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I'm at the museum in St. Charles, which shares a building with the mayor's office and the municipal court. In an old scrapbook, I find an "Arkansas Traveler" column about St. Charles that Ernie Deane wrote decades ago for the Arkansas Gazette. Deane wrote the piece after a field trip here with members of the Arkansas Historical Association.

I find this interesting since I'm also here with AHA members. The organization is holding its annual meeting at Stuttgart for the first time since 1955. Friday afternoons are devoted to field trips each year, and I boarded the bus to St. Charles. I'm fascinated by the colorful history of this isolated community along the lower White River in Arkansas County.

The area was even more remote until ferry service was added in 1955. There's a whole scrapbook devoted to the dedication ceremony. In those days, the two Memphis newspapers (the Commercial Appeal and Press-Scimitar) covered east Arkansas as well or better than the two Little Rock newspapers. The scrapbook features lengthy stories from both Memphis newspapers. The writers predicted that the addition of ferry service on Arkansas 1 would open the abundant hunting and fishing opportunities of this region to thousands of sportsmen from Memphis.

It's safe to say that St. Charles, which had a population of 230 residents in the 2010 census, never boomed despite the ferry. The highest population ever recorded was 412 people in the 1940 census. A bridge over the White River was added in 1982, and the area now is the home of some of the state's top duck-hunting clubs.

For those who love history, St. Charles is known as the place where the deadliest single shot of the Civil War was fired. That shot hit the USS Mound City, a Union naval vessel that plied the Mississippi and White rivers during and after the Vicksburg Campaign.

"Built as a Cairo-class ironclad in August 1861 under the supervision of James Buchanan Eads and named for Mound City, Ill., this vessel was received by the U.S. Navy on Dec. 5, 1861, and placed under Commander Augustus H. Kilty," Robert Patrick Bender writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "As a screw-driven, steam-powered sternwheeler, the USS Mound City measured 175 feet in length and 51 feet at the beam. It weighed 512 tons, drafted five feet and made nine knots with a crew of 175 officers and sailors."

On June 17, 1862, a Union flotilla came up the White River with supplies for Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis' Army of the Southwest. Confederate troops sank the gunboat CSS Maurepas and a couple of steamboats at St. Charles to block the river. A cannon was placed at a high spot overlooking the river.

"Around 10 a.m., a Confederate shell entered the gunboat and struck its steam drum, releasing scalding steam that killed many sailors," writes historian Mark Christ of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. "Others jumped overboard, where many were shot by Confederate snipers (150 of the 175-man crew were killed or injured). Soldiers of the 46th Indiana Infantry Regiment were set ashore and soon overran the Confederate defenders, but the flotilla ultimately failed to link with Curtis, who marched his army across eastern Arkansas to seize Helena, making the Mississippi River town a Union base for the rest of the war."

In 1919, a monument marking the event was erected in the middle of the intersection of Arkansas and Broadway streets. It's one of only two state Civil War monuments in the middle of a street (the other is at Lake Village) and was also unusual because it honors both Union and Confederate troops.

There are various accounts of how the monument came about. One says that a son of Union sailor William Hickman Harte came looking for his father's grave and that a local judge took him to it. The son, it's said, later had the monument erected. Another account claims that one of Harte's nephews paid for the monument.

"Given the first-person account of Harte's drowning and the fact that the late sailor is buried beneath an elaborate gravestone at Chippiannock Cemetery in Rock Island, Ill., both accounts seem to be inaccurate," Christ writes, "though Harte did have a son, a Philadelphia surgeon who likely placed the monument. It was dedicated on April 26, 1919."

One of the first European settlers to arrive in this swampy part of southeast Arkansas was a fur trader named Pierre Pertuis, who purchased a Spanish land grant in 1797. Charles Belknap owned the site, known at the time as Belknap's Bluff, by the 1830s. His adobe house served as a hospital during the Civil War. Belknap became postmaster in 1850, the year the name St. Charles first appeared. The town was incorporated in 1880.

In the spring of 1904, white mobs terrorized black residents. There were 13 black males murdered over the course of four days. The Gazette published a list of the victims on March 27, 1904.

"It may have been the deadliest lynching in American history," Vincent Vinikas writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "The murderers were never identified in either public reports or eyewitness accounts, and the scant surviving evidence in newspapers and manuscripts lists only the victims, not the killers ... . [F]or a homicide to qualify as lynching, according to the standard scholarly definition of lynching, a minimum of three perpetrators had to participate in each murder ... . Because the number of murderers associated with each killing at St. Charles remains unknown, some of the fatalities may not be classified as victims of lynching."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 05/04/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: The deadliest shot

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