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United States military supplies were frequently captured across the South as states began to secede in late 1860 and early 1861. While the seizure of the Little Rock Arsenal is a well-known example of state troops taking control of Federal military posts, the capture of other posts and military supplies took place in the state during the secession crisis, including the seizure of ordnance stores at Napoleon (Desha County).
The debate over secession intensified in November 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected as president of the United States. In response to the prodding of Arkansas governor Henry Rector and other pro-secessionist politicians, the House of Representatives in the Arkansas General Assembly passed a bill on December 22, 1860, calling for voters to decide if a state secession convention should be held and, if so, to select delegates to attend. The state Senate passed the bill on January 16, 1861, and the election was set for February 18.
While the citizens of Arkansas waited to vote in the coming election, the military situation in the state intensified. The previously unmanned arsenal in Little Rock (Pulaski County) received a detachment of Federal soldiers to guard the facility and the arms contained in it. A number of militia units in the state responded by moving on the arsenal in an effort to take the post by force. After a number of days without any instructions from his commanders in Washington DC, the officer in command of the post surrendered the arsenal to the governor on February 8.
At the same time, other Federal military supplies were either in the state or in transit along its borders. Authorities in St. Louis, Missouri, shipped a large amount of materials down the Mississippi River to supply both the arsenal and the garrison at Fort Smith (Sebastian County). The steamer Sunshine departed St. Louis on January 15, 1861, and carried enough equipment to outfit eighty-three cavalry horses. The steamer Southwester followed on January 21 with 130,000 rounds of assorted ammunition. Sometime before February 12, 1861, both steamers were seized by men claiming to represent the state of Arkansas in the vicinity of Napoleon. It is unknown what happened to the seized materials.
More military stores were later seized at Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), and Fort Smith was abandoned in the face of a growing threat of an attack on that post. While the exact details of the seizure of the ordnance stores are unclear, the action shows that many Arkansans, especially in the eastern part of the state, were eager to ensure that the U.S. government was driven from Arkansas.
For additional information:Dougan, Michael B. Confederate Arkansas: The People and Policies of a Frontier State in Wartime. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Sesser, David. The Little Rock Arsenal Crisis: On the Precipice of the American Civil War. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 1. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1889.
David Sesser Henderson State University
Last Updated 4/5/2016
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