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Arkansas played a pivotal role in history through several significant Civil War battles fought in multiple parts of the state. Eight trails are designated heritage sites with mapped driving tours and detailed information perfect for fall motorcycle rides or family road trips. Exploring these hallowed grounds teaches visitors about the battles fought and the civilian heroes which helps paint a portrait of Arkansas’s role in the territorial shaping of our nation.
Arkansas was primarily a Confederate state during the Civil War. As a slave state, delegates and leaders did not support the Union efforts despite special requests from the newly elected Abraham Lincoln. Delegates left the Arkansas Secession Convention in March 1961 with a vote of “succession, only if war was declared on the Southern states.” One month later, Governor Henry M. Rector ordered a new militia to seize the arsenal at Fort Smith as a declaration to President Lincoln and the Union troop efforts to align all free peoples to the same mindset.
Drawing by J Irvine Dungan of the Battle of Prairie Grove. Image available through public domain.
While their reasoning is not entirely agreeable, the May 1861 convention to secede was grounded in a desire for freedom and state autonomy. Arkansas organized for war, establishing a new constitution with office limits and the Army of Arkansas. The delegation outlined commanding parameters and named military leaders for the two divisions, including calling local county leaders to establish a “minute man militia” ready to protect on the local level as needed while a larger statewide Army developed.
The first troops and infantry regiments were transferred east of the Mississippi River with Confederacy Troops and formed the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Governor Rector realized this left Arkansas defenseless and susceptible, so he called for more troops, building 21 new regiments in two months with 16,000 men. Part of the original troops participated in the Eastern theater in several significant battles under the direction of General Robert E. Lee.
Image used with permission from public domain through the Library of Congress.
Arkansas’s primary role was hosting control of the Mississippi River, which shaped much of its historical and economic context. Because of the easy access to Missouri and the Mississippi River, much of the state was an open battlefield, with more than 750 military actions recorded in four years.
Route to Fayetteville
This route passes from Ozark to Alma, then North through West Fork to Fayetteville near Hwy 71 and Dickson Street.
Photo of Maj. General Frederick Steel, image is public domain through the Library of Congress.
The route winds from Little Rock to the furthest corners of southeast Arkansas. Much of this battle included significant interaction for the war and hard-felt casualties on both sides.
Approach to Helena
Troops left the base at Little Rock and traveled through Jacksonport before four days of meandering bad roads and swamp lands to arrive in Helena.
Eight different movements of the war traveled through the heart of Helena-West Helena with its protection and easy access to the Mississippi River. Helena is one of the country’s best locations to learn about African Americans’ participation in the war.
Approach to Pine Bluff
An easy ride connection from the Camden Expedition of the Red River Campaign, Pine Bluff has much to explore, from Civil War stories, Blues roots, Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, a railroad museum and a nature center.
Little Rock Campaign
Starting at the MacArthur Museum of Military History, follow the Little Rock Campaign Driving tour to retrace the path of battles and events to capture the capital city following the Battle of Helena.
Pea Ridge Campaign
The National Park Service operates this military park that tells the story of the unique battle fought March 7-8, 1862, completing a significant Union victory. Much of the fighting took place on the lawn around the Elkhorn Tavern and among the farms of Leetown. The path is fully paved with pullouts, interpretative panels, and an audio tour that paints a picture of the scene in each field.
Prairie Grove Campaign
The opposing armies met on a ridge in the town of Prairie Grove. Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park encompasses the battlefield with a paved driving path, walking and bike trail, and narration through a video tour. After spending time at the state park, ride over to historic Cane Hill, where General Blunt’s Federals heard the shots fired from Prairie Grove, and moved to join the battle.
Images used with permission from the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, unless otherwise noted.
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