Calvin C. Bliss was one of the thousands of Arkansans caught in the chaos of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but he came to Arkansas as an educator and became the state’s first lieutenant governor.
Bliss was born in Vermont in 1823. As a young man, he attended a theological college in New York but left with a group of students after the college forbade abolitionist activities. He married a young schoolteacher, Caroline Eastman, in 1854, and the two left for Arkansas. At Helena, the newlyweds established a school for girls, with himself as principal and his wife as teacher. Soon afterward, the two moved to the Batesville area where he farmed and worked in real estate.
When war came, Bliss and many other Unionists in North-Central Arkansas refused to join the Confederate Army, but as control of Independence County rocked back and forth between northern and southern armies in 1862, Bliss left for Missouri to join the Arkansas Union Infantry to fight for the North. Bliss was commissioned as a lieutenant, but the unit lost half its men to disease and never made it to the battlefield.
Left alone, Bliss’s wife decided it was not safe for her and her children to stay in the area and left for her parents’ home in Maine. She would die shortly after her arrival.
By the fall of 1863, Little Rock had fallen and Arkansas was split into Unionist and Confederate camps, both determined still to conquer the other. President Abraham Lincoln wanted to end the war as quickly as possible to restore the Union and rebuild the shattered nation. Protected by the Union Army, a group of Arkansas Unionists from the 24 Union-held counties out of fifty-seven, met to form a new state government loyal to the United States. This produced the Constitution of 1864, which led to a series of major changes in state government.
The new constitution was approved overwhelmingly by Unionist voters in northern Arkansas. As a result, slavery would end in Arkansas, outspoken Unionist Isaac Murphy was elected governor, and the new office of lieutenant governor was born to ensure added stability in government and to fall more into line with other state governments. Bliss was elected to be the first man in Arkansas to hold this office.
His term, though the job was mostly ceremonial, was dominated by the end of the war and the problems of Reconstruction. He traveled back to New England to bring his children back to Arkansas and worked with organizations to bring Bibles to the freedmen. He also bought the Little Rock True Democrat and converted it into a voice for Unionism, The Unconditional Union, in a state stinging over losses from the war. However, while Bliss was in Washington in 1866, his newspaper office mysteriously burned down.
Once his term as lieutenant governor ended, he left politics. He and his children farmed in Pulaski County where he would spend the remainder of his days. He died quietly at his farm in 1891.