The Yellow Doc Raiders By RONALD S. CODDINGTON
Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.
In the small northern Arkansas town of Des Arc, dozens of local boys in the fall of 1862 came under the influence of a young Confederate recruiter named Howell A. Rayburn. His delicate physique and long tawny hair made him look innocent, like a child. But a streak of darkness lurked in his wild blue eyes, which, as one historian noted, “seemed at times to have lost every vestige of tenderness, compassion and mercy, especially for those who differed with his views.”
Before landing in Des Arc, Rayburn had served as a lowly private in a regiment of Texas mounted infantry, and he had arrived in the town, a community along the White River, with his grimy, dust-covered comrades earlier in the year. Rayburn fell ill during the stay, and, when it came time to move out, he was too sick to travel. His comrades left him to die.
Rayburn had survived worse. Born in Tennessee as one of six children raised by an itinerant farmer named Hodge and his wife Susan, Rayburn endured a hardscrabble life in several Southern states. They eventually landed in eastern Texas, where Hodge and Susan disappeared from the record books, possibly victims of disease. Rayburn and his orphaned siblings found refuge with area families.
When the war came in 1861, Rayburn joined the Confederate Army. It is unclear whether he did so for patriotic motives or to escape his meager existence. Whatever the reason, he slung his slender frame into the saddle of his mount and rode off to hunt Yankees. Rayburn, according to one account, wore “a sombrero of unusual proportions, the brim, adorned with small bells that jingled with each motion of the horse’s gait. Securely fastened about the crown, as though with a garland of withered ivy, glistened the scales of a Texas rattler.” His “accouterments were a sabre, two huge Colt revolvers, and a pair of immense spurs clamped tightly against the horse’s flanks.”
DeGolyer Library, Central University Libraries, Southern Methodist University, DallasCapt Reyborne C.S.A. Banditti” is inscribed on this carte de visite of Howell A. Rayburn, pictured as a Confederate captain, circa 1864-1866.
When not fighting the Union, Rayburn targeted civilians. At least one warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of harassment. “He was often accused of committing depredations on friends as well as foes,” observed an historian, without elaboration.
Rayburn managed to stay on the good side of the locals in Des Arc while a sympathetic family nursed him back to health. In the meantime, federals had moved into the area and made it next to impossible for him to rejoin his regiment. So he remained in town and hatched a plan to recruit volunteers for an independent command. His activities attracted the attention of a Confederate colonel, Thomas H. McCray, who lent his assistance.
Rayburn inspired about 50 adventurous local boys from surrounding towns to enlist. He impressed one volunteer from nearby West Point: “His face and makeup looked like a 17 year old girl. We worshipped him around West Point.”
The youths were armed with shotguns but otherwise possessed little in the way of equipment and horses. The ragtag band voted for officers, a common practice in the volunteer army. They elected Rayburn as captain, or “gourilla chieftain,” as one man later described him. Rayburn’s first lieutenant, Lilburn “Lil” Cox, was the son of a Baptist minister. Union intelligence reported that Rayburn’s company served as a bodyguard to Colonel McCray.
Rayburn’s irregular company of partisan rangers would go down in history as the “Phantom Unit,” which had a reputation for lightning-quick raids into Union-occupied Arkansas near the White and Mississippi Rivers. Rayburn did not rise to the level of notoriety attained by Col. John S. Mosby in Virginia or Capt. William C. Quantrill in Kansas and Missouri. He did, however, become a hero to Southern sympathizers in Arkansas. They called him “Yellow Doc” or simply “Doc,” perhaps a reference to his hair color or the illness that had sickened him. His enemies labeled him a bandit, or “banditti.”
An admiring biographer recounted Rayburn’s audacity. “One evening preceding Christmas,” the young soldiers “jested of what good old St. Nicholas had in store for them. Rayburn in his droll way interrupted with, ‘Boys, I am going to be Santa Claus. I will go within the Federal lines tomorrow night, dance with those Yankee officers, and bring each of you one of Uncle Sam’s best cavalry horses. That is,’ he concluded with added thought, ‘if I can pass the picket lines unmolested.’”
The next day, Rayburn visited “the home of a sympathizer who could be trusted, and from the wife of this loyal partisan he asked for and procured the loan of a dress, shoes, and hat. Garbed in this raiment he stole stealthily that night within Federal lines and walked boldly into the officers’ quarters, where at that time a rousing dance was in progress.” He received an invitation. “‘Come, let’s dance,’ said a gallant Federal officer and complying with his request, our femininely disguised hero found himself in the arms of this enemy officer, swaying to the martial music of Uncle Sam’s regimental band.”
After an evening on the dance floor, Rayburn “bade good night to his newly-made acquaintances, with the assurance to them of attending later social functions; then he stole quietly under cover of darkness, to the corral. Mounting what he judged to be the fleetest horse, he easily stampeded a score of others and was in full flight before the astonished soldiers were fully aroused. His promise of a Christmas gift to his men was fulfilled.”
Rayburn claimed a magnificent chestnut sorrel named “Limber Jim” for himself.
No mention of this episode is included in official records. A number of Union reports filed in the summer and fall of 1864, however, mention a “Captain Rayborne” and his troops involved in minor raids that frustrated federal commanders but did not significantly alter military affairs.
One of Rayburn’s raids occurred in the village of West Point on July 28, 1864. A detachment of 20 Union soldiers from the 11th Missouri Cavalry on a scouting mission had pulled up at a local house. They failed to post guards, and were “surprised by a party of rebels numbering about sixty, under command of Rayborne, who were dressed in federal uniform principally,” according to an after action report filed by Brig. Gen. Christopher C. Andrews. Both sides opened fire, leaving one Union cavalryman dead and two of Rayburn’s men killed.
The next day, Andrews fired off a reminder to one of his senior officers on the ground: “Impress upon the mind of every officer and man that watchfulness must not be relaxed in any instance in the enemy’s country.
Less concerned about Rayburn was the Union commander of the military District of Little Rock, Eugene A. Carr. The respected brigadier and Medal of Honor recipient was downright dismissive when he referred to Rayburn and another guerrilla captain in a note to a subordinate on Nov. 18, 1864: “They will probably hang around and try to steal stock and cut off small parties.”
Rayburn managed to elude the federals until the end of hostilities, but barely survived the war. Accounts of his demise vary greatly. According to one source, “After peace had been declared one of the Confederate soldiers, who hated Rayburn, slipped back and shot him one evening just at sun down. He lived about twenty minutes after he was shot.” His horse, Limber Jim, was reportedly sold at a government auction and succumbed to disease shortly after the sale.
Another source claimed that Rayburn was eventually captured and imprisoned by federal authorities for guerrilla activities. He contracted tuberculosis while in custody, and friends obtained his release on the basis that he would not live long. He died soon after. His wife Martha Ann, whom he married in June 1865, survived him. Rayburn’s remains were buried in Des Arc. A wood headboard that marked the site eventually decayed, and the exact location of his gravesite is not known.
In 1967, the Doc Rayburn chapter 2616 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was established in his memory.