By Colin Woodward
In July, I had the opportunity to visit Helena, Arkansas, a true Delta town about two hours east of Little Rock. The town has a lot of history. The place was where Levon Helm of the Band grew up. Helm became famous later as a drummer, but early in his life, he realized playing guitar at local venues was his ticket out of the fields. As a boy, Helm, who was born Mark Lavon Helm, had the chance to see blues master Sonny Boy Williamson perform in town. Williamson played with Robert Johnson, who grew up in nearby Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Helena also has an important Civil War history. Helena produced more Confederate generals than any other southern town of its size. Unfortunately, the town has fallen on hard times. If you’re a history buff, Helena is well worth a visit. It contains not just a newly restored Fort Curtis, but also a terrific (and hilly) Confederate cemetery, not to mention the Helena Museum, the Delta Cultural Center, and the Phillips County Museum.
I toured the city’s Civil War sites, courtesy of local expert John Darnell, who took me all the way from west Helena to the Mississippi River levee to the east. I was hoping to find the spot where the skirmish at Polk’s plantation happened in May 1863. Along the way, I learned a lot about Helena’s past and had a chance to see how the town is faring in the Great Recession.
Helena’s Civil War history is interesting. In the summer of 1862, the Federal army occupied Helena, which became a staging ground for Union expeditions further south, most importantly during Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg. For Union troops, the low-lying, flood-prone, mosquito-infested place was pestilential. They called it “Hell-in Arkansas.”
Mid-nineteenth century doctors were of little help. Armed with dubious medicines, some of which contained mercury, Civil War doctors did more harm than good. Rhonda M. Kohl published an article in the June 2004 issue of Civil War History about how “godforsaken” Helena was during the war. Troops stationed in Helena also suffered from the increasing plague of Rebel guerrillas in Arkansas, who didn’t like to play by the “rules” of warfare.
Perhaps the most famous Civil War resident of Helena–if not the most famous resident of the city overall–is General Patrick Cleburne. Cleburne was a lawyer before the war broke out, but he became known as the “Stonewall of the West” for his firm stand at the battle of Chattanooga in the fall of 1863, where he might have saved the Rebel army from total disaster.
Cleburne was born in Ireland, and unlike most [yes, most] Confederate officers, he owned no slaves when the war broke out. Yet, had he lived (he died in November 1864), he would have married into a slave-owning family. Cleburne is well-known in Civil War circles not only for his battle acumen, but his early January 1864 proposal in which he wanted to free (some) slaves to fight in the Confederate army.
Cleburne was no abolitionist, and his proposal, if implemented, would have left the vast majority of slaves still in bondage. But his famous plan would have changed the nature of the Confederate war effort. Some of his superiors were appalled by the idea of slaves fighting alongside Confederates. They quashed the proposal and prevented Cleburne from ever gaining a (well-deserved) promotion. With the eventual support of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, the South enlisted black troops until March 1865, by which time it made little difference in the war effort. Yet, historians continue to debate to what extent African Americans would have fought effectively for the Confederacy had Cleburne gotten his way.
Cleburne died at the horrific battle of Franklin in Tennessee in late 1864, but his body was brought back to Helena, where it lies. He is buried in the same cemetery as General Thomas Hindman, a far less well-known but talented general in his own right. Hindman was a virtual dictator in Arkansas for a while, until Jefferson Davis heard about his draconian measures and sent Theophilus Holmes to monitor him. Holmes, however, ultimately didn’t interfere much with him.
Hindman and Cleburne were friends, though Cleburne was far more moderate politically. The hard-drinking and abrasive Hindman was one of the Fire-eaters who urged the South to secede. After the war, he lived in Mexico before returning to Helena. He should have stayed away. He was assassinated in September 1868 while reading the paper in his home. His killers were never caught.
Also buried at the cemetery was Archibald Dobbins of the 1st Arkansas Cavalry who died in South America after the war, under mysterious circumstances. My guide said he thought Dobbins might’ve been killed by cannibals. True or not, I guess there are some things more dangerous than a Yankee with a Springfield rifle. In any case, Dobbins is another in a long list of Civil War officers who fared poorly after the war.
Helena is seeing some encouraging historic renovations. One is of an antebellum home about a mile from the downtown, which will become the town’s Civil War Center. Another has been Ft. Curtis. Although smaller in scope than the site was during the war, it’s unlike anything else I’ve seen in a southern town.
I also heard the Cleburne Hotel is being remodeled, though it looks like the work hasn’t begun yet. As it stands the hotel looks like it was just condemned. But, assuming investors are pumping a lot of money in it, the hotel might regain its nineteenth century glory.
It’s undeniable that Helena has seen better days. From what I could gather from the exhibit at the Delta Cultural Center, the town was far more prosperous during the late-1930s, when there were movie theatres and shopping in the downtown. Now, there are no movie theatres, no department stores. One restaurant open in the afternoon on a Saturday. That’s a shame, given the town’s history, not just as a Civil War site but for music. The King Biscuit Hour is the longest running radio show in the country. And such blues luminaries as Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson used to hang out in Helena.
Helena is hosting the Arkansas Historical Association meeting in April 2013. The theme is “Claiming Freedom.” I’m sure it will be a good conference, but I hope it will bring some much needed revenue to Helena, a historic city that has the potential to become a true tourist destination, if only for southern history nerds.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.
15 thoughts on “Helena, Arkansas, and Southern History”
Have we heard whether the Abandoned Hotel Cleburne is under renovation for sure?
Here’s what I was able to gather about the Cleburne from a Helena source: “The Cleburne is owned by Southern Bancorp Community Partners which is the non-profit development arm of Southern Bancorp. At this time we are in the process of weatherizing and stabilizing the building in order to save it for future use. No end use has been determined for the building but it is a major anchor in our downtown and needs to be saved. Soon a process will be developed to solicit ‘Request for Proposals’ to developers and investors who might be interested in restoring the building.”
–I hope this help, SH
There seems to be a lot of fascinating history here, do you think the owners would be opposed if our group came down and took a couple of pictures for our website? We love preserving the history of Arkansas’s forgotten past! Thanks for the info!
I can’t imagine the owners would mind if you took some pictures. However, I’m sending you contact information for Cathy Cunningham, who told me about the building. You might want to contact her for more information.
Community Development Consultant
Southern Bancorp Community Partners
502 Cherry Street
Helena, AR 72342
Well written piece. I’m Steven Jones, Sr. Vice President and Director of Programs with Southern. If you know of groups or individuals who might be interested in speaking with us about this property, please don’t hesitate to pass my information along to them. email@example.com. 870.816.1113. Thanks
I have fond memories growing up in the Helena area through the 1960’s and early 70’s…. Very much still a vibrant and significant town at the time; filled with all the grace and genteel qualities one expects in a small southern town …… I hope there are better times in the offing for her and her residents….
Having read this I thought it was very informative.
I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this informative article together.
I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and
commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!
Thanks for your helpful article which is of interest to me as I am planning to visit Helena in 2016. Are you able to put me in touch with John Darnell as we have a family civil war connection and I don’t know who to contact locally about the history? I think things have moved on as looking on the web Helena seems to have put a lot of effort into it Civil War History which is good to see
Thank you for the comment. I’ll try to track down Mr. Darnell. I believe someone at a museum in Helena put me in touch with him. I’ll make some inquiries.
Thanks I appreciate your help – I have information here in the UK which also should really be in Helena as well!
I grew up in Helena in the 40’s and 50’s. It was a wonderful little southern town, with all the beauty and grace you can imagine. I went back for a visit about 10 years ago and was shattered to see it in such disrepair. One bright spot was that some of the antebellum homes have been restored and turned into beautiful bed and breakfasts. We stayed at one, visited Maj. General Cleburne’s gravesite at the cemetery and had a great visit. Thanks for your site. It is a pleasure to see some restoration going on, Thanks so much.
Glad you enjoyed the post. Indeed, Helena has made some progress, but the town has a long way to go if it wants to be like it was fifty or sixty years ago.
Hello, I would like to request to use the top image of Helena in a promotional video, please contact me at the supplied email address. Great article!
You have my permission. Enjoy!
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