The temperature is rising quickly on a muggy Wednesday morning as Trey Berry and I walk through the woods on Hindman Hill in Helena-West Helena, the nonsensical but now official hyphenated name for this history-rich city on the Mississippi River.
Berry, a noted historian who’s now a deputy director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, wants to show me Battery D, one of four Union batteries built to protect Helena from Confederate attack during the Civil War.
Battery D saw some of the most intense fighting during the Battle of Helena on July 4, 1863. The battle involved almost 12,000 troops and was among the last major Confederate offensives in Arkansas with an estimated 1,614 Confederate casualties and 239 Union casualties.
Union forces maintained control of this strategic spot along the Mississippi River during the week that marked a turning point in the war. What happened here has largely been ignored due to two other events that pivotal week: the Battle of Gettysburg from July 1-3 and the fall of Vicksburg on July 4.
Berry and a coalition of civic leaders in Phillips County are out to reverse the decades of neglect. They’ve developed a comprehensive plan to capitalize on the area’s Civil War heritage and in the process capture part of the thousands of tourists who visit Vicksburg each year.
We’ve parked along a residential street and are walking down a dirt trail through a heavy canopy of hardwoods. Berry points to Union rifle pits, which appear as if the trenches had been recently dug. He also points to what was an ammunition dump.
It’s hard to imagine a Civil War site that has remained as pristine as this one, but easy to visualize the Confederate troops storming up these steep hills along Crowley’s Ridge in the heat and humidity of an Arkansas Fourth of July as Union fire rains down on them. It’s also possible to envision this city being a place that well-heeled Civil War tourists want to visit.
The land on which Battery D sits is owned by Southern Bancorp Capital Partners, the development entity of an Arkadelphia-based bank holding company. Southern Bancorp has been a catalyst for many of the positive changes that have occurred in Phillips County during the past decade. Of the other three batteries, one is owned by the city, one is owned by the Heritage Department’s Delta Cultural Center and one is in a residential area. The Delta Cultural Center maintains the city-owned site.
Battery C on what’s known as Graveyard Hill was the only one of the four Union batteries captured. Battery A on Rightor Hill had four cannons that played a role in holding off the division led by Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke. Battery B was never directly assaulted, allowing its gunners to train their artillery on those attacking the other batteries.
A complex research effort has been completed. Now it’s a matter of fabricating interpretive displays and putting them in place, work that could be finished by the end of the year.
A combination of funding sources is being used for the project with money coming from the Heritage Department, the Helena-West Helena Advertising and Promotion Commission, Southern Bancorp, the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program and the Civil War Preservation Trust (the country’s largest nonprofit organization devoted to saving endangered battlefields).
Assembling the funding puzzle hasn’t been easy. In essence, those behind this project have been fighting a second Battle of Helena in recent years. They can, however, now see a light that’s not an oncoming train.
Interpretive exhibits are planned for 27 locations in and around the city. There are plans to build a replica of Fort Curtis just south of the original fort location on Columbia Street. After occupying Helena, the Union Army began securing the port city with Fort Curtis being an integral part of that effort.
Just behind where the replica will be constructed, the Delta Cultural Center has renovated the Moore-Hornor House and will be able to use it as an interpretive center. The state spent $1,071,722 on the first part of the restoration effort in 2001 and received another $1,049,007 in 2006 to complete the restoration. The home survived the Battle of Helena, though bullet holes are evident inside.
Eventually, the coalition hopes to turn Estevan Hall, a landmark home on Biscoe Street, into a visitors’ center. Construction began on Estevan Hall in the early 1800s. When the war began, it was owned by a Quaker, James Hanks, who decided to stay out of the war and move to Iowa. The home is reminiscent of the Natchez, Miss., mansions whose owners so successfully profit from tourists.
On the other side of Biscoe Street, the coalition will construct Freedom Park to honor escaped slaves who filled several Union regiments. Freedom Park’s five interpretive exhibits will outline the path from slavery to freedom to enlistment in the Union Army.
“For the first time, we’re going to be able to tell the whole story of what went on in Helena,” says Cathy Cunningham, Southern Bancorp’s community development coordinator.
With proper marketing, a previously untapped resource will be tapped. Those who think nothing is happening in the Arkansas Delta should spend a day with visionaries like Berry, Cunningham and Delta Cultural Center Director Katie Harrington. Thanks to them and others, we’re on the cusp of finally taking advantage of one of Arkansas’ significant cultural heritage resources.
Free-lance columnist Rex Nelson is the senior vice president for government relations and public outreach at The Communications Group in Little Rock.