Local resident Dale Ridgway recently brought up an interesting and timely matter — a claim, supported to a degree by historical accounts but undocumented in official records, that the first shot of the Civil War was fired not at Fort Sumter, S.C., but rather in a skirmish along the Arkansas River in Pine Bluff.
Ridgway said he remembers his Lakeside Elementary School fifth-grade teacher, a Mrs. Moore, telling his class that such was indeed the case.
The topic was hotly debated for a number of years, and other locales entered into the fray by staking declarations of their having been the site of an initial shot.
The issue was addressed in the late James W. Leslie’s Pine Bluff history book “Saracen’s County,” published in 1974.
“Sometime in April 1861 — one date mentioned was April 10, two days prior to the shots fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina — the Jefferson Guards, a Pine Bluff militia unit, successfully detained several steamboats carrying supplies to federal troops at Fort Smith and Fort Gibson (Okla.) by firing warning musket shots across their bows,” Leslie wrote. “Since the act was carried out by regular troops under official orders and because Governor Henry M. Rector seized the cargoes for the Confederate forces, these musket shots were referred to as the ‘first shot of the Civil War.’”
Leslie noted that detractors to the notion insisted that an actual first shot was dependent upon whether it was “war-like” and that the Pine Bluff militiamen had “fired in an attempt to avert war.” The steamships had disregarded orders to surrender to the local forces.
A side note to this controversy is that the flag of the Jefferson Guards was lost toward the end of the war. Its whereabouts remained unknown here, according to Glenn Dedmondt’s 2009-published book “The Flags of Civil War Arkansas,” until local researcher J. Carter Watts discovered it had long been in storage at a Springfield, Ill., military facility.
The Arkansas and Illinois state governments ironed out an agreement for the flag’s conditional return to Pine Bluff. In tattered condition after more than 120 years since it had been carried in battle, the flag was professionally restored by a Chicago firm.
Do you have a question on a local historical event or figure, or a story or photo from Jefferson County’s past to share? Email Rick Joslin at firstname.lastname@example.org.