William Meade Fishback

William Meade Fishback was born in Culpeper County, Virginia, on November 5, 1831, to Frederick Martin Fishback and Sophia Ann Yates. Frederick died in November 1848, leaving behind ten children under the age of 20.

Fishback received his early education in Culpeper County before enrolling at the University of Virginia in 1852. He remained for three years, studying ancient and modern languages, moral philosophy, chemistry, and mathematics. He joined the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, and in April 1855 he delivered an oration commemorating Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.

After leaving UVA in 1855, Fishback taught school and read law in Richmond. In 1857, he moved to Springfield, Illinois, where he performed some legal work for future President Abraham Lincoln. Impressed with the work, Lincoln offered Fishback additional business and assured him he felt “confident you could make a living” in Springfield, Poor health, however, prompted Fishback to move to Arkansas in 1858. He settled near Fort Smith, a town of about 1,500 people on the state’s western edge.

Fishback was a staunch Unionist during the secession crisis. He hoped to forge an alliance between northern and southern conservatives against the rising “spirit of fanaticism” in each section. When South Carolina seceded, he argued that Congress should “vote every dollar and every man in the United States, if necessary, to force South Carolina to do her duty [to the Union]!” In 1861, he served as a Unionist delegate to the Arkansas Secession Convention. 

Arkansas seceded on May 6, 1861. That September, Fishback fled one hundred miles north to Missouri and swore an oath of allegiance to the Union. He returned in 1863, following the Union army as it advanced into Arkansas. In November, he was appointed colonel and began organizing the 4th Arkansas Mounted Infantry, a one-year Union regiment. The following month, it reorganized as the three-year 4th Arkansas Cavalry (United States Volunteers). By May 1864, Fishback had recruited roughly 900 men, many of them former Confederate soldiers. Although he raised the regiment, he never led it into battle, instead carrying out various political duties in an attempt to restore Arkansas to the Union. In January 1864, Fishback and his allies began drafting a new state constitution, which abolished slavery and repudiated secession. He began publishing a newspaper, The Unconditional Union, to urge voters to ratify the constitution. Fishback defended emancipation, arguing that slavery had hindered Arkansas’s economic development and left its white citizens mired in poverty. He condemned Confederate soldiers for loving “their Cotton or the [Negroe] more than they love their country.”

With Union soldiers monitoring the polls, the required number of Arkansas voters approved the constitution in March 1864. In May, the new Unionist legislature chose Fishback and Elisha Baxter as the state’s United States senators, and Fishback resigned as colonel of the 4th Arkansas Cavalry Regiment. Radical Republicans in Congress, however, denied their credentials and refused to seat them, insisting that Lincoln’s ten percent plan for Reconstruction was too lenient. 

Fishback returned to Arkansas, and after the war he became increasingly critical of Radical Reconstruction. In September 1865, he condemned Radicals’ plans to disenfranchise former Confederates while giving former slaves the right to vote, deeming it “too preposterous to be discussed.” Fishback argued that former slaves were “incapable of taking care of [themselves].” Disillusioned with the Republican Party, Fishback served as a Democratic delegate to the state’s 1874 constitutional convention and served in the state legislature from 1876 to 1880. He ran for governor as a Democrat in 1892, easily defeating his Republican and Populist challengers and carrying all but seven of the state’s seventy-five counties. Although he hoped to improve Arkansas’s infrastructure and educational system, the economic depression of the 1890s hindered his legislative agenda. He lost his bid for reelection in 1894, but remained politically active, campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

Fishback married Adelaide Miller on April 4, 1867. The couple lived in Arkansas and had five children: Louis Frederick, born around 1868; Bertha Ward, born around 1869; William Meade, born around 1873; Herbert Yates, born around 1875; and Mary Adelaide, born around 1878. Fishback suffered a stroke in early 1903, and died on February 9, at the age of seventy-one.

Images: William Meade Fishback (courtesy Arkansas State Archives).



Fishback Calls for Moderation After John Brown's Raid

William Fishback to Abraham Lincoln, January 31, 1864

William Fishback's Unconditional Unionist, February 19, 1864

William Fishback Recounts His Wartime Experiences

William M. Fishback to Abraham Lincoln, January 26, 1865

William M. Fishback to Abraham Lincoln, March 19, 1865

William Fishback Denounces Radical Reconstruction

Name:Fishback, William Meade
Alternative names:
  • Soldier
  • UVA (Union)
4th Regiment Mounted Arkansas InfantryF&S
Branch of service:Army
Muster Out1864-05Arkansas
Residence at UVA:Culpeper County, VA
UVA Begin Year:1852
UVA End Year:1855
Residence at enlistment:
Rank In:Colonel
Rank Out:Colonel
Highest rank achieved:Colonel
Birth date:1831-11-05
Birth date certainty:Certain
Birth place:Culpeper County, VA
Death date:1903-02-09
Death place:
Causes of death:disease: stroke
Occupations:Attorney, Politician
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Fishback, William Meadeparent ofFishback, Louis Frederick
Fishback, William Meadeparent ofFishback, Bertha Ward
Fishback, William Meadeparent ofFishback, Jr., William Meade
Fishback, William Meadeparent ofFishback, Herbert Yates
Fishback, William Meadeparent ofFishback, Mary Adelaide
Fishback, Adelaidewife ofFishback, William Meade

Compiled Service Records for William M. Fishback, RG 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; United States Census, 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1900, accessed through Ancestry.com; UVA Student Catalogue, Jefferson's University: Early Life; Letters of William Meade Fishback, Library of Congress; The Richmond Dispatch, March 31, 1855; The Unconditional Union (Little Rock, AR), January 1864-July 1865; "William Meade Fishback (1831-1903)," The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and CultureUnited States Congressional Serial Set, Issue 6349 (1913); Powell Clayton, The Aftermath of the Civil War in Arkansas (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1915); Daily Arkansas Gazette, 3 April 1892; Carl H. Moneyhon, "William Meade Fishback," American National Biography Online, doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.0400376; Brian Neumann, "Finding UVA Unionists (Part 1): William Meade Fishback," (http://community.village.virginia.edu/unionist/node/524).