Helena: An Island of Freedom in Confederate Arkansas

Freedom Park is the first site in Arkansas to be designated a Network to Freedom site by the National Park Service. A Contraband camp, it was one of several places in Helena where tents and makeshift shelters served as temporary homes for the refugee slaves—freedom seekers—who came to Helena. They came because Union-controlled Helena was the only place in Confederate Arkansas where freedom was possible.

The story begins in March 1862, when Union General Samuel Curtis, then in Missouri, began a march toward Little Rock. Supply problems altered Curtis’s plans and instead he decided to take his army to Helena. The Army of the Southwest, a four-mile-long parade of soldiers, horses, wagons and artillery pieces, marched across Arkansas for over two months. As the army passed, slaves joined the column, abandoning their homes and seizing the opportunity for freedom under the protection of the Union army. One soldier wrote, “On our march the Negroes fairly swarmed around us, coming from every mansion, log cabin and habitable place in the whole region.”

Unlike other Union generals who would not allow slaves behind their lines, General Curtis did nothing to discourage them. In fact, as his army’s march had been impeded by obstacles built by slaves, he declared any slave who entered his lines to be “contraband of war.” He even went so far as to issue papers to individuals stating that they were free.

These men, women and children, called Contraband by the Union army, risked everything. Leaving the life they had known with only the hope of freedom and a better life took tremendous courage. Freedom was not guaranteed, nor was their safety. Severe punishment awaited those who were recaptured.

On July 12, 1862, the vanguard of the Union army reached Helena. For two days, the long line—12,000 Union soldiers and more than 2,000 freedom seekers—filed into the city. As word spread that the Union army was there and that refugee slaves were not being turned away, more refugees came into Helena. George E. Flanders, 5th Kansas Cavalry wrote, “The Negroes are flocking to the army from every direction, there are about fifty, big and little in our company. They appear to enjoy themselves, but what is to be done with them, when the army moves again, is more than I can say.” What Flanders did not know was that the Union army would not be leaving.

The freedom seekers in Helena had no place to live, no food, and no means of support. Their care became the responsibility of the Union army. Six days after the army arrived in Helena, Lieutenant B.O. Carr, the acting assistant quartermaster, sent a letter to General Curtis saying that there was “a perfect cloud of negroes being thrown upon him for subsistence and support” and that most of those needing help were women and children. Carr suggested that a competent person be placed in charge of the Contraband. Carr wrote again three weeks later, expressing concern that exposure and a lack of medical care were taking their toll on the freedom seekers. In response, Curtis wrote his superiors in Memphis asking that a hospital for Contraband be established in Helena.

At first, the army housed the refugees wherever they could find room, including in a barn on the Sisters of Mercy property. The Sisters objected but Curtis seems to have ignored their request to remove the freedom seekers. Many lived in army tents and hastily built shanties. Crowded, primitive camps were strung out along the lower Little Rock road, now Biscoe Street. The army had no experience housing and feeding thousands of civilians. The refugees in Helena suffered for weeks, until the army developed procedures to facilitate the distribution of food, and to arrange shelter and provide medical care.

Freedom seekers came to Helena in search of a life of self-determination and self-sufficiency. It was not long before many Contraband found jobs with the army. Men worked as cooks, mechanics, stable hands, teamsters and laborers. Women cooked and cleaned, and washed and mended clothes for officers and enlisted men. Both men and women worked as cooks and nurses in the many regimental and general hospitals, nurses in the 1860s being little more than cleaners and water carriers. The freedom seekers also helped themselves, building shelters with cast-off materials and planting vegetable gardens.

As soon as his superiors decided that the army would stay in Helena, Curtis put hundreds of able-bodied men to work building a huge earthen fort, which was named Fort Curtis by his successor, General Benjamin Prentiss. Curtis deemed construction of this defensive work so important that he ordered soldiers to seize Contraband, including men employed elsewhere by the army, and to set them to work on the fort.

General Eugene Carr, an advocate for the Contraband, complained to General Curtis: “It would be better to send the orders through the proper channels than to send parties to gather them [Contraband] wherever they may be found!” Carr believed that the army’s actions sent the wrong message about freedom saying, “. . . there is no security for those [who] in good faith have engaged in labor in our service.” There is no record of the general’s response or whether the practice continued but men were soon building more defensive works― four batteries above the city on Crowley’s Ridge.

A number of the old and less physically able men found work as personal servants. A man named Curtis worked for Dr. Charles Brackett, a surgeon in the 9th Illinois Cavalry, who wrote his wife, “The old negro Curtis is putting things ‘to rights’ in the tent, sweeping in front with a few twigs tied together with string and with this he makes things look neat.”

Most freedom seekers wanted more than work, they wanted to better themselves, to learn to read and write—skills that had long been denied to them and that would be necessary to survive and prosper as free people. They wanted their children to attend school. One Union soldier observed that the Freedmen were, “. . . using all means to improve their condition, enquiring diligently after spelling books, etc. . . .”

Appeals to charitable organizations in the North for assistance were answered by a number of organizations. By 1863, the Western Sanitary Commission, North Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, American Missionary Association and the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends had sent food, clothing, medical supplies, doctors, nurses and teachers to Helena, and were providing technical assistance. It was not long before at least one Freedmen’s school and a Freedmen’s hospital were operating in Helena. Some of these organizations maintained a presence in the city throughout the war, aiding not only Freedmen but also the many hundreds of Union solders taken ill in Helena.

The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect January 1, 1863. The men, women and children who fled farms and plantations to follow the Union army to Helena were free. That New Year’s Eve, freedom seekers in Helena celebrated into the early morning hours. “The long wished for Year of Jubilee has now come for the Negroes, and their joy is great thereat,” wrote Dr. Charles Brackett as he watched Freedmen in Helena celebrate.

The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Arkansas and in all states in rebellion against the United States, but claiming that freedom was another matter. Former slaves in Arkansas outside of Helena could not exercise the freedom Lincoln granted unless they escaped Confederate control. Many chose to do just that. In the first months of 1863, hundreds of individuals came into Helena. Some remained, but many boarded north-bound steamboats as soon as the opportunity arose.

Slave owners in Arkansas were well aware of the Emancipation Proclamation and what it meant. Some tried to persuade their slaves to go to Kentucky, telling them that it was a northern state, but most would not go. By whatever means, they knew that there would be no freedom in Kentucky, which as a Union slaveholding state was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation. But there was freedom in Helena. Mary Sale Edmondson, who lived on a plantation a few miles from Helena, complained about her family’s slaves in her dairy: “We have tried to act patiently and generously toward them but nothing will satisfy them but Yankee freedom and equality.”

Confederates in Helena and Phillips County had more reason for dismay in the spring of 1863 when Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas visited Helena and initiated two federal programs that had far-reaching ramifications. He decreed that plantations abandoned by Confederate owners were subject to lease, and he began recruiting United States Colored Troops in Helena. Both programs proved successful.

The plantation lease system allowed Freedmen and others to lease plantations directly from the federal government. No rent was charged, but a tax of $2.00 per 400-pound bale of cotton and five cents per bushel of corn harvested was levied. Over thirty Freedmen leased land and planted cotton on plantations and farms near Helena, and made an average of $50 profit on each acre planted. The Freedmen leasing the plantations employed other Freedmen to help work the land.One observer noted that the farms leased by Freedmen did better then those leased by whites. His conclusion was that former slaves worked harder for people of their own race, but others believed that the working arrangement was different enough from slavery that Freedmen felt that they were now part of the system rather than being subject to it, and therefore put more effort into the endeavor.

Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas spoke to about 4,000 white soldiers at Fort Curtis on April 6, telling the men about President Lincoln’s new policy—to arm former slaves and use them to help crush the rebellion. He spoke about the shortage of soldiers and the need to recruit as many Freedmen as possible. He told the men to spread the word that he was recruiting black men and white officers for the new United States Colored Troops.

Within days of Thomas’ speech enough Freedmen enlisted to fill a regiment—1,000 men. The 2nd and 4th Arkansas Infantries of African Descent, later designated the 54th and 57th U.S. Colored Infantries, respectively, filled within weeks. Many of the men who enlisted were already in Helena but others came from Confederate-controlled areas outside of the city. Some, like Aaron Hurvey and Burrill Eastman, escaped from their owners and crossed the Mississippi River to come into Helena and enlist. Here, as in every place that Thomas spoke, Freedmen men were eager to fight for the Union.

The Freedmen who joined the Union army, like men in all wars, enlisted for different reasons. Some enlisted because army pay enabled them to provide for their families. Some were coerced. Many black men who enlisted felt every black man should enlist, and pressured those who did not. The army also made forays into the county to collect recruits. John Harris, 2nd Arkansas of African Decent, recalled: “When the Yankees came through, I went to Helena, Arkansas, where I enlisted on May 21, 1863.” Harris was wounded in the Battle of Helena six weeks later.

Most who enlisted did so because they wanted to fight for their continued freedom and the freedom of all African Americans. Robert Houston remembered: “I went into the Union service very willingly . . . my actions feeling and sympathies have all the time been for the success and maintenance of the Union cause and all the time willing and desirous to fight or do anything else in my power on that behalf.” Between 1863 and 1865, Arkansas contributed 5,526 black men to the Union war effort. Eighty-five percent were from the Delta region.

The Union occupation changed Helena in ways that no one could have anticipated. Freedmen walked the streets without restriction, worked for wages at jobs of their choosing, and had the opportunity for an education. Some became entrepreneurs, leasing plantations, or working for themselves as teamsters and in other capacities. United States Colored Troops were a common sight in the city. Various regiments garrisoned the city for as long as the Union army was there―almost a year after the war ended. Some remained long enough to become involved in local causes. Donations of money and labor made by the men of the 56th United States Colored Infantry made it possible for a Freedmen’s school to move from its temporary war-time location to a permanent site where it grew to be Southland College.

Throughout the war, Helena was an island of freedom in Confederate Arkansas. The refugees that followed the Union army into the city in 1862 and those that came later enjoyed a measure of the freedom they sought behind the protection of Union lines. The Emancipation Proclamation declared them free in the eyes of the federal government, but that freedom would only be guaranteed if the Union won the Civil War. The thousands of men that volunteered in Arkansas and elsewhere to serve with the United States Colored Troops fought with determination and courage to bring about a Union victory and to guarantee that the freedom granted in January 1863 was not lost.

But the Emancipation Proclamation was only the first step toward freedom and equal rights for freedom seekers, their children and their children’s children. Slavery remained legal in parts of the United States until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865. Slavery was finally abolished, but freedom did not mean equal rights. During Reconstruction African Americans gained some measure of equality, only to lose it when former Confederates returned to political power. Courageous individuals black and white fought for decades to restore the voting and citizenship rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, a fight won with the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.