Thousands of escaped slaves, known as Contraband, followed
the Union army to Helena in July 1862. Within weeks, the army
put hundreds of Contraband to work building Fort Curtis.
Hard Labor in Hot Weather
African American laborers moved tons of earth, cut trees, milled
lumber and did everything else required to build Fort Curtis. Imagine
moving enough dirt to build this fort with only shovels, picks and
wheelbarrows. Then imagine doing this backbreaking work in the
hottest months of the year. The men who came to Helena seeking
freedom did just that, building a fort larger than this reconstruction
in three months.
Seized and Set to Work
Parties of Union soldiers seized African American men, including those
working for the army in other jobs, and set them to work on Fort
Curtis. General Eugene Carr, an advocate for the Contraband,
complained to General Curtis, writing."It would be
better to send the orders through the proper
channels than to send parties to gather them
Contraband] wherever they may be found!"
Carr felt that the Union army's actions sent the
wrong message about freedom saying," . . . there is
no security for those [who] in good faith have
engaged in labor in our service."
Middle left portrait: General Eugene A. Carr
Bottom right: In spite of being forced to labor on the fort many of the men who
built Fort Curtis enlisted in the Union army the following spring.