Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Die Is Cast: Arkansas Goes to War, 1861 / Mark K. Christ, ed. -- Little Rock, Ark.: Butler Center Books, 2010

One of the amazing things about the American Civil War is that after almost 150 years, so many people remain utterly obsessed with it. The war's enormous human toll is surely a significant explanation for this. Nonetheless, it is astonishing that people in every corner of the country that saw any part of the struggle meticulously pick over the smallest details of their locality's role in the war, making the Civil War perhaps the most studied (and understood) events in history.

In August of 2008, the Old State House Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas hosted five historians at a seminar entitled "The Die is Cast: Arkansas Goes to War" in which the secession of Arkansas was examined from a variety of perspectives. Under the editorship of Mark Christ, the seminar's five papers create a brief but interesting insight into a little-studied corner of the Civil War.

Among the most interesting papers is Thomas A. DeBlack's "'A Remarkably Strong Union Sentiment': Unionism in Arkansas." DeBlack explains, "Arkansas needed the Union more than many other states. Citizens of western Arkansas, bordered by the Indian Territory, wanted the protection and economic benefits that the presence of federal troops supplied. Delta residents hoped to benefit from a federal swamplands reclamation project begun in 1850." Only 20% of the white population owned slaves and the remaining population saw no strong reason to sacrifice their interests for these slave owners. Even the slave owners were divided as to the wisdom of secession. Economically, Arkansas was more closely integrated with Missouri and the Old Northwest than with the rest of the South. While the sentiment in favor of secession was weak, the sentiment against forcing states to remain in the Union was strong, ultimately resulting in the secession of Arkansas.

In "Why they Fought: Arkansas Goes to War, 1861," Carl H. Moneyhon explains that the allure of adventure and manly pride motivated the state's young men to sign on to the Confederate cause. Once committed to the struggle, the combatants remained in the struggle both out of personal integrity and out of a conversion to the cause. In "Domesticity Goes Public: Southern Women and the Secession Crisis," Lisa Tendrich Frank describes the moral force that women played in pushing men into battle.

The remaining two papers tell less specialized stories, or at least cover the kind of subject common in Civil War histories. Michael A. Dougan describes the Arkansas Secession Convention and William Garrett Piston describes the involvement of Arkansas troops in the Wilson's Creek Campaign.

While each of the five papers address a distinct aspect of the Civil War in Arkansas, there is enough overlap and connection between them to provide the reader with a coherent, broad picture in a rather short work. Whether this was accidental or a result of the work of editor Mark Christ is not clear, but the volume certainly benefits from the interconnections. The work, however, is not so compelling that one is left with a strong desire to learn more about Arkansas in the Civil War. A brief glimpse is enough.

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