Hancock County

Hancock's forgotten hero: Long Beach man wants to honor ancestor from Pearlington

COURTESY SEA COAST ECHO 
 Isiah "Ike" Edwards, Jr., of Long Beach, who retired from the Air Force, is leading the charge to honor great-great grandfather Ripley Arnold.
COURTESY SEA COAST ECHO Isiah "Ike" Edwards, Jr., of Long Beach, who retired from the Air Force, is leading the charge to honor great-great grandfather Ripley Arnold.

Hancock County has been the birthplace and home of many historical figures, but one particular 19th century war hero has been nearly forgotten.

Now, one of the man's direct descendants is leading a charge to help his ancestor achieve his proper place in local history.

Long Beach resident Isiah "Ike" Edwards, Jr., 77, is the great-great grandson of Brevet Major Ripley Allen Arnold, a highly-decorated soldier in the Seminole and Mexican-American wars and the founder of Ft. Worth Texas.

Arnold was born on Jan. 17, 1817, in Pearlington. He was the son of Willis Arnold, a soldier and minister, who settled in Pearlington and ran a school named the Pearlington Academy.

Pearlington in the early 19th century was nothing like it is today.

The tiny hamlet along the Pearl River was once a thriving hub of commerce for timber and cotton -- both were floated down the river on flat boats to large wharfs in Gainesville and Logtown.

Sprawling plantations provided prized cotton, fruits, vegetables and livestock which were easily shipped to New Orleans and other markets via the river.

Many of its citizens were distinguished military men who served with General Andrew Jackson at the battle of New Orleans in 1815.

Historical documents list Willis Arnold as one of the major residents of southwest Hancock in the early 1800s, along with George Nixon, the great-grandfather of President Richard Nixon, and Andrew Jackson, Jr. who owned a sprawling plantation near where Buccaneer Park sits today.

Trained at West Point

Young Ripley Arnold was educated at Pearlington Academy and raised in a southern aristocratic family whose connections helped him earn a congressional appointment to the military academy at West Point in 1837.

Arnold was possibly the first Hancock County resident to receive a congressional appointment to West Point, historians say.

During his time there, Arnold distinguished himself in several areas. He reportedly wrote a cadence song, parts of which are still being used by cadets today. He was also part of an infamous duel that took place at a drinking establishment named Benny Haven's.

Arnold finished 33rd in his class of 50 cadets, and he rubbed elbows with many who went on to future military glory.

Other cadets who attended West Point with Arnold make up an impressive list of Who's Who among 19th century military leaders.

The 1837 graduating class at West Point saw the likes of future generals Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, John Pemberton and Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker.

Arnold's graduating class of 1838 included P.G.T. Beauregard, a famous Confederate general who won the first battle of Bull Run but was later defeated by U.S. Grant at Shiloh, and Union generals Irvin McDowell and Henry Sibley.

The 1839 class included Henry Halleck, who was the chief of staff for the Union Army during the Civil War, General James Ricketts; and Confederate Quartermaster Alexander Lawton.

Battlegrounds

After graduating, Arnold was assigned to duty as a second lieutenant of the First Dragoons in Florida on July 1, 1838.

A year later, he was promoted to first lieutenant.

Also in 1839, Arnold fell in love and married Catherine Bryant of Pass Christian.

In the 1840s, Arnold continued to distinguish himself in the army.

In 1842, he was brevetted to captain for "gallant conduct" in the Seminole War. In 1846, he was promoted once again, this time to the rank of major for his role in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma in the Mexican-American War.

Stationed in northern Texas after the Mexican-American war, Arnold took command of an outpost near the Clear Fork and Trinity rivers.

He later established a camp nearby and called it Forth Worth, in honor of Gen. William Worth, under whom he had served at the Battle on Monterrey.

Arnold continued his command at Ft. Worth until 1853, when he was shot and killed in a duel with Dr. Josephus Steiner.

Arnold had apparently accused Steiner of theft, which led to the fatal duel. Steiner was court-martialed but acquitted.

Back home to Pearlington

Throughout his time in the army, Arnold would frequently return home to Pearlington to attend to the family farm.

He and Catherine had five children together, but it was another child who is the forefather of Isiah Edwards.

The Arnold family was not the richest family in Pearlington, but they did have four slaves.

One of the slaves, Hager, was a 20-year-old female who was owned by Alfred Farr, according to records at the Hancock County Historical Society. Alfred Farr and his family lived near the Arnolds and owned more than 60 slaves.

It is unclear how the Arnolds acquired Hager from Farr. Arnold and Hagar apparently had a sexual relationship, which produced a child named Gilbert.

It was through Gilbert that Edwards discovered his relationship to Ripley Arnold.

Finding family

Edwards, who retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1985, said he came across the family connection by accident.

"I was not really looking for it at the time," Edwards said. "This story kind of found me."

After Edwards retired from the Air Force, he said he began doing some family research. Speaking with two of his elderly aunts, he learned more about his great-grandfather Gilbert.

"They said that his father was the slave master," Edwards said. "I did not know what to think at first. Then I began to learn more."

Through further research, Edwards found that Gilbert listed Ripley as his father on both his marriage license and pension application.

In 1862, Gilbert ran away from Pearlington and joined the 74th Louisiana Native Guard, one of the first primarily African-American regiments to be mustered into the Union Army and stationed at Fort Pike.

Family legend suggests that it was Catherine Bryant who helped Gilbert escape.

"It was either her or another member of the Arnold family that helped him," Edwards said. "He was hiding and they were looking for him. The lady helped him escape to the Union area."

After the Civil War, Gilbert lived in St. Tammany Parish and later returned to Hancock County. He married and had several children, including Rose, who is Ike Edwards' grandmother.

Modern day history

Today, Ripley Allen Arnold is revered in Texas, but has remained relatively unknown here.

In 2014, Edwards, along with other descendants of Ripley were invited to Ft. Worth for a special ceremony, where a 22-foot bronze statute of him was unveiled near the Trinity River.

"The ceremony was outstanding," Edwards said. "Everyone treated me really nice. I began to think, why has this man not been honored here, at his place of birth? I would like to see him honored here. He is well-recognized in Fort Worth, but nothing here."

Edwards said that he has come to terms with the fact that his great-grandfather was a slave master.

"I had a lot of mixed emotions, naturally," Edwards said. "Being a military man, I respect his accomplishments. As a military man, I think a little different. I realized that I cannot change history, I just have to accept it the way it is. I was not looking for this, but I followed where it took me. I honestly think someone was wanting me to find this."

If Ripley Arnold had lived until the Civil War, he likely would have been a highly-sought leader for either the North or the South.

Edwards said he is not sure which side Ripley would have fought for.

"The Union offered General Lee command of their army, but he chose to fight for the Confederacy," Edwards said. "Others, such as Admiral Farragut, who was from the South, fought for the Union. It would have been interesting to see what choice he would have made."

Edwards said he believes that Arnold's death before the Civil War is one of the reasons his story has been lost to the ages.

He said he would like to see some type of recognition or possibly a historical marker placed in Pearlington for Arnold's 200th birthday in January.

The Hancock County Board of Supervisors has been receptive to the idea of honoring Arnold; however, no specifics have been discussed.

Edwards said he not only wants to honor Arnold, but he hopes his story and research can inspire others to learn their family history.

"You hear that blacks cannot find their relatives past 1870, and that is true on the surface," he said. "But, there are methods to go beyond that. The Hancock County Historical Society has a great data base and Mr. Russel Guerin has done some tremendous work on slave families here. A lot of the information people are looking for is out there, you just have to know where to find it. My only advice for people researching their families is to have an open mind and keep looking. You never know what you may find."

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