Of late, I have been reading volume one of The Butterfield Overland Mail, 1857-1869, part of a three-volume work by Roscoe P. Conkling and Margaret B. Conkling. Reading about old trails and other transportation routes has always been fascinating to me, but the books also give some insight into trans-Mississippi culture on the eve of the Civil War. The following passage tells about the reaction of Fort Smith residents to a historic moment in time:
“The first west-bound Overland Mail from Saint Louis arrived at Fort Smith at five minutes after two o’clock on the morning of Sunday, September 19, 1858. As already stated, the passenger list included John Butterfield Sr.; Hugh Crocker, Waterman L. Ormsby, and Judge J. F. Wheeler and family of Fort Smith. Mr. Butterfield was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Memphis mail had arrived fifteen minutes in advance of the mail from Saint Louis. Though both mails arrived at such an early hour on Sunday morning, the news spread rapidly and soon house windows were illuminated, horns were blown and general excitement prevailed. Many of the inhabitants crowded around the mail coach to get a glimpse of the first west-bound mail bags….” The Conkling’s continue by quoting from the Fort Smith Times of September 22, 1858: “’While the mail was being made ready a general salute in honor of the event was fired from the canon [sic] of the city by a party stationed for the purpose, after which the mail for California was started, amidst the cheering and rejoicing of a large number of our citizens, who soon afterward adjourned to champagne at Everle’s where all spent a pleasant time till broad daylight, answering the first salute by a volley of ‘popping corks’ from sparkling Catawba. Each one felt well satisfied that he had done his part’” (pp. 219-220).
Less than three years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Fort Smith residents were glowing with civic, and perhaps even national pride. Reading passages like the one above emphasizes even more to me the great tragedy of our Civil War.