How the Civil War nearly began in Arkansas

Most people who know at least a little history of the United States are aware that the Civil War began April 12, 1861, when shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Not many people know that the first shots of the Civil War were nearly fired in Little Rock, Arkansas, two months earlier.

In 1838, the United States government built an arsenal south of downtown Little Rock, on Ninth Street. Munitions were stored in the building and soldiers were regularly stationed there, while other units passed through the area on the way to the border outpost of Fort Smith, facing Indian Territory. With some southern states seceding from the Union after the election of 1860, the United States Army began to rearrange some of its troops. One relocation moved Battery F, Second United States Artillery, from Fort Smith to the arsenal in Little Rock. Captain James Totten was the commander of this battery, which left Fort Smith on November 27, 1860, and arrived at the arsenal on December 6.

In January 1861, a convention met in Little Rock to consider the question of seceding from the Union and joining the Confederacy or remaining with the United States. Because the convention was evenly divided on this issue, the delegates chose on January 16 to schedule a referendum on the question for the coming summer. Shortly after the convention disbanded, rumors began to travel around Arkansas that the federal government was reinforcing its units in Little Rock to defend the arsenal. These rumors were either the result of Totten’s unit being moved or were speculation about further actions which were not, in fact, being considered by the U.S. Army.

Because of these rumors, militia from various parts of Arkansas began to converge in Little Rock, gathering around the statehouse on the south bank of the Arkansas River. The local militia, called the Capitol Guards, tried to position itself between the other units and the arsenal, but it was outnumbered. Arkansas Governor Henry Rector promised to resolve the conflict, although what he could accomplish was not immediately obvious. Although the soldiers in the arsenal were badly outnumbered by the members of the various militia units, they were far better equipped for battle and were in a defendable position in the arsenal.

The hero of the event was Captain Totten. Knowing that armed conflict would lead to civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian property near the arsenal, Totten exchanged communications with Governor Rector. Understanding that Arkansas had not chosen to secede from the Union (and was not scheduled to make such a decision until summer), Totten offered to hand control of the arsenal over to the governor of the state of Arkansas. Rector agreed, provided that Totten and the men under his command left the state and carried off none of the cannons stored in the arsenal. At noon on February 8, Totten and his man left the arsenal. Totten signed papers giving control of the facility to the government of the state of Arkansas, and his unit began its voyage to St. Louis, Missouri. A group of 107 women from Little Rock gave an engraved sword to Captain Totten thanking him for his peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Nearly a century later, outsiders again poured into Little Rock, this time protesting the desegregation of the city’s main high school. On this occasion federal soldiers were sent to the city to defend the nine African American students who had been enrolled in Central High School. By this time, the arsenal was no longer a federal facility. Some years after the Civil War, it had been exchanged for property north of the river, and the building and surrounding land were converted into a city park. The park was named MacArthur Park, to honor General Douglas MacArthur, who had been born at the arsenal in 1880 while his father was stationed there. Today the arsenal is a military museum. The strength of its walls was tested and found durable when the building survived a direct hit from a tornado in 1999. J.

For additional information, consult David Sesser’s The Little Rock Arsenal Crisis, History Press, 2013.

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5 thoughts on “How the Civil War nearly began in Arkansas

  1. I have spent many days at McArthur Park! This study is truly fascinating. Once you are finished, I am going to share the whole series I think, mostly so I can share it on facebook for the benefit of my Arkansas comrades. Thanks for this J.

    Liked by 1 person

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