Recently I gave a program to the Civil War Roundtable in Little Rock about the infrastructure in Arkansas in 1861 when rebellion began. It was not a happy story because Arkansas was exceedingly slow in developing the basic physical facilities needed to sustain the population, much less fight a war. It would take a civil war—and more specifically the Reconstruction period—before Arkansas would shake off its traditional lethargy and set about to build a state.
Arkansas’ road network at the outbreak of the Civil War was little more than a system of interconnected trails. Part of the problem was a lack of planning and the failure of state and local governments to make transportation a priority. As historian Michael B. Dougan has written, “America used waterways, roads, canals, and railroads. No canals ever were constructed in Arkansas, and the state ranked last in miles of railroad track in 1860. Instead, water and roads constituted the basic units of antebellum transportation.”
While Arkansans did not wish to tax themselves for transportation, they did not hesitate to petition the federal government for roads and other “internal improvements.” In 1827 the U.S. Army, the federal agency in charge of building roads on the frontier, signed the first of several contracts to build a road from Memphis to Little Rock.
It called for a roadway that would be considered little more than a wide path today—at least 24 feet in width, with “all timber, brush wood, and all rubbish and impediments of every kind to be removed … and all holes within its limits to be filled with earth.” Tree stumps were to be cut “as low to the ground as practicable, their height in no instance to exceed two-third of their diameter.” Creeks and other waterways “not more than 10 feet wide” were to be bridged; larger ones would have to be forded or crossed in a ferry.
From territorial times, laws demanded that all free white males and male slaves between the ages of 16 and 45 work on the roads, though it was unevenly enforced. Citizens of Little Rock were exempted from county road work, but were required to labor on city streets.
When British traveler and geologist George W. Featherstonhaugh traveled across Arkansas in 1834, he had nothing good to say about the roads. In late November he set out from Little Rock to “the hot springs on the Washita.” He wrote that for the first eight miles “the road was very bad, full of rocks, stumps, and deep mud holes …”
In the lowlands of eastern Arkansas roadways were often flooded. In 1837 one newspaperman ranted that stagecoach travelers from Memphis to Little Rock encountered “the most disgraceful bogs, wilderness, and swamps that can be found. Humorist C.F.M. Noland suggested that “life preservers and diving bells should occupy the [stage] coaches.”
Traveling across the uplands of western and northern Arkansas was equally challenging. Male riders on stagecoaches were often called upon to get out and help push the wagon up especially steep hills. As late as 1860 an English traveler on the Butterfield Overland Stage described the rough trip through the Boston Mountains between Fort Smith and Fayetteville: “The worst of our ascent we had to walk, which was more comfortable than when inside, as there was bright moonlight.” On the Butterfield stages, passengers were allocated only 15 inches of seating space.
While many railroad lines were chartered in Arkansas prior to the Civil War, only one was constructed, and it had a long gap in the middle. The Memphis and Little Rock Railroad was surveyed in 1854, and 38 miles were in operation by the outbreak of hostilities—running from Hopefield, in Crittenden County opposite Memphis, to Madison on the St. Francis River near modern Forrest City.
An impressive bridge was built across the St. Francis at Madison to accommodate the railroad. The superstructure was 600 feet in length, consisting of three spans. Six large brick piers supported the bridge, with the center span of 200 feet being a drawbridge which revolved on a large circular pier in the center to permit the passage of steamboats. Building this bridge was probably the most extensive engineering project during the antebellum period.
In March 1861, work began on the western portion of the line at Hunters-ville, a small settlement on the north shore of the Arkansas River opposite Little Rock. On Jan. 26, 1862, a ceremony was held at Bayou Meto to complete the process, with Arkansas Gazette founder and editor William E. Woodruff driving the last spike.
Between De Valls Bluff and Madison lay the 45-mile middle division. The major hurdle was dealing with several waterways that crossed the planned route: the L’Anguille River, Bayou Deview, and the Cache River bottoms.
The Confederacy made extensive use of the railroad. When the federals captured Memphis, they soon destroyed Hopefield and made the eastern stretch of track much less useful to the Confederates. When the Confederates launched an attack on Helena in July 1863 to relieve pressure on Vicksburg, a large part of the infantry was moved from Little Rock to De Valls Bluff by railroad.
When the federals occupied Little Rock in September 1863, they also captured the western division of the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad. Union Gen. Steele acquired additional rolling stock and engines, and the railroad allowed him to supply Little Rock from a huge supply garrison at De Valls Bluff. Supplies and troops were brought up the White River by steamboat, then shipped to Little Rock by rail.
Confederates attacked the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad regularly, but never succeeded in closing it. When the war ended, 10 locomotives and 98 cars were operating on the Little Rock to De Valls Bluff line.
After being named commander of Confederate forces in Arkansas, Gen. Thomas C. Hindman put great effort into developing a chemical laboratory and manufacturing center in Arkadelphia. His ordnance department constructed and impressed buildings and made all sorts of military supplies, ranging from knapsacks to bullets, percussion caps, and good quality gun powder. Medicines were made too, including calomel, castor oil, spirits of niter, and tinctures of iron.
In Camden, Confederates established a foundry and machine shops, adding a large lathe and tools to make shot, shells, cannon, harness, and a distilling plant. Cannons made in Camden were used at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri, the first battle in which large numbers of Arkansans participated. Dr. John Seay had a contract to distill coal oil from lignite coal mined 12 miles above Camden on the Ouachita River.
By August 1862, Confederate authorities had the former U.S. Arsenal up and running again with a shop foreman and three gunsmiths, a clerk, a carpenter, and a “laboratorian” in charge of a factory employing 26 laborers (including nine women) making cartridges. Materials were so scarce that documents from the state library were used for cartridge paper.
Two privately owned foundries in Little Rock were quickly repurposed into making grapeshot. Even penitentiary inmates were pressed into the war effort, turning out gun carriages, caissons, wagons, boots, shoes and clothing, and drums.
The advancing federal army put the Confederates to flight in much of Arkansas by mid-1863. The foundry at Camden was moved to Shreveport, and stores at the Little Rock Arsenal were relocated to Arkadelphia by the end of August. Eventually, the Arkadelphia facility was moved to Marshall, Texas.
Next week we will take a look at the communications infrastructure as well as mining and milling during the Civil War.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist. Email him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org .
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