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Arkansas in the Civil War: 1861

As the one hundred and fifty-five year ago series continues, February of 1861 shows us another glimpse into the past. Riverboats, though common by 1861, the larger and fancy riverboats were still the novelty in the frontier state of Arkansas. An 1861 newspaper account captured a good deal of info about a larger and newer liner, the Fredrick Notrebe. This article is printed in its entirity in the new Arkansas in the Civil War: 1861.

It is no wonder the Arkansas state seal has on it a steam boat. River transportation has always been paramount in Arkansas’ economy and is still a common sight on the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. In 1861, a traveler wrote an editorial to The Avalanche, a popular Memphis-based newspaper an account of a “good boat, the Fredric Notrebe, and her gentlemanly officers…”.

Amid numerous editorials and otherwise rants about secession and other “momentous affairs of State” the travel stories that were slipped into the 1861 columns of newspapers in the region were a welcomed aside for the weary reader. Entitled simply, “Arkansas Correspondence”, the mid-February editorial focused specifically on his voyage on a steamer. He described the ship as, “one of the largest class of stern-wheelers – entirely new, and well adapted for the trade she is in.” The traveler also was quick to point out that the Fredrick Notrebe was, “well finished and furnished, and her cabin tastefully carpeted and decorated.” The state rooms were described as “large and airy”. Her cuisine, “I must say, emphatically, that she has as good a table as any craft afloat or ashore.”

With river travel came river problems. Even in February, the Mississippi River and the Arkansas River were still quite unpredictable. As the rivers rose and fell, obstacles of all kinds threatened boats of all sizes. The Notrebe was no exception. The editorial notes that the ship, “laid by most of one night on the Arkansas river on account of foul weather, and the other nights we were compelled to run slow on account of the innumerable obstructions to navigation in the shape of snags, or ‘Arkansaw tooth-picks,’ sand-bars, etc.”

Regarding the Arkansas River, the writer points out that it was “the grave-yard of steamboats, I should say, from the number of wrecks we passed, and places pointed out where others had perished…I noticed the wrecks of the Frontier City, New Cedar Rapids, and Quapaw, standing in water up to their cabin floors, at various places, some considerable distance apart.”

Steamboats were vital to the shipping of goods, transportation of people, and information. But these ships were susceptible to untold dangers ranging from natural to manmade, including the dangers of steamboats being pulled over by militias on the banks of the river in Pine Bluff and Napoleon. The world was changing for the steamboats and soon they would find service in shipping goods and troops across the nation in the upcoming Civil War.

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.