Thousands of refugee slaves came with the Union army into Helena and they continued to come. Helena became an island of freedom in a slave state.
The Union Army Recruits Freedmen
In the spring of 1863, changes in federal policy allowed
Freedmen to enlist in the Union army. Over 2,000 men in
Helena volunteered. United States Colored Troops guarded
plantation workers, and manned the batteries and Fort
Curtis. They fought in the Battle of Helena in 1863 and in a
desperate action at Big Creek in the summer of 1864.
The Union Occupation Brings Change
The Union occupation changed Helena in ways that no one
could have anticipated. Confederate sympathizers saw their
worst fears realized. For many, most shocking was the
changed status of their former slaves. Freedmen could walk
the streets in Helena without a pass, they worked for a
wage, and by 1868 they could vote.
A Society Transformed
Former masters often expressed feelings of betrayal when
their former slaves chose freedom. In her diary Mary Sale
Edmonson recorded the death of "our faithful, beloved
Davy," a slave: "...the last of the family of a faithful
upright servant-whose ancestors have belonged to my
for almost a hundred years."
She then names three others, writing
that they "... are the only ones of all
my father's well cared for, well
taught servants who have withstood
the temptation constantly employed
by Yankee Abolitionists, for more
than a year, to leave him and us.
But Freedmen, now able to leave
positions of servitude, did just that.
Bottom left: At the Battle of Big Creek, less than 400 United States Colored Troops held off 1,200 Confederates for several hours.
Bottom right: Many Freedmen seized the long-denied opportunity to learn to read and write offered by schools that Northern charities established.