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How can Phillips County take advantage of its Civil War history?

Joe and Maria Brent, public history specialists whose firm Mudpuppy & Waterdog Inc. are working on an interpretive plan to be unveiled to the public in April, have several ideas. They presented some to the Helena-West Helena Rotary Club Wednesday.

Joe Brent waded through mounds of data at the Marvell Genealogy Society to bring the story of Phillips County Civil War history to life.

Joe Brent told Rotarians that a large amount of historical data is contained in pension applications from both Union and Confederate soldiers.

One such application and photograph that Joe Brent displayed was of William Stuart. He petitioned the government for a pension after fighting in the war like so many soldiers did from that era.

Joe Brent talked about occupied Helena, how the town was sealed off from the rest of Phillips County and residents were forced to take an oath to the Union in order to leave.

“Women actually hid stuff in their hoop skirts,” said Joe Brent.

While the history of the area is wide and encompassing, Brent was able to draw on the different events that occurred and bring it all together to entice Civil War Buffs and other tourists.

He said he focused on four points of interest; the confederate soldiers march off to war, the residents living in an occupied Helena and under martial law; the soldiers in a foreign and hostile environment and how the freedom seekers risked everything.

“The soldiers called Helena, Arkansas, hell in Arkansas because of the rampant disease,” said Joe Brent as he detailed the conditions of war torn Helena.

Brent said that the soldiers were not allowed to drink from a local spring because it smelled bad and were ordered to drink from the Mississippi River.

The Union had 20,000 to 40,000 troops going in and out of the city. Among the hustle and bustle of the multitude of soldiers there were 2,000 to 3,000 freed slaves from Missouri that Joe Brent says, “walked off the plantation,” following a contingent of troops bound for Helena.

“Helena was an oasis for freed slaves,” commented Joe Brent.

“The story of Helena is the story of the people,” remarked Joe Brent, “That’s what we are trying to tell. Not just the story of the Battle of Helena.”

Brent said that people, who aren’t from the Delta, would find the story of Phillips County “fascinating.”

Brent showed a brief taste of the design for Helena, which includes 27 locations for waysides, Kiosks, enhanced walkways, camps, buildings, audio displays, public art and murals.

The green space on Biscoe that used to house dilapidated homes and was torn down through the efforts of the Delta Bridge Project and the city of Helena-West Helena, will be Freedom Park and detail the African American troops that fought during the Civil War.

Estevan Hall, which has been bought by Southern Bancorp and the American Trust, will house a welcome center, if all goes according to the plans.

Brent said that 900,000 people visit Vicksburg and the Civil War sites there.

“You’re well situated to attract the tourists and you have the story. The story is compelling and they’ll (tourists) go tell their friends.”