Erasmus Stirman


Erasmus Stirman

Erasmus Stirman
Image courtesy of the University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections

Erasmus “Ras” Stirman and his sister, Rebecca Stirman Davidson, were lifelong Fayetteville, Arkansas residents at the dawn of the Civil War, and their family enjoyed the upper class comforts so often associated with antebellum “Dixie.” Merchants and physicians, their family had the means to travel, to pursue educated endeavors, and were well known slave owners. Ras turned 21 years of age in 1860, and the ease of his lifestyle was little deterrent when war loomed for the country. He enrolled as a private in the Pike Guards, one of the first Arkansas state companies for the Confederacy.

Arkansas seceded from the Union in May, 1861, and the Pike Guards were ready, willing, and able to take their orders from Mexican War Hero and Confederate General Ben McCulloch. By midsummer, they had joined up with Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard, and immediately engaged with the Union Army, under Nathanial Lyon, at Carthage, Dug Springs, and Wilson’s Creek. Ras’ letter to Rebecca after the battle of Wilson’s Creek is indicative of his excitement, not only at winning, but escaping without a wound.

Ras’ leadership and skill earned him prompt promotion. He became a Lieutenant after Wilson’s Creek, and was a Captain by the end of 1861. Noble fighting at Pea Ridge earned his regiment the regard of political leaders in Richmond. Ras and his men moved to Corinth, in western Tennessee, after the disastrous battle at Shiloh. From there they moved on to Tupelo, Mississippi, where the Army of the West could regroup away from the disease and squalor of the Corinth camps.

By June 1862, Ras was promoted to Colonel in a regiment of sharpshooters. He celebrated his 23d birthday with a week of “ladies and leisure” in Mobile, Alabama.

Ras’ regiment of sharpshooters opened the battle of Corinth, in the late afternoon of October 3, 1862. Fading light kept the battle from growing, and both sides retired until daybreak. Unfortunately, Ras’ account of the battle has been lost, and unfortunately for the Confederates the Union Army fortified the trenches and breastworks during the night. The Rebels awoke to a stronger, better entrenched and defended Yankee Army than expected.

The loss at Corinth, and the fierce fighting shown by Rebels like Ras Stirman, prompted the Confederate Army brass to move the Army of the West, again, this time to Vicksburg. Rumors ran rampant among the camps, and Ras received word that the Union Army had moved into Fayetteville once again. He wrote to his sister requesting “particulars” about the Battle of Prairie Grove, and how his home city was faring. His letters to Rebecca elucidate his frustration to be away from his city, unable to protect it from Yankee incursion. Never, though, is Ras “down” or even despondent…His letters are spirited and nearly cheerful, and always mention the girls that he cannot wait to kiss.

With devastating losses at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Confederate government gave up on holding Arkansas in the summer of 1863. Ras wrote Rebecca about his hopes of retaking Arkansas, but those hopes were pinned on rumors. The Rebel Army awaited confirmation of General Robert E. Lee’s renewed push into Union territory, official Confederate recognition by France and Spain, and Sterling Price’s recovery of Fayetteville and Little Rock. They were disappointed, to say the least.

After convalescing from an illness in Louisiana, Ras was given command of a regiment in Dardanelle, Arkansas. In mid September, 1863, Ras retreated southward to join Price’s forces. Regrouping yet again, the Arkansas Rebels struggled to hold the southern half of the state, while Confederate raiders kept the Union Army edgy across the Ozarks in the ongoing guerrilla war.

The winter of 1863-64 was a grueling, hopeless and dark season for the Confederate Army. There simply were not enough men to fight the burgeoning Northern army, and economic conditions across the South brought hardship to every home, business and family. The Union Red River offensive in the spring of 1864 brought Ras and his reorganized company back into action.

It was in this renewed capacity as part of Price’s Missouri Expedition that Ras saw his sister for the first time in years. Banished from Fayetteville for aiding Confederate soldiers, Rebecca was on escort to the Red River region when she came across Ras on a scouting mission. Their meeting was brief, and unrecorded, as their correspondence had ceased due in great part to the Union control of mail lines.

Rebecca’s letters to Ras were lost, though the relationship between the older brother at war and his little sister at home is lovingly told through their correspondence. Ras perhaps left out the more gruesome details of his experience of war in writing to Rebecca, but the travels of a young Arkansas man, borne of privilege and freedom, through the War and back home again, are an undeniably pleasurable read.

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