Remember high school American history before it was possible to research everything via the internet? Now you have a chance to really study the history of the Civil War in Arkansas. Thanks to the Department of Arkansas Heritage and a host of other agencies, you can visit the actual battlegrounds, hear scholars, see reenactors and enjoy seeing Arkansas artifacts. Best of all, the American Civil War Sesquicentennial 2011-2015 celebration will bring you many opportunities to learn and to teach.
Here’s how it all began:
In May of 1861, after Arkansas voters had elected a secession convention that initially voted against doing so, the convention reconvened in Little Rock and returned a “yea” vote for the state to secede from the United States of America. During the ensuing four years, Arkansans experienced first-hand — in the only war fought entirely within the territorial confines of the United States — the ravages and brutality of a conflict that pitted their citizens and brothers against one another.
The results of the war can be seen everywhere around Little Rock. For example, the Little Rock National Cemetery, located at 2523 Confederate Blvd., was originally established on land used as a campsite for Union forces during the war and was founded so that the remains of Union soldiers from throughout Arkansas who were killed in the war would be concentrated in one site.
Later the site was expanded to include the remains of Confederate soldiers, whose bodies were moved from their original burial site at Mount Holly Cemetery off what is currently Broadway Street in Little Rock. Today the Little Rock National Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After the fall of Vicksburg to Union forces on July 4, 1863 (a victory that secured Union control of the Mississippi River to the Gulf), Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele drove his 12,000-member army north from Vicksburg up the river to Helena and then west toward Little Rock, eventually occupying the city on Sept. 10, 1863.
The trek west from Helena was punctuated by numerous skirmishes between Confederate and Union soldiers as they approached Little Rock. Today that journey is commemorated in “The Little Rock Campaign Driving Tour,” which is described in detail in a brochure prepared by the Civil War Round Table of Arkansas and the Central Arkansas Civil War Heritage Trail Assoc., Inc.
The tour includes detailed interpretative panels at seven roadside pull-offs accessible from Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Lonoke: at Brownsville Cemetery, north of Lonoke on Ark 31; at Reed’s Bridge on Ark. 161 in Jacksonville; at Ashley’s Mill at the intersection of Walkers Corner and Alexander roads in Scott; at River Crossing near Baucum Corner off U.S. 165; at Bayou Fourche, located on Fourche Dam Pike at the crossing of Fourche Bayou near the Little Rock Airport; and at Riverfront Park in downtown Little Rock.
The Bayou Fourche battlefield site marks the final Confederate resistance after Steele’s army crossed what was then the main channel of the Arkansas River on its march to capture Little Rock. The battles of River Crossing and Bayou Fourche were of particular significance because, although they failed to stop the advancing Union army, they did allow Confederate defenders time to pull their troops from fortifications north of the Arkansas River, including those located along the present-day Park Hill area of North Little Rock, and stalled the Union advance on the capital city.
This allowed the Confederate army under the command of Gen. Sterling Price to evacuate the city along the road from Benton to Arkadelphia. The evacuation avoided prolonged fighting in and the inevitable destruction of the city itself.
The Union’s return to Little Rock marked the first time that Union troops had been stationed there since Feb. 12, 1861, when the U.S. Arsenal (now located behind the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History on East Ninth Street) had been abandoned “to avoid the cause of Civil War,” as the arsenal’s commander reportedly stated at the time. To show their appreciation for his actions, Little Rock’s women presented the commander with a sword as he left the city.
Less than two months later, however, Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C., was attacked, and the war was on in earnest.