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On May 20, 1861, the Arkansas Secession Convention passed an ordinance creating an Army of Arkansas with a First Division in western Arkansas and a Second Division in the eastern part of the state. These were placed under the command of a major general, with brigadier generals heading the two divisions. The Army of Arkansas was to be controlled by the state Military Board, which the convention had formed five days earlier with the power to call out the militia and use it as needed to defend the state. Despite that, the convention elected James Yell as major general, Nicholas Bartlett Pearce of Benton County as brigadier of the First Division, and Thomas H. Bradley of Crittenden County to lead the Second Division. As the call for troops went out, seven state regiments were organized by early June and sent to either Fort Smith (Sebastian County) or Pocahontas (Randolph County) to serve in their respective divisions.
Bradley, who had initially opposed secession, was soon deposed from his position amid a call for his court-martial on charges of cowardice and drunkenness, and Yell took command of the eastern division and its camps at Pittman’s Ferry on the Current River and at Pocahontas. On June 25, 1861, Brigadier General William J. Hardee was ordered to Arkansas to enlist state troops into Confederate service. Hardee, prior to assuming his duties at Pocahontas, entered an agreement with the Military Board that would allow such enlistments if the majority of the men in the Arkansas companies approved; if not, the companies would be disbanded. Yell and Adjutant General Edmund Burgevin argued against the Arkansas State Troops entering Confederate service, leading about half of one regiment to disband. According to historian Michael B. Dougan, “Members of the other four [regiments] were retained by the expedient of mustering them into Confederate service before Adjutant Burgevin could reach them.” Those troops would later transfer for service east of the Mississippi River.
The First Division would have a stronger record of service in the Trans-Mississippi. Pearce initially set up his headquarters at Fort Smith, but he sent his 2,000 state troops to train at Camp Walker at Beatty’s Prairie near Maysville (Benton County). Confederate brigadier general Ben McCulloch of Texas was also in Fort Smith gathering troops from Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana to counter any Union moves in the region, and, in May, Pearce was ordered to cooperate with the Texan. Inspector General Dandridge McRae was sent to Pearce’s headquarters on June 21 to swear the men of the First Division into state service with the right to transfer into Confederate service. Pearce, however, refused to allow his men to be sworn in, and Hardee said that he would refuse to bring them into Confederate service because of events developing in southwestern Missouri, where Union general Nathaniel Lyon was moving against General Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard.
McCulloch moved his troops to Maysville to consolidate his forces, and the combined troops marched into Missouri to support Price in late July. As the campaign began, Pearce’s Arkansas State Troops consisted of 1,700 infantry in the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Arkansas Infantry; the Fort Smith and Woodruff’s Artillery Batteries; and 400 horsemen in the First Arkansas Cavalry and Captain Charles A. Carroll’s Arkansas Cavalry. They linked with Price near Carthage, Missouri, and the force of around 12,000 men moved north, camping at Wilson’s Creek, twelve miles from Springfield. On August 10, 1861, Lyon’s Union troops attacked McCulloch’s army in a savage battle that ended after the Federal general was killed in action. Of the 1,222 killed and wounded in McCulloch’s force, Pearce’s Arkansas State Troops suffered thirty-six dead and 118 wounded.
Following the victory at Wilson’s Creek, the Military Board sent General N. B. Burrow to move Pearce’s Arkansas State Troops to Pocahontas and transfer to Confederate service under Hardee. Pearce again rejected the transfer. He addressed his men on August 28, 1861, telling them that they would have to disband or transfer to Confederate service, though if they claimed their discharge from state service he would allow them to have a twenty-day furlough and then join the Confederate army. McCulloch reported on September 2 that only eighteen or twenty men remained from Pearce’s First Division, though he was confident many would later enlist.
Arkansas State Troops were again called into service following the Battle of Pea Ridge, after which General Earl Van Dorn moved the entire Confederate army in the state east of the Mississippi River. Governor Henry Rector in early May 1862 called for up to 4,500 men, bearing their own weapons, to serve in a state army. Those troops were transferred to Confederate service on June 2, 1862, after Major General Thomas C. Hindman assumed command of the Trans-Mississippi district. State troops were raised in the summer of 1863 as Union major general Frederick Steele’s army advanced toward Little Rock (Pulaski County), and twelve companies were raised in southwestern Arkansas in the spring of 1864 to help repel Steele’s march toward Shreveport, Louisiana, during the Red River Campaign.
For additional information:
Christ, Mark K. Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
Dougan, Michael B. Confederate Arkansas: The People and Policies of a Frontier State in Wartime. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
Huff, Leo E. “The Military Board in Confederate Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 21 (Spring 1967): 75–95.
Piston, William Garrett, and Richard W. Hatcher III. Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 7/17/2017
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