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Arkansas in the Civil War: 1860

By the close of January 1861, things had been set in motion in Arkansas putting the state on a collision course with the Federal government. Abraham Lincoln, though elected back in November, President Buchanan was still in charge of the country in Washington, D.C. Though some historians have thought over the years that Lincoln was behind the positioning of troops in Arkansas and other states in the south following the election of 1860, recent research has proven otherwise.

An extraordinary set of circumstances put Captain James Totten in a rather awkward position. With southern eyes watching Totten’s every move, citizens in Little Rock began to ask questions. Why was the United States Army in town? Why are they garrisoning the arsenal after it had been empty for so many years? The artillery commander Totten was asking those same questions.

In a dispatch sent from Governor Henry Rector to Totten on January 28, 1861, the governor told Totten, “The public exigencies require me to make known to you that the U.S. Arsenal at the place will be permitted to remain in the possession of the Federal officers until the State, by authority of the people, shall have determined to sever their connection with the General Government, unless, however, wit should be thought proper to order additional forces to this point; or, on the other hand, an attempt should be made to remove or destroy the munitions of war deposited in said aesenal.” The dispatch went on to tell Totten that any assurances of the above would, “prevent a collision between the soverign people of Arkansas and the Government troops now stationed at this point.”

Having read the communication from the governor, Totten at that point realized there were things going on behind the scenes in which he was only a pawn in a larger proverbial game of political and military chess. After reading Rector’s confusing dispatch and allowing himself time to ponder the correct response to the governor, Totten’s reply relayed, “to say to your excellency that my understanding leads me to believe that the troops under my commend were ordered here at the request of some of the members of congress from this state, and several good citizens also, for what reasons, if any, I have not been appraised.”

Totten told the governor, “I cannot give your excellence any assurances as to what instructions may in the future be issued regarding this arsenal and the Federal troops now stationed here, but I can assure you that so far as I am informed, no orders, such as you refer in your two propositions, have been issued, nor do I believe, privately and unofficially, that any such orders will be given by the Federal Government.”

Little to Totten’s knowledge, a group of armed men from Helena and Pine Bluff would descend upon the arsenal and surround Totten and his confused artillerymen. As the confusion for Totten began with the dispatch from Rector, a mob in Pine Bluff was pulling over a steamboat full of military equipment. Things were about to get interesting in Arkansas. The next column will look closely at a newly-found account of the steamboat affair at Pine Bluff.

Arkansas in the Civil War: 1861 contains over 200 pages of primary source documents that, for the first time ever, tell the whole story of the Civil War in Arkansas from both sides using their own words. Some documents are in print for the very first time, including letters, official correspondence, historical accounts of battles, newspaper editorials, and much more. It took over a decade to compile the documents that help tell the story of Arkansas the first year of the Civil War.