Civil War in the West

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Battles and conflicts on waterways in the trans-Mississippian Theatre led to the Union control of the Arkansas and White Rivers and in the long run the control of the Mississippi River by the Union. Naval battles in the trans-Mississippian theatre during the Civil War achieved victory in the West for the Union. Control of the Mississippi River stood crucial for both sides as it was the lifeline for materials and reinforcements for both the Confederate and Union armies. These confrontations, on and around trans-Mississippian waterways, by large forces and small guerrilla forces led to ships being ambushed and supply lines being cut. Steamers harassed along the Arkansas shores of the Mississippi River made it difficult to transport supplies south, and militia and guerrilla forces agitated ships on the Arkansas and White Rivers seizing cargo and supplies making it difficult to reach the Mississippi.

In the American Civil War, names such as Vicksburg, Gettysburg, or Antietam come to mind. Battles fought on Arkansas water and west of the Mississippi River were just as intense and bloody as the ones fought east, just on a somewhat smaller scale. Naval battles along different bodies of water inside Arkansas borders can be considered as some of the most intense and important battles of the war in Arkansas. Out of these battles, the innovation of naval warfare was higher than it had ever been in the history of the United States.

Tensions began to mount early in 1861, a rumor began to spread that Federal troops were on their way up the Arkansas River to reinforce the arsenal in Little Rock. The Governor of Arkansas Henry Massie Rector informed Captain James Totten and sixty-five federal soldiers who were garrisoned at the arsenal that if any destruction of arms or reinforcement of the arsenal would result in conflict. This would prove to the state that war was inevitable. On February 1, 1861, after another rumor surfaced that Federal reinforcements were being sent to Little Rock, Governor Rector requested for volunteers to help defend against the attack. Although the rumor proved to be untrue, Arkansas was ready for war at a moment’s notice. On February 5, volunteers began to arrive in Little Rock under the impression they were to capture the arsenal from the Federal forces. A day later, Rector sent a note to Captain Totten requesting his submission of the arsenal, and on February 8, Totten and his men deserted the arsenal and evacuated Little Rock. War was now on the doorstep of Arkansas. On April 12, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter. When President Abraham Lincoln called upon Arkansas for volunteers, Rector replied, “The people of this commonwealth are freeman, not slaves, and will defend to the extremity their honor, lives, against the Northern mendacity and usurpation.” Shortly after Fort Sumter, Rector called for militia to capture Fort Smith, but upon arrival, the militia found the fort abandoned by Federal forces. The Confederate Navy let loose an ironclad vessel known as the CSS Arkansas. The ram, only in use for only 23 days, earned the fury of the Union and the admiration of the Confederacy. The Confederate Navy’s task to defend rivers from its better-equipped adversary’s attacks and blockades required the assembling of vessels capable of meeting the challenge. The CSS Arkansas laid in on October 1861, with work to be continuing through the winter in Memphis, Tennessee by ship builder John T. Shirley. In May, Lieutenant Isaac Newton Brown got orders to assume command of the CSS Arkansas to finish and arm the vessel. The Arkansas was towed to the Yazoo City Naval yard, where it underwent five weeks of construction to armor and arm the vessel. They painted the ship a rust color to match the color of the Mississippi River. The ship would play a huge role in its short life as it overwhelmed the Union Navy at the early battle of Vicksburg which allowed Confederates to control the fortress. The Federal Navy assaulted...
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