Events in history are not always as clear as they may seem at first. When delegates at the Arkansas Secession convention in May 1861 voted overwhelmingly to secede, it appeared to some observers that the entire state now supported secession. That was not entirely the case. Many Arkansans joined the Confederate army forced by the Confederate draft in effect, and other Arkansans quietly defied the Confederacy or fled to Missouri to join the Union Army. Not long after the fall of Little Rock and Fort Smith to Union forces in September 1863, Unionists surged forward to form a loyal Union government.
By October 23, Unionists meeting in Fort Smith called for Unionists across the state to meet in their counties to organize delegates for organizing a new loyal government. President Abraham Lincoln saw Unionists in Arkansas and across the Upper South speaking out and used this as an opportunity to shorten the war. On December 8, 1863, Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, his first Reconstruction plan, stating that if 10% of voters qualified to vote in 1860 swore an oath of loyalty to the United States and rejecting secession, they could form a new Union government and would be pardoned for any participation in the Confederate Army or government.
In the 1860 election, 54,152 men cast their ballots. Several counties, particularly in North Arkansas, voted strongly for avowedly Unionist candidates like John Bell of Tennessee and Stephen Douglas of Illinois (Lincoln was not on the ballot in Arkansas).
General Fredrick Steele echoed Lincoln’s proclamation on December 8, 1863, endorsing the organization of a Unionist government in the state. With Confederate forces falling back across Arkansas, it appeared the Confederacy was crumbling. By 1863, Union enlistments surged and Confederate desertions accelerated. Perhaps 10,000 Arkansans fought in the Union ranks by the end of the year.
Dozens of delegates were chosen for a convention to draw up a new state constitution in often disorganized meetings. The new convention began on January 4, 1864, in Little Rock. However, attendance was sporadic. Wartime realities of restricted transportation, roaming armies, and increasing disorder from bandits prevented many delegates from attending regular sessions. John McCoy of Newton County was elected as president of the convention. Union Gen. Powell Clayton, a later governor, noted that no more than 23 counties were represented at any one time and no more than 45 delegates were present at any time. Sixteen southern counties had no representation at all, such as Ashley, Calhoun, Chicot, and Union. Southern counties such as Columbia and Ouachita were able to send delegates.
Confederate officials gathered at the small community of Washington denounced the convention as illegitimate. The state was effectively divided, with several counties both having delegates at the Unionist convention in Little Rock and legislators at the Confederate capital, including Washington’s own Hempstead County.
Isaac Murphy of Madison County, the lone holdout against Arkansas secession in 1861, was immediately chosen interim governor. Calvin Bliss, a Vermont native and Batesville school teacher, Unionist, and abolitionist was selected as interim lieutenant governor. Robert White of Crawford County and secretary of the convention, was chosen as interim secretary of state.
The document that emerged was similar to the constitutions of 1836 and 1861 in many respects, with two major exceptions. The first was the creation of the office of lieutenant governor. The second, and the most important, was the total ban on slavery in Arkansas. In 1860, there had been more than 111,000 slaves in the state, a quarter of the total population. By 1863, slavery was disintegrating in the state. With Confederate forces on the run, there were fewer officials or planters in the southern part of the state who could enforce it. With the backing of the Union Army in the northern half of the state, slaves not already freed were running to the freedom that the army’s protection offered.
An election was held to ratify the new constitution in March 1864, a difficult matter since many counties were still under Confederate occupation. Of those who were able to vote, the response was overwhelming – 97% of voters approved the new Constitution. Of the more than 12,000 voters in a wartime election, only 266 people voted against it. Murphy, Bliss, and White were all elected without opposition. Legislators were elected from 46 counties for the session slated to begin in April.
When the new government convened on April 11, they presided over a state where slavery was now illegal but a state bitterly divided and still fighting a war of neighbor against neighbor. They also faced the overwhelming task of rebuilding a state torn apart by the Civil War.