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Brigadier General Frederick Salomon, a former lieutenant in the Prussian army and a failed revolutionary, commanded the Thirteenth Division, XIII Army Corps, which composed the Union garrison of Helena.  Once the battle began, Salomon exercised tactical control over the city's defenders.  His brother Edward became governor of Wisconsin in 1862.
U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle.

Little Rock may have been the capital of antebellum Arkansas, but the state’s economic and political heart beat at Helena, a busy port situated on the Mississippi River seventy miles below Memphis, Tennessee, and 230 miles above Vicks-burg, Mississippi. Wedged between a protective levee and steep bluffs of yellow clay, Helena served as the gateway to the Arkansas Delta, a broad alluvial plain that counted its wealth in cotton and slaves. By 1860 the city’s population stood at 1,024 whites and 527 blacks, a little less than half the size of Little Rock.1

With its prosperity tied to the plantation system, Helena turned into a hotbed of secession agitation as relations deteriorated between the North and South. Militiamen from Helena and the delta forced Federal troops to evacuate the Little Rock Arsenal three months before Arkansas left the Union. The delta’s rebellious ardor did not diminish after Arkansas finally embraced secession in May 1861. The Helena area would supply seven generals to the Confederate army, including the incomparable Patrick R. Cleburne and the headstrong Thomas C. Hindman.2

Ironically, Helena was one of the first major towns in Arkansas to be snatched away from the Confederacy. Following the Union victory at Pea Ridge, Major General Samuel R. Curtis led his Army of the Southwest deep into northern Arkansas in hopes of capturing Little Rock. Logistical problems caused Curtis to abort his offensive, but he was not the kind of soldier to take a backward step if he could avoid it. Rather than retreat to Missouri, he ensconced his army in an advanced base that was easier to supply by occupying an undefended Helena on July 12, 1862.3

Helena was more accessible than an outpost in the Arkansas Ozarks, but the Northern troops stationed there developed a deep dislike for the low-lying, swamp-bound city. Personnel from the 33rd Iowa Volunteer Infantry renamed the place “Hell-in-Arkansas,” and other Federals shortened that sobriquet to just plain “Hell.” Frequent rains in the winter and spring turned the city’s dirt streets into impassable goo. Summer brought stifling heat, clouds of dust, swarming insects, disease, and a soaring death rate. “I would not live here if I owned the whole State of Arkansas,” swore Private Charles O. Musser of the 29th Iowa Infantry. “It is one of the dirtiest holes on the river.”4

The Yankees may have despised Helena, but their presence turned the river port into a haven for runaway slaves. “Our camps at Helena,” recalled an Indiana soldier, “were over-run with ‘contrabands’ of every shade of color and character, who flocked in from Mississippi and Arkansas plantations, anxious to do anything for the soldiers that would place them under the protection of the stars and stripes.” The Federals put the blacks to work in their camps or on outlying plantations, and they shipped a growing number to refugee camps in Kansas. In April 1863 the Union army began recruiting at Helena for its new black regiments, sometimes impressing able-bodied men at gunpoint. By the summer of 1863 Helena’s black civilian population had stabilized at 2,500, with most of these people residing in shanty towns erected slightly inside the garrison’s picket lines.5


As originally published in
North and South Magazine:
December 2002
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