Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"This God Forsake Reb. Hole": A Union Soldier's Letters from Postwar Arkansas, 1865-1866

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"This God Forsake Reb. Hole": A Union Soldier's Letters from Postwar Arkansas, 1865-1866

Article excerpt

THE CIVIL WAR IN THE TRANS-MISSISSIPPI, as far as many were concerned, ended on June 2, 1865, when Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith signed surrender documents at Houston, Texas. That did not end service for many of the Union regiments stationed in the region, however. As historian Gregory Downs has observed, the surrender of Rebel armies had not, in the view of Federal authorities, ended the state of war. Accordingly, they moved occupation troops into previously unconquered portions of the Confederacy, including southwestern Arkansas.1

Arkansas's society and economy had been profoundly altered by the conflict, in large part by the emancipation of some one-fourth of the state's residents, who had been enslaved at the beginning of the war. Historian Carl Moneyhon estimates that the 111,000 slaves counted in the 1860 census were worth more than $100 million, and "For all slaveowners, the war destroyed the value of this property and all of the capital that had been invested in it." At the same time, the value of real property plummeted, partly because of concerns about whether former slaves would continue working the land as free laborers. More land was assessed in 1866 than in 1860, but, Moneyhon reports, "the average value dropped from $5.32 to $2.21 per acre." Furthermore, the state's population, black and white, soldier and civilian, may have plummeted by at least half, ravaged by casualties and disease and the rootlessness that followed the war.2

The U.S. government formed the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to assist newly freed African Americans in their transition from slavery to freedom and to ensure their social, economic, and political rights in the face of white recalcitrance. There were thirty-six Freedmen's Bureau stations in Arkansas, but the Bureau's work could be accomplished only with the support and protection of the Federal troops who remained on duty while most of their comrades returned to peacetime pursuits.3 In July 1865, a Union officer serving with the 113th United States Colored Troops in a base at the mouth of the White River wrote home to his wife in Minnesota:

Peace reigns supreme. Have now and then to arrest some offender or other against law and order, and to scare some of the planters into permitting their (late) slaves to exercise the full rights of freemen. Have had the pleasure of making several old wealthy aristocrats in Miss., opposite here, fork over colored children to their parents who had left their old masters and come here.4

Erstwhile Confederate E. W. Gantt, serving as a Bureau agent in Hempstead County, wrote that some local employers of freedmen "growl and wish to be allowed to enforce their contracts, the simple English of which is to 'whip the nigger,'" and a planter near Pine Bluff, which was garrisoned by a black Union regiment, wrote of a desire to "get clear of the negro troops to be able to get them a little under discipline."5 Randy Finley concludes:

The presence of United States troops throughout Arkansas served as the largest restraint on violence against freedpersons and deterred civil-rights violations. Freedmen's Bureau agents could order, county officials could enforce, courts could adjudicate, and the legislature could legislate; but it was the army that best commanded the attention of anti-black forces and stemmed their violence. The army best bridged the glaring gap between the legal promises guaranteed blacks by the new constitution and legislation and the de facto discrimination that often controlled Arkansas.6

As Downs notes, "The [Freedmen's] bureau's national commissioner acknowledged that blacks and loyal whites 'universally desire the presence of United States troops' and 'distrust their ability to maintain their rights without them.'"7

The Twelfth Michigan Infantry Regiment was among the occupation troops that sought to maintain order during the turbulent months that immediately followed Confederate surrender. …

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