Resumption of City of Little Rock government in post-Civil War era

One hundred and fifty four years ago today (on January 8, 1866), Little Rock City Hall resumed functioning after the Civil War.  The City government had disbanded in September 1863 after the Battle of Little Rock.  From September 1863 through the end of the war (on on through part of Reconstruction), Little Rock was under control of Union forces.

Following the April 1865 conclusion of the Civil War, plans were made to restart local government in Little Rock.  Even though Arkansas would not have Congressional representation in Washington until June 1868 (becoming the second Confederate state after Tennessee), the establishment of local government took place in January 1866.  (It was supposed to have started earlier, but the local elections set for November 1865 were cancelled on the day they were originally set to take place.)

The first City Council meeting took place on Monday, January 8, 1866. The council met again on Tuesday, January 9 and Monday, January 15 as they were trying to establish committees and rules for the new government.

The first post-Civil War mayor was Dr. J. J. McAlmont, who was a physician and pharmacist. Following his service as the city’s chief executive, he would later be a co-founder of what is now UAMS.  The initial aldermen were I.A. Henry (who had been on the City Council when it ceased in 1863), Henry Ashley, M. H. Eastman, Rick Bragg, Dr. P. O. Hooper, G. S. Morrison, John Collins and Alexander George.

Their first action was to approve the bond of Thomas C. Scott as Constable and City Collector.  Vouching for him were S. H. Tucker and future LR mayor John Gould Fletcher.  The Recorder was asked to present his bond and the next meeting.

The Mayor then established several committees of the City Council and named his appointments. Among the committees were Finances, Streets, Ordinances, Mount Holly Cemetery, Fire Department and Police.

That meeting and the following two meetings, the City continued to approve motions, resolutions and ordinances to set up the duties and responsibilities of a government.

Ordinance Number 1 established the rates of Licenses for 1866.  Among those were:

  • $100 for the privilege of selling goods at auction
  • $20 for a one-horse wagon, paid quarterly
  • $35 for a two-horse wagon, paid quarterly
  • $50 for a four-horse wagon, paid quarterly
  • $25 to run a cab or bus (which would have been in some horse drawn conveyance), paid quarterly
  • $40 a month to sell liquor, wine, ale, beer, etc., by the glass or bottle to be consumed in a store, tavern, shop or store
  • $25 each quarter for each billiard table
  • $50 each quarter for each ten pin alley

200 years since the birth of Little Rock’s 23rd Mayor, early settler Gordon Neill Peay

On December 12, 1819, future Little Rock Mayor Gordon Neill Peay was born.  The Peay family arrived in Arkansas from Kentucky in 1825.  They quickly became one of Little Rock’s leading families.

Mayor Peay’s father, Nicholas Peay served on the Little Rock Board of Trustees (which existed before the town was incorporated) and later served on the City Council and was acting mayor.

It is Nicholas Peay’s Egg Nog recipe which inspired the Historic Arkansas Museum Nog Off! (2019 edition is Friday night!)

Godon N. Peay served as mayor of Little Rock from 1859 to 1861.  During the Civil War, Peay served as Captain and later Colonel of the Capital Guard.  He later received a pardon from the federal government.  In the days leading up to the Civil War and during it, Mayor Peay was one of a group of civic leaders who corresponded with Union leaders. It has been said that this conciliatory tone is a reason that Little Rock fared better during Federal occupation and Reconstruction than did many other Confederate cities.

The Peay family owned the Peay Hotel, Little Rock’s first hotel, and were also co-founders of what became Worthen Bank.  They were also a founding family of Christ Episcopal Church. Mayor Peay later served as Pulaski County Chancery Clerk.

He died on December 14, 1876, and is buried at Mount Holly Cemetery along with many members of his family.  A nephew of his, Ashley Peay, served on the City Council in the 1920s.  Mayor Peay’s great-grandson Joseph Barber Hurst, Sr. served on the Little Rock City Board of Directors from 1967-1971. One of Mr. Hurst’s sons, Howard, was born on Mayor Peay’s birthday.

Birth of Little Rock’s 21st Mayor – Charles P. Bertrand

On November 23, 1808, future Mayor Charles P. Bertrand was born in New York.  He was the son of Pierre and Eliza Wilson Bertrand; his father died in 1809 in an uprising in Haiti and his mother eventually remarried.  With her new husband, Dr. Matthew Cunningham, she and the family moved to Little Rock in 1820.

After apprenticing with family friend William Woodruff at the Arkansas Gazette, Bertrand opened the Arkansas Advocate newspaper.  He later studied law under Robert Crittenden and entered the legal profession.

In 1835-1836, he served as State Treasurer for the Arkansas Territory, and in 1836 as secretary for the first constitutional convention. He was a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1840-1841 and 1844-1849.

Bertrand followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and became Mayor of Little Rock.  (Dr. Cunningham had been the first Little Rock Mayor in 1831.)  He was in office from January 1855 through January 1857, serving two one-year terms.  He later served on the City Council and filled in as acting mayor. (Another influence on his upbringing was studying under future Mayor Jesse Brown who taught at the first school in Little Rock.)

Bertrand, as acting mayor, was involved in the negotiations of the surrender of Little Rock to federal troops in 1863.  He also later corresponded with President Lincoln on behalf of Little Rock citizens.

Though a staunch Confederate, his good will toward the Union soldiers and federal officials is credited with helping to save Little Rock from the destruction which befell many other Southern cities.

Bertrand is also credited with delaying the start of the Civil War.  Prior to the attack on Fort Sumner, members of the Arkansas Militia were planning to attack the Federal Arsenal at Little Rock during the absence of Governor Rector.  This would have been viewed as an act of war.  Bertrand was able to dissuade them from the attack.  Had he been unsuccessful, the Civil War would have likely started in Arkansas instead of South Carolina.

He had put his considerable fortune into Confederate money during the war. At the Civil War’s conclusion, the family was financially ruined. Though they had vast land holdings, those would be sold off in parcels to pay for taxes.

Bertrand died August 27, 1865, shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War.  He, like his mother, step-father, and several other relatives, is buried in Mt. Holly Cemetery.

The “Battle” of Little Rock – 156 years ago on Sept. 10, 1863

The Civil War came to an end for Little Rock 156 years ago today (September 10) as Federal troops took control of the city.  Unlike some other Southern capitols, there was no long siege or bloody battle.

On September 10, 1863, Confederate forces under General Sterling Price evacuated Little Rock in advance of Federal forces, thus ending the Little Rock Campaign. By 5:00pm, his forces had left the city and at 7:00pm, civil authorities formally surrendered. Little Rock became the fourth Southern capital to come under Federal control.

The battle was the culmination of a campaign launched by Maj. Gen. Fred Steele, on August 1, 1863 to capture Little Rock. The campaign includes engagements at Westport, on 14 August, Harrison’s Landing, on 16 August, Brownsville on 25 August, the Reed’s Bridge, on 27 August, and Ashley’s Mills on 7 September 1863. After the Union army affected a river crossing east of Little Rock, effectively flanking the Confederate defenses north of the river, the Confederates staged a brief delaying action at Bayou Fourche to allow for evacuation of Little Rock.

As local historian Dr. Bobby Roberts has noted, “It was really more of a ‘skirmish’ than an actual ‘battle.’”

City of Little Rock leaders must have been anticipating the result of the battle.  In August 1861, they took the City’s treasury to an undisclosed location and started scaling back on City government.

The Battle of Little Rock is also known as the Battle of Bayou Fourche.

Birth of Little Rock’s 22nd and 24th mayor – William Eliot Ashley

On August 6, 1823, future Little Rock Mayor William Eliot Ashley was born in Little Rock.  He would go on to become the first Little Rock Mayor to be born in Little Rock.  Ashley was the son of Mary and Chester Ashley; his father would later serve as a U. S. Senator from Arkansas.  He was the second of the couple’s seven children.

Though he was raised in Little Rock, he did receive some schooling out of state. The State History Commission has correspondence between eleven year old William, studying in New York, and his father. Part of the letter is a request for money.

On October 26, 1846, he married Frances Eliza Grafton at Christ Episcopal Church.  They were the first Little Rock residents to be married in that church.  The couple had five children, including triplets.  Only one of the children, Frances (who was one of the triplets) survived to adulthood.

Ashley was first elected Mayor of Little Rock in 1857. After completing a two year term, he was succeeded by Gordon N. Peay (another scion of a prominent Little Rock family).  In 1861, Ashley returned to the office of Mayor.  He was reelected to a third term in 1863.  In September 1863, following the defeat of Confederate troops by the Union forces at the Battle of Little Rock, the City of Little Rock ceased operations.  On September 21, 1863, Little Rock municipal government closed its doors, stopped collection of taxes and disbanded.  Thus Ashley’s third term ended.

In addition to his interest in local government, Ashley was a member of St. John’s College Board and a director of the newly-formed Little Rock Gas Company.

William Eliot Ashley died on August 16, 1868, at the age of 45.  He was buried in Mt. Holly Cemetery (which sat partially on land that had once belonged to his family). His parents, wife and children are all buried in Mt. Holly as well.

Interestingly, for someone who grew up in a prominent family, there does not appear to be a surviving likeness of Mayor Ashley – either in painting or photograph.  Several exist of his parents, but none of him.