From poor and humble origin, William Yarnel Slack was one of those individuals who led a life, which was the prototype of the American dream. John and Mary Jane Slack moved to Boone County, Missouri, in 1819. It was in Missouri that William received his basic education, but he returned to Kentucky to obtain his law degree and in 1837 he passed the Bar. In 1839 William moved to Chillicothe, joined the Bar Association, married Mary Emily Woodward, built his home, and began to raise a family.
William Slack was born in 1816 in Mason County, Kentucky. He was the son of John Slack and Mary Jane Caldwell Slack. His background was certainly not typical of those who become warriors. Mary Jane Caldwell's grandfather was Philip Yarnell, a Quaker. The Quaker Yarnalls, however, were of a sort that believed an offensive war was never to be considered, but that a war of defense was Christian and therefore justifiable.
It was in the 1840s that William Slack started to show the qualities that were typical of the Southern men who later came to compose the Confederate officers' corps. In 1842, he was elected to the Missouri General Assembly from Livingstone County, and in 1845 was a delegate to the Missouri Constitutional Convention.
William Slack first revealed his military capabilities during the war with Mexico. It was here that he also first met his future commander-in-chief, Sterling Price.
He was not a strong supporter of the war, but showed his love of country at a public meeting in Chillicothe when he declared "It is too late now to discuss the question of whether or not the war could have been avoided. It is enough to know that it is upon us. Our country has declared war and I am for my country, gentlemen, first, last, and for all time."
He demonstrated his loyalty by helping to organize a company of Livingston County volunteers who elected him their captain. This company, the 2nd Missouri Mounted Volunteers was attached to the regiment of Colonel Sterling Price. Captain Slack served 14 months before returning home.
After the Mexican War, Slack returned to his law practice in Chillicothe and aligned himself with the "Southern Wing" of the Democratic party. In 1860 he was an elector on the Breckenridge ticket that carried Livingstone County for the Democrats.
In May 1861 the pivotal event in the life of William Slack occurred, and also the lives of all Missourians. The legally assembled Missouri State Militia, about 700 in number, who were gathered for a lawful six day training camp in St. Louis, were surrounded and forced to give up their arms by a federal force of about 7000. This set in motion a bitter struggle in Missouri which would last for four long years and was a real civil war in Missouri within the context of the War for Southern Independence. This was more vicious and ugly than the larger conflict between the Northern and Southern States as it was between neighbors and former friends.
The attack on Camp Jackson turned those who opposed secession into strong supporters of the state government. Two of these were Sterling Price and William Yarnel Slack. The Missouri State Legislature which had been unable to pass a long-standing bill regarding the military now acted within 15 minutes of hearing the news. The state militia was abolished and in its place the Missouri State Guard was authorized. Governor Jackson appointed a brigadier general from each of the state's congressional districts and one of those appointed was Gen. William Yarnel Slack. During the ensuing months he raised a command from the fifth district of Missouri which later became the 4th division, Missouri State Guard.
General Slack took part in the Battle of Carthage on July 5, 1861, where he led his men well and they began to show the affection for him which was so common in other commands between the Southern soldier and his officers. These ragged Missouri men with no uniforms included the likes of Frank James, Cole Younger, and William Quantrill. This battle took place at least two weeks before Bull Run and impressed those regular officers of the Federal Army who saw the untrained Missouians "standing their ground like veterans."
On August 10th General Slack was commanding his division at Wilson's Creek when he was severely wounded in the groin. Gen. Price commended Slack for "gallant conduct". The Missourians bore the brunt of the action and suffered heavy losses.
Gen. Slack was incapacitated for nearly two months, but as soon as he was permitted to travel he set out for Price's army in an ambulance accompanied by his wife and a doctor.
On October 11, he resumed command of his division. When the troops of the Missouri State Guard were mustered into the Confederate Army, he persuaded most of his men to join.
On January 23 General Price named General Slack commander of the 2nd Brigade of Missouri troops in what would prove his last command. This brigade was essentially the troops he led at the Battle of Pea Ridge. They included Col. Bevier's and Col. Rosser's battalion of infantry, Col. McCulloch's battalion of cavalry and two squads of artillery under Colonels Lucas and Landis.
On the morning of March 7 1862, General Slack was advancing with the infantry of his brigade to the summit of Trott's Hill, or Sugar Loaf Mountain, and was deploying his men when they were fired upon from a concealed Federal position. Riding among his men to rally them and redeploying them in a protective manner which brought about an eventual rout of the Federals, General Slack was again struck in the same groin by a rifle ball. He was born from the field and for a time seemed to be recovering, but died on March 21, 1862. General Slack was buried 8 miles from the battlefield in the Roller Cemetery near Gateway, Ark. On May 27, 1880 his body was reburied at the Confederate Cemetery in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
General Slack was promoted to Brigadier General on April 17 1862, nearly 4 weeks after his death. Of the eight militia brigadiers appointed by Gov. Jackson of Missouri, only two, General Mosby Monroe Parsons and General William Yarnel Slack, were destined to win a C.S.A general's rank.
Of the some five thousand Southern men who left Missouri in the heady days of 1861 only a few returned to resume their life again in Missouri. The rest, like General Slack, chose to give their lives for the principles of liberty and States Rights. They paid the price with General Slack and now rest under the soil of the Southern States that they once called their country.
John and Mary Jane Slack moved to Boone County, Missouri, in 1819. It was in Missouri that William received his basic education, but he returned to Kentucky to obtain his law degree and in 1837 he passed the Bar. In 1839 William moved to Chillicothe, joined the Bar Association, married Mary Emily Woodward, built his home, and began to raise a family.