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Seizure of U.S. Subsistence Stores at Pine Bluff

The capture of Federal army supplies at Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) marked one of the first military actions in the state during the Civil War. Occurring before Arkansas officially left the Union, this seizure of supplies was not an operation of the Confederate army but rather of volunteer troops.

With the secession of South Carolina in late 1860 and other Southern states in early 1861, Arkansas called a secession convention to determine if the state would follow. The Little Rock Arsenal was seized by volunteer forces in February 1861, before the convention could meet. After the convention convened in March, the first session ended with a vote to remain in the Union and a proposal to send the question to voters.

Before that vote could take place, state forces in South Carolina fired upon Fort Sumter on April 12. In response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops to put down the rebellion, the secession convention was recalled and scheduled to meet in May. The state began to prepare both for secession and for an armed conflict to follow. On April 17, a shipment of arms and military training materials purchased by the State of Arkansas was seized by a crowd in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The next day, a group in Pine Bluff decided to retaliate. Provisions for the Federal garrison at Fort Smith (Sebastian County) were transported up the Arkansas River on civilian steamships. Captain William Burns, the commissary of subsistence at Fort Smith, understood that his supplies for the fort might be seized, and on April 20, he went downriver to Little Rock (Pulaski County). Upon arriving in the capital city, he found preparations under way for the capture of Fort Smith. He also encountered the steamer Sky Lark, which had been intercepted in Pine Bluff, and the supplies for the army were removed from the ship before the vessel was allowed to proceed upriver. Reports from that city indicated that the river was guarded by volunteer military units, armed with at least one cannon. After speaking to several prominent Unionist civilians in the city, Burns tried to speak with Governor Henry Rector without success. Burns continued down the Arkansas River until he arrived at Pine Bluff. He observed the steamer Silver Lake No. 2, which was also carrying government supplies. The steamer was tied up and guarded. The supplies on the boat had been dispersed through the town, and the governor ordered them to be sent to Little Rock to support the effort to capture Fort Smith.

Burns did not try to regain control of the supplies and, instead, continued his journey to the Mississippi River before reporting in at St. Louis, Missouri. The seizure of these supplies helped provision these earliest Arkansas military units as they embarked on a campaign to capture the most important military post in the state. While actual conflict between Federal troops and state volunteers never broke out during the seizure, this did mark one of the earliest actions within the state.

For additional information:
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 1/26/2016

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