Arkansas in the Civil War: 1861

Arkansas in the Civil War: 1861

Over the past five years there have been numerous new finds in the way of research on the topic of the Civil War in Arkansas. Diaries have been made public for the first time. A closer review done on the official records. Transcriptions of a multitude of newspaper articles and editorials. These and countless other new media have shed light on many questions that, until recently, little was known.

One of the most important questions asked prior to and during the 150th commemoration concerned the causes of the Civil War. In Arkansas, as a researcher, I have seen that there can not be one answer; blanket statements do not do the topic justice. As we set the clock back 155 years ago, we get a picture of Arkansas and that picture is bleak. As a state heavily reliant upon the lucrative cotton trade, Arkansas’ livelihood was threatened by the election of an abolitionist president Abraham Lincoln. The abolitionist party to which he belonged was the newly-formed Republican Party.

With mistrust directed toward a president that was elected and having not appeared on the ballot in many southern states, coupled with the threat of a slave rebellion akin to John Brown’s rebellion at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, the United States and Arkansas were poised for a difficult time ahead.

1861 began with what has been dubbed “The Little Rock Arsenal Crisis”. Known by Civil War historians in Arkansas, the relatively little-known affair was a tipping point in Arkansas politics and was nearly the site of the first shots of the Civil War. The story begins when Lincoln secures the presidency of the United States as the sixteenth president in November 1860. Immediately, and apparently out of the clear blue, a Federal artillery unit arrived at the Little Rock Arsenal, which had been abandoned for years.

Recap: Arkansas was a slave state and Lincoln did not appear on the ballot in 1860. Lincoln is elected and seemingly the Federal government sent government troops to garrison a Federal arsenal left abandoned for many years all of a sudden. To the average Arkansawyer in 1860, this would have been seen as overreaching and unnecessary and at the very least intimidating to be sure.

Now known as the MacArthur Museum of Military History in downtown Little Rock, the Little Rock Arsenal and the crisis that nearly erupted into a Civil War will be the topic in the next column with the presentation of a document that gives the reader a better picture of what happened one hundred and fifty-five years ago.

The editor of this column, Ron Kelley, is a Public Historian in Helena, Arkansas and writes for the Helena World newspaper. Kelley is the author of Diary of a State: 1860 and Arkansas in the Civil War: 1861. For more information on Arkansas in the Civil War, go to

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.