The History and Historians of Civil War Arkansas

Article excerpt

THE APPROACH OF A NEW CENTURY is reason enough to take stock of any historical field, but such an assessment seems especially appropriate for the Civil War. To the casual observer, the Civil War years remain one of the constants in American life. Everyone knows Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, Vicksburg and Gettysburg. The war in Arkansas had its own players and events, but the names are equally recognizable to many Arkansans: Isaac Murphy and Henry Rector, Frederick Steele and Sterling Price, Pea Ridge and Jenkins' Ferry. Yet there is more, much more, to the Arkansas story than those familiar battles and leaders. Modern historians view nearly every aspect of the war quite differently than did scholars of a century ago. Social and economic issues now challenge traditional military and political themes for dominance, and the very best work offers a smoothly blended interdisciplinary perspective on the causes and progress of the war. Early "Confederate" histories of the conflict have given way to less ideological interpretations. Indeed, the historiography of Civil War Arkansas has become complicated enough to merit some sorting out and to invite speculation about the direction of future scholarship.1

It all began a hundred years ago, when John M. Harrell published the first significant work about the war in Arkansas. Entitled simply Arkansas, Harrell's book appeared as part of the landmark Confederate Military History, edited by Clement A. Evans. Like most contributors to this multivolume set, which included a military/political narrative of the war for each Confederate state, Harrell had served in the conflict and become active in the United Confederate Veterans. Born in North Carolina, he had emigrated to Arkansas in 1849, at age twenty-one, to practice law. He rose to the grade of colonel during the war and saw action in Virginia, Mississippi, and Arkansas. His history of the war, like those of most nineteenth-century chroniclers-northem and southern-was notably partisan. Yet, for all that, Harrell managed a surprisingly balanced tone. He certainly produced something more than a personal reminiscence, and while we have no evidence to show what sources he used in his research, he more than likely consulted Century Magazine's "Battles and Leaders" series and the government's recently published War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.2

Harrell's work stood unchallenged until the 1920s, when Thomas S. Staples and David Y. Thomas produced the first scholarly accounts of the war. Staples, a professor at Hendrix College and former student of William A. Dunning at Columbia University, expressed more interest in Reconstruction than the war. Yet the fact that Arkansas had early on been occupied by the Union army, thus allowing Abraham Lincoln to experiment with reconstruction policies in the state, made the prelude to that postwar political struggle an important part of the state's wartime experience. Staples devoted nearly a fifth of his 1923 book, Reconstruction in Arkansas, to the war years. Reflecting the beliefs of his mentor and the so-called "Dunning school" of historiography, he characterized the state's unionist government as inept and interpreted the postwar era as a dark period in the South's history. Scalawags, northern carpetbaggers, and southern blacks conspired, he said, to strip former rebels of their rights and to establish corrupt state governments that mirrored the Gilded Age cesspool of Washington, DC.3

Three years later, David Thomas, formerly a professor at Hendrix but by then teaching at the University of Arkansas, filled in the rest of the picture with his tremendously influential Arkansas in War and Reconstruction, 1861-1874. Interestingly, Thomas had been reluctant to write the book. The son of a Confederate veteran, the Kentucky-born Thomas was, nonetheless, "very much adverse to war." His pacifism nearly led him to reject the project, and he became downright apprehensive upon learning that the Arkansas division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy would "assist" with his research. …