The Union Army Fortifies Helena

Union General Samuel Curtis knew the Confederates would not give up Helena without a fight. The prize on the Mississippi River had to be protected. To that end, Union army engineers designed a large earthen redoubt, which Curtis’s successor, General Benjamin M. Prentiss, named Fort Curtis. Nearly every able-bodied African American man in Helena was impressed into service to build the fort. General Eugene A. Carr protested to Curtis, complaining that soldiers were seizing men employed as teamsters, cooks, and servants, and in other positions, forcing them to work on building the fort. He felt this action sent the wrong message—seizing men employed at one place and forcing them to work at another undermined the notion of freedom and security. Carr asked Curtis how these men could hope to understand freedom when they were being treated as a commodity, a labor force without rights. It is unclear how or if Curtis and Carr settled the question of Contraband labor.

Construction of Fort Curtis continued through the summer of 1862. The engineers sited the fort on the brow of a low ridge that extended into Helena from the northwest. The fort sat on the west edge of town in the shadow of Crowley’s Ridge. Fort Curtis was heavily armed with 24 and 32-pounder guns that had come downriver aboard the USS Lexington and the steamer Wilson. When completed, Fort Curtis mounted six heavy guns and covered over one square block. An elaborate ceremony marked the dedication of Fort Curtis on October 30, 1862. General Benjamin M. Prentiss, who now commanded Helena, oversaw the ceremony. Drums rolled, the artillery in the fort fired a salute that the fleet anchored in the river returned. The first part of the city’s defenses was ready for action.

By the time Fort Curtis was dedicated plans were underway for the construction of batteries on Crowley’s Ridge. By the end of April 1863, two more forts, probably two of the batteries, were finished. By June 1863, all four batteries, A, B, C and D, were completed and manned. Indiana soldier Minos Miller described the defenses of the city in a letter to his mother, “. . . west of the town is a . . . high bluffs and deep gorges and east of these bluffs is breastworks and on four of the highest [bluffs] batteries just below these bluffs is Ft. Curtis between the river and the bluffs is a level plain about a half mile wide south of town there is a breastwork thrown up across [the plain] the batteries and about twenty yards in front of the breastworks is cavalry pits [a ditch and abatis] in the river lies the gunboat Tyler. . .”

Helena was fortified; the defenses of the city were complete. The 33rd Missouri Infantry, which had been cross-trained for that purpose, manned the guns at Fort Curtis and in the batteries. The USS Tyler supported the land-based artillery as needed. The streets of the city were barricaded; earthworks extended to the river on both the northern and southern approaches. Cavalry patrols were sent out daily. General Prentiss ordered each cannon to be supplied with 200 rounds of ammunition. Every soldier defending Helena was also to be issued 200 rounds. The army at Helena was prepared for a Confederate attack.

After the Battle of Helena in July 1863, the Union army faced a smaller more mobile Confederate threat. Small groups of Confederate cavalry hit picket posts, attacked foragers, and sought to break up the plantation lease system and generally terrify the Freedmen. In April 1864, General Napoleon B. Buford ordered the construction of forts with blockhouses on plantations where Freedmen were employed. One was constructed at or near Beech Grove, about three miles south of Helena. The second was built near Island 63 about eleven miles below Helena. These were the last defensive works the Union army built in Phillips County.