By Dr. Ken Bridges
The spring of 1865 was a dark time for Confederates in Arkansas. Control of the state had been reduced to a corner of southern Arkansas, disorder rose as starving troops ransacked homesteads for food, and soldiers deserted in droves. The end was coming.
Since the fall of Little Rock to the U.S. Army in 1863, the state was split in two. The state's Confederate government had established a new capital in the small village of Washington in Hempstead County. However, the state legislature met only briefly at Washington in 1864. Losses on the battlefield piled up. Retreats continued, refugees ran for their lives, and morale sank. As a result, Gov. Harris Flanagin saw control of his dwindling corner of the state slip away.
Flanagin was a lawyer by trade. In 1842, he served one term in the state legislature as part of the opposition Whig Party and later spent one term as an alderman in Arkadelphia in the 1850s. When the Secession Convention opened in 1861, he represented Clark County. Once Arkansas pulled out of the Union, he quickly volunteered for the Second Arkansas Mounted Rifles. His unit elected him captain, and he won great admiration for his bravery at the Battle of Pea Ridge in 1862. He soon rose to the rank of colonel as the Second Arkansas was sent to fight with other Confederate units in Tennessee.
However, the chaos of Arkansas politics brought him home. The disheartening failures of the war combined with Gov. Henry Rector's abrasive personality led him to win election as governor in 1862.
When Flanagin returned for his inauguration, the economy had collapsed, military recruitment had dried up, and hunger and crime were rampant. By 1865, he surveyed the situation and knew that it was hopeless for the Confederacy. He considered himself to be the head of the legitimate government for Arkansas, but Unionists had already formed a new government, complete with legislators, constitution, and a new governor in Little Rock by 1864. As far as the federal government and most of the state was concerned, Unionist Isaac Murphy was the governor of Arkansas.
Nevertheless, by April 1865, Flanagin still clung to the idea he could strike a bargain even though the Confederacy was in ruins, Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered in Virginia, and President Jefferson Davis was on the run. Union troops had long stated that they would not accept anything but an unconditional surrender.
He sent a message to federal authorities in Little Rock, under the command of Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds, asking to dismantle the state's Confederate government by reconvening the Confederate state legislature in Washington, formally repealing secession, and then dissolving.
He was ignored.
Flanagin then sent a message asking for Union and Confederate representatives to meet for yet another state constitutional convention and allow Confederate officials at the county level to stay in office. Flanagin's request perplexed Union officials as he was attempting to surrender and hold power at the same time.
The Little Rock government had already denounced secession and most of the Confederate legislators and local officials had scattered. All the men who had boldly marched toward secession four years earlier had now quietly walked away. Flanagin was effectively the only one left, and unconditional surrender was the only option.
After the embarrassing realization that he was a leader who longer had a following, he accepted the inevitable. Flanagin had all the remaining records of his government packed up and quietly shipped to Little Rock. The Civil War was over for Arkansas, and the now former governor returned to Arkadelphia and disappeared into the obscurity of history.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at kbridges@ southark.edu.