The First Two Years of the War
Arkansas Confederate soldiers
Confederate Arkansas entered the great struggle with high hopes, but the story of the fighting soon became a depressing account of frustration, defeat and failure. At the end of two years northwest Arkansas and the White River region had been lost, and central Arkansas lay open to Federal invasion.
The war spirit.
The late spring and summer of 1861 was a time of great excitement in Confederate Arkansas. Recruiting offices were open in almost every county. At picnics and barbecues, accompanied by rousing speeches, young men were urged to enlist. Even men who could see little reason for going to war were caught up in the tide of popular enthusiasm.
Arkansas men flocked to the colors, but supplies were a problem. Soldiers had to bring their own clothing and weapons, or hope to secure guns on the battlefield. Patriotic local people equipped home companies whenever they could. Young women made flags, and staged theater parties or strawberry suppers to raise money for military equipment.
The story of a company raised at Mount Ida in Montgomery County is typical of most of the 200 others that mustered in 1861. Two men began organizing the Mount Ida company on July 4, and enlisted a hundred men in two weeks. Weapons included old flintlock rifles and double-barrel shotguns. A homemade drum and a fife made of cane provided martial music. The home folks contributed enough food to supply the company until it reached Fort Smith and government rations. Two ox wagons hauled the company's bed quilts, pots, skillets, and pans. Not a man in the company knew anything about military tactics, and most of them would never come back.
A carnival air prevailed in that fateful summer of 1861. The boys marched away to stirring music and the fond farewells of mothers and sweethearts. The war was to be a glorious adventure, and since Yankees could not fight they would soon be home again. Ahead of them lay four years of blood, death, and final defeat.
The strategic importance of Arkansas.
The region west of the Mississippi River, including Arkansas, was a secondary theater of action during the Civil War. The great battles were fought in Virginia, Georgia and other states east of the river, and there the outcome of the war was actually decided. But even though Arkansas was not a major battleground the state played a role of considerable importance, partly because of its location.
The Mississippi River formed the eastern boundary of Arkansas, and this fact brought the war into the state. A major Union military objective was to get control of the great river and cut the Confederacy in two. For the first two years of the war the Union troops and ships were fighting their way down the river from the north and up from New Orleans in order to achieve this objective.
Arkansas was also a part of the struggle for Missouri and the western frontier. Missouri was a divided state, torn between the Union and the Confederacy, and it became one of the first battlefields. If the Confederates could hold or retake Missouri they could outflank the Union push down the Mississippi, and Arkansas became the Confederate base of operations. Arkansas also bordered the Cherokees, Choctaws and the other Indian nations, and both sides wanted to win the allegiance of the Indians.
The loss of the northwest.
Among the first companies to enlist were ten from Ashley, Drew, Union, Dallas and Hot Spring counties. These companies, each composed of about a hundred men, were taken to Memphis by boat and then moved by rail to Virginia. There they became the Third Arkansas Infantry, one of the most famous regiments in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The First Arkansas Infantry also reached Virginia early in the war.
Arkansas troops in much greater numbers moved to the Missouri border. By midsummer in 1861 several thousand men had assembled north of Pocahontas, and more thousands in Washington and Benton counties. The first battle came on August 10 at Oak Hills, or Wilson's Creek, near Springfield, Missouri. At Wilson's Creek, Southern troops from Arkansas and Missouri defeated a Union force and sent it retreating northward, but the Confederates were too poorly-equipped and led to follow up their advantage.
Early in 1862 a new Union army commanded by General Samuel A. Curtis moved into northwest Arkansas. Confederate General Earl Van Dorn planned to defeat the Federals, win Missouri and outflank the army led by U. S. Grant then moving into Tennessee. On March 6, 1862 the Confederate forces attacked Curtis at Pea Ridge or Elkhorn Tavern in Benton County. The battle was contested hotly for three days. The Confederates outnumbered the Union army, but were defeated by poor generalship and left the field in possession of the Federals. The Confederate Cherokees led by Albert Pike gave a poor account of themselves at Pea Ridge.
The United States arsenal at Little Rock, 1861.
The site is now MacArthur Park.
Pea Ridge was the largest and most important Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River. Over 26,000 men were engaged, and at least 2,500 were killed and wounded. The failure of the Confederate drive northward meant the final loss of Missouri, and perhaps Tennessee and the Mississippi River also. The discouraged Confederate troops retreating southward after the battle began to desert, and some even joined the other side.
Arkansas left unprotected.
After the defeat at Pea Ridge, Confederate authorities ordered Generals Van Dorn and Sterling Price to transfer their troops east of the Mississippi where Union armies were attacking in great strength. The move left Arkansas open to invasion. Governor Henry M. Rector and the Arkansas senators and representatives in Richmond complained that the Confederate government had deserted the state. Rector even threatened that Arkansas and the other Southern states west of the Mississippi might secede from the Confederacy. To relieve the situation Southern leaders placed General Thomas C. Hindman of Helena in command in Arkansas.
Hindman at once began to raise and equip a new army. He placed the state under martial law, drafted men into the army, set up price controls, and burned thousands of bales of cotton to keep them out of enemy hands. Lead mines, factories, and a chemical laboratory to provide medicines went into operation. Military officers seized foodstuffs and other supplies needed by the army, and personal travel was restricted.
Governor Rector and the General Assembly protested to the Confederate government that Hindman was trampling on the rights of the state. Finally General Theophilus H. Holmes was sent to replace Hindman, but Holmes seized all the salt works and continued many of Hindman's policies.
The Federals on White River.
In 1862 the Little Rock to Memphis line was the only railroad in Arkansas, and it had a gap from DeVails Bluff to Madison. Troops had to be moved overland or by boat, and this made control of the rivers especially important. The Confederates began to fortify Arkansas Post to defend the Arkansas, and defenses were erected at St. Charles to stop any Union advance up White River.
Union General Curtis made no attempt to pursue the retreating Confederates after Pea Ridge because he considered the Ozark country too rough and difficult. Instead he moved back into Missouri, marched a hundred miles or more to the east, and then south again into Arkansas. Early in May with about 20,000 troops Curtis occupied Batesville and the region along the White River as far as Jacksonport. He planned to advance on Little Rock, where he had been ordered to install himself as military governor of Arkansas. Expecting such a move, Governor Rector left Little Rock and for a short time set up the state capital at Hot Springs.
The Federals moved as far south as the vicinity of Searcy, but Curtis had to postpone his plan for capturing Little Rock. Not only was Confederate strength increasing, but about half of his army was ordered to the aid of Union forces east of the Mississippi River. In addition Curtis was hampered by lack of supplies and by difficulties in transportation.
While General Curtis was still in the Batesville area, Union authorities sent a fleet of gunboats up White River to reduce St. Charles and take support to his army. St. Charles was captured on June 17,1862, but not until a lucky shot from a Confederate shore gun had disabled the gunboat Mound City with heavy loss of life. Because of shallow water the gunboat fleet returned to Memphis, but White River had been opened to the Federals. In July Curtis and his troops moved down the river, crossed over to Helena and joined other Federal forces stationed there.
Prairie Grove and Arkansas Post.
Late in 1862 Confederate General Hindman, still in command in western Arkansas, moved his force of 11,000 men northward to attack Federal armies threatening Fort Smith. The battle at Prairie Grove, near Fayetteville on December 7, was a Confederate success in the field, but Hindman could not hold his ground and had to retreat. The Federals pursued him to Van Buren and there scored another victory. Hindman's army was practically destroyed by the campaign, and now the upper Arkansas River area was defenseless.
Only a month after the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas Confederates suffered another disaster. Early in January 1863, a large Federal fleet with some 32,000 men attacked Arkansas Post, where the Confederates had built Fort Hindman. The Confederate garrison of about 5,000 men, commanded by General Thomas J. Churchill, put up a spirited defense and surrendered only when one regiment raised the white flag without orders from the commander. The town of Arkansas Post was destroyed and never rebuilt. The Union army at Arkansas Post was the largest ever assembled at any battle in Arkansas, and the number of Confederate prisoners taken there exceeded the entire number captured in all of the other engagements in the state during the four years of the war.
Political rivalry continues.
The coming of war did not put an end to political rivalry in Arkansas. The opponents of Governor Henry M. Rector, who had defeated Richard H. Johnson in 1860, were very influential. Johnson was editor of the True Democrat, a widely-read Little Rock newspaper. His brother Robert W. Johnson became one of the two Confederate States senators representing Arkansas in Richmond.
In addition to its other activities, the secession convention of 1861 drew up a new state constitution which reduced the term of office of the governor from four years to two years. Rector assumed that the change did not apply to his own term, but in 1862 opposition leaders began calling for an election and the Supreme Court supported their demand. In the election Governor Rector was defeated by Harris Flanagin of Arkadelphia, then on active duty with the Confederate army. The embittered Rector resigned before his term ended.