By ROB MORITZ
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — The old Boone Murphy House in Pine Bluff, which for a time served as the Union Army’s headquarters in the Civil War, is being renovated.
In Helena-West Helena, reconstruction of a Union Army fort near downtown and an encampment where slaves left plantations and joined Union soldiers is nearing completion.
And in Batesville, the Independence County Historical Society and Batesville Community Theatre are putting the final touches on a reader’s theater production that will feature eyewitness accounts of the Civil War in that Northeast Arkansas county.
Across the state, communities are preparing to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which began April 12, 1861, and ended April 9, 1865.
Arkansas seceded from the Union on May 6, 1861.
“It really was arguably the most important event in Arkansas history and American history,” says Mark Christ, a member of the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission created by the Legislature in 2007 to promote the statewide commemoration.
Nationally, about 620,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians died during the four-year conflict.
About 3,700 Arkansans were either killed or wounded during the war, which included more than 770 small skirmishes or battles in Arkansas alone. In fact, just three other states — Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri — saw more military engagements during the war than Arkansas.
“The fighting in Arkansas didn’t have the numbers typically that you saw in other states but they were certainly as equally savage,” Christ said.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the role Arkansas and its people played in it, a series of events are planned across the state over the next four years, including numerous conferences, lectures and battle reenactments.
While some events are scheduled for early in 2011, the commemoration officially begins on April 30 at the Old State House in downtown Little Rock. The event will not only commemorate the state’s decision to leave the Union, but it also will kickoff Arkansas Heritage Month in May.
The event, hosted by the Sesquicentennial Commission, will include a special screening of a new AETN documentary about the war and a number of historical documents, such as the 1861 Arkansas Constitution and the original secession document, will be on display.
Visitors also will see a reenactment of the final vote on secession, flag presentations and reenactors dressed as Civil War-era state and militia troops will be camped out on the lawn.
Christ said it’s important for people to understand what happened in Arkansas and the nation during the Civil War years.
“Of primary importance, in my opinion, is the removal of our country’s original sin, which was slavery, the freeing of four million people, and making America truly Democratic for the first time,” he said. “Also, regardless of how you feel about the motivations that brought people into the war, there was tremendous military valor shown by both sides during the war ... that is deeply deserving of remembrance.”
Tom Dupree, chairman of the Sesquicentennial Commission, said another event is being planned at the Old State House in 2013 to honor the state’s return to the Union.
“In between, we’ll have major events in Northwest Arkansas at Pea Ridge, or Elk Horn Tavern, whichever you want to call it ... along with events in the Old Washington and Camden area and at Helena-West Helena,” Dupree said.
Those events will be sponsored by the commission, but smaller events are planned monthly for the next four years, he said.
“We’re trying to encourage anybody and everybody that wants to put on an event to get involved,” Dupree said.
Christ said events are designed to look at the Civil War from a variety of view points.
“The commission wants to ensure that this commemoration is inclusive of all Arkansas people,” he said. “It’s not going to be moonlight and magnolias, we’re not going to ignore the core issues, like slavery and things like that.”
To assist those local communities, Christ said, the commission, which received $150,000 in state funding from the Legislature in 2009, has started a grant program to help with the local events.
The commission also is helping many communities with the purchase of historical markers, he said.
Sometime in January, a state passport program will begin which will allow people to visit a commemoration site and then get their passport stamped.
“The commemoration aspect is very important, but from a more pragmatic standpoint this is a tremendous heritage/tourism opportunity,” Christ said. “We anticipate a lot of visitors from states that sent soldiers to Arkansas during the war.”
Dupree said he hopes events across the state over the next four years will draw a lot of tourists to the state.
Some of the early events scheduled to commemorate the state’s involvement in the Civil War include two lectures on President Abraham Lincoln at the Central Arkansas Library in Little Rock on Jan. 5 and Jan. 13.
Between Jan. 21 and Jan. 28, the Independence County Historical Society will host a reader’s theater production in Batesville featuring eyewitness accounts of the Civil War in Independence County.
The third annual Fort Smith History Conference is scheduled for Jan. 28-29 at the Clayton House Museum in Fort Smith.