Freedmen Fill Two Regiments
Within days of Lorenzo Thomas' speech in
Helena on April 6, 1863, enough Freedmen
enlisted to fill a regiment—1,000 men. Many
were already in Helena. Others came in from
Confederate-controlled areas outside of Helena.
Some, like Aaron Hurvey and Burrill Eastman,
escaped from their owners in Mississippi and
crossed the Mississippi River to come into
Helena and enlist. Here, as in every place that
Thomas spoke, black men were eager to fight for
the Union. They knew that the Union had to win
the war if they were to keep the freedom
guaranteed by the Emancipation Proclamation.
The 2nd and 4th Arkansas Infantries of African
Descent, later designated the 54th and 57th U. S
Colored Infantries, respectively, filled within
weeks. Before the Civil War ended, 5,526 black
men joined the Union Army in Arkansas.
Helena's 54th U.S. Colored Infantry
Three months later, the 2nd Arkansas Infantry of
African Descent, not yet officially mustered into
service, defended the city in the Battle of Helena.
The 54th United States Colored Infantry was later
ordered to Fort Smith, Arkansas. They saw action
at Fort Gibson and Cabin Creek, Oklahoma, in
September 1864 and Cow Creek, Kansas, that
November. Ordered to Little Rock
1865, the 54th USCI saw action on the Arkansas
River. The 54th was garrisoned at Little Rock and
at various points in the Department of Arkansas
until December 1866.
Helena's 57th U.S. Colored Infantry
The 57th United States Colored Infantry was
attached to the District of Eastern Arkansas and
posted to garrison duty at Helena and Little Rock
until August 1864. In 1864, all or parts of the
regiment participated in the Camden Expedition
and took part in a skirmish near Little Rock. They
also participated in operations against Confederate
General Jo Shelby north of the Arkansas River. The
regiment was posted to De Valls Bluff and Little
Rock until June 1865, and then at various points in
the Department of Arkansas guarding property
and on post duty until December 1866.
Top right: The color party of the 57th U.S. Colored Infantry. Aaron Hurvey, holding the small snare drum, was a slave from Mississippi. He enlisted after being
brought to Helena with a cotton raiding party. This photograph was probably
made in Little Rock when the unit was mustered out on December 31, 1866.
Bottom: By the end of the Civil War, 178,975 African Americans had served in the U.S. Army as members of the United States Colored Troops. Another 9,695 served in
the U.S. Navy. They fought
in over 40 major engagements and hundreds of lesser
actions. Their record is one of valor, determination and sacrifice.