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Last week I began this discussion of Civil War infrastructure in Arkansas with a look at roads, railroads, bridges, and manufacturing of war material. The story continues with a look at telegraphy, gristmills, and mining.

To fully grasp the significance of the telegraph, one must realize that before its invention communication was limited to the speed of a horse or of a steamboat.

Samuel F.B. Morse's development of the telegraph in 1844 changed the very nature of communication. While conflicts over patents slowed the development of telegraphy, its usefulness in uniting communities to the national scene created intense demand for telegraph service.

Missouri, Tennessee, and several other nearby states had extensive telegraph systems by the late 1850s, while Arkansas lacked service.

The editor of the Arkansas Gazette complained in 1860 that "Arkansas is the only black spot in the telegraphy galaxy of the union." Two years earlier the Memphis Appeal newspaper had reported that Mr. H. A. Montgomery was on his way to Little Rock "for the purpose of perfecting arrangements to building a telegraph line from this city to Little Rock." The report optimistically speculated that the line "will, of course, be extended to Fort Smith in a few months." The Memphis reporter concluded his article by noting that "Arkansas, we believe, is the only state in the union that cannot boast of a telegraph line."

When telegraphy finally arrived in Arkansas, it came via St. Louis through Springfield, Mo. On a hot July 4, 1860, the mayors of Fayetteville and St. Louis exchanged greetings by telegraph--an important development for a frontier state.

From Fayetteville, construction crews extended the line southward to Van Buren, where a telegraph office was set up in a jewelry store. When the first dispatches were received from Fayetteville, a salute was fired and "great enthusiasm prevailed," according to the Van Buren Press. Within two weeks, the line was extended to Fort Smith, causing one local newspaper to offer the hope of starting a daily edition.

For a brief time northwest Arkansas newspapers could "chide Little Rock and other towns for their backwardness," as one historian put it. Finally, a telegraph connecting Little Rock and Memphis opened March 8, 1861--just in time for the outbreak of the Civil War. In November of the same year, Arkansans learned from telegraphed reports of the "gallantry" of Arkansas troops in a great battle in Kentucky only the day before.

The Civil War caused disruption in telegraph service, with lines frequently being cut by soldiers on both sides. But the Confederate authorities did manage to construct some new lines. On June 3, 1863, the Arkansas State Telegraph Co. reported the completion of a line from Camden in south Arkansas to Shreveport, La., "excepting a gap of 10 miles, which is closed by a line of rapid couriers."

One 16-year-old telegraph operator was David O. Dodd, who had worked briefly for the Pine Bluff Telegraph Co., which had an office in Little Rock. Dodd used his knowledge of Morse code in spying for the Confederate forces, but he was caught and executed on a bitterly cold day in January 1864 when the Arkansas River was frozen solid.

A functional grist mill within a few miles was an important component of civilized life in antebellum Arkansas. These mills, often powered by falling water in the uplands and steam in the lowlands, ground corn into cornmeal and wheat into flour. Along with cotton gins and small lumber mills, grist mills comprised much of what passed for manufacturing in rural areas.

Settlers, regardless of how tough and independent, knew to appreciate a grist mill. Without a mill, corn had to be pulverized by hand--a slow and tiring process--and the resulting meal was not very good. Corn was the literal staff of life for most Arkansans in the 19th century.

While a farmer might expect his hogs to forage for a living, his horses and mules usually received supplemental feedings of corn in addition to fodder. Slave owners fed their human property mostly on corn, too.

The late historian Orville Taylor has noted that slaves usually existed on meals "in which meat [usually pork], [corn] meal, and molasses were among the main components ..." This combination has become known to food historians as the three Ms--meat, meal, and molasses--and was also the daily fare for many white Arkansans.

In 1860, Arkansas produced over 17 million bushels of corn. The census of that year listed fewer than 254 professional millers in the state. Some worked in gristmills owned by wealthy planters, but most lived in towns and crossroad villages. The abundance of "mill creeks" in the state reminds us how ubiquitous was the gristmill.

The Civil War played havoc with mills throughout Arkansas, especially in the northwestern portion. Confederate guerrilla units burned many mills in Missouri and northwest Arkansas. In February 1864, a farmer along Clear Creek northwest of Fayetteville had to travel 18 miles to find a working gristmill. Before the war Clear Creek had supported three gristmills.

In one week in the spring of 1862, Washington County millers lost $71,000 in annual production during a series of raids by Confederate cavalry units. The now-famous War Eagle Mill in eastern Benton County was one of many set aflame.

Historian Michael Hughes has noted that these mills were important for feeding the Union Army as well as local residents: "First, campaign supply lines could not always provide adequate milled flour or bread. A second, lesser reason for capturing mills intact was that it was wiser to requisition large quantities of grain from a single miller's granary than it was to pillage it from a multitude of private homes."

Hughes noted that Union General Samuel R. Curtis complained, "the burning of valuable mills in Arkansas by the enemy has induced some resentments on the part of my troops ... peaceable citizens not being at home to sell [supplies] to my quartermasters, I am compelled to take them without purchase, making settlement difficult and doubtful, occasioning irregularities which I have labored to counteract."

Curtis' main quartermaster was a young captain by the name of Philip Sheridan, who devoted three pages of his autobiography to his experiences in keeping the mills operating during the Pea Ridge campaign.

Mining and mineral extraction was in its infancy when Arkansas joined the rebellion. Ironically, a state geological survey was completed in 1860, documenting for the first time the significant mineral deposits found in the state. Alas, few of these resources could be reliably extracted during the war.

Lead, iron pyrites, and sulphur were mined in Confederate Arkansas, and coal oil was produced from lignite mined near Camden. The state was one of the primary sources for saltpeter, a key ingredient in making gunpowder. Reliable gunpowder consisted of two parts saltpeter, one part charcoal and a bit less of sulphur. Saltpeter is potassium nitrate, sometimes called niter. Significant nitrate deposits were found in Independence, Marion, and Newton counties, and lead in Carroll, Marion, Newton, Pulaski, and Sevier counties.

As historian James J. Johnston has documented, saltpeter mining in the Ozarks predated the war by several years. But in May 1861, the Confederate War Department ordered Col. Thomas C. Hindman of Arkansas' Military Board to deliver 100,000 pounds of saltpeter to Memphis. Hindman set about buying saltpeter, and commercial investors soon opened mines. More than 100 enslaved and free laborers worked the Cave Creek Mine in Newton County alone.

Keeping the niter mines functioning in the face of periodic Union army raids was a severe challenge. In at least one case, the miners abandoned their work and joined the enemy. Official Confederate saltpeter mining ended in September 1863 when the Confederate Niter Bureau relocated to Texas. But as late as March 1864, Union forces "destroyed some extensive saltpeter-works" in Searcy County.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist. Contact him at

Editorial on 11/03/2019

Print Headline: Telegraphy's significance in Arkansas


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