Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Dr. William Shea Lecture (part 7): Arkansas in the Civil War
From The Arkansas Toothpick:
Note: This lecture was based on Dr. Shea’s recently-published “The War We Have Lost” in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly:
I could go on for several hours about topics, other topics that need to be explored besides leadership, besides the destruction caused by both armies despite the horrendous impact of guerilla warfare, despite the multi-racial, multi-cultural nature of the war here, but lucky for you, I have a time limit , and so all I would do now is just throw out a few topics , other aspects of the Civil War in Arkansas and surrounding states that really cry out for attention. These are fascinating topics.
When I focus on military events, which there is nothing wrong with, I am a military historian, but our focus on military events most of the past century and a half as obscured the fact that this was a Civil War, this was a revolutionary social and demographic experience . Here are some of these examples.
What about someone exploring the long-obscured role of that sizable white Unionist population in Arkansas. Why did they believe what they believed? Why did they hold on to these beliefs? What was their role in the war and so forth.
We need someone to look at the rapid, in fact, the surprisingly rapid dissolution of slavery in Arkansas during the Civil War- the fact that organized military campaigns, by General Curtis and General Blount of the Union Army, to end slavery in the points in Arkansas where they could reach and to do so months before Abraham Lincoln even considered the possibility of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation or anything like that. This has just gotten lost in the shuffle. There were thousands and thousands of newly-freed black men, women, children assembling in places like Fayetteville and Helena where Union Armies were present in 1862 before the Emancipation Proclamation. Refugee camps were being set up and the men at least were actively being encouraged to make a few dollars, get a new set of blue clothes, pick up a rifle, and join the fight. No one has ever documented that in Arkansas.
Twenty years ago I was researching the Battle of Pea Ridge at the National Archives in Washington. I had an interesting time because no one had explored the Civil War in Arkansas there and every time the archivist would lift open the top of a cardboard box of Union or Confederate records, not only would there be billows of dust, but I swear on occasion bats would fly out. I don’t think, in fact, when I was undoing one bundle of documents, I believe it was letters bound up in a ribbon. When I pulled on the ends of the ribbon, it simply disintegrated, and he said that we were probably the first people to look inside this box at the records of the Union Army of the South West since the records had been put there in the 1880s. In the process of rummaging through box after box of stuff, I found in one box three huge old fashioned ledger books- the kind that merchants used to keep their accounts in, and there was actually stamped on the cover “such and such mercantile company”, either Clarendon or Newport , Arkansas. It was when the Union Army was marching through the Delta to Helena in 1862, and I thought, “What’s this?” and I began flipping them over and I realized what I was looking at. It was some officer in the Union Army had been given the task of interviewing every runaway or refugee and family members that arrived within the reach of the Union Army as it moved through the Delta.
As people would show up they would be sent to his tent and he would get their names, where they were from, ages, who they had belonged to (the family of ownership) and so forth, and then he would write out what were called “Freedom Papers”. Unofficially, done entirely by the Army, no politicians in Washington, Abe Lincoln nor anybody else was involved. The Union Army, as it was crashing through Arkansas during the Summer of 1862, was ending slavery as it proceeded, and this has gotten very little attention.
What’s also gotten very little attention is that there exists in Washington a cardboard box with these ledger books with the names of these people- often first names only: Jupiter, Sam, sometime family names but always the names of the owning family. Again, as far as I know, I am the only person from Arkansas ever, or any historian, to have even seen them since they were put in those boxes a hundred and thirty years ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t do anything with them; I was there looking for military records as I flipped through and said, “Man this is amazing stuff! Some genealogist would kill for this!” Then I put it back, closed the box, and they disappeared into the vault of the National Archives.