Meriwether Jeff Thompson was born in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on January 22, 1826. When he was a young boy he became friends with an old scavenger named Jeff Carlysle. Because of this relationship his family began jokingly calling him Jeff. The name stayed with him his whole life. After failing to get into a military academy, Thompson made his way west working in different clerical positions. He eventually came to Liberty, Missouri, where he worked in a store next to the federal arsenal. This gave him the opportunity to join an overland expedition to the Rocky Mountains. His exploration ended when he met and married Emma Hayes in 1848. After marriage they moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, where Thompson became a prominent citizen. He eventually became president of a gas works and two railroads, and colonel of the local militia. In 1859, he was elected mayor of St. Joseph. During his time as mayor he dispatched the first of the Pony Express riders on April 3, 1860.
John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and violence across the border in Kansas alarmed Thompson. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Thompson felt that the Southern way of life was under full assault. He rode to Jefferson City to use his influence to push for secession. When Missourians voted to remain with the Union, Thompson returned to St. Joseph, where he called out the militia.
Shortly after, he heard of the attack on Fort Sumter and the federal capture of Camp Jackson. These events caused tensions to rise in St. Joseph as pro-Union and pro-South factions fought over the raising of flags over city buildings. When the post office raised the Union flag, Thompson climbed up the building and cut the flag down; the crowd below tore it to pieces. This event biased Lincoln against St. Joseph and probably impacted the decision to have the Union Pacific Railroad go through Omaha, Nebraska, instead.
Frustrated by Missouri’s reluctance to go to war, Thompson made plans to return to his childhood home of Virginia to fight for the Confederacy. When he arrived in Memphis he found it full of Missourians who wanted to get commissions in the Confederate Army. Thompson changed his mind and decided to stay and raise volunteers in Missouri. He formed several bands of volunteers and was elected brigadier general and commander of the Missouri State Guard (MSG) in southeast Missouri. Thompson, after being unable to reach the main force of the MSG in southwest Missouri, began to operate in southeast Missouri, eventually coming under the command of Confederate general Gideon Pillow. Thompson would engage in several small skirmishes, where he often emerged out of the seemingly impassable swamps, earning him the name “Swamp Fox.” Thompson was finally defeated at the Battle of Fredericktown and forced out of Missouri. He would return as part of both Col. John Marmaduke’s first raid and Gen. Sterling Price’s raid in 1864.