Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Governor Henry Rector and the Confederacy: States' Rights versus Military Contingencies

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Governor Henry Rector and the Confederacy: States' Rights versus Military Contingencies

Article excerpt

ON MAY 5, 1862, Gov. Henry reCtor called on the men of Arkansas to rally to the defense of their state against an invading foe. But his proclamation was more than simply an appeal for troops to stop an approaching column of federal soldiers led by Gen. Samuel R. Curtis. It also contained a threat to secede from the newly created Confederacy. Arkansans had sacrificed their blood for the new nation, the governor asserted, but in this crisis the Confederacy had offered no support. "If the arteries of the Confederate heart do not permeate beyond the east bank of the Mississippi," he declared, "let southern Missourians, Arkansians, Texans and the great West know it and prepare for the future. Arkansas lost, abandoned, subjugated, is not Arkansas as she entered the Confederate government. Nor will she remain Arkansas a Confederate State, desolated as a wilderness, her children fleeing from the wrath to come will build them a new ark and launch it on new waters, seeking a haven somewhere, of equality, safety, and rest." Officials in Richmond took Rector seriously enough that President Jefferson Davis called upon Gen. Earl Van Dorn, officially commander of Confederate troops in Arkansas, to assure its citizens that the state had not been abandoned and to prevent Rector's threat from operating "injuriously on our cause." Ultimately, Arkansas remained in the Confederacy, but the threat of secession and Davis's response suggest how serious a rift had developed between the state and the new central government. What had happened to produce this ironic threat to secede from a nation that had itself been created by secession?1

In the earliest scholarly study of the Civil War in Arkansas, David Y. Thomas explained Rector's call as a direct response to Van Dorn's withdrawal of Confederate troops from the state following the battle of Pea Ridge, despite the prospect of an imminent federal invasion. With Arkansas possessing few defenses and "[s]marting under this treatment," the governor felt compelled to issue his proclamation. Subsequent scholarship largely has agreed with this interpretation. Historians Michael Dougan and Thomas DeBlack both note that Van Dorn's departure, in creating a real crisis, forced Rector's outcry. Dougan adds the even more damning observation that the incident showed that "Jefferson Davis and his advisors did not adequately appreciate either the needs or the opportunities arising from the war on the border."2 Unquestionably, Van Dorn's removal of Confederate troops and Curtis's invasion were the most immediate catalyst for Rector's threat of secession, but an examination of the relationship among state officials, the Confederate central government, and the Confederate military suggests a longer and more nuanced story. Rather than simply a response to events in the spring of 1862, Rector's frustration with the Confederacy had its roots in problems that had existed from the moment of the state's entry into the new government. His threat brought to a head not only a simmering conflict over the Confederate military's inability to provide for an adequate defense of the borders of the new nation, but also one involving the rights of the state versus those of the central government in time of war.

Problems began as soon as Arkansas seceded. The state appeared to face an imminent military threat, and no Confederate officials were on the ground to help meet it. In his address to the secession convention on May 6, 1861, Governor Rector warned delegates that Union forces were gathering at Cairo, Illinois, preparing to move into the lower Mississippi River Valley. He also believed the enemy would soon move against the Indian Territory and menace the state's western border. He concluded that the state had no choice but to provide for its own defense, and he advised the delegates that he had already ordered Gen. James Yell, commander of the state militia, to call up volunteers and march to the Mississippi to block any movement down river. …

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