Monday, December 16, 2013

Sesser: "THE LITTLE ROCK ARSENAL CRISIS: On the Precipice of the American Civil War"

[The Little Rock Arsenal Crisis: On the Precipice of the American Civil War by David Sesser (The History Press, 2013). Softcover, photos, illustrations, appendices, maps, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:88/124. ISBN:978-1-60949-969-3 $19.99]

The United States arsenal at Little Rock had only a caretaker staff present when the result of the 1860 presidential election inflamed secessionist feeling in the South and raised fears for the security of federal installations in the affected areas. On December 6, Captain James Totten's Battery F, 2nd US Artillery arrived at the arsenal from Fort Smith. Totten had respected ties to the community but the increased federal military presence prompted Arkansas militia, with the unofficial approval of Governor Henry Rector, to pour into Little Rock from the more pro-secession eastern and southern counties. Rector made no attempt to assert control over the militia but nevertheless demanded that Totten turn over the arsenal to the state. By a mutually acceptable agreement, Totten surrendered the post on February 8, 1861, he and his men being allowed free passage out of the state. The capture of thousands of antiquated, mostly flintlock, arms was hardly a boon to Arkansas's defense, but the bloodless surrenders of the Little Rock Arsenal and Fort Smith removed the largest military obstacles to secession, which occurred on May 6. David Sesser's new book The Little Rock Arsenal Crisis: On the Precipice of the American Civil War is the most detailed account of the events and major figures involved.

With the main narrative coming in at less than eighty often illustration-filled pages, the scope of Sesser's study is something between a long journal article and a book. In a short space, the author does a fine job of sketching out the arsenal's history, the 1860-61 political situation in Arkansas, and the backgrounds of the two primary personalities involved -- Governor Rector and Captain Totten. While not based on exhaustive archival research, the author's account of the crisis itself is a good synthesis of existing sources and is the best treatment one can find. As an added documentary bonus, the appendices include official reports and correspondence related to the surrenders of both the Little Rock arsenal and Fort Smith, as well as an inventory of weapons and items held at the arsenal at the time of its capture.

Sesser's portrait of Rector is that of a weak leader who desired to influence events without taking executive responsibility for their creation and their consequences.  A potentially dangerous leadership vacuum was created, with violence averted largely through good fortune and timely intervention.  According to the author, the Little Rock city council deserves some credit for this. To prevent violence, city leaders actually had the Capitol Guards, a venerable local militia company, interpose itself between the U.S. garrison and the increasingly belligerent secessionist forces.  The voters at the time seem to have recognized the kind of man they had earlier placed in the governor's chair, as he was decisively defeated in the election following the post-secession drafting of a new state constitution. On the other side, Captain Totten readily surrendered the post rather than risk bloodshed and destruction without explicit instructions from the administration in Washington. In gratitude, a group of Little Rock ladies later commissioned a presentation sword for Totten, which he accepted. Totten would eventually be promoted to brigadier general, known more for his legendary profanity than brilliant field service.  Sesser does not engage in speculative history, but one wonders what might have happened had an officer like Nathaniel Lyon been in charge of the arsenal instead of Totten.

Complaints are small in number. Like other titles from this publisher, the book is full of large numbers of appropriate photographs and illustrations. What's missing are maps of the arsenal complex (by 1860, there were 28 buildings on its grounds) and of Little Rock itself, the latter needed to visualize the relative locations of sites mentioned in the text. In terms of content and context, relying on published sources in creating a largely top-down treatment conveyed through the eyes of state-level military and political leaders is fine but it limits perspective.  Given the study's lack of letters, diaries, and other eyewitness primary accounts written by city residents, what went through the minds of the Little Rock citizenry as they assessed the gathering crisis and pondered the potential of their city becoming a battleground is mostly absent.  This is a bit unfortunate given that shielding civilian life and property was expressed by both sides to be of paramount concern.

In the end, David Sesser's The Little Rock Arsenal Crisis does not significantly alter our views of the secession period in Arkansas, but it does certainly sharpen the details surrounding one of its big moments. As it's the best synthesis available, the book deserves to be read by all students of Civil War Arkansas and, for its particular subject, should be regarded as the current go-to work.

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