The Swamp Fox

Meriwether Jeff Thompson (1826-1876), a Virginian with a strong military tradition on both sides of his family, moved to Missouri in 1847 and settled in St. Joseph where he served as city engineer and then as supervisor of the construction of the western branch of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. Following the completion of the railroad in 1859, he was elected mayor of St. Joseph, and presided over the ceremony launching the first ride of the Pony Express on April 3, 1860.

At the outbreak of the Civil War Thompson was appointed commander of the First Military District of Missouri, which covered the territory from St. Louis to the southern tip of the state along the Mississippi River, encompassing most of the swampy southeastern quarter of Missouri. His brashness, clever maneuvering and boastful proclamations in the first year of the war earned him the nickname, “Swamp Fox,” echoing the exploits of that other “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion, who gained his fame in the Carolina swamps during the Revolutionary War.

In 1862 he was ordered west of the Mississippi and participated in a number of actions before returning to Arkansas and accompanying Gen. John S. Marmaduke on an 1863 raid into Missouri. Shortly after this raid he was captured and spent the next year in various Union prisons before being exchanged for a Union general in the spring of 1864. Returning to southeast Missouri, he joined Price's disastrous invasion of Missouri, which ended in defeat at the Battle of Westport in the fall of 1864. After the war he moved to New Orleans and designed a program for improving the Louisiana swamps, a job that destroyed his health and eventually led to his death in September 1876.

Thompson fancied himself a poet, and his reminiscences, begun while he was in prison in 1863 and completed in 1868, contain several poems including one entitled “Damn It, Let It Rip” rerferred to in the chorus of the song. There are also references to Thompson's bombastic 1861 proclamation admonishing Missourians to leave their “ploughs in the furrow” and their “oxen in the yoke” and “join us [for]... the cattle on ten thousand hills are ours.” The song is set to a traditional fiddle tune known as “Jimmy in the Swamp,” transcribed from the playing of Decatur, Neb., fiddler , Bob Walters, by R.P. Christeson in his Old Time Fiddler's Repertory, Vol. I. Dave and Cathy play a version of “Jimmy in the Swamp” on their Folk Legacy recording On A Day Like Today.

Brave sons of Missouri, come turn out. If your hearts are with us, give a shout.
Leave your yokes and leave your plows. The cattle on a thousand hills are ours.
Come join the Swamp Fox Thompson's men. Heel of the boot is the Fox's den.
He knows the land of the sweet gum tree, like a salt sea sailor knows the sea.
Down in the swamp east, low lands low,
Come follow wherever Jeff Thompson goes.
Hold on boys, don't lose your grip.
When I give the word boys, let it rip!

The gloomy swampland is his bed. His roof is the tree tops overhead.
Hunter's Farm by St. John's Lake, home of the deadly moccasin snake.
Jeff Thompson rides the moonlit plain on his spotted horse with its flying mane.
Crowley's Ridge down to Arkansas, wherever he rides his guns are law.

He rides by day and strikes by night. He's a real rip-squealer and his name is Fight.
He strikes like the winds of the hurricane to drive the invaders out of our land.
We crossed over Mingo Swamp one night with a thousand torches for our light.
That's a story that years from now will still be told by the minks and owls.

© Big Canoe Records, 1995