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Arkansas in the Civil War: 1860

One hundred and fifty-five years ago, some historians argue the first shots of the Civil War were fired in Pine Bluff. First shots? Well, there was an act of war committed by the citizens of Jefferson County against the United States government as reports were circulated regarding the United States Army in the Little Rock Arsenal being resupplied with military stores. As steamboats were making their way to resupply the troops, Arkansas militia in Pine Bluff had other plans.

According to Unionist William Demby from Pine Bluff, “This was about the time the incendiary, exciting, and false reports were being sent out from Little Rock.” He noted in his memoirs, “This notorious robbery was the first violent measure of the gathering mob.” As the boats neared Pine Bluff, shots across the bow of the boat led the captain of the vessel to dock immediately. As the boats landed, it was discovered that the goods onboard, “were of the finest and best quality, such flour, and other articles of provision had never before been seen in Pine Bluff.” Demby commented, regarding the illegal seizure of Federal property, “Many had a desire to test the quality, and made free to help themselves to what they wished, especially the fine liquors.”

Pine Bluff militiamen were not the only ones with a fever for poking the proverbial bear. Demby wrote in his memoirs, “No sooner had this brilliant achievement of robbery at Pine Bluff been consummated, than the mob at Helena, with a similar spirit longing for plunder, determined upon the capture of the Arsenal at Little Rock.”

The militia from Helena, determined to make an attack on the Little Rock Arsenal by way of Pine Bluff, boarded transports and headed toward the Arkansas River from the Mississippi River port community. The site was one Demby related in his memoirs later: “Men and boys of all grades and ages, capable of bearing shot guns, butcher knives, and a certain portion of whiskey, were seen running with maddened excitement in every direction, preparing to join in the enterprise that was to make each participant a hero to be read of in all time among the brave and chivalrous sons of Arkansas…they proceeded to Little Rock, all together in high glee, well stimulated with Yankee whiskey.”

The drunken mob arrived in Little Rock and the Little Rock Arsenal Crisis would reach a near tipping point as the Federal soldiers were still trying to make sense of it all. Over the next week the crisis will be explained through primary documents found in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

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.