On the eve of the Civil War, Phillips County was one of the wealthiest counties in Arkansas. Helena, the county seat, was a thriving Mississippi River port. It was the center of the wealth and power made possible by the plantation system.
Helena’s early years were typical of river towns, filled with traders, adventurers, gamblers, boatmen and all of the vices and virtues that characterized river towns on the frontier. The river was and always has been a mixed blessing for Helena. It is the reason the city exists. It has brought prosperity, and it has brought flood and pestilence.
Helena became the county seat of Phillips County in 1830, and was incorporated in 1833. In 1860, there was no railroad and only a few roads led west to the state capital at Little Rock. The town depended on the river for transportation. Helena’s wealth was tied to the land, and to slaves. The county was wealthy, but that wealth was held by a small number of people. Tied up in land and slaves the wealth was real, but it was not liquid.
In 1860, 14,877 people lived in Phillips County. Of that number 8,941 were slaves, the largest slave population in Arkansas. Much of the land in the county, over 83,000 acres, was cleared and in crops, mostly cotton. The county’s agricultural land was valued at more than eight million dollars. The four largest plantations in the county each had holdings of one thousand acres or more. There were forty plantations of more than five hundred acres, and 224 of over one hundred acres, all of it worked by hand and horse-drawn machinery. Twenty-five people owned fifty-seven of the real estate; thirty-seven per cent was owned by just seven people. The slaves in Phillips County were owned by less than ten percent of the white population.
In 1860, the nation was divided into free and slave states and politics was polarized along those divisions. As the national political situation worsened, Arkansas, like other southern states, prepared for the worst. John Brown’s raid in Virginia in late 1859 only added to an already volatile situation; 1860 witnessed the fracturing of the Democratic Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in November. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. A few days earlier Henry C. Lay, Missionary Bishop of the Southwest, wrote a letter from his church in Helena to the Episcopal clergy under his charge: “After agitation which has reached every hearth and home among us, a crisis has arrived. The solemn future just before us cannot be as the past. It must bring to us either a return to peace and brotherhood, or a wider estrangement and an angrier strife.”
Lay’s words could not have been more prophetic. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas soon followed South Carolina in leaving the Union. On February 9, 1861, Jefferson Davis was elected president of the new Confederate States of America.
People in Helena and Phillips County had already begun to prepare for war. Two companies of militia were formed just before the 1860 election, the Yell Rifles, commanded by Patrick Cleburne, and the Phillips Guards, commanded by W.S. Otey. During the early days of Arkansas’ secession crisis both companies went to Little Rock and helped the state government capture the Federal arsenal. After returning to Phillips County, the men continued to drill. In the early spring of 1861, more militia companies were organized in Helena including the Tappan Guards, commanded by Captain James. C. Tappan; the Pat Cleburne Guards, commanded by Captain Thomas Quinlin; the LaGrange Guards, commanded by Captain Daniel C. Govan; and the Trenton Guards, commanded by Captain J.W. Scaife. Many of the militia commanders would become high-ranking officers in the Confederate army.
Patrick Cleburne, who was discouraged by the events of the fall and winter of 1860-61, spent a bleak Christmas in Helena. An Irish immigrant, he felt loyal to his adopted state and to the people who had become his friends. In a letter to his brother, Robert, in January 1861, Cleburne wrote of his loyalty to Arkansas and his fears for the future: “My own opinion is that the first blood shed on Southern soil in a collision between the Federal troops and state authorities of any Southern state will be a signal for civil war.”
In April 1861, just five weeks after Lincoln was sworn in as president, the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, in South Carolina. Two days later, in keeping with his promise that he would defend the Union with force if necessary, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the Southern rebellion. The Civil War had begun.
In the spring of 1861, Cleburne demonstrated his loyalty. The shy, soft-spoken Cleburne made a brief speech as part of a ceremony held at the Methodist church. After the blessing of the troops the Yell Rifles and the Phillips Guards departed Helena for Camp Rector. Upon reaching Camp Rector, on the west bank of the Mississippi River just south of Memphis, the militiamen were mustered in as the 1st Arkansas [later 15th Arkansas] Infantry. The men elected Patrick Cleburne their colonel. Though Arkansas would not leave the Union until the sixth of May, the young men of Helena had cast their lot with the Confederacy. In the spring of 1861, 400 men from Phillips County marched off to war. Few would return.
For a time, it seemed that the war had left Helena with the departure of those young men. For the first year of the war life probably went on without much change, except that the river was closed by the Union blockade. With so many young men gone, older men and women were left to mind the farms, businesses and plantations. Some could not make ends meet. To aid women and children whose husbands, fathers and sons had gone to war, the Phillips County Court ordered that an ad valorem tax of one tenth of one per cent assessed on all taxable property, the revenue to be used for the aid of indigent women and children. The war fund also set aside money for burial services for soldiers. The Phillips County Court records show that the fund was established in the spring of 1861 and was disbursed until the summer of 1862. It is likely that the Union occupation of Helena put an end to the fund.
Helena’s Seven Confederate Generals
Traditionally, Helena’s Confederate legacy includes seven Confederate generals. Two of those generals, Patrick Cleburne and Lucius Polk, left the city on April 23, 1861, with the Yell Rifles. Polk fought with Cleburne in Tennessee and Kentucky. Patrick Cleburne is without a doubt the best known of Helena’s seven generals.
Patrick Ronyane Cleburne was born near Ovens, County Cork, Ireland on March 17, 1828, and came to this country in 1849. In 1850 Cleburne settled in Helena, where he worked as an apothecary in a shop and later bought the business. He became active in Democratic politics and St. John’s Episcopal Church. Patrick R. Cleburne served in the Army of Tennessee and in all of its campaigns until his death. He was an excellent combat officer and rose to the rank of major general. Cleburne was also a leading advocate for freeing and arming slaves for service in the Confederate army. Patrick Ronyane Cleburne died in the assault on the Carter House during the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864. He was buried in St. John’s Churchyard at Ashwood, the estate of his good friend Lucius Polk, near Columbia, Tennessee. In 1871, Cleburne’s body was moved to the Confederate Cemetery in Helena.
Lucius Eugene Polk, nephew of Confederate General Leonidas Polk, was born in Salisbury, North Carolina, on July 10, 1833. His family later moved to Tennessee, where they added to their wealth. In the 1850s, Polk emigrated to Arkansas with several of his cousins. Lucius joined the Yell Rifles and left the Trans-Mississippi with his company in April 1861. He fought at Shiloh and in the Kentucky campaign. Polk fought well and was wounded four times over the course of the war. The last time, at Kennesaw Mountain, left him unfit for duty. After the war he returned to Tennessee where he entered politics. Lucius Eugene Polk died in Tennessee on December 1, 1892, and was buried in St. John’s Churchyard at Ashwood, the family estate, near Columbia.
Thomas Carmichael Hindman was a politician, planter and lawyer who played an important role in the secession of Arkansas. He was born January 28, 1828, in Knoxville, Tennessee. Like many young men of his generation, he sought his fortune on the Arkansas frontier. Hindman, now a man of wealth and influence, was elected colonel of the 2nd Arkansas Infantry. He quickly rose to the rank of major general, at one time commanding the Department of the Trans-Mississippi. Hindman fled to Mexico after the war but returned to Helena in 1867. Thomas Carmichael Hindman was assassinated in his home on September 28, 1868. His assailant was never identified. He is buried at Maple Hill Cemetery in Helena, his grave marked by a large obelisk.
James Camp Tappan was born in Franklin, Tennessee, on September 9, 1825. He came to Arkansas as a young man and became a successful lawyer. Tappan joined the Confederate army in May 1861, and was commissioned colonel of the 13th Arkansas. The regiment fought at Belmont in Missouri and later at Shiloh. It participated in the Kentucky Campaign, seeing action at Richmond and Perryville. Tappan became a general in November 1862 and was transferred back to the Trans-Mississippi where he spent the remainder of the war. He commanded a brigade in the Red River Campaign and in Price’s last raid into Missouri. He returned to Helena after the war and resumed the practice of law. He was active in post-Reconstruction politics, becoming Speaker of the House in the Arkansas General Assembly. James Camp Tappan died in Helena on March 19, 1906, and was buried at Maple Hill Cemetery.
Daniel C. Govan, a well-to-do planter in Phillips County prior to the war, was born on July 4, 1829, in Northampton County, North Carolina. He entered service in the spring of 1861, and became colonel of the 2nd Arkansas Infantry. He fought at Shiloh and participated in the Kentucky Campaign, seeing action at Richmond and Perryville. He became a general in 1863 and was captured during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. He was exchanged, fought at Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee, and was with the Army of Tennessee when it surrendered in North Carolina. Govan returned to Arkansas and lived in the state until the 1890s, then residing with his children in Tennessee and Mississippi. Daniel C. Govan died in Memphis on March 2, 1911, and was buried in Hillcrest Cemetery in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Charles W. Adams was a Whig politician and planter living in Helena when the war began. He served as a Federal judge from 1852-54 and he, too, played an important role in leading Arkansas out of the Union. Adams recruited and was elected colonel of the 23rd Arkansas Infantry, which participated in the Battle of Shiloh. He served briefly on General Thomas Hindman’s staff before he was given command of the Northern Sub-District of Arkansas. It was in this command that he obtained the rank of “acting brigadier general.” After the war, Adams moved to Memphis and resumed the practice of law. Charles W. Adams, the grandfather of Helen Keller, died in a yellow fever epidemic on September 9, 1878. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.
Archibald S. Dobbins was born near Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee in 1827. He acquired considerable wealth after moving to Phillips County, where he became a planter. Dobbins spent the first year of the war on his Phillips County plantation growing food for the Confederate army. In 1862, he joined Thomas Hindman in Mississippi, where he was promoted to colonel. Dobbins accompanied Hindman back to Arkansas where he recruited the 1st (Dobbins’) Arkansas Cavalry. Dobbins’ command participated in the Battle of Helena and, in 1864, the Battle of Big Creek in Phillips County. He followed Adams as commander of the Northern Sub-District of Arkansas. It is unclear if Dobbins ever attained the rank of general, though he did command a brigade. After the war he emigrated to Brazil, where he died about 1870.