A Brief History of Helena, AR During the Civil War
Phillips County’s rich soil, ideal for growing cotton, drew hundreds of settlers to the Arkansas frontier in the 1830s and 1840s. Plantations were hewn from the wilderness. By the late 1850s Phillips County was the wealthiest county in Arkansas. Helena, the county seat, was a lively port town on the Mississippi, the busiest river in the country.
On the eve of the Civil War, thirty-two people owned ninety-four per cent of the land in Phillips County. Nine thousand slaves worked that land to produce an abundance of cotton, that made a very few very wealthy and benefitted the slaves not at all.
The uneasy peace in a nation that could not compromise over the issue of slavery ended with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The nation broke apart. South Carolina seceded and others followed. In May 1861, Arkansas became the ninth state to join the newly organized Confederate States of America.
By late spring, most of the men in Phillips County had enlisted in the Confederate army, a few in the Union army. Seven men from Phillips County became high ranking Confederate officers: Charles Adams, Archibald Dobbins, Daniel C. Govan, Thomas C. Hindman, Lucius Polk and James C. Tappan. Patrick Cleburne, a shy Irish immigrant, earned the most lasting fame as one of the Confederacy’s most able commanders.
The women left behind ran plantations, farms and businesses, and faced hardships unimaginable before the war. Many who could afford to leave did. Wealthy Confederate sympathizers sent family members and slaves to less vulnerable areas. Those who remained in Helena saw the unthinkable happen on July 12, 1862. Union General Samuel Curtis and his Army of the Southwest marched into the city unopposed. They seized homes for hospitals, headquarters and depots, and took crops, livestock, forage and fodder. Residents of Helena lived under martial law, their civil liberties curtailed. Travel in and out of the city required a pass signed by the Union commander. Union authorities controlled trade. Civilians could not take goods out of the city, and those in the county who refused to sign the Oath of Allegiance to the U.S. government could not come into the city to buy food and other necessities.
Two thousand slaves who had fled farms and plantations in hope of protection and freedom followed the federal army into Helena. The freedom seekers, whom the army called Contraband, found themselves wards of an army that had no idea how to feed, clothe and house destitute civilians. Contraband lived in stables and churches, and in tents and rough shacks grouped into camps. Men worked for the army as teamsters, officer’s servants and laborers, women as cooks and laundresses.
Within months, charitable organizations began to send food, supplies and help. They acted as advocates for the freedom seekers, provided health care and established schools. The Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends operated an orphan asylum and school that evolved into Southland College, a teachers’ college for African Americans, after the war.
When Curtis marched into Helena he was not sure if he would remain, but the city’s location made it a valuable strategic resource. Contraband, often given little choice, built Fort Curtis and four batteries, A, B, C and D, on Crowley’s Ridge—defenses to protect Helena from an attack by the Confederates based in Little Rock.
The second year of the Union occupation brought a number of changes for Helena’s Contraband population. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in states in rebellion against the United States, including Arkansas.
That spring, the Union army began recruiting Freedmen into the newly formed United States Colored Troops. Hundreds of men in Helena joined the army, eventually forming several regiments. About the same time, the army began confiscating plantations abandoned by Confederate sympathizers. Union authorities leased the land to individuals, some of them African American, who in turn hired Freedmen to grow cotton. It was the first time many of the Freedmen had been paid for their labor.
On July 4, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg and the day that Vicksburg finally surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, nearly 8,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of General Theophilus H. Holmes attempted to retake Helena.
The Confederates hit Batteries A and D at first light. After hours of bloody fighting, the attack ground to a halt. At sunrise, when the other attacks were stalling, the assault on Battery C began. After three frontal attacks Battery C fell. Orders came for a detachment of Confederate soldiers on Battery C to take Fort Curtis, which stood below the battery. The attack failed in the face of Union heavy artillery and small arms fire.
The Confederates retreated, the pursuing Union infantry capturing hundreds of men. By one o’clock the battle was over. The Confederates withdrew. They pulled back to the Allen Polk plantation, which became a hospital and graveyard. The defeated Confederate army never threatened Helena again.
Helena was a Union stronghold in Confederate-controlled Arkansas. Supplies and troops flowed in and out of the city, aiding operations in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. Thousands of troops from Helena participated in the Vicksburg Campaign, including the Yazoo Pass Expedition in 1863. Troops from Helena also took part in the White River Expedition, the Little Rock Campaign, the Camden Campaign and countless smaller operations.
Thousands of men passing through the city, overcrowded camps, hot weather, mosquitoes and poor sanitation led to epidemics of yellow fever, typhoid, diarrhea, and other illnesses. The death rate was staggering and Helena soon became known as “Hell-in-Arkansas” to many Union soldiers. Northern benevolent organizations sent men and women and supplies to help in the hospitals and to give aid to the Union soldiers, but there was often little they could do other than make the men comfortable.
Scouts and patrols left Helena every few days, foraging for food and fodder and keeping an eye on Confederate activity. On July 26, 1864, some 400 U.S. Colored Infantry and Artillery encountered about 1,000 dismounted Confederate cavalry at Big Creek in Phillips County. Colonel Archibald Dobbins, who before the war was a very wealthy Phillips County planter, commanded the Confederates.
The outnumbered Union troops held their ground for several hours, Union artillery driving back the charging Confederates. Finally, a column of the 15th Illinois Cavalry arrived and the battered Union column retreated safely to Helena.
After four long years and the deaths of over 600,000 men, the Civil War ended. Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, ending the war in the Eastern Theater. The war in the Trans-Mississippi continued until May 26, when Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered the last major Confederate force at Galveston, Texas.
The Union army remained in Helena for a number of months after the war ended. For the most part, regiments of United States Colored Troops garrisoned the city. They assisted the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, in its task to help Freedmen transition from slavery to citizenship. They also enforced the policies of Abraham Lincoln’s, and later Andrew Johnson’s, Reconstruction policies, which were intended to reintegrate the former Confederate states back into the United States. A number of black regiments mustered out in Helena before the Union army finally left the city in 1867.