Kudzu, Contraband and Cannons
Veteran’s Day weekend was filled with reminders. I thought of family members who have served and those who are planning to serve. I thought of friends I’ve lost, and friends who have losses of their own to remember. I saved my long run for Monday and the route took me past the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum where I was met with a “Good afternoon, how’re ya doin’?” by a gentlemen wearing his service on his ball cap, a simple word: Marines. When I went out to work on trail on Sunday, I grabbed one of my race shirts and it happened to be one from an all time favorite race, the Run Thru History 10K that takes place in Vicksburg National Military Park. The park is one of my favorites and is a beautiful place for a run. I love running past the cannons and and kudzu, the markers and memorials. Recently I had a chance to visit another beautiful southern town that was in the depths of a battle to defend itself on the very same day as Vicksburg was surrendered to General Grant, July 4, 1863.
Unlike Vicksburg, Helena was not defending itself against the Union and Grant’s relentless progression to control the Mississippi. The Union army had marched into Helena, Arkansas with 12,000 soldiers and 2,000 freed slaves in July of 1862, facing little or no opposition from the small port town. The landscape of the town was changed forever as the population of about 1500 residents was overrun by troops and “contraband” as the freed slaves were called. The Union Army marched into Helena taking over private homes, occupying churches, stables, or any shelter they could find. They built fortresses and battlements to protect the treasured port along the important water passage of the Mississippi, blocking Confederate troops trying to relieve the pressure on Vicksburg which was still in Confederate hands but under threat.
One of the goals of the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission is to support “efforts to preserve and interpret the state’s Civil War sites and documentary heritage and artifacts.” During this time of celebration and reflection that started in 2011 and will last through 2015, the commission has supported efforts in Helena-West Helena to continue to preserve the town’s unique place in Civil War history. I had the chance to enjoy many of the significant sites around town. When our small party of ladies arrived at Freedom Park, Delta Cultural Center employee and historian Jack Meyers was in full blue regalia, marching toward us, his bolt action rifle with bayonet at shoulder arms, the 35 star U.S. flag whipping in the breeze above him. The 35 star flag was made official on the day of the Battle of Helena after adding a star for the admission of West “by God” Virginia. The public park, open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset, has exhibits representing the experience of the freed slaves that came to Helena with the Union troops and is Arkansas’ first National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site.
We also stopped at Fort Curtis, also open to the public from 8 to sunset, where we were met by historian Ron Kelley who explained the strategy of the fort and the four earthen batteries that protected Union occupied Helena from Confederate hands. From Fort Curtis we could see the southern edge of Crowley’s Ridge where Battery C was located. It was the only Battery to be captured by Confederates and was quickly and decisively taken back during the hours long Battle of Helena. Atop the ridge of Battery C, I was stuck by the beautiful view as I looked down on the town, the rebuilt Fort Curtis, the church steeple at the site of the original Fort Curtis, the sliver of the Mighty Mississipp where the gunship USS Tyler was positioned in order to shell the battery as the Confederates tried to take the ridge. I looked at the ravines filled with green kudzu and my thoughts turned to running. How cool would it be to have a run through Helena that passed by all these beautiful sites and the many I didn’t get to enjoy on my short tour?
The weekend after my visit, the Tour de Delta came to town. The tour is a successful cycling event and I can see a run through Helena history centering on the town’s place in Civil War history. I wonder if they would fire of a 2 pounder as a starting gun?
Civil War Helena has an informative website and you can pick up a Guide to Civil War Helena as well as get great information about other things to do and see at the Delta Cultural Center.
Find your way around the sites I’ve described and many more. You can even customize your tour by theme: the Essentials, the Battle, Confederate Helena or the African American Experience.
My visit was sponsored by the Helena Advertising and Promotion Commission but all opinions and ideas expressed here are my own.