Henry Sweeney: Irish Immigrant Who Established the First Services for Freed Slaves in Helena, Ark.

Henry Sweeney played a unique role in the lives of freed African Americans in Helena Arkansas in 1865.

1
1315

Join The Immigrants’ Civil War on Facebook

On March 26, 1865 Major General Alexander McDowell McCook of the Union army occupying Arkansas wrote a report to Rev. Nixon of the Presbyterian Church describing the activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Helena. The Freedmen’s Bureau had just been established a short while earlier and its activities were placed under Irish immigrant Henry Sweeney. African Americans held in slavery had only been liberated a little more than two years before when the United States army established its control of eastern Arkansas. The Union commanders had few plans and fewer provisions for the 110,000 slaves set free by the movement of their armies.1

Helena, Arkansas was first occupied by Union forces in July, 1862. The city on the Mississippi was prone to flooding and disease. This 1864 photo shows a howitzer mounted on a flaboat during flooding. Credit

Patsy Madison, a freedwoman in Arkansas, later told of the experience of emancipation in the midst of war:

When Freedom Come, folks left home, out in the streets, crying, praying, singing, shouting, yelling, and knocking down everything. Some shot off big guns. Den come the calm. It was sad then. So many folks done dead, things tore up and nowhere to go and nothing to eat, nothing to do. It got squally. Folks got sick, so hungry. Some folks starved nearly to death. Times got hard.2

Historian Jim Downs writes that “Bondspeople who fled from plantation slavery during and after the war, and embraced their freedom with hope and optimism did not expect that it would lead to sickness, disease, suffering, and death…Disease and sickness had a more devastating and fatal effect on emancipated slaves than on soldiers, since ex-slaves often lacked the basic necessities to survive.”3

The quick realization that freedom might be followed by starvation led African Americans and their allies to demand that the Federal government do something to help these black refugees. The Freedmen’s Bureau was the primary response. The Bureau in Arkansas began operating even before the war itself ended.4

Gen. Alexander McCook

McCook could proudly report in 1865 that after the initial chaos of emancipation, Henry Sweeney and those working with him were supporting colonies of freedpeople carved out of land abandoned by slaveowners. Two hundred and fifty men, women, and children who had once been enslaved were living in a freedmen’s colony on Island Number 60 in the Mississippi River where they raised crops and were self-supporting. The colony had “a good school under a good teacher,” he reported. This was first one of the first schools for children born as slaves ever in that area. A Freedmen’s Farm had been established elsewhere, but the report said, this “farm is not self-supporting.” This second colony had a school, but it needed a minister, he informed Rev. Nixon.5

Slavery had torn apart families as husbands were sold away from their wives and children away from their mothers. After emancipation, some children were alone because their parents had died during the war, and others because they had been separated from their parents and did not know how to find them.6

An orphanage for “colored children” served those in Helena who had been cut off from parents, abandoned by them, or orphaned through death. It was run by a Quaker couple. “They take great care of the children” who numbered seventy at the time, wrote McCook. The children were fed by the Freedmen’s Bureau and were being schooled at the orphanage. An Industrial School had been established to teach trades. According to the report, “there are seven female teachers here who are competent and industrious.”7

The muddy streets of Helena in 1864. Union soldiers nicknamed the city Hell-in-Arkansas because of its poor conditions. Quartermaster Sergeant Emmet C. West, of the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry, wrote of his time there from July 1862 to January, 1863 “Helena was a very unhealthy place[;] . . . the warm weather and poisonous spring water we first used there, caused a great deal of sickness. In fact there was scarcely a man in the whole force there that summer but was sick. Some were discharged for disability; some were sent home on sick furloughs and never came back; some recovered sufficiently to remain in the service, but many died and most of them were buried there on the hill side with military honors.” Credit
Not all was rosy in Eastern Arkansas. McCook worried that freedpeople who were hired to work on the plantations outside of Helena were being exploited by Northern businessmen. He wrote to Rev. Nixon that he had heard that the freed slaves “are not instructed” to read and write, and in many cases were “not well cared for by these truly loyal men of the north who come down here to get rich…at the expense of the colored people who are entitled to sympathy…” McCook feared that Southern slaveowners might soon be replaced by Northern capitalists eager to exploit underpaid black workers.8

Henry Sweeney’s job as a Freedmen’s Bureau agent would be to end the hyperexploitation of freed slaves, stop the re-enslavement of freedpeople, establish schools for people who had been barred by law from an education, and teach men and women who had been born slaves what their rights were as United States citizens. Sweeney had less than two years to try to accomplish this.9

Over the next several articles we will look at how Henry Sweeney came to play such an important role in the lives of black people in Helena and how he succeeded and failed.

Resource:

I am working on a Reconstruction Timeline to help you better understand the chronology of this period.

Sources:

1. March 26, 1865 report from Major General Alexander McDowell McCook to Rev. Nixon Freedmen’s Bureau Archives State of Arkansas. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869 by Randy Finley published by the University of Arkansas Press (1996) p. 1; “This Godforsaken Town”: Death and Disease at Helena, Arkansas, 1862 – 63 by Rhonda M. Kohl Civil War History Volume 50, Number 2, June 2004; Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner; After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War by Gregory P. Downs (2015); A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn (2005); The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction Edited by Paul Cimbala and Randall Miller published by Fordham University Press (1997).
2. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869 by Randy Finley published by the University of Arkansas Press (1996) p. 1.
3. Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs published by Oxford University Press (2012).
4. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869 by Randy Finley published by the University of Arkansas Press (1996) p. 9-19.
5. March 26, 1865 report from Major General Alexander McDowell McCook to Rev. Nixon Freedmen’s Bureau Archives State of Arkansas.
6. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869 by Randy Finley published by the University of Arkansas Press (1996)
7. March 26, 1865 report from Major General Alexander McDowell McCook to Rev. Nixon Freedmen’s Bureau Archives State of Arkansas.
8. March 26, 1865 report from Major General Alexander McDowell McCook to Rev. Nixon Freedmen’s Bureau Archives State of Arkansas.
9. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869 by Randy Finley published by the University of Arkansas Press (1996)

1 COMMENT

LEAVE A REPLY