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[ Intro - Secession and War -
First Two Years of War - Last Two Years of War -
Life in Confederate Arkansas - ]

Secession and War

United States 1861, showing seceding states
United States 1861, showing seceding states

Arkansas was an unwilling participant in the Civil War. She was one of the last four of the eleven Southern states to secede, and did not do so until the outbreak of war forced her to take a stand. But when the choice was made most Arkansans immediately rallied to do their part for Southern independence.

Arkansas faces a crisis. In 1860 Arkansas was enjoying a period of progress and prosperity. In the last ten years the population had doubled and now was about 435,000. The future seemed bright, but in the background were bitter disputes between the Northern and Southern states which threatened to reach a climax. If war should come, Arkansas would be involved.

With slavery, the most outstanding of the issues between North and South, the majority of people in Arkansas were not greatly concerned. Four fifths of the white families in the state owned no slaves. Few of those who did own slaves believed that the system was in danger. For many years the slavery question had caused trouble, but somehow compromises had always been reached.

The presidential election of 1860 brought on a crisis. Arkansas was caught up in the rush of events. The new Republican party with its candidate Abraham Lincoln was making its second bid for the presidency. The Democrats, long in control of national affairs, were unable to agree on a candidate. The party split into Northern and Southern wings and each division nominated a candidate. This practically insured the election of Lincoln. Since the Republican party opposed the extension of slavery, some Southern leaders declared that if Lincoln were elected the South should secede and become an independent nation.

Formation of the Southern Confederacy. The presidential campaign of 1860 caused no great excitement in Arkansas, but many people eagerly awaited the outcome of the election. Lincoln's name did not appear on the Arkansas ballot, and the Southern Democratic candidate received a majority of the votes cast in the state. As soon as it was certain that Lincoln had been elected, South Carolina called a convention and passed an ordinance of secession declaring that the state was no longer a part of the United States. She sent delegates to the other Southern states urging them to follow the same course. The Arkansas General Assembly, which was in session at the time, listened to the South Carolina delegates but took no action. While Arkansas hesitated, other Southern states were busy passing ordinances of secession. South Carolina was soon joined by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. In February 1861 representatives of the seceding states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and organized the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was elected president. Other Southern states, including Arkansas, watched and waited.

Arkansas refuses to secede. As the secession movement grew, people in Arkansas became greatly concerned. In January 1861 Governor Henry M. Rector, at the direction of the General Assembly, called an election for the people to vote on whether Arkansas should hold a convention to consider secession. At the same time the voters were to elect delegates to the convention in case the vote should be favorable. At the election on February 18 the vote was favorable and delegates were chosen.

Companies of troops were already being organized in different parts of Arkansas, and demands were raised that the United States arsenal in Little Rock be surrendered to the state government. Early in February troops from Helena and several other places moved into Little Rock and declared that they would take the arsenal by force if necessary. Alarmed by the possibility of bloodshed, Governor Rector persuaded the Federal commander to surrender the arsenal and evacuate his troops. The governor then took charge in the name of the state.

The secession convention met in the Old State House in Little Rock on March 4, 1861. David Walker, who opposed secession, was elected president. The convention continued in session for two and a half weeks. Feeling ran high and many fiery speeches were made, but it soon became evident that a majority of the members did not think that the situation at that time called for secession. The convention voted down a resolution condemning Lincoln's inaugural address, and defeated a conditional ordinance of secession.

Henry M. Rector
Henry M. Rector

The opinion seemed to prevail that Arkansas should secede if the Federal government made war on the Confederate States. Still hoping for a compromise settlement that would avoid war, the delegates agreed to go home until after the people had voted on the secession question at a special election to be held in August.

War brings secession. The Civil War began on April 12, 1861 when Confederate guns opened fire on Fort Sumter, in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. When President Lincoln asked Arkansas to provide a regiment of troops to force the seceded states back into the Union Governor Rector refused. The governor sent a force to take the Fort Smith arsenal, and Arkansas regiments began organizing to fight for the South.

The secession convention, recalled in special session, met again in the Old State House in Little Rock on May 6. Before a packed house, a secession ordinance was introduced and passed by vote of sixty-five to five. When the chairman asked that the decision be made unanimous, Isaac Murphy of Huntsville was the only delegate who refused to change his vote. On May 20 Arkansas was admitted to the Confederacy. She had seceded only when the coming of war forced her to take a stand with the South. Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina also seceded after the war had actually begun.

Organizing for war. After passing the ordinance of secession, the convention remained in session for almost a month longer attempting to prepare the state for war. It provided for raising "The Army of Arkansas," chose military officers and gave them instructions and set up a military board to manage the war in Arkansas after the convention had adjourned.

The military board consisted of the governor as chairman and two advisers elected by the convention. This board was given full military power subject to the order of the convention and subsequent acts of the legislature. A war loan of $2,000,000 was appropriated for its use and it was authorized to call out 30,000 men and more if necessary.

The secession convention adjourned on June 3 and the military board took over the management of the war effort. It issued a call for 10,000 volunteers for a year in the state service and set about finding provisions and equipment. The response to the call was quite satisfactory. In a short time the recruiting stations over the state were rushing men into Little Rock to be trained on the arsenal grounds. For the board, securing arms was a problem. Some men brought their own guns but many had no arms of any kind.

Throughout the summer months of 1861 the problems facing the military Henry M. Rector board increased in number, especially after the battle of Oak Hills or Wilson's Creek on August 10. Governor Rector, as chairman of the board, was anxious to save the state the expense of keeping the troops in the field and for that reason favored transferring them to the Confederacy. But he also feared that if this were done they would be taken out of the state and the state would have no one to defend it. For that reason he opposed transfer. In 1862 the transfer was finally completed and the work of the military board came to an end.