Up to this point and time in the history of Arkansas, the state government was almost totally dominated by the Conway family. This political machine was often referred to as the “Dynasty” or “The Family.”
In 1860, Thomas C. Hindman challenged the Dynasty rule, in a race for U.S. Congress. The campaign was harsh and bitter and lasted most of the year. After the election on August, 1860, Hindman joined the Dynasty in carrying Arkansas for John Breckinrdge in the Presidential election that fall, and saw to it that Abrham Lincoln’s name was not put on the ballot.
Yell supported the Union Party,, which was formerly the American (Know Nothing) Party, whose candidate was John Bell, of Tennessee.
Lencoln was elected president and seven states of the deep South seceded from the Union. This caused Yell, also, to temporarily align with the Dynasty. Old party differences were swept away.
The New Alignment in the southeastern lowlands demanded immediate secession, and hill regions of the state called for compromise and National reconciliation. The New Alignment emerged in the winter election that called a state cvonvention to consider secession.
Meetings were held around the state, where fire-eating speeches and dramitic appeals were made for the state to secede. On January 6, 1861, James Yell delivered such a speech at the State House, in Little Rock. He called for secession and endorsed Governor Rector’s recommendation for military preparedness. He made a like speech in Pine Bluff on April 6th. This was one month after the first convention where secession was voted down. The campaign, the speeches and the resolutions had aroused the people to a boiling point.
To show how explosive the feelings were, let me relate an incident at one of the meetings in Jefferson County Court House. Tom Vining, a local business man, had made the statement that he would protect his Unionist neighbors if they were doing no wrong. A day or two later a mass secession meeting was called and early in the proceedings someone remarked that Vining had said so and so.
George Vining, Tom’s brother, was the only Vining present and all eyes were upon him. George stood up and said, “I suppose my brother Tom said that, but as he is not here, I represent him and endorse every word he said.” John S. Roane, an ex-governor, was the first to exclaim, “Hang him!” Someone else called for a rope.
The Court House was divided like a flash with only a small space between the two groups, yelling, cursing, and drawing pistols took place. Cooler heads jumped in between the two groups, and after a little talk they cooled down, but there was no more business that day.
As early as August 27, 1860, the state was being encouraged to prepare themselves for war. Then Governor Elias Conway sent out a manifesto stating, “It is time to prepare for trouble and danger, which will certainly be brought upon our state if our citizens remain heedless indifferent to the security of themselves, their families and their property.” He encouraged the organization of the militia and the raising of money to buy arms
On January 31, 1861, Governor Henry Rector requested the legislature to appropriate one hundred thousand dollars to buy munitions for the state militia. Funds were needed, according to the governor, to prepare for any hosilities and to check the lawlessness in Western Arkansas.
The legislature purchased the arms, but they were seized in Cincinnati, Ohio, by the Federal Government. This maddened the people of Arkansas. Josliah H. Shinn states in his book, “History of Arkansas,” that General Yell, in retaliation, seized two steamboats on the Mississippi River. We know that boats were stopped on the Arkansas River, also, and there cargo brought to Pine Bluff and unloaded. At one time every warehouse in Pine Bluff must have been full of U.S. Government supplies. This was several months before Arkansas seceded and at least a month before the war started.
One of the most important acts of the secession convention which voted Arkansas out of the Union, on May 6, 1861, was the creation of a Military Board for the state. The convention appointed Governor Rector to head up the Board and Benjamin C. Totten, of Prairie County, and Christophor C. Danley, of Pulaski County, as advisory members. Totten was a farmer and delegate to the convention, while Danley was the editor of the Arkansas Gazette newspaper.
Although the Army of Arkansas was to be under the direction of the Military Board,. The convention proceeded on May 23rd to elect James Yell as Major General and Nicholas Bartlett Pearce, of Benton County, and Thomas H. Bradley, of Crittenden County, as Brigadier Generals. Yell was designated as Army Commander, while Pearce was to command the First (or Wesdtern) Division and Bradley the Second (or Eastern) Division.
Pearce’s first Division was sent to northwestern corner of the state and Bradley’s Second Division was sent to the northeastern corner of the state. The idea was to protect Arkansas from any Yankee invasion by driving the Union Army out of Missouri back into Iowa and Illinois.
Pearce’s group took part in the Battle of Wilson Creek in southwest Missouri, on August 10, 1861. Bradley’s Division was headquartered at Pitman’s Ferry on the Current River, on the Arkansas – Missouri border, but did not see much action.
On July 15, 1861, the Military Board signed an agreement to transfer the state troops to the Confederate Army. Brigadier General William J. Hardee had been sent to receive these troops and command the “Upper District of Arkansas” with headquaqrters at Pitman’s Ferry. The transfer was to include the use and control of the arms, munitions, etc. but Arkansas was to receive them or their equivalent back at the end of the war. The Board further agreed to furnish the soldiers with clothing, of which the Confederacy was to compensate the state.
The transfer was not easily put into effect, because General Yell Adjutant General Burgeving, and N. B. Burrow did everything in their power to defeat the plan. Governor Rector felt that the militia was needed to protect the state, but did not want the state to bear the expense of keeping them in the field.
Bradley had already been relieved of his command by the Military Board over a dispute he had with then Colonel Patrick R. Cleburne and Yell had taken command of the Eastern Division.
General Yell bitterly and violently opposed the transfer of the troops under his command on the grounds that such a transfer would be “ruinous to the state because stripping Arkansas of all her troops and arms would leave the state entirely defenseless.” He privately and publicly spoke out against to the transfer, and allegedly remarked that Hardee was only fit to be a “Post Captain” and that there were five hundred men in the state better qualified to command an army than Hardee. However, most of the soldiers in the Pocahontas area apparently allowed themselves to transferred to the Confederate Army under General Hardee’s command. Yet, Yell’s conduct in opposing the transfer resulted in disbanding of large numbers of troops, including whole companies.
Christopher Danley, who had resigned from the Military Board by this time, viciously opposed Yell, in the Arkansas Gazett on the dispute. On July 20, 1861, he stated in the newspaper that the Military Board told Yell from the outset that he was in charge until President Jefferson Davis sent a Confederate General to command. Yell was recalled by the board on July 23rd, and removed from command.
Yell came back to Pine Bluff and from there he moved his family to
Waco, Texas, where they lived for the remainder of the war.
(Part 5 will be published on the Arkansas Toothpick on December 14, 2014.)