The Divisions of Arkansas

This entry is part 9 of 14 in the series The Divided States of the South

Arkansas during the Civil WarNow, the military-minded might think that the title might suggest that this post is about the state of Arkansas to the conflict. But it signifies the geographical divisions in the state. Not every state in America was homogeneous and united. Arkansas is one such state.

Arkansas was remote and undeveloped in 1861. Arkansas was a part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and became a territory in 1819. Arkansas became a state in 1836 as a slave state while Michigan joined at the same time as a free state.When it entered the Union the state was very poor and needed a great deal of financial help to fund its state government.

The growing need for cotton gave many Arkansans an avenue to become involved in market economy for the first time, a transition that made the state significantly more prosperous. At the time, the most efficient way to grow cotton was a plantation-style system, and this quickly became the norm in the southeast part of Arkansas.

Arkansas is divided into two geographical regions that are simply named the Lowlands and the Highlands. The Highlands contained the southern portion of the Ozark Mountains. They grew little cotton and did not “require” slave labor. The folk of the Highlands generally did not own slaves, nor did they have any interest in owning slaves. Strong Union sentiment ran through the Highlands, even from the beginning of the war.

The Lowlands were nearly the mirror opposite of the Highlands, not only in geography, but in the people as well. Cotton was king, and therefore slavery was widespread. The divide between classes was wide and enforced by the wealthy slave-holding class. This being the state’s controlling class, at the time of the war, Arkansas still did not provide free schools. Whatever Union sentiment ran through the Lowlands was quashed by this class, who had no interest in any movement that might emancipate their slaves.

This division of Arkansas also was reflected in the number of units that fought for each side. Arkansas formed some 48 infantry regiments for the Confederate Army in addition to numerous cavalry and artillery battery units to serve as part of the Confederate Army. The 1st Arkansas Mounted Rifles, and the 1st4th, and 6th Arkansas Infantries would go on to see considerable action as a part of Major General Braxton Bragg‘s Army of Tennessee

Though it was with the Confederacy that Arkansas sided as a state, not all Arkansans supported the Confederate cause. Beginning with the fall of Little Rock to Union forces in 1863, Arkansans supporting the Union formed some eleven infantry regiments, four cavalry regiments, and two artillery batteries to serve in the Union Army. None of those saw any heavy combat actions, and few took part in any major battles. 

Arkansas has the distinction of having three state capitals during the war. Little Rock was then and is now the Arkansas state capital. But when the Union Army threatened to capture the city in the early summer of 1862 the Confederate state government abandoned Little Rock and moved the state government to Hot Springs, Arkansas. It only remained there for a short time before moving deeper into Confederate occupied territory, in Washington, Arkansas, where it would remain for the rest of the war.

The primary area of Unionism in the state was in the northwest corner. The Unionists furnished about 10,000 men to the Union cause, a significant number in a state with an overall population of 213,000 whites (including women and children).

The First Arkansas Cavalry became the most famous Union regiment raised from the state. After being mustered into service at Springfield, Missouri, in July 1862, the regiment returned to Arkansas and operated as a counter-guerrilla force.

Roaming bands of Confederate sympathizers often harassed pro-Union families in Arkansas during the first months of the war. Most Unionists tried to keep their allegiance quiet and avoid Confederate service. After northwest Arkansas was temporarily secured following the Federal victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge, in Benton County, in March 1862, many citizens revealed their Union sentiment. The Union army, however, moved to Batesville (Independence County), leaving many families without protection. Facing even more danger at home, many of those families fled to Missouri to escape Confederate conscription and guerrillas.

The war began to turn against the Confederates in 1863, losing at the Battle of Helena despite a coordinated attack by generals Theophilus H. Holmes,Sterling PriceJohn S. Marmaduke, and James Fleming Fagan. The Siege of Vicksburg concluded as a Union victory the same day, severely compromising the Rebels’ control of the Mississippi River.

Later in the year the Union used the post at Helena to capture Little Rock, forcing the Confederate government to relocate to Washington. Despite controlling the state capitol, the Union hold on the state was tenuous. Guerrilla warfare ravaged the countryside and small towns throughout the war. Bands of guerrillas often stole from houses and burned fields wherever the Union or Confederate armies were not present.

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