Unable to Feed the Hungry, Davis Tries to Reassure Arkansas

April 3, 1863 (Friday)

While the women of Richmond again threatened to protest and riot over food shortages in the city, President Jefferson Davis turned to matters he could better understand: the importance of the Mississippi River. At the start of the war, the South controlled (or at least had access to) pretty much the entire stretch from Cairo, Illinois south to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Two years later, all that was left was Port Hudson and Vicksburg, both on the eastern bank.

Davis: States Rights? Well, maybe. But first we need a strong central government!

That is not to say that Confederate forces didn’t have some control over other portions on the western bank. The Red River, including Fort Taylor, for example, was wide open (though Union Admiral Farrugut was threatening to blockade it).

With this in mind, President Davis took up his pen and wrote to Arkansas Governor Harris Flanagin. Governor Flanagin was a Northern by birth. He grew up in New Jersey, attending a Quaker school before moving to Pennsylvania, where he became a mathematics professor. In Illinois, he established his own school and soon after became a lawyer. For the two decades prior to the war, however, he lived in Arkansas, where he entered politics. That only lasted till the early 1850s, when he gave it up for a more local home life.

When the war broke out, he was, at first, a Unionist, but when Arkansas seceded, he did as well, and joined the Confederate army. Following the battles of Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge, he was promoted to colonel of an Arkansas Mounted Regiment. A year later, while serving in the Army of Tennessee, he was nominated for the position of Arkansas’ Governor. He surprisingly won, beating out incumbent, Henry Massie Rector, who was threatening to secede from the Confederacy.

What really set him apart from the previous governor was that he was completely fine with Richmond’s usurpation of states rights. He did not oppose the draft, and, like Davis, was in favor of a strong central government.

He had written Davis on January 5th, but the President could not find the time to reply until this date, three months later.

“The defense of the Mississippi River on both banks has been considered by me as of primary importance,” wrote Davis, “and I can assure you that you cannot estimate more highly than I do the necessity of maintaining an unobstructed communication between the States that are separated by the river.” This necessity for “unobstructed communication,” of course, didn’t mean that Arkansas would always get a timely reply.

Davis then went on to explain his strategy for keeping the Mississippi open, deeming Port Hudson and Vicksburg indispensable. “If we succeed, as I have confidence we shall, in maintaining these two positions,” continued Davis, assuming quite a lot, “we preserve the ability to furnish the munitions and ordnance stores necessary for the supply of the troops on the west bank, and to throw across the river adequate forces for meeting the enemy, if he should transfer his campaign from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama to Arkansas and Louisiana.”

Davis figured that since Port Hudson and Vicksburg could not be taken by the Federals, they would next invade Arkansas and Louisiana. Governor Flanagin had requested more troops, specifically those from Arkansas and Missouri, to be sent back to his state, where the Confederates were greatly outnumbered.

The President responded, telling him that “we are sadly outnumbered on all our lines of defense.” Nevertheless, “it will be found that the disproportion between the opposing forces has been more largely against us on the eastern than on the western side.”

Unlike many Southern Governors, Harris Flanagin was completely fine with less states rights and with the draft.

Knowing that Flanagin would be less than thrilled to hear this, Davis tried out a bit of logic. “Yet, if we lose control of the eastern side the western [meaning Arkansas] must almost inevitably fall into the power of the enemy,” figured the President. “The defense of the fortified places on the eastern bank [Port Hudson and Vicksburg] is therefore regarded as the defense of Arkansas….”

When Flanagin wrote Davis in January, he asserted that there were only forty regiments in the entire state. Davis, with new information at hand, had to break the news that actually the number was quite a bit closer to twenty-four. He tried to soften the blow by telling him that the numbers might be a bit off if one took into account Arkansas troops from regiments sent to other states that had deserted and fled back to their homes, quite possibly joining up with other Arkansas Regiments. but probably not.

What this all boiled down to was Flanagin’s (and others’) complaints that Arkansas and Missouri troops were being taken out of their home state to fight elsewhere. “Our safety, our very existence,” expounded Davis, “depends on the complete blending of the military strength of all the States into one united body that is to be used anywhere, everywhere, as the exigencies of the contest may require for the good of the whole.”

Flanagin, being a supporter of a more centralized government, probably understood this well. There had been pressure from Arkansas politicians to push this agenda with Richmond. Still, Davis explained the philosophy behind it: “The discipline and efficiency of our armies have been found to be far greater when the troops were separated from their homes, and thus delivered from the constant temptation to absent themselves from duty presented by proximity to their families.” It was almost like Davis was admitting that many of the soldiers didn’t support the cause.

In closing, Davis assured him that he would make an effort to make sure there were enough troops “to protect your State to the utmost extent of our ability.” He reminded him of the recent command change placing General Kirby Smith at the head of the Department of the Trans-Mississippi, and hoped it would have a “good effect in satisfying the good people of your State, and supplies of arms and munitions will be constantly forwarded as rapidly as our resources and means of transportation will permit.”1

  1. Sources: The Confederate Governors edited by Buck Yearns; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 53, p865-866. []
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Unable to Feed the Hungry, Davis Tries to Reassure Arkansas by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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