Reconstruction and the Brooks-Baxter War 1865-1874

By the 1872 gubernatorial election the Arkansas Republican party had split into two factions. One group was known as the Minstrels and consisted of Powell Clayton supporters. The other group, called the Brindletails, was led by Joseph Brooks, an Iowan who came to Arkansas to work with the Freedmen after the war. In that election, the Brindletails nominated Brooks for governor and secured the support of the state's Democrats by promising universal amnesty and a restoration of voting rights to any former Confederates who remained disenfranchised. The Minstrels, who lost their most viable candidate when Governor Clayton was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1871, chose to nominate Elisha Baxter, who also promised amnesty.

During the state election, voter fraud and intimidation were widespread. Election results were challenged and the returns thrown out in four different counties. Officials took two months to certify the returns. Modern scholarship suggests that Brooks probably won the election, but the state election commission issued the certificate of election to Baxter. Baxter took office on January 6, 1873, despite the fact that Brooks signaled his intention to challenge the election results.

Brooks first appealed the election commission's decision to the General Assembly, but most of the members were Minstrels and the legislature never considered his case. Then, Brooks found a friend in John "Poker Jack" McClure, State Supreme Court Justice and editor of the Little Rock Daily Republican. Building support among moderate Democrats, Baxter transferred the state printing contract from McClure's Daily Republican to theArkansas Gazette. In the summer of 1873, in alliance with the state's attorney general, McClure instituted legal proceedings to have Baxter replaced by Brooks. Brooks's bid failed in the courts, and Baxter's tenure of office appeared solid.

In March, 1874, however, Brooks's opportunity was revived when the entire Republican leadership broke with the governor after he not only refused to issue bonds to the Arkansas Central Railroad, but also contended that the bonds issued by the state during the Clayton administration were unconstitutional. This was a major threat to the state's railroad interests, who had close ties to Republican leaders. As a result, the Republicans pushed forward Brooks's legal challenge to Baxter, which had languished on the Pulaski County Circuit Court docket. When Baxter's attorney did not appear before the court, the judge named Brooks as the legal governor.

Anthony HouseOn April 15, having been sworn in by the chief justice of the state supreme court, Brooks, with the support of armed men, entered the State House and removed Baxter. Baxter simply moved down the street to the Anthony House and continued to act as governor. Supporters of both men came to Little Rock, where they were organized into armed bands. Their presence ultimately produced conflict. Baxter's militia dispersed a pro-Brooks force which organized in Jefferson County. Fighting also erupted on the streets of Little Rock. Modern historians have estimated that between 50 and 200 men died in these skirmishes.

The final decision about the governorship was not decided by arms, for Brooks and his supporters realized that ultimately they needed the support of the federal government to win. By 1874, however, President Ulysses S. Grant was unwilling to act to sustain Republican governments anywhere in the South and indicated that Brooks would receive no support. Instead, he urged both parties to put the election in the hands of the state legislature. While Brooks did not agree to this solution, his supporters disbanded and on May 15, Baxter returned to the State House. The legislature he called moved to settle the constitutional crisis by asking the voters to call a new constitutional convention.

Brooks forces evacuatingThe convention met on July 14 and produced a proposed constitution that was essentially a repudiation of Reconstruction. In September, the delegates to the Democratic State Convention twice nominated Baxter for governor, but he politely declined each time. The Democrats then nominated Augustus H. Garland. On October 13, 1874, in a general election in which the entire electorate was allowed to participate for the first time since the war, voters overwhelmingly favored the entire Democratic slate and the proposed new constitution by a margin of more than three-to-one.

For a more detailed examination of this incident, see "The Brooks-Baxter War," by Richard Owings, re-printed with permission from the Arkansas Times.