The drift toward civil war was nowhere more ardently opposed than in the uplands of Arkansas among the residents of the Ozark and Ouachita mountains. These anti-secessionist Unionists sometimes capitulated and joined the Confederate army once hostilities erupted, but large numbers remained committed to the Union—becoming known as Mountain Feds.
Some of these Unionists in north-central Arkansas even established “peace societies” for protection and to oppose the Confederacy. Ultimately, many of the Mountain Feds were forced to flee the state, and a large number joined the Union armies.
The leading authority on the history of peace societies and Mountain Feds is James J. Johnston of Fayetteville. Johnston’s family roots extend deeply into the history of Searcy County, a hotbed of anti-Confederate sentiment in the Ozarks. After decades of research, Johnston’s book Mountain Feds: Arkansas Unionists and the Peace Society has been published by Butler Center Books of Little Rock. It’s well worth waiting on.
Following the secession of Arkansas in May 1861, uneasy Unionists organized peace societies in an attempt to protect their families and property and to avoid service in the Confederate army. Most of the organized opposition to the Confederates came from some of the poorest counties— Newton, Searcy, Van Buren, Carroll, Marion, and Fulton in the Ozarks and Pike and Montgomery in the Ouachitas. These were not plantation owners who lived off the labor of enslaved workers.
Unionists grew more fearful of their neighbors after hearing stories of anti-secessionists being murdered in Pope and St. Francis counties and being driven off their farms. The situation grew much worse when the Confederate forces began raising military units throughout Arkansas, including the uplands. One Searcy County man who was coerced into joining a Confederate infantry company commented on the stark situation: “I had my choice to go with Co K, 14th Arkansas [Confederate] or look up a limb to be hanged on.”
In April 1862, the Confederate Congress made military service mandatory for males between 18 and 35 years of age. This drove most of the remaining Unionists underground, with some men hiding in the caves that dotted the Ozarks. Others fled to the protection of the Union army in Missouri.
No one knows how the first peace society was organized, but it was clear that Unionists faced a dire situation. This was especially true for families whose men had left to join the Union army. The peace societies offered hope that Unionists could look after each other by sharing food, providing temporary housing for Unionists whose homes had been burned, and assisting Unionists who decided to leave for Missouri or Kansas.
Years after the war, Benjamin G. Watts of Searcy County recalled the vulnerability he and other Unionists felt when “feeling[s] became intensified” and local Confederates organized militia units. “The members of this organization [the militia] were in the main our former neighbors and [they] knew all the Union men in the county.”
Watts continued: “We had no place of meeting but pledged ourselves to avoid Confederate service and to protect the families of those who were forced to quit the country or to go to the [federal] service.” Watts recalled that many of his neighbors joined a peace society. “I took the pledge at a house raising and several others went in at the same time.”
Peter A. Tyler, a resident of Tyler Bend on the Buffalo River, swore in 32 new members. Jehoida J. Ware recruited members even while representing Fulton County in the Confederate state legislature.
The peace societies were not highly structured, but it is known that a variety of means were used to identify other members. A specific tip of the hat or the placement of certain fingers alongside the nose signaled one’s membership. Upon leaving his home, a member was supposed to attach a yellow ribbon to a door or window so that “if a friend or Northern Army came along that property & family would not be molested.”
It is a miracle that the peace societies lasted as long as they did. Their discovery and suppression began in Van Buren County, on Nov. 17, 1861, when local vigilantes in Clinton started arresting men who were believed to belong to a secret anti-Confederate organization. It did not take long before Confederate vigilantes and home guard companies in Fulton and Izard counties began arresting peace society members. Soon attention turned to Searcy County—a stronghold of stubborn and loyal unionists.
The first arrests of peace society members in Searcy County occurred in Locust Township, an area which today is part of Stone County. Organizing the roundup was Col. Samuel Leslie, head of the Arkansas militia in Searcy County and the namesake of the town of Leslie.
Within days a total of 30 prisoners were taken to Burrowville, the original name for Marshall, the Searcy County seat, where they were kept under guard in the county courthouse. After the arrival of more prisoners, measles broke out, which also infected some of the guards. Local authorities decided to move the prisoners to Little Rock.
It was a cold Dec. 9, 1861, when 77 peace society members were chained together by the necks and forced to commence a march to the state capital under an armed guard. Although it was claimed that the prisoners were restrained for their own safety, the act of chaining the men like slaves was deeply insulting to the prisoners.
Upon arriving in Little Rock, the prisoners were taken to the State House and assembled in the House of Representatives chamber. Gov. Henry M. Rector addressed the group and offered them a choice: join the Confederate army or go to prison prior to trial and possible execution. All but two chose to enlist in the army.
Most of the peace society members who volunteered for Confederate service deserted when the opportunity arose, and many joined Union army units in Missouri and later in Arkansas. The loyal Mountain Feds, which comprised a great majority of the several thousand white Arkansans who served in the Union army, would play an important role in defending federal enclaves in Arkansas such as Fayetteville.
The forced march of the Searcy County “chain gang” to Little Rock had a huge impact on the badly divided county. To this day descendants of chain gang members recall the brave and loyal actions of their ancestors.
Mountain Feds contains 305 pages. Paperback copies are $24.95, hardbound is $39.95.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Malvern. Email him at Arktopia.email@example.com.