The Brooks-Baxter War

Earlier this week I read about an armed conflict fought in Arkansas during the Reconstruction era.  Of course I had to add it to Chapter 4 of my North American history project, and since it took more than a paragraph to explain, that meant creating a new section.  Here is how it reads:

The Brooks-Baxter War

While Reconstruction ended peacefully in most states, Arkansas briefly saw a second civil war, now called the “Brooks-Baxter War.” The state’s Reconstruction-era constitution, passed in 1868, did not allow former Confederates to serve in the government, so for the gubernatorial election of 1872, no Democrat ran. However, the Republicans split into two factions. The “Brindle Tails,” the local group that supported Horace Greeley and the Liberal Republicans in the presidential race, nominated Joseph Brooks, a carpetbagger, for governor; Democrats and black voters tended to back him as well. Meanwhile the establishment Republicans, now nicknamed the “Minstrels,” ran Elisha Baxter, a scalawag. We don’t know who won on Election Day because there were so many predictions and reports of fraud that one historian, Michael B. Dougan, called the election a “masterpiece of confusion.” It was decided in Baxter’s favor because those controlling the voting process favored Baxter, and they announced Baxter had won by just 3,000 votes; Brooks refused to accept this result and proclaimed himself the winner as well.

Baxter was sworn in as governor; Brooks petitioned the state legislature for a recount, and filed suits with the state courts. But the politicians and judges he approached were largely Minstrels, and thus refused to hear his case. After a year it looked like Brooks had run out of ways to overturn the election legally, when Baxter’s method of governing gave him a second chance. Baxter alienated Republicans both inside and outside Arkansas by being too friendly to Democrats (he allowed the passage of a bill re-enfranchising ex-Confederates), and by vetoing bills that would have allowed government funding for railroads; we saw earlier that most Republicans favored railroad building. The backers of Baxter began switching to Brooks, and one day in April 1874, a judge looked at an appeal Brooks had filed the previous June and suddenly ruled in his favor, awarding him $2,000 in damages and the office of governor of Arkansas.

Bringing the county sheriff and about twenty armed men, Brooks marched to the State House (the old state capitol building) and kicked Baxter out. Baxter escaped to a nearby hotel, made it his new headquarters, declared martial law over Pulaski County, called in the militia from the nearest military academy, and sent President Grant a telegram requesting military assistance in taking back the state government. Brooks in turn barricaded the doors and windows of the State House, made his own call for the militia to support him, and sent a general on his side to break into the state armory. The general brought back not only small arms and ammunition, but also two six-pounder cannon, which were aimed in the general direction of Baxter’s hotel. Baster’s men soon one-upped this by digging up a buried twenty-six-pounder left over from the previous war; they repaired the cannon so it could be used again, named it the “Lady Baxter,” and aimed it at the State House. Meanwhile, men showed up to support one governor or the other, until Brooks had an army of 600 troops on his side, and Baxter had 2,000. Skirmishes occurred around Little Rock for a month–estimates of the number of casualties range from 40 to 200–but there wasn’t an all-out battle because both forces expected Grant to send in the US Army on their side.

Grant did intervene in mid-May, first using federal troops to separate the armies of the governors, and then proclaiming that Baxter was the rightful governor. With no chance of winning left, Brooks abandoned the State House and dispersed his force. Since Baxter wasn’t on good terms with the Republican Party, it is not clear why Grant chose him; he may have simply picked the faction with the most soldiers and the biggest gun. Incidentally, the Lady Baxter was only fired once, to celebrate Baxter’s return to the State House; it is still parked on the State House Lawn.

Baxter did not celebrate his victory for long; before 1874 ended another constitution was written for Arkansas, and new elections were held. With Democrats able to participate again, and the Republicans gravely weakened, Baxter was replaced by a Democratic governor, after he had held the office for less than two years. Then in the 1876 elections for Arkansas, the Democrats won every race that mattered.

In the rest of the South, white Democrats also regained control of state governments. Sometimes they did it by forming coalitions with Republicans, emphasizing the need to build railroads and do other things to modernize the Southern economy.  Other times they did it by frightening blacks to keep them away from the polls at election time, depriving the carpetbagger governments of the votes they needed to stay in power. Still other times the Democrats persuaded scalawags and even black Republicans to switch parties and join them. Those Democrats who wanted to put the Civil War behind them were called “Redeemers,” and thus when they took over, the Southern states they ran were “redeemed.” By 1876, only Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina were still under Republican leadership.

 

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