Before the pandemic began, I was giving a series of speeches across Arkansas titled "A State of Disaster." My thesis was that Arkansas history has been shaped by natural and man-made disasters that have limited population growth and held down wages for more than 200 years.
The worst of the man-made disasters was the decision to secede from the Union in 1861. The next worst man-made disaster was Gov. Orval Faubus' attempt in 1957 to block nine black children from entering Little Rock Central High School. The state's long battle with racial issues is the common denominator.
I last gave that speech on Wednesday, March 11, to a group of ladies meeting at the Pine Bluff Country Club. It was the day the state's first coronavirus case was identified, and that case was at Pine Bluff. I explained to those in attendance that secession wasn't pre-ordained here in Arkansas. Large parts of our state are covered by mountains, and mountain residents generally didn't own slaves. Union sentiment remained strong in those regions throughout the war.
On Feb. 18, 1861, Arkansas voters elected delegates to a secession convention. Unionist David Walker became the convention president, and Unionists held the majority through the convention's first session. The Confederate firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April 1861 changed sentiment back in Arkansas. On May 6, 1861, Arkansas Secession Convention delegates voted to secede.
Seven states in the Deep South had been quick to secede. The four states that later joined the Confederacy--Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia--all had mountainous areas where there was significant Union support.
"The Secession Convention's two-fold roles in passing an ordinance of secession and in trying to put Arkansas on a war footing set the stage for the next five years," writes longtime historian Michael Dougan of Arkansas State University. "In the Ozarks and Ouachitas, many rejected secession, especially once the Confederacy began drafting men into its army. Gov. Henry Massie Rector, although wounded, remained in power, and his subsequent actions, which included a threat to have Arkansas secede from secession, did not further the Confederate cause."
It's easy to imagine how much better off Arkansas would have been had it not fought on the losing side. The state suffered the ravages both of the war and Reconstruction, setting back development by decades. Those involved in the current debates regarding Confederate flags and monuments need to understand that history.
When it comes to what's technically the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, my position is set. There's no reason for that flag to ever fly over any public property in this state. People can do what they wish on private property, but I find it repugnant. That battle flag long ago became the province of white supremacists and other hate groups.
Seeing bumper stickers that proclaim "heritage, not hate" always causes those who understand Arkansas history to shake their heads. The flag, because it was used in the Eastern Theater, would rarely if ever have been seen in Arkansas. It has nothing to do with the Confederate heritage of this state.
In my travels across Arkansas through the years, I've seen these flags flying over houses and house trailers most often in the hill country, the very areas where Union sentiment would have been the strongest. That's another sure sign that this symbol has nothing to do with heritage.
My position on Confederate monuments is a bit more nuanced. In most instances, those monuments are better suited for cemeteries than courthouse lawns. That issue should be debated on a case-by-case basis.
Regardless of whether they stay where they are or are moved elsewhere, the monuments should be accompanied by interpretive signage explaining the Lost Cause period of Southern history. There was a lot of Lost Cause activity in the years around World War I as the last Confederate veterans began to die. There was another burst of activity in the 1950s and 1960s as white Southerners reacted to the growing civil rights movement.
With proper signage that details what went on in the 20th century, long after the Civil War had ended, these monuments can play a role in educating Arkansans.
For those who want to better understand what happened in Arkansas during the Civil War, I recommend Mountain Feds: Arkansas Unionists and the Peace Society by James J. Johnston. The book was published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in 2018.
"In September 1941, Luther E. Warren--a Tulsa newspaperman who grew up close to the Searcy-Stone County line between Flag and Oxley in north-central Arkansas--wrote to Arkansas Secretary of State C.G. Hall, explaining Searcy County's Republican bent," Johnston writes. "Searcy County had voted for only two Democratic presidential candidates since the Civil War. He said that the reason for this political tilt was sympathy for the Searcy County men who were marched away as a chain gang and forced into the Confederate Army. These men were members of the secret pro-Union Peace Society."
Johnston describes the Arkansas Peace Society as "one of several secret Unionist organizations throughout the South. It was the first to be discovered by Confederate authorities. There was Unionist sentiment throughout the South on the eve of secession among old Whigs, Northern and European immigrants and mountain yeoman."
The old Whigs tended to be urban merchants and large rural landowners. The yeoman farmers were mostly in the northern part of the state.
"In Arkansas, old Whigs led the anti-secession movement," Johnston writes. "Although Northerners and the foreign-born played Unionist roles in many other Southern states and were topics of concern in Arkansas, their role in Arkansas was insignificant. The old Whigs provided the Unionist leadership until Abraham Lincoln's call for troops, but they then either aligned themselves with the state's southeastern lowland slaveholders or fled their homes to seek refuge with the Federal Army. The Whigs based their hopes for a peaceful resolution on cooperation with border states to keep all the border states in the Union. They were called 'cooperationists.'
"Most Northern and European immigrants were Unionists, but their numbers were too small to give them any significant role. Indeed, at least one German immigrant community--Hermannsburg in Washington County--abandoned Arkansas after being persecuted. The yeomen in the mountainous upland were the main strength of the Unionists after secession.
"Much Unionist sentiment evaporated with Lincoln's call for troops after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. Although opposed to secession, these Unionists saw Lincoln's action as aggression against the South, and they were Southerners. In Arkansas, Whigs quickly accommodated themselves to the Confederate government. Immigrants fled to the North. However, Unionist sympathy continued in the South after secession, especially in the mountains of the border states, which gave these men the epithet of Mountain Feds."
Johnston describes the Mountain Feds from the Ozarks and Ouachitas this way: "They were largely yeoman farmers living in the poorest counties. They owned no slaves, and they were very conscious of the distinction between themselves and the slaveholders of the lowlands, whom they resented. The mountaineers had an inherent sympathy for the Union and a primary desire to protect their homes and families. They saw Confederate military service as a major obstacle to that end."
They called it "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." They understood the catastrophe that would be caused by Arkansas' decision to join the Confederacy.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.