Battle of New Gascony (Reconstruction)
The Battle of New Gascony was a skirmish in the Reconstruction-era Brooks-Baxter War in which supporters of Elisha Baxter attacked a militia force loyal to Joseph Brooks near New Gascony (Jefferson County) in 1874.
The election of 1872 was rife with irregularities but resulted in Elisha Baxter assuming the governorship of Arkansas. Following a series of legislative and legal maneuvers, losing candidate Joseph Brooks won a legal ruling declaring him the winner. On April 15, 1874, Brooks and a group of armed followers confronted Baxter at what is now the Old State House in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and threw him out, leading to several weeks of armed confrontations in what became known as the Brooks-Baxter War.
Hercules King Cannon White led militia troops to Little Rock on April 18, 1874, and offered the troops’ services to Baxter in his headquarters at the Anthony House, but instead they were sent back to base at Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). White learned on April 30 that a large group of Brooks supporters led by Joseph L. Murphy and a Captain Vandesand had gathered at New Gascony, and, as one historian stated, “White, chafing under a forced inactivity, decided to strike.”
White commandeered the steamboat Belle of Texas (which had brought news of the Brooks troops), loaded about 150 white and black militiamen aboard, and departed for New Gascony, about sixteen miles below Pine Bluff on the Arkansas River. When passing Nichols Landing, they saw a group of Brooks’s men seizing livestock. White sent his 100 white cavalrymen after them, proceeding to New Gascony with the remaining fifty black infantrymen. Reuniting at New Gascony, the force headed for Ashley’s gin, about four miles away.
They found Murphy and Vandesand’s men formed in line of battle behind a worm-rail fence at the gin, and, as the Arkansas Gazette reported, “the fighting commenced and lasted for thirty minutes, the firing being hot, and the rattling of musketry being continuous.” White finally ordered a cavalry charge, and the Brooks supporters broke and ran. The Baxter troops gathered about sixty prisoners, including Murphy and Vandesand, both of whom were wounded. Casualty counts vary, but at least nine of White’s men were wounded, and from seven to nine of Murphy’s men were killed and around twenty to thirty wounded in the largest single military action in the Brooks-Baxter War. Murphy was jailed in what one contemporary observer termed “White’s bastille at Pine Bluff.”
On May 15, 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant signaled his support for Baxter, who returned to the Old State House on May 19, ending the Brooks-Baxter War and signaling the end of Reconstruction in Arkansas. The Gazette reported on May 17 that Murphy and Vandesand laid down their “civil commissions at the feet of Gov. Baxter, asking pardon for their transgressions, stating that if their pardons are granted, they will depart the state, never to return.…We are gratified to state that the proposition of Murphy and Vandesand was accepted by the governor, who is first in peace as well as war, and as humane as he is determined.” A month later, though, the newspaper reported that Murphy was being tried for treason in connection with his activities during the Brooks-Baxter War. Initially denied bail, Murphy was freed on a $1,000 bond on June 23, 1874. The final outcome of the court proceedings is uncertain.
For additional information:
Atkinson, James H. “The Brooks-Baxter Contest.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 4 (Summer 1945): 124–149.
“Battle of New Gascony.” Arkansas Gazette, May 9, 1874, p. 2.
Christ, Mark K., ed. A Confused and Confusing Affair: Arkansas and Reconstruction. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2018.
DeBlack, Thomas A. With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861–1874. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.
“Grand Finale.” Arkansas Gazette, May 17, 1874, p. 4.
Harrell, John M. The Brooks and Baxter War: A History of the Reconstruction Period in Arkansas. St. Louis, MO: Slawson Printing Co., 1893.
“J. L. Murphy.” Arkansas Gazette, June 24, 1874, p. 4.
“The Rebellion.” Arkansas Gazette, May 2, 1874, p. 4.
Singletary, Otis A. “Militia Disturbances in Arkansas during Reconstruction.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 14 (Summer 1956): 140–150.
“Treason.” Arkansas Gazette, June 21, 1874, p. 1.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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