William Fishback Recounts His Wartime Experiences
June 17, 1864

In this letter to Kansas Senator James H. Lane, William M. Fishback describes his experiences and justifies his conduct during the Civil War. Arkansas's state legislature had elected Fishback to the Senate in 1864, and senators were debating whether to allow him to take his seat. 


A detailed account of his conduct during the present rebellion, and in defense of himself against the charges of disloyalty.

Washington, June 17, 1864

Dear Sir: When attacked in the Senate the other day, you did me the justice and the kindness to testify to my loyalty, of which you had been assured by gentlemen of whose truthfulness and whose loyalty you can have no doubt. It is therefore due, not less to yourself than to me, that, as you request, I furnish you the following somewhat detailed account of my conduct during this rebellion:

            Early in January, 1861, the rebels began to get up meetings in my county, and rush through them bogus resolutions, with a view to mislead the public and to excite a secession furor. I attended every single one of these meetings, (although I had to go armed,) and succeeded at every one in voting down their treasonable and in voting up strong Union resolutions.

            When the legislature called a convention I was solicited to run for a seat. At the very first meeting, and during my first speech of the canvass, my views of coercion were called for. I unhesitatingly replied that “if I were in Congress I would vote every dollar and every man in the United States, if necessary, to force South Carolina to do her duty!” Immediately the newspapers were in full yelp on my track. “Coercionist!” “Abolitionist!” “Black Republican!” “Traitor to the South!” were blazoned on every page of every issue. Even the Union men of my county, who did not doubt the right to coerce, nor hate South Carolina any less, were yet afraid of the policy of coercion, that it might produce civil war! Yet I was elected; and so much had the bitterness against me increased, on my way to our common capital, which I had never visited, and in which I did not know a single individual, I was warned by the secretary of state (whom I had never seen) not to come to Little Rock, or I would be hung!

            On reaching the capital I was threatened with the vengeance of a vigilance committee, and even then mobs were forming up the river for my return.

            Upon assembling we found that the Union majority was only five. To prevent the destruction of that majority by the immense outside pressure which had dragged several other States out against their will, we agreed to caucus every night and to abide by the decisions of those caucuses. This was our greatest mistake, for, as we found when too late, three-fourths of that caucus were only conditional Union men, who betrayed us; and I speak the more freely of the acts of the caucus because we were thus betrayed.

            On the second night we met to deliberate upon our platform. I took the ground that we should come out squarely and indorse coercion. But I was told it would be bad policy at this time, (several States had now gone;) that Robert W. Johnson, a South Carolina commissioner, and other leading rebels, were even then telegraphing to Charleston that unless Lincoln could be goaded into a coercive policy, or they could get up a fight then, upon some good pretext, Arkansas would not go out. That there was nothing the rebels so much hoped for as a coercive policy, and that it was our duty to inform the administration of what we all knew to be the fact, that we could not prevent the State resisting coercion.

            The motives of these men I knew were patriotic, and their opinion was so unanimous and so plausible I yielded my assent to their policy.

            The next morning a gentleman came to me and said that as I was abused by the rebels more than any other man, and was regarded as rather the exponent of the extreme Union party, the resolution against coercion had better come from me, and that it had better express the plain the truth, that the State would resist coercion—that it would be more likely to have the desired effect. Accordingly I sent it up as mine. Nor did I stop there; I wrote to a gentleman in Springfield, Illinois, (some wrote to members of the cabinet,) urging him to use his influence with Mr. Lincoln against a coercive policy until we could get the border states united and committed against South Carolina and against secession.

            Now, sir, the rebels saw the object of that resolution at once, and it was made the subject of a bitter attack upon me by them, both in and out of the convention, the very next day.

            We voted down the ordinance of secession a few days afterwards, and then came the “Thomason resolutions.” Some ten or twelve of us (comprising all the unconditional Union men, as we afterwards discovered, in the convention,) opposed them, and strenuously, not that we regarded them as of any harm, but because they were false in their assumptions and foolish in their claims. But we were overruled in caucus, and, as we had agreed, we yielded.

            After we had adjourned, the news of the firing upon Sumter was announced. Such a state of excitement I have never in my life witnessed elsewhere as followed the announcement of that event. Wherever you met a rebel you met him armed. I saw eighteen pistols cocked upon a Union man on that day for the mere expression of a loyal sentiment. By a secret preconcert regiments and companies flocked to the governor, or were organized in their counties, before the news had even reached other portions of the State. Their organization was as astonishingly sudden as it was thorough. I had repeatedly and publicly declared that if the governor attempted to force us out we would resist by force of arms. I now thought of carrying those threats into execution. But having relied upon our numbers, we were without organization, or concert, or arms. To have attempted to contend with the thorough organization of the rebels we soon found would not only be folly, it would be inhuman!

            I therefore advised my constituents to acquiesce, and await the coming of federal protection, and then to join the Union army. Nor am I yet convinced that I advised them ill. Under the same circumstances I should give the same advice to-day.

            Immediately the convention was called together again by the president, and at a large meeting of my constituents, at which there were some five hundred persons present, I requested instructions to resign, as it was very clear that the State would go. But they insisted that I go down and do them what good I could. Upon reaching Little Rock I saw two regiments at the capital, another gone to Fort Smith, and others reporting to the governor. I then for the first time began to realize the magnitude of the rebellion, and determined at once to make my escape, and to urge the federal army to come to our protection. I went upon a steamboat lying at the wharf, and told the captain, whom I learned was a Union man, of my wish to go north on his boat, which was bound for Cincinnati. He at once frankly told me that the rebels were seizing boats at Pine Bluff, and Napoleon, and Helena, and that he expected his own boat to be seized; that if I were found on board I would most certainly be assassinated; that he had brought up a number of rebels who said they were coming to hang that d—d abolitionist Fishback; that they expected me to attempt to escape, and would watch me very closely, and that I had best acquiesce until their suspicions should subside. The president of the convention, too, voluntarily told me that my life was in imminent danger, and that I had better be cautious and silent. I thought again of escaping to the mountains of my county, and of rallying the Union men for resistance, (for I had so often said I would die before I would vote for secession, I dreaded the humiliation almost as much as I hated the character of such a vote.) But the reasons of humanity which induced me to advise acquiescence before I left home were, now that I saw the situation in all its fearful reality, of double force. So, then, apart from personal danger, I was induced by motives of humanity to lend a seeming support to the rebellion I so much abhorred. Nor was there a single individual in Little Rock then, or in the State now, who believes that I would have ever left that convention alive if I had voted against the ordinance at that session.

            Nor did that vote appease them, for during the entire session I was insulted by ladies, (I mean females who ought to have been ladies,) and I was repeatedly admonished by the president of the convention, and by other personal friends, that my life was far from being out of danger.

            After that vote, I did not cast a single vote that I thought calculated to assist the rebellion. So universally was my vote, except upon amendments, negative, I was called by several friends the “no man.”

            My resolution as to the number of representatives in the rebel congress was introduced to stop a squabble about a mere question of fact, which had been protracted through several hours, and had become very annoying to those who were not interested. My resolution about the cost of a regiment was introduced for the purpose of weakening their confidence in their cause; I desired to show them that the State revenue would not support a single regiment for three months—a fact I did not think they had ever considered.

            As for wishing a seat in the rebel Congress, I was requested to run, but positively refused, as did several other Union men, whom they attempted thus to buy over. (The convention, as you are aware, elected the congressmen.)

            After we returned to our homes, the battle of Wilson’s creek was approaching. Volunteers were called for, and a company was formed in the village in which I resided, which was joined by every young man in town but myself and another. Because of my refusal to go, I was insulted on the street and in the parlor by women, who taunted me with cowardice or treason to the south. Their insults became intolerable. I therefore made up my mind to escape, at whatever hazard. I accordingly followed the company, as if I intended to overtake and join it, determined to get through the lines if possible. But although it was the general impression that I intended to join it, the papers of Fort Smith announced that “Fishback has gone towards the battlefield; it is not known whether to join Lincoln’s or the southern army. Look out for a traitor in camp!”

            Upon overtaking the company I saw it was impossible to get through the lines, and yet I dared not go home alone, nor would I take up arms against the Union; so I went to work, and in less than three days I had broken it up. I took most of them home with me at the very time they needed them most, many days before the battle. When I was about to leave I was offered the colonelcy of a regiment then forming if I would remain, but I excused myself and declined.

            I was afterwards accused of breaking up the aforesaid company, but they could never get the necessary proof.

            Shortly after I returned, and after the battles of Bull Run and Wilson’s creek, (August 20, 1861,) when the rebels’ hopes were highest and ours most depressed, it was reported that the convention would be called together again. I immediately resigned my seat, and in my letter of resignation I discussed at length all the questions involved in the rebellion, and reiterated my unqualified disapproval of the entire movement. I handed it to our county judge, who was then a Union man, and who was authorized to receive it, and requested that he withhold its publication until after the war. I retained a copy, which subsequently I had published in a St. Louis paper, some two years ago, after I had made my escape, and which is subject to your perusal at any time, and which, as part of the res gestae, is the best proof of my reasons for introducing the resolution against coercion.

            Since my escape north I have been engaged at intervals in organizing Arkansas troops for the federal service, one regiment of which, not yet quite full, I was commanding when I was elected to my present position.

            Now, sir, however much you, at a distance from the scene of action, and, indeed, however I, with the light of experience now before me, may doubt the propriety or wisdom of our course in many instances, yet, sir, let those who would judge us harshly place themselves in the same position, and look at the matter from our standpoint.

            I will not admit that any man goes before me in hatred to this rebellion, from its incipiency to the present, nor is there a single man in Arkansas who entertains the least doubt of this.

            In proof I cannot refrain from calling your attention to the character of the legislature which elected me. Scarcely had it assembled before the senate refused to allow any man who had ever aided in instigating the rebellion to enter even its lobbies. A short time since, I see, the lower house refused by a large vote to allow the editor of the National Democrat, a paper published in Little Rock, and its reporters, to enter upon its floor. The ostensible editor of that paper held the first rebel commission ever held in Arkansas, and its real editor was the great oracle of the rebellion up to the hour we took possession of Little Rock, as he had been of secession for ten years past; and so great is the indignation of the loyal men of the State against them, that they could not live in the State twenty-four hours but for the protection of the federal army. Indeed the soldiers of the northern States would long since have demolished the establishment if they dared.

            Again, the lower house also resolved, formally and almost unanimously, that they would never vote for any man for United States senator who had anything to do with this rebellion. By such a legislature I received forty-two votes; my highest opponent sixteen. And this in my absence, and against my peremptory order that my name be not brought before it.

            Of the falsehoods put in circulation by the National Democrat and its friends to my prejudice, I can only deny them, and suggest that my great fault with them is that I am not a rebel. I challenge investigation.

            I am, sir, very respectfully, &c.

                                                                        W. M. FISHBACK.


William H. Fishback to James H. Lane, June 17, 1864, Senate Documents: 38th Congress, 1st Session, Miscellaneous Document No. 129.