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History minute: Claiborne Jackson visits Arkansas to govern in exile

by Bradly Gill | April 12, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.

By Dr. Ken Bridges

He had to wonder where it all went wrong. He had gone from a country peddler to the top of the state's politics. By this time, the year 1862, he was on the run. He was a sitting governor but a fugitive from his own people. Claiborne Jackson entered Arkansas in the midst of the Civil War as the government in exile.

Claiborne Fox Jackson was born in April 1806 in the foothills of eastern Kentucky. His father had been a successful tobacco planter. At the age of 20 in 1806, he went with a number of his brothers to Missouri to try their own hands at business. They established a successful mercantile business in the central part of the state.

At the age of 25 in 1831, he became engaged to Jane Sappington, daughter of the prominent Dr. John Sappington and part of a politically well-connected family. However, his wife died of a sudden illness just a few months after the wedding.

Shortly afterward, in 1832, the Blackhawk War erupted as Missouri battled the Blackhawk tribe. Jackson served as a captain in a militia unit for the short time the war raged. He stayed close to the Sappington Family, marrying his wife's younger sister in 1833 while going into business with his father-in-law.

Dr. Sappington had developed a popular patent medicine for treating malaria, which was a serious illness plaguing the South. It included quinine, which gave it some credible anti-malarial properties. Sappington worked with Jackson to market the pills across the South, and it became an extremely popular seller. With his popularity growing, Jackson won a seat in the Missouri legislature in 1836.

His life again met with tragedy in 1838, however, when his second wife died in childbirth and his infant son perished a few months later. He married Sappington's third daughter in 1838, a marriage that would produce two children. His political career continued to rise. He was elected Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives in 1846 and won a seat in the state senate in 1848. By 1853, he had risen to state banking commissioner.

In 1860, he was elected governor. He campaigned on a moderate platform opposing secession; but in 1861, he asked for a convention to consider the question.

Though Missouri was a slave state, the practice existed mostly in the southern half of the state and most residents were opposed to leaving the Union. The state legislature was dominated by Unionists.

Jackson, however, had come from a slave-owning family and had sponsored several resolutions in the state senate denouncing any attempt by Congress to limit slavery. When the secession convention began, he lobbied delegates to support secession. He was ignored, and the convention voted overwhelmingly to stay in the Union.

Jackson declared Missouri to be neutral, refusing to supply men or weapons to either side; but he was quietly working with Confederate officials to undermine the Union position in the state and seize the U.S. Army arsenal in St. Louis.

In spring 1861, Jackson called for the volunteer militia to meet and begin training. He had worked to ensure it was dominated by secessionists and arranged for the Confederate government to send artillery and guns directly to him.

Instead, the army commander, Gen. Nathanael Lyon, moved most of the army's weapons across to neighboring Illinois and surrounded the secessionist militia, forcing them to surrender. A series of pitched gunfights between forces loyal to Jackson and the army erupted, and Lyon moved to seize the state capital.

Throughout the summer and fall, Jackson and Lyon battled. By October, he was pushed to Newton County, just a few miles from Arkansas, where his supporters declared Missouri to be part of the Confederacy. The legislature, meanwhile, had tired of Jackson and formed a new, loyal Union government. Unionists controlled most of Missouri, and Lyon forced Jackson into Arkansas during the winter.

Jackson met with Confederate forces at Pea Ridge in an attempt to rally Confederate strength in Missouri and retake the state by force. Union forces moved into Arkansas from Southwest Missouri and fought at the famous battle site for two days in March 1862. It was the largest battle west of the Mississippi River in the entire war. The result was that the remains of Confederate influence in Missouri ended, and Arkansas was now in the sights of Union forces.

By this point, Confederate forces in Missouri had been shattered, and Jackson was holding on to an illusion that he could still reclaim the governorship. He set up his exiled government's offices in Little Rock, trying to pull together whatever support or influence he could. He spent the last months of his life in Arkansas, presiding over a government that had collapsed and was recognized by almost no one.

His health was failing, compounded by the pressures of war and the months of disappointment he had endured.

He died in Little Rock on December 6 at age 56. His lieutenant governor, Thomas C. Reynolds, would take the remnants of Missouri's Confederate government to Texas, still claiming to be the legitimate government of Missouri though the state had already moved on.

Jackson was buried in Little Rock at Mount Holly Cemetery, and even in death he was rejected. The new Missouri government refused to allow him to be buried in the state as a final rejection of secession and all the symbolism surrounding it. Years after the war, Jackson's family arranged to have him buried in a family plot in central Missouri.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.

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