Arkansas and Reconstruction

A project of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

About the Project

Long before the end of the Civil War, U.S. officials began making plans for how to reintegrate the rebellious southern states into the Union. Especially important were questions regarding the status of African Americans in former slave states and their ability to participate in the political and economic life of the South. Three amendments to the Constitution of the United States and accompanying legislation guaranteed the end of slavery, full citizenship, and voting rights for those formerly enslaved. But many former slave owners and vast numbers of other white people had little intention of treating former slaves as equals. It was clear to many in Washington that something more than constitutional amendments and federal policy initiatives were needed to provide protection or political support for African Americans in the post-Civil War South. Thus, federal troops occupied much of the former Confederacy. Those troops attempted to prevent the return to power of the old slave aristocracy and whites-only voting and office-holding. Federal troops also worked to create some level of order. Many areas of the South had never had much law enforcement before the war and had even less because of the destruction and disruption so much of the region suffered during the war. These situations were particularly troublesome in Arkansas, which had only been a state for twenty-five years when it seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. The state lacked much of the infrastructure of law enforcement found in some older states and suffered vast amounts of vigilante violence and general lawlessness during the war and thereafter.

The Reconstruction era in Arkansas featured great amounts of anxiety and conflict. The election of Republicans to public office, having been seen throughout the South as the anti-slavery party before and during the Civil War, angered many people in Arkansas who wanted to reclaim as much of the old order as possible, even if that meant regaining control of public offices through extralegal means. As Arkansas historian Tom DeBlack says in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture*, "The war, emancipation, and Reconstruction had been truly revolutionary experiences for the state and the region. But the return to power of the antebellum leaders ensured that Reconstruction was, in the words of Mississippi planter James Alcorn, a 'harnessed revolution.' Economic prosperity remained an elusive goal for most of the state’s citizens, and the black population of Arkansas and throughout the South had to wait for a 'second Reconstruction' in the 1950s and 1960s to attain the full civil, political, and educational rights that the first Reconstruction failed to achieve."

This Reconstruction Timeline is a project of the Central Arkansas Library System’s Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Principal research and writing were conducted by Margaret Justus. Additional contributions by Guy Lancaster, Mike Polston, Brian Robertson, Scout Snowden, and David Stricklin. Design and layout by Scott Kirkhuff.

For more information, see Thomas A DeBlack, "Civil War through Reconstruction, 1861 through 1874," in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.