Friday, February 5, 2010

The Southern Seizure of Fort Smith, April 23, 1861

Even as Arkansas deliberated the critical move of joining her sister Southern states in leaving the Union, the clouds of war loomed on the state's western borner.

The U.S. Army maintained a garrison at Fort Smith in 1861 and pro-secession leaders in Arkansas realized that as long as Federal troops held the fort, it would be a thorn in the side of their dreams of an independent Southern nation.

As a result, the state called out its militia and organized a military force to take Fort Smith, fully realizing that if the fort's garrison resisted, war could result even while the state was still part of the Union. Led by Colonel Solon Borland, the Arkansas troops left Little Rock and headed up the Arkansas River by steamboat. The force of infantry and artillery grew as it moved. In a final stop in Van Buren, for example, additional militiamen joined Borland's force.

Well aware that Borland was coming, Major Samuel Sturgis of the 4th U.S. Cavalry deliberated what to do. Finally deciding that he could not hope to hold the large fort with the small command at his disposal, Sturgis decided that the time had come to go. As Borland's command steamed up the river, Sturgis gave the order for his men to prepare to evacuate Fort Smith.

Major Sturgis and his men left Fort Smith at 9 p.m. on the evening of April 23, 1861, heading for Fort Washita in what is now Oklahoma. Behind they left a couple of officers including the post quartermaster, a few soldiers, the women who did the post laundry and the sick men in the hospital.

Borland's men came off their boats just 2 hours after the U.S. soldiers left, claimed possession of the fort for Arkansas and took the few men remaining there as prisoners of war. They were quickly paroled and at least one, Major Richard C. Gatlin who was visiting the post, soon resigned his commission and went on to become a Confederate general.

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