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Waldron War

The Waldron War was a decade-long period of violence that began during the Reconstruction era and was characterized by arson, general lawlessness, personal and political feuds, electoral misconduct, and violence—including murder—throughout Scott County. The civil strife resulted in Governors Augustus Garland and William Read Miller dispatching the state militia to the county on at least three occasions to restore order.

With much of Waldron (Scott County) burned by departing Union troops in 1864, the citizens faced the reestablishment of the infrastructure of the town. While hostile feelings remained between those sympathetic to the Union cause and the Confederate cause, much of the strife was attributed to personality conflicts within the local Republican Party. Although there was the occasional outburst of lawlessness, such as arson and election fraud, in the period immediately following the Civil War, for the most part, the town progressed with rebuilding and economic growth.

The cycle of contentious elections began in 1870 with the naming of the Scott County Board of Registrars by Governor Powell Clayton. James M. Bethel, a member of the board, was later declared to have defeated the father of fellow board member W. J. Ellington in a race for the legislature, resulting in rumors and accusations about the election. The gossip and intrigue were compounded by Bethel’s failure to arrive in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to begin his term. He was soon found dead on an area mountain, and published reports attributed Bethel’s death to causes varying from natural to weather-related to murder.

The election of 1872 saw a pattern not unlike the election of 1870. Reports of voter registration books missing from the clerk’s office circulated, as did rumors, accusations, and innuendos about the election process. Local “correspondents” composed “reports” to the editors of several newspapers establishing a pattern of unreliable, biased, and sometimes inflammatory views of events. Lorenzo D. Gilbreath, who had resigned the office of county clerk and was state representative-elect, and James C. Gilbreath, a deputy clerk and the county clerk-elect, were arrested for “resisting process” and “refusal to produce papers.” The substance of the charges was that the men had declined to turn over the “books and papers of the office” to L. L. Hyman, who had been appointed to serve the remainder of Lorenzo Gilbreath’s term. Gilbreath supporters countered that the arrests were pre-textual and designed to prevent Gilbreath from being in Little Rock. While the charges were not sustained, rhetoric ran high, and feelings were reinforced.

Pursuant to an order from Governor Elisha Baxter, Scott County saw a new voter registration in 1873. Increasing political pressure and personality conflicts ushered in a new intensity and violent fervor to the already unsettled political climate in 1874. The year was marked by a violent cycle, though with few apprehensions and convictions of rumored perpetrators. A longtime feud within the Republican Party was highlighted with the shooting of prominent citizen Cerop Malone. A former sheriff, Nathan Floyd, was charged with the shooting but was later acquitted. In 1875, Floyd sustained a gunshot wound and chose to leave the state.

An outburst of violence in 1876 brought arson, which left Waldron’s business district in ashes, along with several murders. As public opinion rose to demand restoration of law and order, the sheriff, F. C. “Buck” Gaines, appealed to Governor Garland, who dispatched Adjutant General Carroll D. Wood to the county. Order was briefly restored until about June 1876, when Judge Frank Fuller was wounded by shots fired into his home. With that event, the factions were feuding again, with murders and general lawlessness frequent. Peter Beam, a prominent citizen who had notified former sheriff Floyd that he had been offered a large sum of money to kill Floyd, was shot and killed by hidden assailants as his young daughter watched. Several shootings, some fatal, took place in public locations such as the town square. The sheriff again appealed to the governor, who dispatched General Robert Newton. Newton organized a militia, and a strained period of order prevailed.

In the summer of 1877, panic again prevailed, and Judge John Rodgers was warned not to hold circuit court. The August term of the court was held but resulted in the formation of local “militias” of unknown missions and motives. With this turn of events, Adjutant General James Pomeroy “took up his residence at Waldron,” directing the “militias” and ensuring an orderly term of the court in the spring of 1878.

The apparent climax of the “war” took place in Waldron in February 1878 with the murder of John L. “Shabe” Davenport, a well-known citizen of the area. A mob of citizens from the northern part of the county formed to supposedly restore order in the county. The citizens of Waldron, alerted to the mob, prepared for engagement, but high water levels on the Poteau River made crossing for the mob impossible. This likely prevented significant bloodshed. A concerned Governor William Miller staged an encampment of militia from Franklin County nearby to wait for the sheriff’s call. With two “militias” composed of local citizens aligned with factions, Governor Miller felt that an objective presence poised as an alternative was needed. The presence of the state militia helped bring about a gradual restoration of order, and Miller later remarked, “Their presence rendered their employment unnecessary.” An investigation into the disorder at Waldron brought a trial and acquittal of several prominent citizens, but the return to normality did not ameliorate the animosity toward Governor Miller and the adjutant general for the perceived indignity imposed upon Scott County. State senator R. T. Kerr, who represented Scott and Sebastian counties, sought revenge by securing passage of Act 49 of 1879, which abolished the Office of Adjutant General and required that those duties be performed by the governor’s private secretary. A last attempt at revenge came in 1882 with an attempt to sue the auditor of state for recompense for the unpleasantness stemming from the “war.”

For additional information:
Claunts, P. M. From Memory’s Scrapbook: A History of the Early Days of Scott County, Arkansas. Waldron, AR: The Scott County Library Heritage Committee, 1983.

Goodner, Norman. A History of Scott County, Arkansas. Siloam Springs, AR: Bar D Press, 1941.

“Governor Miller addresses Legislature.” Arkansas Gazette. January 16, 1879, p. 2.

McCutchen, Henry Grady. History of Scott County, Arkansas. 2nd ed. Waldron: Scott County Historical Society, 1988.

Wes Goodner
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated 9/13/2012

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