An Arkansas History Minute: Thomas McRae of Union County
Thomas Chipman McRae grew up surrounded by the chaos of the Civil War and the desperation of Reconstruction. As the oldest of five children, he led his family through difficult times. But he would remember his own family’s hardships and worked as a legislator, Congressman, and eventually governor to help those in need.
His father, Duncan McRae, helped found the Mount Holly community in the northwest corner of Union County after his arrival in Arkansas in 1843. Mount Holly was to be a Presbyterian colony. Thomas McRae would be born in 1851.
Like most families in the region, the McRae family engaged in farming and found some degree of prosperity. Fearful of what the impending Civil War meant for his position, the elder McRae volunteered for the Confederate army when the war erupted, but officials felt that at 45, his best years were behind him.
The Civil War years produced intense hardship for many families in the region. The McRae family would not be an exception. Tragedy befell the family two years later, when in July 1863, Duncan McRae died. This forced Thomas McRae, as the eldest son, to care for his family – at the age of 12.
The situation would grow worse the next spring as the Union army came into neighboring Ouachita County in part of their efforts to take Shreveport. Confederate forces flooded the area as they prepared to push back, with the McRaes caught between the two armies.
Having seen his father’s attempt to join the Confederates and older friends joining the southern army, Thomas McRae decided he would do the same. At the age of 13, he volunteered for service. Confederate officials, however, would not take such a young boy to fight but decided to make him a messenger instead. For the next several months, he would ride back and forth across the area delivering reports and orders. But the end of the war, however, brought him back to the difficult reality of caring for the family’s neglected and nearly bankrupt farm.
His mother remarried in 1868, which allowed the future governor to go back to school. McRae attended a series of private schools in the area, as public schools were rare, eventually settling into the Masonic Academy in Falcon. The local Masonic lodge had built the school to help rich and poor children alike to have a good education. Nearly half of all school-aged children in the state at the time did not attend school at all. This left a powerful impression on McRae, prompting him to work for improvements in education in his later years. After graduation from the Masonic Academy, he found work at a retail store in Shreveport and soon went to New Orleans to attend Soule Business College. In 1871, he enrolled at Washington and Lee Law School in Virginia. He managed to complete the two-year course of study in just one year.
McRae quickly returned to Arkansas and easily passed the bar exam. In 1873, he set up a law practice in the newly-created Nevada County and would be elected to the state legislature in 1876 and then to Congress by 1884. He served for several years and eventually became the state’s governor by 1920. He would be the last Confederate veteran to serve as governor, but he always remembered the hardships of his youth and dedicated his life in public office to helping people through land for farmers, construction of highways and railroads, and especially the development of better schools for all.