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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 911


This is the grave of Archibald Yell.

Born in 1797….somewhere. Seriously no one knows. The headstone says North Carolina. There’s better evidence that suggests Kentucky. Or maybe Tennessee. And was he really born in 1797? This is also unclear. Record keeping on the late 18th century frontier was not great. Anyway, his family moved a bunch of ended up in Tennessee. Yell came up in this violent world, where Andrew Jackson shooting people in duels wasn’t a political scandal. It was Tuesday. This violence was predicated first and foremost on a violent confiscationist capitalism that both ripped land away from its Native inhabitants and then enslaved Africans to work it for the benefit of whites. Archibald Yell was absolutely a man of this milieu and would spend his whole life doing whatever he could to kill some non-whites and take their land. This was definitely part of his family too. His father was a pirate before he was a Revolutionary War soldier and a slave owning planter.

That started in 1813, when Yell fought in the war against the Creeks that Jackson led. He was part of Jackson’s army as well in the War of 1812 and fought at the Battle of New Orleans. Now a lawyer, he immediately jumped back at the chance to murder some more Indians when Jackson led the Seminole War in 1818, volunteering for it. Basically Yell became your typical early Tennessee lawyer/planter/politician/fighter–a slaver dedicated to violence conquest and someone who loved the rough and tumble nature of the frontier. He loved himself a duel. Especially if a journalist wrote something about him that wasn’t positive. Shooting people was just good times in early Tennessee.

In 1831, Jackson named Yell as the head of the federal land office in Little Rock, Arkansas. In fact, there’s a good chance that it was a duel that convinced Yell that maybe leaving Tennessee wasn’t such a bad idea. So Yell moved west to start in that territory. Jackson soon offered him the position of governor of Florida Territory, but even Yell was too smart to move to the swamps. He soon became a major player in Arkansas Territory as adjutant general, but then got malaria and went back to Tennessee to recover for awhile. But when he got back to Arkansas, it was go time. That territory was about to become a state (1836) and it needed a representative in Congress. Yell won the election for it and served from the time of his election through the next term. The big issue by the late 1830s was the annexation of Texas, the first issue that would really drive the nation toward Civil War. Of course Yell was all in favor of immediate annexation, whatever those Mexicans and northern sissies had to say about it. This was just gold for the voters of Arkansas, who elected Yell governor in 1840. His campaign was well-known for all the excesses of the day, such as him buying jugs of whiskey to pass around the crowd. A Jacksonian Democrat all the way, he was all for state control over banks and state developed infrastructure, which mostly meant no real control over banks and very poor infrastructure, though it does seem Yell took this a bit more seriously than most of these people, especially once the state banks failed and—whoops, no national bank to help out! He also vetoed a bill to give married women property rights. Can’t let the patriarchy get weak after all.

All this said, if anything, Yell was not trusted by the plantation elite, largely because he had settled in the Ozarks. Fearful of the power of people who didn’t own a lot of slaves, Arkansas planters attempted to put forward a 3/5 Compromise in the state Constitution in order to give them extra power at the state level. They also wanted a clause saying that you couldn’t run for election without being in the state for four years first, a direct shot at Yell. In fact, that’s why Yell ran for Congress instead of governor in 1836.

In 1844, Yell decided to go back to Congress and won election, somewhat hilariously against his own law partner, who was the Whig nominee. By this time, he was a frothing expansionist and close to his fellow spuming conqueror James Polk who had just won the presidency. In fact, Polk sent Yell on a mission to Texas in early 1845 to push forward expansion. Understand as well that while Yell was a popular speaker, he was not that far from illiterate and had worse spelling than Andrew Jackson. Then, when Polk decided to steal the northern half of Mexico to expand slavery, Yell was one of the first to volunteer, resigning from Congress. He went home, formed the Arkansas Mounted Infantry Regiment, made up of a lot of the leading men of the state, and went to Mexico. Yell was a brevet brigadier general in the conflict.

Now, to say the least, Yell was not a good officer. His troops were notoriously undisciplined. They also took a shit just anywhere. No, I am serious here. This was a real problem. General John Wool famously clashed with Yell over this and gave the worst camping sites to what had become known as the “Mounted Devils,” citing their “promiscuous defecation.”

The Mounted Devils, including Yell more than likely, engaged in massive crimes against humanity during the war. The regiment was famous for rape and murder and looting. At least one soldier, a Whig of course, recorded all the crimes and reported them back to Arkansas. According to Wool the Devils were “wholly without instruction and Colonel Yell is determined to leave them in that condition.” So this hurt Yell politically, not because Arkansas didn’t supporting stealing Mexico but because it was an embarrassment in the war.

The best thing that happened to Yell in the war, at least from the perspective of justice and decency, is that the Mexican Army killed the racist at the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847. Yell had led a charge and was lanced to death in hand to hand combat. He was 49 years old. He would have been a real monster in the Civil War, without question supporting treason in defense of slavery and probably being a leader of the Confederacy. So we avoided one there.

Archibald Yell is buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Naturally, this is not his original grave. That was at the cemetery for the dead at Buena Vista. He was moved to Fayetteville in the 1870s.

If you would like this series to visit other Mexican War leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Winfield Scott is at West Point, New York and John Wool is in Troy, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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