The Union Army Occupies Helena
On February 16, 1862, lead elements of General Samuel Curtis’s Union army skirmished with General Sterling Price’s rear guard at Big Sugar Creek near Pott’s Hill, Arkansas. This insignificant action was the first Civil War battle in Arkansas. In March, Curtis defeated General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederates at the Battle of Pea Ridge. The defeat devastated the Confederates in Arkansas and drove Van Dorn to leave the state with his army, and most of his valuable supplies and accoutrements.
After Pea Ridge, Curtis returned to Missouri where he remained north of Arkansas until April 29, 1862, when he marched south through Salem, arriving in Batesville on May 2. Curtis planned to take Little Rock. As his Union troops, now called the Army of the Southwest, moved south, the Confederate government fled to Hot Springs. The outlook for Confederate Arkansas was dire until the timely arrival of General Thomas C. Hindman and some Texas cavalry which, combined with a lack of Federal supplies, forced Curtis to rethink his plan. With Confederate cavalry and partisans dogging his army, Curtis retreated back to Batesville, where he hoped to get supplies from Memphis. When this plan failed he gave up any notion of capturing Little Rock and marched for Helena.
On June 30, Curtis made for Jacksonport on the White River. There he turned southeast to Clarendon, and then east toward Helena. His army marched into Helena without opposition on July 12, 1862. As Curtis’s army marched through Arkansas hundreds of slaves abandoned farms and plantations and joined the march of the Yankee soldiers. “On our march the negroes fairly swarmed around us, coming from every mansion, log cabin and habitable place in the whole region” wrote one Union soldier. Though the Emancipation Proclamation was months away, these enslaved people saw an opportunity for freedom and they took it.
Curtis, unlike other Union commanders in the early part of the Civil War, was not inclined to return runaway slaves to their masters. In fact, as his army had been impeded by obstacles built by slaves, he declared that any slave who entered his lines to be “contraband of war.” He even went as far as issuing free papers to some of these bold freedom seekers. On his march south, Curtis practiced total war—burning anything that could aid the Confederates. Freeing slaves took labor away from his enemies and brought it to his side. Because of Curtis’s tactics Helena became an oasis of freedom for Arkansas slaves.
When the Union army arrived in Helena it had few provisions. Thousands of escaped slaves and sick and wounded soldiers required shelter and food. After the long march through dust, mud and summer heat, the Union soldiers were glad to be in Helena, because they knew that supplies would soon arrive via the Mississippi River. A soldier in the 13th Illinois Infantry described their entrance into Helena: “With three rousing cheers, such cheers as the Thirteenth only can give, we close our columns, and with firm and steady step to the music of our band, pass through the streets of Helena, the strongest and healthiest regiment in the grand Army of the Southwest.”
The Army of the Southwest made themselves at home in Helena, seizing the homes of prominent Confederates. General Curtis took over Thomas Hindman’s house to use as his headquarters. The army also confiscated the Rightor and Tappan houses, among others. Houses were commandeered for hospitals and thousands of soldiers set up camps in and near town.
An Illinois soldier described his camp in Helena: “Got a first rate camp-ground on the sandy side of a hill where it is impossible to get muddy. We have good spring water and are in every respect comfortably situated.” An Iowa soldier also praised his camp site: “The first camp of the regiment at Helena was on a very fine site, a piece of dry and gently rolling upland, covered by open wood, mostly of splendid spreading beech trees. There could hardly have been a better place in the region. . . .”
Providing for the Contraband in Helena proved a more daunting task. Initially, Curtis lodged them wherever he could. One group found refuge in a barn that belonged to St. Catherine’s Convent. The Sisters were not pleased and felt “. . . compelled to solicit once more the kindness of Major General Curtis for the preservation of our property.” It is not known if Curtis granted the Sisters’ request.
George Flanders, a private in Co. H, 5th Kansas Cavalry, arrived in Helena on July 15, 1862. A few days later he sent his parents a letter describing events in Helena, including the situation facing the Contraband: “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 at present, but what is to be done with them, when the army moves again, is more than I can say.” What Private Flanders couldn’t know was that the army wasn’t leaving Helena.