Editors Letter Vol. 32, #4
Helena For the First Time
There’s a special thrill seeing a Civil War battlefield for the first time. We’ve done several issues on Arkansas, but they were all in the western part of the state: Pea Ridge, Prairie Grove, action in and around Fort Smith. One exception was a brief stop in a field near the defunct Civil War town of Mound City, a short distance north of Memphis on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River. There a soybean farmer and a Memphis attorney located the buried remains of the illfated steamboat Sultana. It was part of a 1990 “General’s Tour” feature.
More recently I was happy to engage Arkansas historian Mark Christ for this feature on Helena, a place I had never been. Driving south into Mississippi after bypassing Memphis I knew Helena was not far away, probably an hour. Tunica, Mississippi, along the way south was a dot on the map during the Civil War. Once known for its unfortunate and precipitous decline into an open sewer community in the mid- 20th century, it’s now the Las Vegas of the Mississippi Valley, if anyone needs another reason to go to Helena.
Once across the Mississippi River bridge you might do what I did—drive right past the town of Helena, because that’s the way US 49 goes. It takes you to West Helena, on higher ground where the Mississippi can’t reach and turn the place into what the soldiers called Helena: “Hell-in-Arkansas.” There are photos of passengers on the aforementioned Sultana causing the boat to lean to one side possibly to view men of Helena’s garrison rowing boats along the streets of a flooded town. Old, original Helena is still there, and that’s where you want to go. It’s off the beaten path, less developed, quaint. Another reason to go to Helena.
The first thing you see once you realize US 49-Busn. is the way to old Helena (even though most of the business is up in West Helena) is Freedom Park. It’s a Civil War Sesquicentennial project recognizing Helena as a safe haven for runaway slaves who followed the Union Army across the state in 1862. Contraband camps were set up around town and in 1863 many of the former slaves became U. S. Colored Troops.
Union Gen. Samuel Curtis built a fort at Helena, which was named for him, and the town became headquarters for the District of Eastern Arkansas. The fort’s long gone, but a reproduction has been built to enhance interpretation of wartime Helena and the battle fought there. In addition to Fort Curtis, there were four hilltop fortifications surrounding the town referred to as Batteries A through D. The jewel of Helena’s Civil War sites is preserved Battery C. It was the only fortification overrun by the attack of Gen. Theophilus Holmes’ Confederates on July 4, 1863.
Union Gen. Benjamin Prentiss was the hero of the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh. In January 1863, he served on the court martial of Gen. Fitz-John Porter, surrounded by the relative comforts of wartime Washington. Then, in February, Prentiss found himself at “Hell-in-Arkansas” as the new district chief, appointed by his Shiloh commander Ulysses S. Grant, then waging a struggling campaign against Vicksburg.
Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne, native of County Cork, Ireland, was a druggist in Helena before the war. He’s buried here, as are Confederate Gens. Thomas Hindman and James Tappan. There’s a lot of Civil War history to explore here. It’s the best reason to go to Helena.
David E. Roth, Editor