Thousands of freedom seekers came with the Union army when it occupied Helena in July 1862. They had no place to live, no food and no way to support themselves.
Under the Army's Care
It was up to the Union army to care for the flood of
freedom seekers. At first, the army housed the refugees
wherever they could find room. For a short time, some
lived in a barn at St. Catherine's Convent. Others lived in
tents and hastily built shanties. Crowded, primitive camps
stood all along this road, now Biscoe Street. The army had
no experience housing and feeding thousands of civilians.
The refugees in Helena suffered for weeks.
Making a Life in Helena
Eventually, the army developed procedures to help the
refugees. Charitable organizations in the North sent food,
medicine, doctors, nurses and teachers. The freedom
seekers helped themselves-growing vegetable gardens
and finding jobs with the army. Men worked as laborers,
building Fort Curtis and the earthworks on Crowley's
Ridge. They worked as stable hands, teamsters, personal
servants and cooks. Women cooked and cleaned, and
washed and mended clothes for officers and enlisted men.
Contraband Become Freedmen
as Freedmen, many men joined the Union army.
Others earned wages working for the army, civilians in
Helena, and on plantations outside of town. By 1864, four
camps housed most of Helena's former slaves-Helena,
Island 63 (in the Mississippi River), Freedmen's Fort and
Why were Freedom Seekers Called Contraband
In August 1861, the commander of Fortress Monroe in Virginia refused to return several fugitive slaves to their masters, declaring them "contraband of war." From that time, escaped slaves within Union lines were called Contraband.
These photos of refugee slaves were taken in and near Helena
during the Civil War. The army housed Contraband in tents on the
outskirts of the city. The refugees built simple shelters to house
themselves and their families. The photo to the left shows refugee
slaves sitting in front of a home in Helena. A Union soldier stands
on the porch.
Many refugees found work with the Union army and with soldiers and civilians. After the Union army instituted the plantation lease system, some worked on farms outside of town. The photos on the left were take in and near Helena.