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El Dorado's First Congressman: Albert Rust

EL DORADO’S FIRST CONGRESSMAN: ALBERT RUST

By Ken Bridges

         Albert Rust, forgotten by many in South Arkansas, once stood as a giant over the region.  Soldier, statesman, and businessman, he became a respected leader of the community. Emerging from modest beginnings, his fortunes rose and fell with the fate of Union County.  
Born in 1818 in Fauquier County, Virginia, near the Maryland border, he became determined at an early age to move to the developing frontier of the West.  At the age of 19, he made the trek by himself from Virginia to the distant new state of Arkansas.  He settled at Scarborough’s Landing, on the banks of the Ouachita River in Union County. 
           Rust quickly involved himself in the settlement of the Ouachita River Valley, apparently impressing many of the residents in the largely unsettled frontier area.  Soon after his arrival, he bought a few acres of land and a store house near the river.  In 1838, he became a county surveyor, helping organize the untamed land into defined sections for sale (Cordell 38).  
The next year, a series of events would cement Rust’s place in the history of Union County.  The county seat was moved to Scarborough’s Landing.  No courthouse existed, and the county did not have the funds to build one.  Rust had the only building that would suffice for a courthouse.  Thus, county officials decided that his store house would be used as the official courthouse as long as the county seat remained in Scarborough’s Landing (Cordell 39).  
           The settlement was re-christened Champagnolle shortly after the county seat was moved there in 1839.  Rust reportedly helped give the community its new name, after an old friend of his, the Prosper de la Vilyan Chappelle of Champagne, France (Cordell 40).  Champagnolle meant “Little Champagne.”  Another story, however, contradicts this by claiming that Champagnolle received its name from Pedro Champagnolle, a man who had traded in the area as early as the 1770s (Cordell 40).  Nevertheless, Rust prospered, becoming a lawyer, prosperous businessman, and a slave owner as most white men of means were at the time.
In addition to his adventurous nature, Rust also had a dangerous temper.  Reportedly, on one occasion, he and friend George Watson erupted into a bitter argument apparently over cream for coffee (Cordell 41).  The exact nature of this dispute remains uncertain, but it escalated into the two men challenging each other to a duel.  Their seconds realized that Rust would not intentionally harm his friend and reportedly loaded Watson’s pistol with blanks (Cordell 42).  Duels were not unusual in Arkansas in the 1830s and 1840s and were considered affairs of honor more than excuses for violence.  Many had ended with no actions being taken, but others had ended in the death of one or both participants.  One, in fact, had ended in the death of a popular territorial delegate to Congress (Bolton 30).  
On the fateful day, the two met.  Rust fired a shot through Watson’s hat, deliberately missing, but making a dramatic point in the process (Cordell 42).  Watson fired his shot with no effect. 
          The duel did little damage to Rust’s reputation.  In 1842, Rust won election to the state House of Representatives, as the Democratic representative for Union County.  His first term passed with little incident.  What came initially as a disappointment to Rust came in 1844 as the county seat of Union County moved to El Dorado.  Nevertheless, he won re-election to the legislature in 1844 and 1846 and moved his law practice to the new city.  After the United States Land Office opened in Champagnolle in 1845, Rust received appointment as receiver, processing and validating land claims in the area (Cordell 40).  
           In 1846, the state’s lone congressman, Archibald Yell, resigned in order to take a field command in the war that had broken out with Mexico.  A special election was announced for the following January to fill the remaining weeks of the term.  Five men came forward to seek the seat, including Rust, who had just won a third term to the state legislature.  Rust was one of four Democrats and one Whig who had jumped into the race (Arkansas State Gazette, January 16, 1847).  
            Since Arkansas only had one congressional district at the time, Rust and the others had to run statewide.  Rust finished surprisingly well in the divided election, considering his lack of statewide name recognition.  Rust won fourteen counties, including Ouachita, Dallas, and Hot Spring.  He carried his own Union County by a wide margin of more than 200 votes (Arkansas State Gazette, January 16, 1847).  But his spirited effort earned him only a third place finish, some 71 votes behind Democrat George W. Paschal.  Democrat C. F. M. Noland finished fourth, winning three counties.  The fifth candidate, identified only as H. Haroldson, garnered only a handful of votes.  The division among Democrats had cost all of them, allowing the Whig candidate, Thomas W. Newton and his 1,745 votes, to win the election by a scant 23 votes.  This election marked the only time in state history in which a Whig won a congressional seat or ever won statewide.  Believing his best chance for a congressional career had been dashed, Rust decided to give up on any congressional ambitions for the foreseeable future.

1847 Special Congressional Election
Thomas W. Newton (Whig)………………….1,745 – 28.6%
George W. Paschal (Democratic)…………….1,722 – 28.2%
Albert Rust (Democratic)…………………….1,651 – 27.0%
C. F. M. Noland (Democratic)…………………854 – 14.0%
H. Haroldson (Democratic)…………………….136 -- 2.2%

        In 1852, Rust dusted off his political ambitions once again and won a fourth term representing Union County in the state legislature.  His fellow representatives honored the El Dorado lawyer by electing him speaker pro-tempore for the session, the second-highest position in the House of Representatives (Arkansas State Gazette and Democrat, Nov. 1, 1852).   
        In the summer of 1854, southern Arkansas Democrats gathered at Princeton in Dallas County for their nominating convention.  The convention sought to replace Congressman Edward A. Warren, who had won the newly created seat in 1852.   Rust’s name suddenly appeared and was forwarded as a compromise candidate.  The convention nominated him unanimously.  Rust modestly accepted the nomination, claiming in a letter of acceptance released statewide that he had not sought the nomination and had not even attended the convention! (Arkansas State Gazette and Democrat, June 2, 1854).   The Whigs had long had difficulty gaining any traction in the heavily Democratic state.  This boded well for Rust as he went on a whirlwind speaking tour of the district, which covered the southern half of the state.  He captured nearly 9,000 votes against his opponent, E. G. Walker of the Whig Party, winning with 67% of the vote (Priest 119).

          Rust assumed his seat on December 3, 1855, when the Thirty-fourth Congress convened. The new congressman bickered with the other congressman, forcing one to apologize to him on the floor of the House of Representatives (“Congressional Globe”).  He took little part in the debates, though he showed an interest in military affairs.  Rust’s lackluster term failed to impress the voters of southern Arkansas.  Democrats refused to renominate him for a second term in 1856, nominating Edward A. Warren instead.  Warren would win the general election. 

1854 Second Congressional District Results:
Albert Rust (Democratic)………………8,893 -- 67%
E. G. Walker (Whig)……………………4,371 -- 33%

           Nevertheless, Rust rallied to repair his political fortunes and came roaring back in 1858. The Democrats embraced him at their convention, and Rust cruised to an easy victory. In the meantime, the Whig Party had collapsed and Rust had faced only token opposition from a dissident Democrat and a candidate from the nativist American Party, now dismissed as the “Know-Nothings.”  Rust won by more than 4:1 over his nearest opponent, capturing 70% of the vote (Priest 119).

1858 Second Congressional District Results:
Albert Rust (Democratic)…………………………….......16,302 -- 70%
Thomas S Drew (Independent Democratic)………………3,780 -- 16%
James A. Jones (American)……………………………......3,180 -- 14%

         Throughout the election, he had vowed to the district’s voters that he would not inflame the tense situation between the North and South.  Arguments for and against the expansion and existence of slavery had incensed both halves of the country, and many southerners began to feel that the survival of the southern way of life was in mortal danger.  
          Seeing that the northern states claimed the majorities in both houses of Congress by 1859, Rust stated that the South should not take any hasty action and watch developments in “calm and dignified silence” (“Congressional Globe”).  He added darkly that the South’s next response to provocations from the North would be anything but restrained.  
          Subsequent events, no matter how trivial, only made the situation worse.
          As Rust took his seat in 1859, an uproar engulfed Congress as the House of Representatives fought over the nomination of Rep. John Sherman, an Ohio Republican, for speaker of the house.  Sherman had supported the distribution of an incendiary book, The Impending Crisis of the South by North Carolinian Hinton R. Helper, in which Helper argued that non-slaveholding whites had been impoverished by the slave system (Potter 386-387).  Helper called for a revolution of non-slaveholding whites to overthrow the slave system and the planter upper class and for deportation of the slaves.  
          Rust dived into the debate and denounced both Helper and Sherman in a bitter debate.  A slaveholder himself, he was extremely sensitive to these issues.  Said Rust in a blistering speech, “The non-slaveholders of the southern States are invited . . . To engage in a war, indiscriminate and pitiless, against their fellow-countrymen . . .” (“Congressional Globe”).  Sherman was defeated for speaker.
Throughout his second term, Rust continued his interest in military affairs and his combativeness with other House members, particularly northern Republicans. He also worked for improvement of barge traffic along the Red River – a vital economic highway for southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana.  As the tensions between North and South grew, Rust found difficulty in gaining support even for such mild projects as improvements for the Red River.
          He chose not to run in the 1860 election for a third term.  It would matter little as southern states began seceding from the union just as Abraham Lincoln won the presidency.  By April 1861, Arkansas had also broken away and joined the Confederacy.  Rust had been a vocal supporter of secession. 
           The new Confederate States of America had formed in February 1861 from the first seven seceded states with Montgomery, Alabama, as its capital.  The new Confederate government did not have time to hold elections, hastily convening a provisional Congress and electing former U. S. Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as Confederate president.  Upon Arkansas’s decision to secede, Rust and four other Arkansans were named to represent the state in the Confederate House of Representatives, in addition to two Senators.  Delegates from Arkansas joined the provisional Congress in May.  Rust was appointed to the Postal Affairs Committee.  
After Virginia seceded, the Confederacy moved its government to Richmond.  But as the Civil War unfolded, Rust had little time to participate in the proceedings of the Confederate assembly.  After elections were held throughout the South to the Confederate Congress in late 1861, Rust stepped down from his position.  
           Rust had served in the state militia for years, rising to the rank of colonel.  As war erupted, Rust organized the Arkansas Third Infantry.  The first major assignment of the Third Infantry was to join troops under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee in western Virginia.  Lee faced the daunting task of trying to dislodge entrenched Union troops in areas of Virginia that had stayed loyal to the Union.  The Battle of Cheat Mountain in what is now West Virginia lasted three days in mid-September 1861.  The results were disappointing for the Confederates.  Rust spearheaded an attack on Union positions and watched his troops’ advance stall under withering fire.  The strength of the Union defenses convinced Rust that he faced overwhelming force, but actually faced only 300 troops (www2.cr.nps.gov/abpp/battles/wv005.htm).  Lee withdrew Confederate forces from the area, having suffered ninety casualties.
In 1862, Rust received a promotion to brigadier general.  In the meantime, he and his troops received orders to return to Arkansas to stop the northern advance westward from the Mississippi River and toward Little Rock.  On July 7, 1862, Confederate Gen. Thomas C. Hindman, also of Arkansas, saw an opportunity to disrupt Union forces.  Hindman ordered his troops, including Rust, to disrupt the northern army’s supply route in Woodruff County.  The Battle of Cotton Plant, also known as Hill’s Plantation, began as a Confederate ambush on unsuspecting Union troops, but the northern forces managed to deflect the attack (www2.cr.nps.gov/abpp/battles/ar003.htm).  The assault, which initially seemed a successful Confederate attack, became almost a rout of the southern troops, forcing Hindman to retreat toward Little Rock.   
            For the remainder of 1862 and into 1863, Rust saw action in Tennessee and Mississippi – his troops shifting back and forth as deep divisions emerged in the Confederate high command over how to prevent the northern takeover.  Late in the war, with most of Arkansas and southern Louisiana in Union hands, Rust served in the few areas still under Confederate control until Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865 effectively ended the Civil War.
             The post-war period was a dismal time for Arkansas as the people tried to piece together a land destroyed by years of warfare.  The economy of Union County had disintegrated under the pressures of war.  Confederate veterans and freedmen alike began the difficult work of trying to build new lives.  Likewise, Rust tried to move forward.  He returned to El Dorado to resume his law practice, but his time would be short.  Five years after the war ended, on April 3, 1870, the former congressman and general died quietly (bioguide.congress.gov).  The causes he championed had been reduced to ruins, but traces of his legacy would continue to touch the region.

Ken Bridges is an El Dorado resident and a history instructor at South Arkansas Community College.

Works Cited

Arkansas State Gazette

Arkansas State Gazette and Democrat

Bolton, S. Charles. Arkansas, 1800-1860: Remote and Restless. Fayetteville: University 
of Arkansas Press, 1998.

“Congressional Globe,” http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwcg.html

Cordell, Anna H.  “Champagnolle: A Pioneer River Town,” Arkansas Historical 
Quarterly 
16 (Winter 1957): 37-45.

“Cheat Mountain.” Heritage Preservation Services, National Parks Service.  
www2.cr.nps.gov/abpp/battles/wv005.htm.

  1. “Hill’s Plantation,” www2.cr.nps.gov/abpp/battles/ar003.htm.

Potter, David M.  The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861.  New York: Harper Torchbooks, 
1976.

Priest, Sharon.  Historical Report, Arkansas Secretary of State, 1998. Little Rock: State 
of Arkansas, 1998.

“Rust, Albert.” United States House of Representatives.  
http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts//biodisplay.pl?index=R000544

Whayne, Jeannie M., et al. Arkansas: A Narrative History. Fayetteville: University of 
Arkansas Press, 2002.