The Civil War Impact on Champion Cox
This article was written for a memorial service for Richard Hightower “Champion” Cox and continues the story of his life and struggles. This sections deals with the Civil War and the impact it had on his life.
From various civil war records, we know that Champion joined the 11th Arkansas Infantry, Company A. This regiment was formed at Benton, Arkansas in July, 1861. Benton is located in Saline County the same county as Marry Green. Champion would have just turned 18 years old.
Records of that time paint a picture that was repeated throughout the south. Young men rushing to join the Confederacy, afraid that if they didn’t join fast enough, that the war would be over before they could perform their patriotic duty. They were all so proud and confident of victory. Champion would have been among those brave young southern soldiers, so anxious for battle, wanting so much to make their families back home, proud of them. But then the unthinkable happened. Only nine months after joining the Confederate Soldiers of America, he was captured.
Champion was in this Arkansas regiment when it was captured at 10th Island near Tiptonville, Tennessee on the Mississippi River on April 8, 1862. He was still only 18 years old. The surrender and capture by the Union forces was another horrific experience. War records document that Island No. 10 surrendered after a devastating bombardment by Union mortar boats and gunboats. The Yankee victory was aided by the rising waters of the Mississippi River that nearly submerged the island threatening to drown Champion and his comrades.
In records that describe the battle and surrender, the confederates had only 20 cannon. Their earthen barricades were dissolving as the river rose around them. It was particularly interesting that the records spoke of the confederate solders disabling the cannons by spiking them, or jamming a small round metal object into the firing hole where the powder was ignited and then breaking it off. Family stories that were told to me long before I studied those war records told of Champion spiking a cannon with a rattail file and telling a fellow comrade that, “that’s one cannon that the Yankees would never fire.” This could very well be the incident that they were describing. He was with the prisoners at Tiptonville, Missouri then later taken to Camp Douglas, Illinois.
On another front of the Civil War, at the Battle of Fort Donaldson, the 27th Regiment of the Alabama Infantry waged an unsuccessful defense of the fort and many of the members of that regiment were captured and sent to the same Camp Douglas, Illinois.
It was at this terrible prisoner of war camp that Champion must have met and established bonds with the men of the 27th Alabama Infantry. The camp was a miserable place. He watched as his friends and comrades died from exposure, disease and starvation. Along with the other Confederate soldiers, Champion suffered immeasurable hardship at the hands of the harsh Union guards. Champion was now only 19 years old. In this atmosphere of suffering, the Confederate soldiers certainly bonded with their fellow prisoners in ways that only those who have gone through that suffering can understand. Obviously, Champion must have met and socialized with the boys of the 27th Alabama Infantry since they represented ties back to his home. He must have developed close relationships to these men because when these prisoners were exchanged for Union prisoners of war at Vicksburg, Mississippi in September 4th, 1862, Champion decided to join with the 27th Alabama Regiment and go back into battle. Champion did not have to travel back to Alabama to join the Regiment. The remains of the 27th Alabama Regiment came into that area and picked him up with the other members that had been released due to the prisoner swap.
Hightower Cox, Champion
At this time I pause to take a closer look at his life.
At nine years old, Champion watches as his family is ripped apart by the tragic death of his sister. Then, one day his father takes him and his older brother away to Mississippi. He can do nothing but to stand by as any representation of a family life is shattered.
The primary mode of transportation in 1857 would be by horseback. It must have seemed that he had moved to another hemisphere from Franklin County, Alabama as he followed his father into Mississippi. In many of the letters that he wrote to his mother back home, the contents were emotionally charged indicating that something terrible had happened to him back in Alabama.
He worked as a laborer on farms that he and his father found in Mississippi and Arkansas from age fourteen to age eighteen. In 1861 at the age of eighteen, Champion leaves the only family that he has there in Arkansas and joins the Confederate Soldiers of America to fight and to kill other human beings.
Champion, along with his comrades were captured after a horrifying barrage of mortar fire along with the threat of drowning from the rising waters of the Mississippi River. He served five months in a prisoner of war camp that was infamous for its cruelty and inhuman treatment of its prisoners, where death was present all around him constantly. There were no tri-cyclic antidepressants, no tranquilizers, no xanax, no valium, no prozac…..only the iron will to survive. He has yet to have any psychological counseling or psychiatric therapy for all that he had gone through. Yet he persevered. He had only to look inside himself and there he found the strength to survive. This is a characteristic of the man throughout his life. No matter how bad life treated him, he had a profound ability to pick himself up and
continue on with life.
Civil war records show that Champion was transferred to the 27th Alabama Regiment, Company B before December 31, 1862. This transfer was during the four months after his release at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Champion’s service in the 27th Alabama Regiment can be accurately followed because the surgeon’s assistant in that same company and regiment , J.P. Cannon, kept a detailed diary and wrote from it in the wonderful book, “Bloody Banners and Barefoot Boys.”
There is a passage in this book that speaks about the condition of Champion and his Confederate brothers. The time was just after Champion joined the 27th Alabama Infantry at Vicksburg. The former prisoners of war had moved to Port Hudson, Louisiana. J. P. Cannon arrived there with the rest of the 27th that had not been captured.
He writes: “About the middle of December, 1862 we landed at Port Hudson, Louisiana…..We found what was left of the 27th Alabama and it was both a sad and a pleasant meeting. There were absent many familiar faces of comrades who had succumbed to disease and given up their lives in prison and were perhaps buried in unmarked graves far away from home and loved ones who knew nothing of their fate. Having been exchanged three months before, the “balmy Southern breezes” had restored some to health, while others lingered and died from the effects of confinement and disease.” Champion was certainly in this group of soldiers.
When Champion joined the Alabama 27th , the camp was infested with body lice called “Gray Backs”. Champion and the other ex-prisoners of war from Camp Douglas were accused of bringing them back from Douglas. They had to boil all of their clothes and blankets and wash for several days to get rid of them.
While still at Port Hudson J. P. Cannon noted: “Owing to bad water and detestable diet, we were soon stricken with a dysentery which was very distressing and while a majority of us continued on duty, there were but few well men in the regiment during our four months stay. The writer was at this time clerk for the surgeon, whose duty it was to attend sick call, make a detailed report of the sick and then carry it to the Brigade surgeon. Long lines of sick were marched up to the Surgeon’s tent every morning, and having noted for quite a while that the doctor prescribed Dover’s powder in almost every case, with an occasional dose of Blue Mass, I asked him one morning why he prescribed the same medicine day after day. He replied, “It is the only medicine I have at all adapted to the prevailing disease….A small epidemic of Small Pox broke out during winter, but the cases were isolated to the 27th losing one man…..
The beeves were so poor they could scarcely walk, and a whole day’s boiling would not raise an “eye” of grease in the pot. Driven from Texas, poor when they started, they were in a starving condition when they reached us.”
“March 26th 1863, beef with fat on it was issued to us, the first of the kind we had seen since we left the army of Tennessee and it also proved to be the last during our stay at Port Hudson. Where it came from we never knew but we had about come to the conclusion that there was not a cow in Louisiana fat enough to make a tallow candle. We saved the fat, borrowed molds from a citizen and made tallow candles which we used for lighting purposes at night, a luxury we had not enjoyed for quite a long while….
All mails had been discontinued since early in 1862.” On April 6th 1863, the Confederate Army with the 27th Alabama in it left Port Hudson. “April 13th, 1863, we boarded a freight train for Jackson, every car packed full and tops thick as black birds, the rain pouring down drenched those on top while the occupants on the inside were crowded almost to suffocation. Reaching Jackson at dark, we marched out two miles through mud and rain and had to bivouac without tents. It was so dark we could see nothing and everything was so wet we could not make fires. We spent a miserable night, wrapped only in our blankets, exposed to the rain which fell in torrents the whole night. The next day continued rainy but on the following day the clouds were dispersed and we dried ourselves in the sunshine having had a thorough soaking of 48 hours.”
In April Champion fought with the 27th at the Battle of Port Hudson. In May the 27th fought at the Battle of Baker’s Creek or Champion Hill. On May 16th, 1863, they were attacked unexpectedly and the Federals cut the 27th off from the rest of the army. There was an all out grievous retreat in which they ran through the woods without any form of order. They were pursued relentlessly by the Federal Army, losing a full third of their comrades. They were saved only by the darkness that mercifully swept over them.
Champion was now almost 20 years old. One could imagine the panic that he felt at the prospects of being captured again and being subjected to the horror of another prisoner of war camp.
Other accounts by J.P. Cannon tell of the terrible conditions of life for the Confederate soldiers even when they were not fighting. He writes, “During most of the month of June, 1853, the weather was hot and sultry, rendering our marches from one point to another very disagreeable. The dust, shoe mouth deep, stirred by horses, wagons and artillery was so dense we couldn’t see ten feet before us. We perspired and wiped our faces with dirty hands, the dust continually accumulating until the skin was covered with a thick coat, so masked our features that we could not recognize our most intimate chum. Our mouths, noses and throats were so stifled with it that we could scarcely breathe.”
July 4 & 5, 1863….” Then with solemn tread and downcast hearts began another retreat towards Jackson. The day was one of the hottest of the summer, the dust stirred by the train of wagons was stifling, no water on the route, many fell by the wayside exhausted.
Our canteens were drained before half the morning passed and not another drop of water did we see until 2:00 p.m. We came to a pond in an open field into which 300 thirsty beef cattle had plunged, stirring the slimy mud from the bottom until it was thick as gruel and so hot it almost blistered the throat when swallowed. But we were compelled to drink the filthy stuff and as bad as it was, it saved the lives of many of the men.”
These accounts by J. P. Cannon make it quite clear that military life for Champion was cruel and inhuman. But he survived the horrors to return to Alabama and after the war settled at Bull Mountain to farm and to have a family. We don’t know what really brought Champion back close to his home. In letters before the war, he held a great disdain for his home state. It could have been that he met men from the area in the 27th Regiment and they told him of the Johnson family and their daughter Sarah Ann. It appears that he had prior knowledge of the future wife because he lost no time in coming back into the area after his term in the military.
Dr. Larry Cox is the second great grandson of Champion Cox. His ancestry is Larry, Royce Benjamin, Preston Arthur, William Renard “Wren” and Richard Hightower “Champion” Cox. He organized a Cox Reunion where Champion Cox’s descendants met and honored this Civil War patriot and the impact he had on his family and their lives. This article is part of a series that was read at Champion’s memorial.