What Chaos Looks Like: Arkansas Civilians in the Civil War

From the beginning of the conflict, Arkansas’ experience in the Civil War was fated to be one of drawn-out agony. Until the moment that Fort Sumter was attacked, the state was roughly evenly divided between those who favored secession and the Unionists or “cooperationists,” most of whom hoped to preserve their slave-based society while remaining in the Union. Thomas Stevenson Drew was one of the latter. After Fort Sumter, however, he and most other Unionists switched sides, at least temporarily.

In the course of the next year, the enthusiasm of the secessionists turned to ashes, as Federal and Confederate troops battled back and forth across the northern half of their state. Historian Thomas A. DeBlack, the author of With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861-1874, describes the suffering of the civilian population. In June of 1862, a Federal force fighting its way south towards Little Rock became separated from its supply train, and had to resort instead to “total war,” plundering the homes and farms of civilians for whatever they needed or wanted, then burning everything that remained.  In response, Confederate General Thomas Hindman imposed a scorched earth strategy, urging civilians to destroy everything in the Federal line of march that could possible be useful to them.  He also authorized the use of guerrilla forces to harass the invading army—an order that quickly gave rise to gangs of freelance bandits who settled old scores, punished “traitors,” and plundered at will. What the Federal army could not destroy, the Confederates did, and the outlaws took care of the rest.

Civil order collapsed, and the area of conflict degenerated into anarchy. The misery of the civilian population, added to a series of disasters suffered by their army, helped to spur an increase in desertion among Confederate troops, and the energy of the remaining soldiers was increasingly diverted into hunting down and executing the deserters. In August of 1863 a Federal force marched in from Kansas to capture Fort Smith, on the Arkansas River near the state’s western boundary, and the following month another Federal army arrived from the south to capture Little Rock.  Hundreds of additional Confederate soldiers deserted during the Confederate retreat.

Throughout the war, control of northern Arkansas seesawed between the two armies. In the course of that conflict, the area’s economy disintegrated. Mills and factories were closed or destroyed. Even with good harvests there was widespread hunger, since there were not enough men to harvest the crops.  The town of Dardanelle, on the Arkansas River halfway between Fort Smith and Little Rock, was largely destroyed in the course of three separate attempts by the Confederates to retake it from the Federals, and the civilian population fled to avoid starvation.  Among them were Thomas and Cinderella Drew and their daughters.

In the course of four years, the population of Arkansas may have been reduced by as much as 50%. And the conflict did not end with the end of formal hostilities. A sign in a riverside park in Pocahontas carries the words of Colonel J.B. Rogers, Commanding Officer of the Missouri State [Union] Militia Cavalry in 1865: he had “found the country infested by small bands of guerrillas, who will not stand and fight, but subsist by plundering the inhabitants, and the swamps and canebrakes of the region afford them secure shelter.” A low mound in the middle of a field is still pointed out to visitors as the place where the Drew home once stood.

 

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