Helena’s unique history as an occupied Confederate city that became a refuge for freedom seekers, invites the exploration of the issues that defined the Civil War. It provides the opportunity to help students of all ages make a meaningful connection to the past and to foster an understanding of the war that changed our nation.
For generations, Helena’s Civil War history has focused on the seven Confederate generals from the town, most notably General Cleburne, and the July 1863 Battle of Helena. Three of these generals’ headstones can be viewed in Helena’s Maple Hill and Confederate Cemeteries. While this is an important part of the community’s history, in 2008 a Civil War Helena Interpretive Plan was developed that revealed that Helena had a much richer Civil War story than anyone had known.
The plan identified 25 sites throughout Helena that provided an opportunity for interpretation and exhibits. The community is currently in the process of developing all 25 sites, with 40 interpretive panels already in place throughout the downtown area at sites including Fort Curtis, a ¾ replica Union earthworks fort. These sites tell the stories of life under Union occupation, thousands of freed slaves, and the formation of United States Colored Troop regiments – in addition to continuing to tell about the Battle of Helena and the area’s Confederate generals.
Helena is one of the most compelling sites in the nation to learn about African American experiences during the war. General Curtis’ march from southern Missouri to Helena, Arkansas in 1862. Freedom Park is a site dedicated to interpreting these experiences and is the first location in Arkansas designated by the National Park Service as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site.
Over the next three to five years, the community will work to install and open the remaining sites. Because of this, it is an exciting time to visit, as sites are constantly in development. Next up is the interpretation and restoration of Battery C, the only battery captured by the Confederates during the Battle of Helena. This site is slated to open in late Fall of 2013.