US Colored Troops in Helena

A little less than a month before the dedication of Fort Curtis on October 30, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Although the edict would not take effect until January 1, 1863, many slaves in Arkansas began seeking freedom behind Union lines in Helena. Union soldiers who had not previously opposed slavery began to revise their views after coming face-to-face with the institution. One Illinois soldier wrote: “I am not quite an Abolitionist, but I am fast becoming one.” After an Indiana soldier read the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in December 1862, he wrote, “Received the President’s message today, it is just the thing to suit me.”

On December 31, 1862, Dr. Charles Brackett witnessed a celebration by African Americans in Helena. He recorded the joy of the people as 1863 dawned, and what he saw moved him: “The long wished for ‘Year of Jubilee’ has now come for the negroes, and their joy is great thereat.”

The Emancipation Proclamation brought another flood of men, women and children into the Union lines at Helena. The growing population of Freedmen put a strain on a Union army not designed to cope with the needs of individuals with no means of support. The situation in Helena was repeated all across the South as Freedmen sought protection behind Union lines. Their care and treatment was left up to the local commanders. Needless to say, some fared better than others.

The Lincoln administration sought to take advantage of the influx of manpower. On March 25, 1863, the War Department sent Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to the Mississippi Valley with a two-fold mission—to recruit black soldiers and to insure that women, children and the elderly were provided for. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton gave Thomas the authority to insure “humane and proper treatment in respect to food, clothing, compensation for their services, and what ever is necessary to enable them to support themselves and to furnish useful service in any capacity to the Government.”

On his tour, Thomas traveled down the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, to Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana. On April 6, 1863, he visited Helena. That day, 4,000 Union soldiers and civilians gathered at Fort Curtis, listening intently as Thomas explained why he had come to Helena: “I am here this day to say that I am authorized to raise as many regiments of blacks as can possibly be collected. I am authorized to give commissions from the highest to the lowest. I want those persons who are earnest in this work to take hold of it.”

At least one witness reported that enthusiastic cheers followed Thomas’ speech. The ceremony was a show of solidarity for the administration’s new plan. Others spoke after Thomas, including General Benjamin Prentiss, commander of Union forces at Helena; General Alvin Hovey, brigade commander; and General Cadwallader C. Washburn, the commander of the District of West Tennessee. U.S. Congressman William Mitchell of Indiana concluded the program.

According to George Flanders, most of the men approved of recruiting Freedmen for the army. In a letter written on April 10, 1863, he said that one regiment of former slaves was already full. Prentiss ordered soldiers to bring in slaves still outside of town. “Recruiting,” wrote Flanders, “is going on very brisk.” Several men in his regiment, he wrote, had applied for commissions as officers of the new United States Colored regiment.

Thomas’s recruiting trip proved successful. A week or so after he heard Thomas speak, Iowa private Minos Miller wrote his mother, telling her that one black regiment had filled and another was nearly full, and asked her how she would feel about having a son who was an officer in the new regiment. Miller became a lieutenant in the 2nd Arkansas of African Descent, which became the 54th United States Colored Infantry. He stayed with the regiment for the remainder of the war, attaining the rank of major.

The 2nd Arkansas Infantry of African Descent, organized and mustered into service in Helena, served in the city throughout 1863. At least three hundred members of the regiment participated in the Battle of Helena on July 4, 1863. They held the Lower Little Rock Road, preventing the Confederates from approaching the city by that route and flanking the batteries. After the battle the regiment performed guard and garrison duty. The 2nd Arkansas Infantry of African Descent left Helena in January 1864, when it was ordered to Little Rock.

The 4th Arkansas Infantry of African Descent was at least partially recruited from men in and around Helena. A portion of this regiment was in Helena until April 1864, by which time its designation had been changed to the 57th U.S. Colored Infantry. The Liberian Guards, an independent company of African American soldiers recruited in Cairo, Illinois, was mustered into the 4th Arkansas Infantry A.D. in October 1863. In May 1864, the regiment left Helena for an assignment in Little Rock.

The black regiments recruited in the spring of 1863 were initially given state designations. On May 22, 1863, the federal government created the Bureau for Colored Troops, which instituted standardized nomenclature for African American regiments, giving them all United States Colored Troops (USCT) designations. Thus, the 2nd Arkansas Infantry of African Descent became the 54th United States Colored Infantry and the 4th Arkansas Infantry of African Descent became the 57th United States Colored Infantry.

Over the course of the war, a number of USCT regiments recruited in other states were stationed in Helena for varying lengths of time. In 1863 and 1864, the 56th and 60th U.S. Colored infantries were in Helena. These two regiments, with Battery E, 2nd United States Colored Light Artillery, portions of the 15th Illinois Cavalry, 35th Missouri Infantry, 6th Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.), and 4th Arkansas Cavalry (U.S.), garrisoned the city and patrolled the countryside surrounding Helena. The three USCT regiments were engaged at the Battle of Big Creek in the summer of 1864.

The 56th and 60th U.S. Colored infantries spent more time in Helena than any of the other USCT regiments, serving there from August 31, 1863, until June 1865. They guarded quartermaster and commissary stores, built huts for winter quarters, guarded wood choppers, and carried out other routine garrison duties. They were engaged at Big Creek and also took part in smaller actions. They participated in armed patrols known as scouts, going into the interior of Arkansas and to Mississippi, where they gathered intelligence on the location of Confederate soldiers and other topics of interest, and obtained forage and provisions.

The 69th United States Colored Infantry was at least partially recruited from Helena and Phillips County. The regiment mostly performed guard duty and was stationed at Fort Pinney eleven miles south of Helena, where they guarded Freedmen working on the plantations from January to June 1865.

In August 1865, after the Civil War had ended, the 5th and 6th United States Colored cavalries arrived in Helena. The regiments remained in the area until March 20, 1866, when they were mustered out of service in Helena.