Volume 1, Number 3
As the people of the South beat the war drums of secession and the storm clouds of the Civil War were fast approaching, the people of the upper White River valley took little note of the impending conflict.
The issues of slavery, hotly debated in the nation's capitol seemed far away and of little concern to the people of the region. To them slavery was not an issue even though a big majority of them came, by way of Tennessee and Kentucky, from the southern states of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. They were sympathetic with the South, yet few were slave holders and those that were treated their slaves in such a humane manner that they usually held the respect of their non-slave holding neighbors. They looked upon slavery as being not altogether good, or bad, but certainly no cause for secession or war. On the eve of the Civil War there were not more than five or six hundred slaves in the upper White River Valley.
The passage of the Kansas - Nebraksa Bill and the Kansas-Missouri border warfare caused no great concern among them. The stories of the "Underground Railroad," and the Dred Scott decision all seemed to be about people and events unrelated to the everyday problems of life. The Dred Scott decision of 1857 issued by Chief Justice Taney, from whom Taney county Missouri had been named twenty years before, brought no suggestions for changing the name of the county. Whatever reflections the people may have had on these important matters were overshadowed by other things such as the discovery of gold in California, the massacre of the Fancher Wagon Train in Utah, the settlement of Texas, the Oregon country, White River navigation, farmstead improvements and community life. It would have been far easier to have raised a voluntary army to fight the Mormons and Indians in Utah than to have raised a squad of militiamen for either the North or the South.
Regardless of their southern sympathies the people of the upper White River valley were loyal Americans and held deep respect for the Union. They no doubt felt like Alexander Gamble when he said, "Our sympathies are with the South but our interests are with the Union."
The returns of the election of 1860 bore this out. Abraham Lincoln, representing the northern point of view received only 17,028 votes in Missouri and none in Arkansas - not being on the ballot in Arkansas. His counterpart, John C. Breckenridge, representing the southern point of view shared little better polling only 31,317 votes in Missouri. The two candidates, Stephen Douglas and John Bell, representing a more moderate or compromising view point on slavery polled 117,173 votes in Missouri. It can be seen that the people of Missouri favored a more moderate compromising position on slavery and did not strongly support either the North or the South. The people in the hill counties of north Arkansas held views in common with their neighbors to the north.
In general the people of the region were surprised when Lincoln won the presidency. An excerpt from an 1883 History of Greene County, Missouri supports this statement. "Great was the astonishment of everybody when it was learned that in Greene county forty-two votes had been given to Abe Lincoln. It was known before the election that there were a few Republicans in the county, perhaps a dozen."
No sooner had Lincoln been elected to the presidency than secession began. On December 20, 1860 South Carolina seceded and within six months ten southern states followed suit.
So swiftly was the chain of events occurring that on Jan. 10, 1861 the Missouri Legislature authorized the calling of a special state convention to deal with the problem of what stand Missouri should take. The election of the members to the convention was held on February 18, the same day Jefferson Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederacy. There were three kinds of delegates to be chosen to the convention. The Unconditional Union candidates opposed Secession under any circumstances. The Conditional Union candidates favored secession in certain emergencies only and the Secession candidates favored secession.
In Greene county the Unconditional Union candidates received 7,339 votes; the Conditional Union candidates polled only 1,241 votes with only a scattering vote here and there for the Secessionist candidates.
In Christian county the Unconditional Union candidates received 2,396 votes with the Conditional Union candidates receiving only 314. In Stone county the vote was 605 for the Unconditional Union candidates and only 50 for the Conditional Union candidates. In Taney county the situation was more evenly divided with the Unconditional Union candidates receiving 689 votes and the Conditional Union candidates receiving 631 votes. There was no record available for the Secessionist candidates in the three counties but they no doubt received a small vote.
Arkansas like Missouri called an election for a convention to decide what stand Arkansas would take on the secession movement with similar results. On Feb.18, 1861 delegates were elected to their state convention with Carroll county, Arkansas casting 1464 votes for the Unionist candidates and only 36 votes for the Secessionist candidates.
While the people of Missouri and Arkansas were trying to remain neutral the president issued a call for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion. Each state was asked for a quota of men. This action was most painful for the people of the White River region and their respective states. For as much as they hated to break ties with the union they could not bring themselves to fight against their neighbors and kinsmen east of the Mississippi River.
The governors of both Missouri and Arkansas refused to fill the quotas and in ugly language assailed the president's action. The fast changing turn of events coupled with Arkansas's geographical location and cotton interest, soon overcame the resistance of the hill counties of North Arkansas and took Arkansas out of the Union at a state convention on May 6, 1861.
In the meantime Missouri was torn by turmoil and strife and a state of anarchy existed. All state and local governments broke down and not until after the battle of Pea Ridge could it be said that Missouri was safely in the Union.
In the impending conflict both the North and South realized the importance of winning and holding the border states, of which Missouri was one. So rapidly did the storm clouds break that the people of the upper White River valley were stunned and bewildered. They were torn between their blood and friendship ties with the South and their loyalty to the Union. Both the North and the South made a determined effort for Missouri, with the people of the upper White River valley in between.
The Battle of Bull Run, the first major conflict of the Civil War, was fought on July 21, 1861. So rapidly did the chain of events occur that the next day (July 22, 1861) the Union and Confederate troops were engaged in battle at Forsyth, Missouri. The Civil War with all its horrors was upon the bewildered people of the upper White River valley.
Sometime prior to the Forsyth engagement the Confederates had seized the courthouse at Forsyth and had converted it into a fort and arsenal. At General Price's request the Forsyth garrison had been re-enforced with supplies by steam boat.
Upon learning of the Confederate build-up at Forsyth, the Southwest Expedition Head Quarters of the Union Army at Springfield, dispatched Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Sweeney. of the U. S. Army and some troops to suppress it.
The following is a battle action report of the Forsyth skirmish written by Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Sweeney.
from Springfield to and
Skirmish (July 22. 1861) at Forsyth,
Report of Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Sweeney, U. S. Army.
July 27. 1861
Sir: In compliance with verbal orders received from you, I left this place on the evening of the 20th instant, and proceeded with dispatch to Forsyth, where I arrived about 6 p. m. on the 22nd.
On approaching the town I took every possible precaution to prevent the hostile force assembled there from becoming aware of our presence. The advance guard, which consisted of a company of mounted Kansas Rangers, fell in with a picket guard of the enemy some 3 1/2 miles from town, and succeeded in capturing 2 of them. Upon an examination of the prisoners, they informed me that there were only 150 men stationed at Forsyth whereupon I ordered Captain Stanley's cavalry command and the Kansas Rangers to press rapidly forward and surround the town.
After they had passed on, and before the remainder of my force had come up, one of the prisoners remarked, "If that is all you have, you will get badly whipped, for we have a thousand men in Forsyth." Supposing this statement might be true, although contradictory of his former assertion, I dispatched an order to Captain Stanley to keep the enemy in check if he found the resistance formidable, while I hastened forward with the artillery and infantry to his support. The enemy in the meantime had received information of our approach, and having partially formed in the town, opened a scattering fire on the cavalry, but as it was returned with a well directed volley from our troops, they fled to the hills and surrounding thickets, keeping up a scattering fire as they retreated.
Under cover of the trees and bushes, they collected in considerable numbers upon the hills to the left of the town, from which they were dislodged by a well-directed fire of shell and canister from the artillery. The infantry meanwhile had been deployed as skirmishers thru the woods and in the rear of the city, and but a short time elapsed before we were in complete possession of the place.
From the best information I could gather, the loss of the enemy killed was 8 or 10, and in wounded must have been several times that number. Among the dead was Captain Jackson, who took an active part in the skirmish. Our own loss consisted of 2 men wounded, neither of them
dangerously, and four horses killed, included the one shot from under Captain Stanley, First Cavalry. The men belonged to the Cavalry. Three prisoners were taken on the day of the action, and 2 on the day following.
The entire affair lasted about an hour, and both officers and men engaged exhibited great coolness and courage. With the town we also captured 7 horses, and a quantity of arms, munitions of war, flour, meal, sugar, sirup, salt, clothing, cloth, boots, shoes, hats, camp furniture, mule and horse shoes etc. most of which we found in the court house which was used as a barracks for their troops. The arms and munitions of war were distributed among the Home Guards of the county and the clothing and provisions among our troops of which they stood in great need.
The country thru which we passed is exceedingly hilly and broken, and the latter part of the route almost entirely destitute of provisions for men and forage for horses.
Notwithstanding the adverse weather, which was remarkably stormy for a portion of the time, the march of 45 miles and the capture of the place occupied little over 50 hours. The last day the troops marched 28 miles, the last 4 of which were passed over at double quick time.
I remained in Forsyth till noon of the 23rd receiving the captured property, and then took up the line of march for Springfield, which I reached at 2 p.m. of Thursday the 25th instant.Very respectfully, Your obedient servant.
Such was the report of the engagement at Forsyth as written by Brigadier - General Sweeney of the Union Army. An account of the action written by a Confederate Officer might have given a different version of the battle, or had Forsyth been located south of the river the results might have been different.
The dead were buried in unmarked graves near the river adjacent to the village of Forsyth. Many years afterwards the river currents eroded away the banks of the stream and uncovered some of the skeletons. Considerable speculation took place until someone found in association with the graves, a Confederate button from one of the uniforms. Then it was remembered that the dead had been buried near the town.
In less than a month after the Forsyth engagement the Battle of Wilson's Creek was fought and for a time thereafter the Confederate Flag flew over the White River valley.
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly