The Little Rock Arsenal Crisis in 1861 was a microcosm of a larger game being played around the nation. Little Rock was not the only city in which Federal troops were called to garrison an arsenal in the South. As more documents have been discovered over the past several years, it becomes obvious that both sides of the building conflict were guided by hot-headed politicians in Washington, D.C. We have already discovered the dispatch that was sent by an Arkansas congressman to Captain Totten in November 1860. As the crisis reached its climax, Little Rock residents began to prepare for war.
Mayor pro tem of Little Rock, Charles Bertrand and the Little Rock city council met and began a series of legal documents aimed at the garrison now stationed at the arsenal. Alderman Geo. C. Watkins noted, “Whereas an armed force of about four hundred men from different parts of this State are assembled at Little Rock for the purpose of seizing the U.S. Arsenal at this place, under the apprehension that the arsenal and the arms and munitions of war stored therein may at no distant day be used to the injury of the people of this State, and it is reasonably certain that such force will soon be increased to one thousand men, or to five thousand, if necessary for the purpose designed.”
The proclamation went on to note that if a clash were to occur, it would most certainly be at the expense of life and property for both the U.S. troops in the arsenal and the citizens of Little Rock. To prevent bloodshed, the proclamation asked that Captain Totten immediately surrender the arsenal to State authorities.
Meanwhile Arkansas congressmen began sending dispatches of extremely urgent nature to the governor of Arkansas, who was also the commander-in-chief for the militia surrounding the arsenal. Albert Pike and R.W. Johnson sent a communication to John Pope, Esq. noting, “For God’s sake do not complicate matters by an attack. It will be premature and do incalculable injury. We cannot justify it. The reasons that existed elsewhere for seizure do not exist with us.”
But hot-headed congressman Thomas C. Hindman and R.W. Johnson sent quite another dispatch to Governor Rector saying, “Don’t attack arsenal unless success is certain. Repulse would be disgraceful. Pledge might be required not to remove or injure arms and munitions without notice…”
Conflict became so close that rumors began to circulate in Washington, D.C. about shots fired. When the dust settled, United States commander Captain James Totten wrote on February 10, “I have retired with my command from the Little Rock Arsenal…” Per an agreement with Governor Rector, Totten and his men left the Arsenal with only what they brought with them back in November. No arms or munitions of any kind would be permitted to leave the Arsenal. As Totten evacuated, they boarded the steamer Madora, and traveled directly to St. Louis, where he reported, “to the general commanding the Department of the West for orders”.
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.