During my recent visit to my childhood home, I looked upon a bit of local lore that years ago I’d latched onto – the story of Billie Demint.
First let me explain the “story” as it reached my “memories” sometime in my growing years. As told by the local story tellers at various social settings, Billie Demint was the ten year old son of a local farmer living in Dunklin County, Missouri at the time of the Civil War. Dates and times were not really important to the story line. The location was a geological oddity known locally as Crowley’s Ridge, the only significant terrain elevation in a swampy lowland. Again, the “story” as I knew it growing up was Billie was out tending chores, likely moving the family stock, when a “Yankee” patrol happened upon him. The Federals were sometimes described in various terms, but the phrase “Red Legs” was used a lot. Not so much a historical reference, but one to characters in that Clint Eastwood movie, “Outlaw Josie Wales.” Supposedly the “Red Legs” demanded information, some say about the boy’s father others say about local Confederates in hiding. The boy refused. To serve notice, the boy was hung as a spy and buried at the base of the hanging tree.
Let me make it perfectly clear here that the “story” as related above was not offered by any of the Demint family or relations. While I grew up around several Demints, none to my knowledge were directly related, and none were the story tellers in this case. Rather the “story” was part and parcle of local lore, offered up to school kids in order to localize what they are learning in school about the Civil War. And that “story” might well have been the one circulated within the extended family and friends in my locality, differing from that told elsewhere in the County.
Several background notes here to firm up the “story.” For those not familiar with the Trans-Mississippi theater, Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas witnessed some of the most bitter, partisan fighting of the war. Lawlessness does not even begin to describe the situation. Bushwacking was a common place event. While some major armies moved through during campaigns, for the most part the combatants were irregulars, some with scant linkage to the formal armies or governments. So consider this a “no-man’s-land” in addition to a backwater theater of the war.
The Southeastern part of Missouri and the Northeastern part of Arkansas at that time were delta bottom land, predominated by subsistence farming. Most of the land was under water. It was not your typical ante-bellum South. While not rare, slaves were not common. Only in the early 1900s, when the land was drained, and priceless fertile ground reclaimed, did the area see an influx of cash crop farming. This wasn’t the plantation land South of “Gone with the Wind.”
But, based on the local lore I was taught, this does sound a little like the story of Sam Davis, “Boy Hero of the Confederacy” from Tennessee. Except of course Billie Demint was much younger and didn’t leave behind any eloquent last words. But there was more to uncover here….
As an undergraduate, I looked at this episode as a potential research topic. I had access to some incredibly rich primary sources both in the college’s holdings, adjacent schools, and the Missouri State Archives. Nobody had (or has) dealt with the subject in a scholarly manner. Who knows, maybe I had the makings for a right proper book! Imagine me writing about “the Sam Davis of Missouri!” Boy was I in for a rude awakening.
At first, my research nets brought back nothing. Not a single reference to this incident from official reports or newspapers written at the time. Flat zeros. In fact, the only reference I could find at all from newspaper archives was an article written in the 1940s about a tombstone placed at the grave site. And that article made no mention of “Red Legs.” Instead stating the boy was killed by partisan guerrillas operating in the area when he refused to disclose the location of his father. Still not enough details for a term paper, much less the “scholarly work” I had in mind.
At home on break, I did more digging at the local Library. Newspaper articles from local papers, written in the 1950s, broke down the legend. The shocker – Bille Demint was not killed as a spy by any Federal forces. No. Not at all. I won’t attempt to lay out all the fine details here, as even armed with all I know now, I’m certain to get some of it wrong (and there clearly has been enough of that in this case!). However, a descendant of Billie’s father, Cindy Folks Lester, has posted much of what is known for those who care to read further. The “real” side to the story was Billie Demint, likely a teenager, was out gathering the family’s cattle. The family had recently relocated to a safer area in New Madrid County, Missouri. While herding the cattle, he was stopped and killed by a small band of Confederate irregulars when he would not disclose where his father had moved.
Yes, I said Confederates. With that, my “Sam Davis” angle was gone. With limited information and few options, I moved on to other topics. My focus at that time was to produce a 25-plus page paper to get a grade, more so than to satisfy my curiosity. So instead I produced a paper on Grant’s operations in Missouri up to the Battle of Belmont, got the grade, and left a lot of questions on the table. So when I was home a week or so ago, I revisited some of those.
To avoid a lenthy post here, allow me to touch on those questions revisted tomorrow in a seperate post.