Reconstruction Begins in Arkansas

January 19, 1864 – A legally dubious convention amended the Arkansas constitution to abolish slavery in the state.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit:

Delegates assembled at Little Rock to consider constitutional changes, the most important of which was to end slavery in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. The delegates were not popularly elected to represent the people of Arkansas, and as they debated, the popularly elected (pro-Confederate) state government continued functioning in southwestern Arkansas, which was not yet under Federal military occupation.

Under this amended Unionist constitution, Arkansas was now eligible to be restored to the U.S. Convention delegates approved submitting the constitution to a popular vote on March 14. Those eligible to vote would be white men who swore allegiance to the Union. Lincoln wrote Major General Frederick Steele, commanding the Federal occupation forces in the Department of Arkansas:

“Sundry citizens of the State of Arkansas petitioned me that an election may be held in that State, in which to elect a Governor; that it be assumed at that election, and thenceforward, that the Constitution and laws of the State, as before the rebellion, are in full force, except that the Constitution is so modified as to declare that there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…”

According to Lincoln, the legality of the constitutional convention was not to be questioned; as long as the delegates voted to abolish slavery, Steele was authorized to “fix the rest.” The delegates elected Isaac Murphy as provisional governor until the elections were held in March. Lincoln would leave Steele to work with civil authorities on the details of forming the new Unionist government for Arkansas, as long as those details included ending slavery.



Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 16868-85; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 360-61; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10303; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 390-91; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 456-58; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

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