Unionists in the Hills: The Arkansas Peace Society

Mississippi Unionist Newton Knight

In the large majority of seceding Confederate states, there were pockets of Unionist resistance.  In general, these dissenting enclaves developed in the hilly backwoods areas, where farms were small, slaves few, and citizens fiercely independent.  Some of their inhabitants were against slavery for moral reasons, some were deserters disillusioned with the Confederate Army’s habit of provisioning itself by stealing from civilians, and still others were simply poor men unwilling to die to protect the interests of rich slaveholders.

The best known of these enclaves is Mississippi’s “Free State of Jones,” the subject of the book of the same name by Victoria Bynum and of the movie based on that book. The inhabitants of this unusual community were a collection of poor farmers and runaway slaves, led by a white man called Newton Knight.  They fought various skirmishes against the local Confederates, and in the spring of 1864 actually drove out Confederate troops and openly declared their loyalty to the Union.  While hiding out in the swamps, they were fed and helped by slaves and local sympathizers, including a slave named Rachel with whom Knight later entered a common-law marriage, and whose descendants are still living in the area.

In North Carolina’s northwest “Quaker Belt,” resistance was even fiercer. In Randolph County, a farmer named William Owens pulled together a band of armed pro-Union guerrillas who waged war on the Confederates for  two years, until Owens was captured and lynched.

In Arkansas, Unionist resistance was also concentrated in the hilly northwest.  In Searcy County and neighboring areas, the clandestine Arkansas Peace Society may have numbered as many as 1,700 members. According to Arkansas historian Thomas A. DeBlack, they formed a network whose members recognized each other by means of codes: a yellow ribbon on a fencepost, or the phrase “It’s a dark night,” answered with “Not so dark as it will be before morning.”

Ted Worley, another Arkansas historian, argues that the primary goal of the society was to protect the homes and farms of its members against bandits, runaway slaves, and the Confederate army, and that without retaliatory action by that army they would have been merely a harmless “island of passive resistance.”  But in a war for the survival of slave society, such passivity could not be tolerated.  In December of 1861 the Confederate authorities arrested 78 alleged members and marched them to Little Rock in chains, along with sympathizers from several neighboring counties.

In Little Rock, they were given the choice of being tried, and presumably hanged, for treason, or enlisting. Most of them enlisted, but they somehow failed to gain the trust of the officers under whom they served. Before the battle of Shiloh, one such officer is said to have told his regular troops that if the Arkansans “try to get to the Federals, shoot them; if they fall back, shoot them; if they try to run, shoot them.” Many of them fully justified that mistrust: they ran off, and often headed north to enlist in the Union army.  Ultimately, as many as six companies of Arkansas Unionists fought for the Union.  Meanwhile, the fifteen men who had refused to enlist were never tried, because a grand jury refused to indict them.

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