Civilian Life Under Military Rule
When the Union Army of the Southwest marched into Helena in July 1862, it is not known how many people remained in the town. A great many of the higher ranking Confederates had left town or had sent their families to safer places. It is very likely that anyone who could afford to do so, left before the Union Army arrived or soon thereafter. Arthur Thompson took his family to Kentucky. His house in Helena was later seized by the Union army.
General Samuel Curtis took up residence in Thomas Hindman’s house, one of the finest in Helena, but perhaps there was more symbolism to Curtis’s act than that. Hindman commanded the Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi, which included Arkansas. Curtis now held Hindman’s hometown and was living in his house. Curtis was sending a message―I have your town and your house; if you want them back you’ll have to come and take them.
Dr. Charles Brackett, a surgeon with the 9th Illinois Cavalry, often had business in Helena. When he was in town he roomed at the H.C. Rightor house, Mr. Rightor charging him 50¢ a night. The doctor wrote his wife, telling her that the Rightors had seven slaves even though Mr. Rightor was Unionist. Brackett also wrote of talking with a Mrs. Waite, whose husband had recently fled to the North. Brackett also seems to have boarded at the Richardson house next door to the Rightors. When Brackett returned from a visit to Indiana he found that Mr. Richardson had left town.
Dudley Emerson Jones of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry wrote in his diary on April 10, 1863:
“On Tuesday got to Helena & went to quarters and that PM moved to the Tappan House. Col.[Cyrus] Bussey having taken command of the 2 Cav. Div. . . . The house has been a very fine one & is splendidly furnished but the many occupants have taken off nearly all that was portable. . . .The yard is much damaged by horses. We have a big job to clean it up.”
As a Confederate, General James Tappan’s property was subject to confiscation and use as the Union command saw fit. As Dudley Emerson noted, not only were homes used by Union soldiers, but personal items in the homes were taken without compunction by some.
Joseph R. Edwards, a soldier in the 12th Michigan Infantry, was in the hospital in Helena recovering from intermittent fever. He did not specify if he was in a general hospital or a regimental hospital, but he did say the hospital was in a residence. Private Edwards described the house to his sister, “Our hospital is a fine dwelling house. It’s built in real Southern style & is large and commodious for the number in it. The cool breezes pass through the wide halls & airs all the rooms.” Whoever owned the house had left Helena and the army had taken it for a hospital. It is known that the Rightor and Hindman houses were both used as hospitals at one time.
General Benjamin Prentiss, the Union commander at Helena in 1863, determined that a great deal of the merchandise purchased in Helena by citizens who lived in the countryside was going to aid the Confederates. On February 23, 1863, he issued General Orders No. 9 forbidding anyone to take any merchandise beyond the Union lines into the country. The general felt “. . . that the evil resulting therefrom far exceeds that which may result from any suffering of destitute families in the country. . .” The order placed hardships on those living outside of town, making it almost impossible for them to acquire needed items, including food.
The Edmondson family lived northeast of Walnut Corner along Spring Creek Road in Phillips County. In the summer of 1863, seven members of the family took their slaves and moved to Louisiana to live in a part of the Confederacy then safe from Union control. In her diary Mary Francis Sale Edmondson, who stayed in Phillips County, wrote of the hardships she endured as a result of Union occupation. She complained that of the few slaves she had left all but two had gone to Helena. Her yard was overgrown with weeds, there was no one to clean or prepare meals, and she was faced with a situation that had turned her world upside-down.
Life in rural areas outside of Helena would have been very trying indeed. Beginning in the fall of 1863, the Union army sent small expeditions called scouts into the countryside around Helena. These scouts, generally less than 100 men, traveled about thirty miles from town. Their objective was to capture Confederate soldiers in the area, including men home on leave and those harassing the Union garrison. The scouts also took forage, food, horses and mules from Southern sympathizers, which the soldiers understood to be anyone who had not taken the Oath of Allegiance.
The Union scouts were the bane of the Confederate loyalists’ existence. Records from the National Archives indicate that fifty-six scouts originated from Helena between October 13, 1863, and February 28, 1865, roughly two per month. The size and scope of the scouting parties varied. After Colonel Archibald Dobbins began his summer 1864 campaign to cripple the plantation lease system, the scouts’ priority turned to locating and capturing Dobbins’ Confederate Cavalry.
Anytime a person in the interior met a scout on the road they feared, with reason, that they might be taken into custody or, if they were riding a horse or a mule, that the animal would be confiscated. “Dr. [Edmondson] met three federals today – trembled for his horse, but got off with him,” Mary Francis Sale Edmondson wrote of her husband. Another diarist, Sue Cook, wrote of friends leaving her house early in the morning to avoid meeting a scout.
Sue Cook’s diary mentions scouts quite often. She had a lot of contact with people in Helena, and even became acquainted with some of the Union officers patrolling her area. Her main fear was that her brother or other men she knew in the Confederate army would be captured. “The first thing I saw when I got to the road this morning was that a scout had passed in the direction of our house. My heart beat fast! I feared they had caught brother, but they had not.”
By the fall of 1863, Mrs. Edmondson had grown despondent, “I have never in all my life been obliged to wait on myself before. I am now forty-five years of age.” While some may find it hard to empathize with Mrs. Edmondson, the total disruption of life as she had known it was obvious. She became more bitter as time went on, blaming the Yankees for all of her problems, “They have shut us in on all sides — have stopped us — everything but bedding, clothing and house, with few tools, farming utensils, cows, and hogs. They have taken from us the means of supporting ourselves and refuse to let us have anything unless we lie or smuggle [and they] have rendered the latter difficult and dangerous.”
Emma Rightor, one of the young women who made the flag presented to the Phillips Guard in 1861, lived with her parents in Helena. When the Union army occupied the city they took over the Rightor House. Emma remained a staunch Confederate, often flaunting her views in front of Union officers. Her desire to help the Confederate cause led her to smuggle goods through the Union lines to Confederates outside of town. On one such trip, she claimed to have carried through the pickets, “quinine, socks, blankets, pistols, two pair of rubber boots and other things” under her hoop skirt. Given Miss Rightor’s confession, it would seem that General Prentiss was correct in his assertion that merchandise was going from Helena to aid the Confederacy. Due to her uncompromising views, Miss Rightor was eventually forced to leave Helena. She spent the remainder of the war in Indiana and Kentucky.
The people who lived outside of Helena were, as a rule, staunch Confederates. The information available demonstrates their loyalty. Sue Cook, Mary Sale Edmondson and Emma Rightor never took the Oath of Allegiance. Mrs. Edmondson wrote that she found the idea of taking the Oath “repugnant.” To her, swearing an oath was a moral obligation, “I do not yet think I can take the oath to save us from starvation, and utterly disregard it, as so many have done — and yet to renounce all that is dear to me on earth — is simply impossible.”
Sue Cook, who seems to have had a very matter-of-fact world view, heard that some captured Confederates being held in Helena had taken the oath. Her response was that the act was just plain ludicrous. The idea of taking an oath to support one government while fighting that government didn’t sit well with her. She noted the men’s names, as if she would ask them when she saw them next, ‘What were you thinking?’
Perhaps the biggest surprise to the civilians of Helena and Phillips County was the behavior of their slaves. Thousands of slaves followed the Union army as it marched across Arkansas and into Helena. More came into the city almost every day, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863. Helena became a haven, a place where slaves could claim the freedom given by the Proclamation, hold jobs and earn money to support themselves and their families. The conditions in Helena may have been poor, but they did not stop slaves from seeking a better life. Mrs. Edmondson lamented the fact that most of her few servants had gone to Helena, “We have tried to act patiently and generously toward them but nothing will satisfy them but Yankee freedom and equality.”
Helena was occupied by the Union army throughout the war. The city was under martial law, the civil rights of its residents curtailed. Arkansas was part of a country at war with the United States. The Union army was fighting the rebellion and enforcing the laws of Congress and the military commanders. Citizens who were not loyal to the Union were not entitled to the rights they had enjoyed before Arkansas seceded.