Why would an innocent and good looking, blond haired, blue eyed, 21 year old Confederate man, weighing barely 100 pounds, be called “the most dangerous man in Arkansas?”
The exploits of Howell A. “Doc” Rayburn are a legacy of fact and legend. Doc was a Civil War guerrilla chieftain who operated in the area between West Point (White County) and Des Arc (Prairie County). He enlisted in the Confederate Army in October 1861, joining Company C, Twelfth Texas Cavalry.
Rayburn’s delicate physique belied his real strength and cunning.
From the small northern Arkansas town of Des Arc, Doc recruited dozens of local youth into a guerrilla band that became known as the Phantom Unit. They gained a reputation for their daring exploits and ability to appear out of nowhere to pounce on unsuspecting Yankees. For two years Rayburn and his band proved to be quite a nuisance to Union military authorities with his attacks.
In one such such attack near West Point, Rayburn’s boys put on Union uniforms and took their enemy by surprise. During General Sterling Price’s 1864 Missouri Raid, Rayburn’s command served as Colonel Thomas H. McCray’s bodyguard.
His guerrilla attacks on Union outposts and expeditions tied up countless Federal assets that could have been used elsewhere. The Yankees tried several times to capture Rayburn, but were unsuccessful.
The most famous story of Rayburn’s exploits centers around activities at DeVall’s Bluff (Prairie County) in December 1864. He told his men that if he could make it through a Union picket line that evening, he would be their Santa Claus.
With his diminutive stature, long blond hair and blue eyes, he knew he could pass himself off as a female. Borrowing a lady’s clothing, Rayburn made it through the picket line to a Christmas dance hosted by Federals.
After an evening of dancing with Yankee officers, he carefully made his way to the corral. He jumped on the best horse in the corral, and caused a stampede. That year, he and every man in his command received a horse for Christmas!