(September 1, 2017) In one of the most bizarre episodes of Reconstruction, Arkansas Black Militia units fought each other at the Battle of New Gascony on April 30, 1874. They were on opposing sides of two Republican gubernatorial candidates engaged in an armed conflict known as the Brooks-Baxter War. It left as many two hundred killed on its battlefields. Like other incongruous events of the era, behind-the-scenes wrangling over money resulting from a falling out between Carpetbagger factions was to blame.
After the 1867 federal Reconstruction Acts required ten of the eleven former Confederate states to form new constitutions mandating universal black suffrage, seven of the ten had Carpetbag regimes in place for the 1868 presidential election. The other three remained under military rule. Arkansas was one of the seven.
Since many former Arkansas Confederates were not permitted to vote, the Republican Party gained firm control of the state government when Carpetbagger Powell Clayton was inaugurated in July 1868. In order to enforce his authority, he immediately formed a state militia. Since the force was only permitted to include voters, former Confederates were barred. As in other Southern states it was, therefore, commonly labeled a Black Militia, even though it also included whites that had not supported the Confederacy.
In 1871 the Carpetbag legislature elected Clayton to the U. S. Senate and sent former Vermonter, Stephen Dorsey, to join him in 1873. Both Clayton and Dorsey had become wealthy in Reconstruction-era Arkansas. Dorsey’s path to prosperity had been railroad finance manipulation. He would later become Secretary of the National Republican Committee. But he would also get implicated in a national U. S. Post Office scandal for rigged bidding of rural delivery routes, which were allocated to private companies at the time under lucrative contracts.
Clayton also profited from taxpayer-funded railroads but a total of 40,000 acres in cotton farms was the second pillar to his wealth. Many post-war, impoverished farmers across the state lost their lands due to inability to pay property taxes. Buyers were often Northern Carpetbaggers that were politically well connected to the new Republican regime, like Powell.
Disfranchisement of former Confederates left the state’s Democratic Party so weak that it did not even field a gubernatorial candidate in the 1872 election. The contest, therefore, was between two Republicans; one from the liberal wing and the other from the regular (stalwart) wing. Elisha Baxter represented the stalwarts and Joseph Brooks the liberals. Powell and Dorsey backed the stalwarts. Since that faction controlled the election machinery, Baxter won. Brooks, nonetheless, filed a couple of lawsuits charging fraud. He promptly lost the higher-profile suit while the second one languished in a lower county court.
After Baxter took office, however, he angered Powell and Dorsey by attacking rail promoters for recklessly issuing too many state-guaranteed bonds to finance the construction of their railroads. Attempts by the companies to force the state to accept stock, instead of cash, for repayment of the bonds triggered Baxter’s assault. Ultimately every Reconstruction-era railroad in Arkansas financed in this manner defaulted on its interest payments. Construction costs were unaccountably high as were the bond sales commissions. There can be little doubt that much of the excess went into the pockets of the promoters.
Powell and Dorsey quickly switched sides in the governor dispute. They got the obscure county court to declare Brooks the winner. Accompanied by ten armed men on April 15, 1874, Brooks physically ousted Baxter from the governor’s office in a coup d’état.
From a nearby hotel, Baxter put out a call for militia to put him back in office. Brooks sent out a separate call to defend his occupation of the state house. Thousands of white and black men showed up in in the state capital of Little Rock to support their candidate. Federal troops from a nearby arsenal temporarily kept them apart. Eventually, however, the forces clashed at four sites, including New Gascony where armed black men fought on each side.
Meanwhile Baxter and Brooks each maneuvered for support from the many disfranchised white males of voting age. Each promised to promote amendments to the state constitution that would give former Confederates the right to vote. In the end, leaders for this “silent majority”* lobbied President Grant to simply choose a winner. Since they expected that either candidate would return their voting privileges, they merely wanted a temporary “placeholder” in the governor’s office until re-enfranchisement would permit the Democratic Party to take control of the state. Grant chose Baxter on 15 May but appointed Brooks as the Little Rock postmaster, a job he held for decades thereafter. The Democrats rose to power in the autumn 1874 elections on the strength of their new voting rights.
*Among the “silent majority” was Uriah Rose who founded the Little Rock law firm were Hillary Clinton worked a century later.