a book about Arkansas regiments, I’d be inclined to give it the title of “Harry Potter and Arkansas State Military Board,” because it practically takes a magician to figure it all out.
The State Military Board was responsible for authorizing, raising and designating Arkansas regiments, in response to calls from the Confederate War Department for new quotas of troops. The Board had a very straightforward method of recording each regiment—basically taking a Big Chief notepad, numbering the lines from 1 to 48, and applying the next available number to each new regiment. Unfortunately, no one seemed to pay much attention to the State Military Board’s paperwork. The Confederate War Department, the Trans-Mississippi Department, the brigade commanders, and even the regimental commanders acted like free spirits when it came to designating regiments.
In the State Military Board’s straightforward view of the world, “Cocke’s Regiment” (shorthand, remember) was simply the 39th regiment of infantry listed on its Wal-Mart notepad. The outside world said, “Fine and dandy,” and then proceeded to ignore the Board’s careful numbering scheme. For a short period of time, some authorities were referring to Hart’s 30th Arkansas Regiment as the 39th Regiment, adding to an already confused situation. Then there was the anonymous military genius on General Sterling Price’s staff who decided to designate all the Arkansas infantry regiments in the District of Arkansas as “Trans-Mississippi Rifle Regiments.” Cocke’s Regiment was designated as the 6th Trans-Mississippi; and, just as surely as day follows night, the officers and men began referring to the regiment as the 6th Arkansas. Now, cut to the year 2007, and a genealogical researcher is berating me because his ancestor isn’t listed on our webpage. His ancestor’s Confederate pension application claims that he served in the 6th Arkansas. Then I have to try to explain, in a series of emails, that his ancestor did not serve in Lyon’s-Hawthorn’s-Smith’s elite 6th Arkansas Regiment in the Army of Tennessee, but rather in Johnson’s-Polk’s-Hawthorn’s-Cocke’s 39th Arkansas Regiment (aka 6th Trans-Mississippi Rifle Regiment, aka 6th “Arkansas” Regiment—and I’m not even going to get into its other alternate designations of 20th and 21st Arkansas Regiments). Then an email exchange ensues over the fact that his ancestor was wounded at Helena as part of Fagan’s brigade, but the order of battle lists the 39th Arkansas in McRae’s brigade. Yes, I explain, Hart’s 30th Arkansas Regiment was for a short time referred to in some reports as the 39th Arkansas Regiment, and is reported as such at the Helena fight. Hart’s regiment was with McRae, and Cocke’s (by which I mean Hawthorn’s) regiment was with Fagan. And I leave the poor guy more confused than ever.
It doesn’t help a bit when I try to explain that Alexander T. Hawthorn commanded the “real” 6th Arkansas for a time, and later commanded the “other” 6th Arkansas (6th Trans-Mississippi, 39th Arkansas).
And it gets even more dicey when trying to help researchers whose ancestors served in Hailey’s, Perkins’ or Tumlinson’s unattached cavalry companies. These companies were loosely organized into an unofficial battalion prior to the battle of Prairie Grove, and, in the general reorganization of the army after the battle, were consolidated with “Cocke’s Regiment.” Our friends at the U.S. War Department who put together the Compiled Service Records threw all the service records of these cavalrymen into Cocke’s regiment, rather than catalog them as independent companies. The problem is that many of the men who served in those companies were not around when the companies were consolidated with Cocke’s regiment. They were long gone when the consolidation occurred, through death, discharge or desertion. So, cut again to the year 2007, and a researcher is upset because he can’t find the record of his ancestor, who served in Perkins’ cavalry company, and was killed at Prairie Grove. I then have to explain to him that his ancestor’s record was cataloged by the good folks at the War Department in Cocke’s regiment, because Perkins’ company was consolidated with Cocke’s regiment after his ancestor was killed. Huh?
So, for anyone who is still confused, when you see a reference to Cocke’s Arkansas Regiment, keep in mind that we’re using that designation only to keep it simple, so that we’re all speaking a common language. And thanks for listening to one researcher’s lament.
I wonder if we could get Jim to put a clickable list of Arkansas regimental designations (and alternates) somewhere on this board to help novices figure out what the Sam Hill is being discussed?