Fort Smith’s role in the Civil War began even before Arkansas secession from the Union on April 22, 1861. Two steamboat loads of supplies destined for Fort Smith had been unloaded at the port of Napoleon on the Arkansas River to be transferred to smaller vessels for the rest of the trip up-river. In early February, the cargo was seized by individuals claiming to act for the State of Arkansas. When word reached Washington, D. C., General Winfield Scott initially ordered that Federal troops be evacuated to Fort Levenworth, Kansas. However, the order was withdrawn after area citizens protested and professed their loyalty to the Union.
Less than two months later, on April 12, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumpter in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor. On April 24, Arkansas State troops reached the post at Fort Smith only to find it empty except for two officers, an ordinance sergeant, the hospital steward, the sick, and the post laundresses. On May 6, Arkansas seceded from the Union.
Confederate forces occupied Fort Smith for over two years. On September 1, 1863, after a series of engagements and skirmishes in the Indian Territory and northwest Arkansas in the first part of the year between Union and Confederate forces, including Indian allies on both sides, the First Arkansas Infantry crossed the Poteau River from Indian Territory and occupied the once again empty post. Confederate forces, depleted by desertions, had retreated from Fort Smith.
The Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri endured ravishment by a guerrilla war of revenge. Small bands of mounted bandits - often outlaws using the war for their own ends - destroyed or appropriated anything military or civilian that could aid the enemy or be of use to themselves. Troops and partisans of both sides plundered the land and victimized women and children left to fend for themselves. A knock on the door at night might mean a visit by bushwhackers or militia, come to search for weapons, conscript the men and boys, or steal, plunder, and burn.
With the skimishing between Federal and Confederate forces, in early 1865, the Union still did not have complete control of the Arkansas River Valley. While the river was usually navigable as far as Fort Smith from February to June, Confederate forces on occasion stopped supplies from reaching Fort Smith.
Food for the civilian population became a significant problem. Though some refugees had money to pay for food, little was available. Others who were destitute, would be able support themselves and contribute to the food supply if they were able to return unmolested to their homes.
Destitute refugees were allowed some limited rations from the army. However, the many loyal families who were not refugees could not draw rations as army regulations did not allow purchases by civilians. Only the army commissary had bread-stuffs.
Most farms in northwest Arkansas had been long abandoned “because of the depredations of the Confederates, Federals, guerrillas, and bushwhackers.” Rather than protect the farmers, the occupying Union army seized their crops, livestock, and belongings, shipping them to Kansas for resale. Receipts were given for the property taken, but they were essentially worthless and the holders of the receipts had little hope of reimbursement.
Some refugees had left the area. Many others remained in area towns and communities.
While it was frankly admitted that “the widespread suffering and destitution was properly attributed more to Federal troops than to the enemy,” the military administration had stopped the abuse. As a solution for supplying the civilians of Fort Smith and the area with food, the Union Army authorized a system of armed agricultural colonies. Temporary help had been requested for about 2,000 people for three or four months until they could plant and harvest a crop.
Brigadier General Cyrus Bussey was directed to authorize a 100 man militia company for an agricultural colony in the bottoms below Van Buren. Once this company was filled, Bussey was to authorize others.
The companies were composed entirely of farmers, expected to farm and protect the land. The men were to receive no government pay or subsistence from the government. They were provided with seeds, arms and ammunition and, until their crops were harvested, were allowed to purchase food and forage from the army commissary.
Families not engaged in farming did not have the privilege of commissary purchases. To end the distribution of refugee rations, those who had no means of support were to be sent to Little Rock. Families of Arkansas soldiers in the Federal Army were not subject to this move.
Without authorization of superiors, "post colonies" had been established by the commander of the Fayetteville post, Colonel M. LaRue Harrison. By March 15, 1865 there were 16 armed agricultural colonies in 3 counties. The largest was the Union Valley Colony is Washington County. Well fortified on a large prairie, it was fully organized and armed with 112 men.The West Fork Colony, also in Washington County, had 95 armed men and was fortified. It had already seen service against guerrilas.
In Benton County, the Pea Ridge Colony was only partially organized with about 40 men. By the end of March it had 108 men and 4,000 acres fenced, expecting to harvest 800 acres of wheat in July. The Bentonville colony had 200 men by the end of March.
In Madison County, there were four colonies. The Huntsville Colony of 85 men had been in operationmore than a year. Forty men were kept in the field as rangers. The War Eagle Colony had 89 men, farming land on the War Eagle River and at Huntsville. The Richland Colony of 109 men was well fortified at Thomas M. Johnson's farm. Fifty men of the Brush Creek Colony fortified Vaughn's Meeting House.
With only 11 companies of cavalry, Harrison was unable to give adequate protection to areas far from headquarters. Though Marion, Searcy, Newton, and Carroll counties were all in the territory under the Fayetteville post, the counties were virtually depopulated when Federal troops withdrew, with many of the families in Southern Missouri.
Chronicles of Arkansas - The Years of the Civil War, by Margaret Ross, Arkansas Gazette, February 14, 1965
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