While the vast majority of Helena's white population favored secession, there were also men and women loyal to the Union in Phillips County.
White Unionists Rally in Helena
Not only fugitive slaves, but white Unionists joined
General Samuel Curtis's Army of the Southwest on its
march through Arkansas. On July 4, 1862, Curtis formed
the loyal men into a regiment. After Curtis marched into
Helena on July 12, local Unionists flocked to the city.
On July 19, 1862, Abraham Lincoln appointed John
Smith Phelps Military Governor of Arkansas. Lincoln
ordered Phelps to "provide the means of maintaining the
peace and security of the loyal inhabitants of the state,
until they shall be able to reestablish a civil government."
Lincoln's political experiment failed. Unionist support in the
Delta never grew in the numbers needed for success.
Serving Against Great Odds
Though the numbers of Unionists in Helena was small,
they served their country against great odds. The 1st
Battalion Arkansas Infantry mustered in the summer of
1862. Most of its members were men from the Batesville
area who had followed Curtis to Helena. This short-lived
organization mustered out of service that December.
Within weeks of the Union army's arrival in Helena,
400 men enlisted into what became the 2nd
Arkansas Cavalry (U.S.). Commanded by Colonel John
E. Phelps, the son of the military governor, the regiment
was one of the most successful of the Arkansas Union
regiments. Serving against friends and neighbors could
not have been easy. In August 1862, a Union man paid
the ultimate price. Taken from his home in Marianna,
Lt. Benjamin F. Shepherd was killed when he refused to
take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. He had
been recruiting for the Union army.
"The loyal citizen in a rebel state
is placed between two fires—and flanked beside."
An Arkansas Unionist
Bottom left: John E.Phelps, son of Arkansas'
military governor, organized the 2nd
Arkansas Cavalry in Helena. This
picture of Phelps and his wife was
apparently made here in 1863.
Top middle: A Civil War-era U.S. flag
Bottom middle: John Smith Phelps, a longtime Missouri
congressman, raised a Union regiment and
fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March
1862. Cotton politics and personal illness
doomed his attempt to establish a Union
government during his short tenure as
military governor of Arkansas.