Andrew F. Sperry, author of the 33rd Iowa Volunteer Infantry’s regimental history, gives his regiment credit for the nickname Hell-in-Arkansas. The 33rd came down the Mississippi River from Columbus, Kentucky, on the steamer John D. Perry, arriving in Helena on January 13, 1863. Sperry wrote, “About Noon on Sunday, the 13th, we reached Helena, Arkansas, which place some of the boys profanely denominated ‘Hell-in-Arkansas’– a name more intimate acquaintance, inclined to justify. . . .” The Iowa boys got off the boat in the rain and pitched their tents in a muddy abandoned garden in the middle of town.
In 1860, Helena had 1,500 residents. In the spring of 1861, four hundred men left to join the Confederate army. Some civilians fled when news of the Union army’s approach reached the city. How many residents remained in town when General Samuel Curtis arrived in Helena on July 12, 1862, with 12,000 Union troops and 2,000 Contraband following the army is unknown.. The little river port town was unprepared for such an influx.
The hell actually began before Curtis’s Union soldiers got to Helena. A number of men had been wounded in engagements with Confederates and partisans on the march through Arkansas. All were weak from weeks of fighting heat, thirst, insects and reptiles. Many became ill soon after they arrived in Helena. No matter the cause, their condition was made worse by the lack of proper hospital facilities.
In early August 1862, Dr. Charles Brackett of the 9th Illinois Cavalry wrote his wife about the hospitals in Helena “. . . by the time I had finished was thoroughly used up. It was the hottest day of the season when even the acclimated citizens kept [to] the house.” The heat in the summer months spawned insects and generated dust. Contaminated water caused diarrhea. When the rains began, the dust turned to mud.
Two accounts from the winter of 1862-63 paint a grim picture of the streets of Helena. Annie Wittenmeyer, a nurse, visited Helena in December 1862, to inspect the hospitals. A four-mule wagon was sent to take Mrs. Wittenmeyer from the dock into town. The wagon had not gone far before the mules began to sink in the mud. After a great deal of struggle, and with the help of soldiers, the mules were rescued. The wagon was abandoned and a placard placed on it that read “No Bottom.” An Indiana regiment reported a similar event in February, only they reported that “a mule and a horse drowned near the center of town.”
An Iowa soldier wrote to his father in February 1863, “There are about 30 thousand troops encamped in and around Helena, and I can say without exaggerating that there is buried forty men every day and sometimes more.” George Hammond, an inspector from the Medical Directors Office concurred. He wrote to district headquarters, “I am fully impressed with the idea that Helena is no fit place for a General Hospital and that no sick should be left here that could be moved to a more northern Hospital.” Hammond felt that all of the hospitals in Helena should be shut down and the patients sent elsewhere.
Hammond’s suggestion was ignored. A garrisoned city could not exist without a hospital. In fact, the general hospital at Helena did not close until 1866. At the time of the inspection there were four major hospitals in Helena: Hindman House, Rightor House, Convalescent Camp [on the river bank] and the Pest House/Small Pox barracks. In addition, each regiment had its own small hospital tent or building.
The July 4, 1863, Battle of Helena resulted in hundreds of casualties. The resulting wounded quickly overwhelmed the four hospitals and the medical staff. Most of the houses in town, the churches, and St. Catherine’s convent were pressed into service as hospitals. A little over a month after the battle, Anne Wittenmeyer returned to Helena to deliver medical supplies. The Baptist and Methodist churches were crowded with sick and wounded. When she inspected the hospitals she was appalled: “There were few cots in these two churches; most of the men were lying in the narrow pews, with the scant uneven cushions for their beds. The weather was extremely hot, and flies swarmed over everybody and everything. The faces of some of the men, who were too helpless to keep up a continual fight with them were black with swarming hungry flies.” The only drinking water had been taken from the river and was being stored in rancid pickled meat barrels. Mrs. Wittenmeyer bought ice from a boat at the dock so that the men could have cool water, if nothing else.
Wittenmeyer and her aid spent two days in Helena. “For two long days, through sun and dust, we went from hospital to hospital, till we, too, became hopeless.” She finally determined that the only way to save the men was to get them out of Helena and to the large hospital facility in Memphis. The plucky nurse hopped a northbound steamer and went from office to office until she roused a general out of his sick bed. She asked that four hospital boats be sent to Helena. She reinforced her request by mentioning that if all else failed she’d have to go to the newspapers. In the end, Wittenmeyer got her boats and the worst of the sick and wounded were taken to Memphis.
In the winter of 1864, an inspection report stated that many of the men in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Arkansas Infantry Regiments of African Descent and the 1st Iowa Infantry Regiment of African Descent were sick. The inspector blamed the locations of the camps, which were wet. Part of the problem was sewage seeping from the soldiers’ sinks [latrines]. In December, Dr. Charles Brackett sent a letter to Colonel Hiram Sickles, 9th Illinois, urging him to enforce regulations regarding the proper construction, maintenance and use of the sinks. Brackett wrote, “Already the camp is offensive about its outskirts from a neglect of this matter . . .” The doctor saw a real danger, because the sinks were located near the place from which the men obtained water. Ironically, Dr. Brackett died of typhoid fever in February. No doubt similar problems plagued the Arkansas and Iowa regiments cited by the inspector. The commanding officers of two of the regiments were condemned by the inspector as being unfit for command.
Charles O. Musser of the 29th Iowa reported a great deal of sickness in his regiment. He noted that only 230 out of the regiment’s 900 men were present at dress parade. “It is hard to see so many men away from home suffering and dying more for the want of care and attention than anything else. The post hospital here is full, and several steamboats are occupied for hospitals. . .” Subsequent inspections in the spring found an improvement in the general health and condition of the garrison at Helena. The inspector commended General Napoleon B. Buford, writing of his “. . . untiring energy and the able manner in which he commands.”
Incidents of illness decreased with the cool spring weather but when summer came with its oppressive heat, humidity, and insects, people began to get sick again. One inspector blamed the sickness on vaccinations, which he felt should not have been given to the men in the heat of the year. In July 1864, there were 5,556 enlisted men on duty in Helena and over 1,000 of them were reported sick.
Illness was rampant among the 6th Minnesota. The climate and lack of good sanitary conditions were probably responsible for most of the sickness. The toll Helena took on the 6th Minnesota is staggering. According to the Minnesota Adjutant General’s report, when the regiment arrived in Helena in June 1864, it was full, meaning that there were 1,000 men in the regiment. In August, only seven officers and 178 men were fit for duty. Six hundred of the Minnesotans were sent to northern hospitals.
The 6th Minnesota originally encamped in a low area on the bank of the Mississippi River. The regiment eventually moved up near the Hornor house but by then the damage had been done. It is likely that the sickness that befell the men was typhoid or another disease associated with unsanitary conditions. Malaria is another possibility.
The plight of the Minnesotans, while extreme, was hardly unique. Laundry lists of death and sickness fill the letters, diaries and regimental histories. Helena was not a healthy place. W.P. Belden, surgeon of the 6th Minnesota, summed up Hell-in-Arkansas, “. . . Helena is a city in a swamp, and is the city which the valorous Sixth helped hold through trying times, in the face of poisonous dangers a hundred fold more damaging and terrifying than the fiercest battlefield. . .”
The hell continued even after the war was over. In August 1866, two steamers left Helena for St. Louis with the officers and men of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry aboard. By the time the two boats reached Cairo, Illinois, thirteen men on one steamer had died, and one aboard the other. Over sixty men were sick. By the time the vessels arrived in St. Louis another fifty men had died. The first army surgeon found no cholera but a second confirmed cholera on board. The soldiers were sent to the Quarantine Grounds at Jefferson Barracks. By the end of August, 175 officers and men had died. They were buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.