Expeditions from Helena to Harbert’s Plantation (January 11–13, 1865)

The January 11–13, 1865, Civil War expedition from Helena (Phillips County) to Harbert’s Plantation in Mississippi appears to have been conducted to arrest a deserter from a United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiment.

Captain Eli Ramsey of the Sixtieth U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment led two officers and fifty men of the Sixtieth’s Company C and a dozen men and a lieutenant of the Eighty-Seventh Illinois Mounted Infantry out of Helena around 8:00 p.m. on January 11, 1865. Boarding the steamboat the Dove, the Federals crossed the Mississippi River and landed in Mississippi about fifteen miles north of Helena between the McNeal and Halbert plantations. The infantry disembarked, and Ramsey ordered the Illinois horsemen to follow in an hour as he led the foot soldiers to Harbert’s, where he hoped to capture a Black deserter named Willis Harbert.

Barking dogs warned Harbert, however, and he jumped on his horse and escaped, so Ramsey gathered his infantrymen and returned to the Dove, where they spent the night along the riverbank. Ramsey and the horsemen, meanwhile, rode to a Mr. Owens’s residence in search of several U.S. horses Owens reportedly held but found that they were not there. He ordered Owens to bring the horses to the Dove the next day, and his small party was back at the steamer around 4:00 a.m. on January 12.

The next morning, Ramsey sent a party back to Harbert’s to seize corn while he and the rest of the Federals marched upstream to gather planks from the wrecked steamer Diligent and an old cotton boat. The expedition returned to Helena around 3:00 p.m. with 200 bushels of corn and four horses that Owens returned.

Six hours later, Ramsey was again aboard the Dove, this time with forty-one men from the Sixtieth USCT and twenty-one men of the Eighty-Seventh Illinois. Landing in Mississippi about two miles from Harbert’s, the horsemen “dashed up” to the plantation and this time found the deserter Willis Harbert asleep in a corncrib. On the morning of January 13, the Black infantrymen disembarked and began hauling more corn from the area. Two white and one Black family of refugees approached Ramsey, seeking to go to Helena, and he allowed them, along with their property “and the cotton they had raised during the season.” The Federals ended up with around 500 bushels of corn, 200 of which belonged to one of the refugees, a Mr. Bond, whom Ramsey deemed “a loyal man.” They got back to Helena that night.

According to Ronald S. Coddington’s 2012 book, African American Faces of the Civil War, no soldier by the name of Willis Harbert appears in the service records. Coddington hypothesizes that the soldier might be Willis Hobbert, who served in Company D of the Fifty-fourth U.S. Colored Infantry. However, while Hobbert was indeed a deserter who served in Arkansas, records report him having been arrested in March 1864.

The expedition from Helena to Halbert’s plantation illustrates some of the more mundane operations Union forces in eastern Arkansas undertook during the waning months of the Civil War.

For additional information:
Coddington, Ronald S. African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. 48, part 1, pp. 34–35. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1896.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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