By 1847, John Seldon Roane, at the age of 30, had already served in war, practiced as an attorney, become Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, and survived a duel. However, he was about to embark on the most consequential adventures of his life.
After the Mexican War and later duel, he had contented himself with his law firm in Jefferson County and his prospering plantation when an opportunity suddenly appeared. Gov. Thomas S. Drew, who was facing serious personal financial problems, had resigned after winning the 1848 general election. Arkansas now had to hold a special election. Democrats gathered at a special convention in December 1848 and gave him a lackluster nomination for the election to be held in four months. The opposition Whig Party nominated State Senator Cyrus Wilson of Pulaski County. Roane was excited and campaigned energetically; but Arkansans were worn out by the political season, and the race for governor attracted little attention. After the March 14 special election, the results came in. Roane won the special election by the slimmest margin in state history for a governor’s race — a mere 62 votes out of more than 6,500 cast.
Roane was sworn in as the state’s fourth governor and embarked on an ambitious agenda that initially garnered broad, bipartisan support. He called for the construction of new roads and improvement of state finances. The State Bank and the Real Estate Bank, both controlled by the state, both crashed soon after they were created in the midst of a global economic panic. The bills had pushed the state to the point of bankruptcy. However, legislators refused to support his plans and pushed to have state monies directed to the counties.
He also called for establishing a state university. Up to this point, no colleges existed at all in the state; and the federal government had allowed proceeds from the sales of certain federal lands in the state to finance a college. Legislators, however, rejected his plan. As a result, the University of Arkansas would not be established for another 20 years.
Frustrated, he decided not to seek re-election in 1852 and returned to his law practice. He left office in 1853 but continued to speak out on political issues. He married and raised a family in the interim. As the nation drew closer to the Civil War, Roane offered spirited defenses of the South and slavery. He openly supported secession in 1861.
Roane initially stayed away from military service but was made a brigadier general in March 1862, just weeks after the bitter defeat of Confederate forces at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Northwest Arkansas. As most of the troops and resources had been shifted back to the East, the state was left with very little to defend itself with. What troops remained were steadily pushed back and the state’s economy nearly cratered under the pressures. Roane was effectively the state’s senior military officer, but he was unable to turn the tide.
Roane, and his old friend, Gov. Henry M. Rector, were bitterly criticized for the worsening. Rector’s term was cut short, and he was thrust from office. Former Congressman Thomas C. Hindman, another Roane ally, took command of the troops in July. At the Battle of Prairie Grove near Fayetteville in December, Hindman, Roane, and Confederate forces attempted to strike back at Union forces but were unable to dislodge them. For the remainder of the conflict, Roane commanded small garrisons throughout the Trans-Mississippi Theater. In 1865, he surrendered to Union forces. Defeated, Roane returned home from the heartbreak of the war.
He would not be a leader in the difficult years after the Civil War. His health collapsed soon after his return. In April 1867, Roane died at his farm in Jefferson County at the age of 50.