Imagine watching a four-mile-long parade of soldiers, horses, wagons and artillery pieces pass your house. The soldiers in blue were supposed to be the enemy, but they offered the chance for something you thought you'd never have—freedom.
A Chance of Freedom
Thousands of African Americans seeking freedom joined the column as General Samuel R. Curtis's Army of the Southwest marched across Arkansas in the late spring and summer of 1862. Called Contraband by the Union army, these men, women and children risked everything for freedom. It could not have been an easy decision.
Courage and Fierce Determination
Leaving the life they had known with only a hope of freedom and a better life took tremendous courage. Their freedom was not guaranteed, not even their safety. Severe punishment awaited those who were recaptured. But leave they did. By the time the Union army reached Helena, over 2,000 freedom seekers followed it. The continued to come into the city for months afterward.
Freeing Slaves Hurt the Confederacy
General Curtis, unlike many other Union generals, protected the fugitive slaves. He was against slavery, but he also had military reasons for his actions. Taking slaves away from Confederate
sympathizers took manpower from the enemy.
"The Negroes are flocking to the army from every direction, there are about fifty, big and little in our company."
General E. Flanders, 5th Kansas Cavalry
General Curtis's Union army
Top right: The scene above, an African-American family coming into the Union army's line, was repeated throughout the South. Thousands of slaves followed the General Samuel Curtis's Union army across Arkansas to Helena. Thousands more came into the city seeking the army's protection in the years that followed.