On May 11, 2012, the city of Helena-West Helena dedicated a newly-built replica of the Civil War Fort Curtis. The Fort, located in the downtown area, is an authentic reproduction of the original, as it was built according to the original plans found in the National Archives by Ronnie A. Nichols. The location is not authentic, but is about three blocks south of the original site, where the First Baptist Church now stands.
Helena was occupied by Federal troops from July, 1862 through the end of the war, in spite of a Confederate attempt to overpower it on July 1, 1863. The fort was built by a cadre of former slaves who had gathered in the river port city after the Union troops moved in. General Samuel Curtis commanded the units which first occupied Helena. He was succeeded by General Benjamin M. Prentiss, who named the fort after the former commander. The fort was dedicated in a major ceremony on October 30, 1862 and controlled that part of the Mississippi River for the remainder of the war.
The city of Helena-West Helena has made a full commitment to building and promoting the area’s rich Civil War history. Not only have they built Fort Curtis, the Delta Culture Center in collaboration with local businesses and a long list of local, state, and federal agencies to identify 25 sites in and around the city related to the Civil War. They are erecting professional signage at each location which tells the story of that spot of Civil War history. As an aside, I must comment that these signs describing that particular event or location are absolutely first class—the most detailed and helpful I have ever seen in a lifetime of reading historical markers.
Some of these other sites are Batteries A, B, C, and D, which made up a surrounding ring of defensive positions to protect Fort Curtis. They were important outposts during the Battle of Helena on July 4, 1863. Other sites include the Moore-Honor Home, built in 1859, which served as a hospital for Union troops. The Confederate Cemetery has the graves of Confederate generals Patrick Cleburne, Thomas C. Hindman, and James C. Tappan, along with many more Confederate soldiers, some killed during the battle of Helena, and others who requested burial there after the war.
Two of the other sites included in the area celebration and highlighting of the war effort relate specifically to the thousands of Freedmen in the immediate vicinity of Fort Curtis and Helena. The Lamb Plantation, where the plantation lease system had been into operation to give the Freedman work and for most, pay for the first time, was one. In August 1864, Confederate General Archibald S. Dobbins conducted a cavalry raid on the plantation in an attempt to destroy the lease system and terrorize the Freedmen. There will also be an exhibit describing the work of that lease system run by the union government.
Helena-West Helena fully understands the interests of not just southerners, but all Americans in the Civil War and its legacy. The city’s leadership is counting on tourism to increase significantly as thenation continues to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War for the next three years. As Shelby Foote said about the war, “It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”
The Delta city is building an effective educational and interpretive foundation to help Americans of all persuasions and subcultures to understand that crossroads.