Abandonment of Fort Smith

Following the election of 1860, Arkansas and the city of Fort Smith (Sebastian County) began to feel the tension and fear that accompany the threat of war. By February 1861, seven states had officially left the Union. Questions remained as to the allegiance of the remaining southern states and the Native American tribes residing in the Indian Territory. The Choctaw tribe officially sided with the Confederate cause, mainly to reinforce their claim to the 6,000 Choctaw-owned slaves. Other Native American tribes in the Indian Territory followed suit. Fort Smith was surrounded by a sea of turmoil.

Political sentiments toward secession formalized during the winter and spring of 1861. Tensions grew even more throughout the region when ordnance stores were seized at Napoleon (Desha County) and when the United States Arsenal at Little Rock (Pulaski County) surrendered to a pro-Confederate militia in February. Many Northern politicians and military leaders feared that the ordnance supplies of Fort Smith would fall into secessionist hands as well. In order to save these munitions, the Department of War ordered the immediate evacuation and abandonment of the garrison.

The area around Fort Smith was greatly divided in loyalty, and the news of abandonment frightened many local pro-Union citizens. On February 22, 1861, a plea for the fort to remain under U.S. military control went to the secretary of war. The appeal apparently struck a chord. At that moment, only two companies (D and E) of the First U.S. Cavalry were garrisoned at the fort. Both companies were ordered to halt their withdrawal and await further orders as events unfolded.

Colonel William Emory, the former commander of Fort Cobb, Oklahoma, was in Washington DC at that time and was immediately ordered back to Indian Territory to begin preparations for a possible rebellion. This included consolidating troops as well as informing garrison commanders throughout the region what their orders would be in the event of an insurrection. Col. Emory’s orders also included protecting the munitions and garrison at Fort Smith by supplementing their numbers with troops from Indian Territory; however, if Arkansas was to secede, all troops were to be moved out of Arkansas immediately.

As soon as Emory made it to Arkansas on April 2, 1861, he faced many problems. He discovered that the ammunition stores at Fort Smith were quite low. In addition, for the four cavalry companies currently in the region, only two officers remained, as many officers had resigned their positions and given their allegiance to the Confederacy. To make matters worse, on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina. After hearing this, Emory telegraphed Washington DC regarding his situation, left Fort Smith for Indian Territory, and gave command of the garrison to Captain Samuel Sturgis, commander of the First U.S. Cavalry stationed there. Sturgis was given the order to remain until Arkansas seceded. In the event of secession, Sturgis was ordered to post his men at the crossing of the Arkansas River on the Texas Road and then proceed into Indian Territory.

A few weeks later, reports of an impending attack came to Fort Smith. Governor Henry Rector had given charge of militia units gathering around Fort Smith to Senator Solon Borland. Borland’s first mission was to capture the important post of Fort Smith. Armed with weapons from the Little Rock Arsenal, including artillery, these militia units boarded steamboats and headed up river.

Although the state had not yet seceded, and despite his prior orders, Capt. Sturgis made quick preparations to leave the fort. He knew that with only two companies of cavalry, there was no way to hold off an onslaught of pro-Confederate militia that greatly outnumbered his own forces. Sturgis wrote that he also faced the problem that “the entire population of the surrounding country…was…ready at a moment’s warning to take up arms against us.” Sturgis believed that to stay and fight would only end in his men being captured or killed, and all government supplies and arms would fall into Confederate hands.

Packing up all stores of munitions, Sturgis awaited the news of the Rebels’ approach. On April 23, scouts informed Sturgis of the militia’s arrival at nearby Van Buren (Crawford County); the enemy was now within four miles of his position. By nightfall, all the federal cavalrymen had left Fort Smith and headed west toward Fort Washita in Indian Territory, which they reached seven days later. Only Captain Alexander Montgomery, an ordnance sergeant, those too sick to travel, the laundresses, and the hospital staff remained behind. They were told to evacuate to St. Louis, Missouri, as soon as was practical.

Borland’s two steamboats stopped for a short time in Van Buren before traveling the last few miles to Fort Smith. His forces comprised around 300 militia infantry and eight pieces of light artillery. The arrival of the militia force caused quite a stir in Van Buren, and local pro-Confederate militias, both of infantry and cavalry, threw their lot in with Borland’s force. When the pro-Confederate militia arrived at Fort Smith, the remaining federal troops were declared prisoners, and the fort was seized in the name of the State of Arkansas.

With Fort Smith in secessionist hands, pro-Confederate militia recruits poured in; they were not yet Confederate troops, as Arkansas had still not seceded and would not until May 6, 1861. Fort Smith’s role as a strategic location for troop training and movement, a supply depot, a communication waypoint, and an overall military stronghold would prove invaluable to the region. It also proved to be an important Confederate defensive position, protecting the approach to Arkansas, Indian Territory, Texas, and Louisiana. Fort Smith remained in this capacity until September 1, 1863, when Union forces retook the garrison and held it until the end of the war.

For additional information:
Bearss, Edwin C., and Arrell M. Gibson. Fort Smith: Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas. 2nd ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. 1. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1880.

Cody Faber
Fort Smith National Historic Site


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