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Return to Central High, Friday, September 6, 1957

Governor Rector Used 'Interposition'
Seized Arsenal at Little Rock in 1861

Federal and state authority came into conflict once before in Arkansas in 1861. The then governor "interposed'' his authority between the federals in the Arsenal in what is now MacArthur Park and the residents of Little Rock and he seized the Arsenal.   MARGARET SMITH ROSS OF THE GAZETTE STAFF

During a tense period on the eve of the Civil War, the United States Arsenal at Little Rock was seized by order of Henry Massie Rector, governor of Arkansas.
      Although the demand for the surrender of the Arsenal was made in the name of the State of Arkansas, Rector actually took possession in the name of the United States government -- a fine but important point which evidently was overlooked at the time by most of the excited people of Little Rock.
      One of the Arsenal buildings is still standing. It houses the Museum of Natural History and Antiquities, in MacArthur Park, and is familiarly known as the birthplace of General Douglas MacArthur.
      At the time of the seizure of the Arsenal February 8, 1861, Arkansas was still part of the Federal Union. South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas had already seceded and the Confederate States of America was organizing its provisional government. The convention to decide the course Arkansas would take in the crisis had been called on January 15, but did not assemble for the first of its two sessions until March 4.
      Little Rock at that time was a city of about 3,000. The United States Arsenal for may years had been used only as a depot for arms and munitions, staffed by a skeleton force. But in November, 1860, the Second United States Artillery had been transferred to Little Rock from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., with Capt. James Totten in command. This unit consisted of some 60 to 75 soldiers.
     
Rumors of Reinforcements
      Late in January, a rumor was widely circulated that Totten's command would be reinforced by troops from Fort Gibson.
      On January 28, Governor Rector notified Totten that the Arsenal would be "permitted to remain in the possession of the Federal officers until the State, by authority of the people, shall have determined to sever their connection with the General Government,'' unless reinforcements came or munitions were destroyed or removed.
      Totten replied that he knew of no orders from the Federal government on reinforcements or munitions at the Arsenal, and reminded the governor that his own orders could come from no other source than the United States government.
      During the next few days Totten dispatched by mail and by telegraph several desperate requests for instructions to the adjutant general in Washington, but no orders ever came and he was ultimately forced to exercise his own judgment.
     
Cannons at Wharf
      Rumors that the steamboat S. H. Tucker was on the way to Little Rock with United States soldiers prompted some of the citizens to place three cannons with guards at the wharf to turn the steamer back. Late that same evening (February 3) the Tucker had not arrived so the cannons were fired and removed. Rector later said that they had been placed there on his order.
      The telegraph line between Little Rock and Memphis had been recently completed, and the first message that went over it included mention of the rumored reinforcements. Although it was intended as a news item, some of the people of Arkansas construed it as an order from Governor Rector for volunteers to come to Little Rock to help repel the invasion and to help seize the Arsenal.
     
State Soldiers Arrive
      On February 5 and 6 military companies from various parts of the state arrived at Little Rock. Their strength was estimated at 800 to 1,000, and it was said that an increase to 5,000 was expected if conditions warranted it. Governor Rector steadfastly denied having issued any order of any kind in connection with these troops.
      At a called meeting of the City Council on the afternoon of February 6, two resolutions were adopted. The first stated that if the Arsenal was to be seized it was the governor's duty to demand its surrender, and called on Rector to stop unauthorized attempts. The second expressed the hope that there would be no "hostile collision'' between State and Federal forces.
      A mass meeting of the citizens of Little Rock took place on the same day with Richard H. Johnson as chairman and John D. Kimball as secretary. A resolution was passed which recognized that the volunteer troops had come to Little Rock firmly believing that they were carrying out the governor's orders and which called on Rector to assume responsibility for the situation. It urged the governor to call for the surrender of the Arsenal in the name of the State of Arkansas.
      Thus prodded, Governor Rector sent a formal demand for surrender to Captain Totten. The communication was delivered by T. D. Merrick, commanding general of the First Division of Arkansas Militia, accompanied by his staff.
      Dated February 6, 1861, the communication read in part, "This movement is prompted by the feeling that pervades the citizens of this State that in the present emergency the arms and munitions of war in the Arsenal should be under the control of the State authorities, in order to their security. This movement, although not authorized by me, has assumed such an aspect that it becomes my duty, as the executive of this Sate, to interpose my official authority to prevent a collision between the people of the State and the Federal troops under your command. I therefore demand in the name of the State the delivery of the possession of the Arsenal and munitions of war under your charge to the State authorities, to be held subject to the action of the convention to be held on the 4th of March next.''
      Before Totten would agree to surrender the Arsenal, he obtained from the governor three promises in writing: That Rector would take possession in the name of the United Sates government and would hold possession in that light until legally absolved from the responsibility; that his command would be guaranteed safe passage in any direction, taking with them all personal and public property except munitions of war; and that they be guaranteed the right to march away honorably as soldiers who left a post for want of instructions from their superiors, rather than as surrendering soldiers.
      When news of the impending Arsenal seizure reached Washington, the congressional delegation and other prominent Arkansans at Washington sent telegrams to Governor Rector and several influential citizens of Little Rock, imploring them to prevent an attack on the Arsenal if Totten should resist, and pointing out that the other Southern states which had captured forts were in the act of seceding, a situation which at that time did not exist in Arkansas.
      These telegrams were dated February 7 and 8. Six of them were published later in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, and four of them contain the words, "for God's sake.''
      That they arrived after the seizure of the Arsenal was an accomplished fact is evidenced by Edmund Burgevin's telegraphic reply to C. B. Johnson, dated February 8, saying, "Spoke too late, like Irishman who swallowed egg. Arsenal in hands of governor.'' Burgevin was attorney general of Arkansas.
      On the morning of February 8, Rector and Totten signed a formal agreement delivering the Arsenal to the State authorities with the governor's three promises of the preceding day as a part of the agreement. That afternoon all the militia assembled with Rector at its head and marched to the Arsenal. The troops had been removed but Totten was there to listen to Rector's speech and to give him possession of the Arsenal.
     
Opposition to Governor
      In explaining his actions to the adjutant general at Washington Totten said that among the majority of the most respectable people of Little Rock, there was but one sentiment, "and that was in opposition to the course of the governor and those who counseled and aided him in the deed done.''
      On leaving the Arsenal, the Second Artillery went into camp at Fletcher's Landing on the banks of the Arkansas River near Little Rock, where they waited for transportation out of the state.
     
Sword for Captain
      While they were waiting, 106 ladies, members of Little Rock's leading families, presented a handsome sword to Capt. Totten in appreciation of his conduct, which they believed had saved their city from destruction and their country from Civil War. It was inscribed on one side, "To Capt. James Totten, from the ladies of Little Rock,'' and on the other side, "When woman suffers, chivalry forbears; the soldier fears all danger but his own.''
      In the presentation speech Totter was told, "Accept this tribute of our respect and gratitude, wear it in defense of your country, but sooner let it rust in its scabbard than draw it in the cause of injustice or oppression.''
      He answered by promising: "It shall be borne in the defense of my country always, when right, and never in any land or against any people on the side of wrong injustice, oppression or their constitutional rights.''
     
Deeded to Confederacy
      Totten's command left Little Rock February 12, 1861, and proceeded to St. Louis. Arkansas seceded from the United States May 6, and on May 21, 1861, the Arkansas delegates to the Confederate Provisional Congress deeded the Arsenals at Little Rock and at Fort Smith (which had been sized late in April) to the Confederate States of America.
      A few months later Mary Weaver wrote to her son, Omer Weaver, bitterly commenting that, "Totten is in Missouri wielding the sword we gave him against us!''
      Totten commanded a Federal artillery unit at the Battle of Oak Hills, or Wilson's Creek, in Missouri, in August 1861, the first battle in which Arkansas men participated. Ironically, Omer Weaver became the first Little Rock man to be killed in the Civil War, at that battle. On the other hand, the Confederate soldiers from Little Rock were using some of the guns left behind by Totten, and many of them had received their military training from him.
     

      Reprinted from the Arkansas Gazette, September 6, 1957

Return to Central High, Friday, September 6, 1957

Copyright 1997, Little Rock Newspapers, Inc. All rights reserved.
This document cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of Little Rock Newspapers, Inc.