The Battle of Helena

July 4, 1863
How to relieve Vicksburg became a major bone of contention between the Confederate government in Richmond and General Joseph E. Johnston, the departmental commander. Johnston urged General John C. Pemberton to pull his garrison out of the city and save his command, believing that the men were more important than the city. Pemberton and President Jefferson Davis both urged Johnston to attack. On May 23, Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon wrote Johnston advocating a strike at Helena to divert Union resources from Vicksburg. Johnston forwarded Seddon’s note to General Edmund Kirby Smith.

Kirby Smith passed Seddon’s note on to General Theophilus H. Holmes, Commander of the District of Arkansas. Holmes fired off a letter to General Sterling Price at Jacksonport, Arkansas, with a question: Could Price’s division undertake a campaign to capture Helena? Price enthusiastically supported the idea. On June 15, Holmes wired Kirby Smith for permission to attack the city. The long string of letters and telegrams finally ended when Kirby Smith approved Holmes’ plan to attack Helena.

The Battle of Helena was a desperate attempt to relieve pressure on Vicksburg by an, “. . . attack on and seizure of Helena, while all available forces of the enemy are being pushed to Grant’s aid.” Had the effort to attack Helena come earlier, and if the Confederates had mustered enough men for the job, the plan might have worked. As one author put it, it was “too little and too late.”

Holmes had almost 8,000 soldiers at his disposal. Unfortunately, they were scattered across eastern Arkansas. General Sterling Price and General John S. Marmaduke were at Jacksonport. Price’s infantry division was 3,095 men strong and consisted of two brigades, the First and the Fourth. The First Brigade under General Dandridge McRae was composed of the 32nd, 36th and 39th Arkansas; the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th Missouri and 9th Missouri Sharpshooter Battalion made up the Fourth Brigade under General Mosby M. Parsons. Marmaduke commanded a cavalry division of 1,750 troopers and the First Brigade under General Joseph G. Shelby, which consisted of 5th and 6th Missouri, Jean’s Missouri Cavalry, the 1st Missouri Cavalry Battalion and Bledsoe’s Missouri Battery.

The Second Brigade, commanded by Colonel Colton Greene, was at Wittsburg on the St. Francis River. Greene’s brigade was composed of the 3rd and 8th Missouri and Young’s Missouri Cavalry Battalion. He also had Bell’s Missouri Battery. Greene moved his cavalry from Wittsburg to Oakland, where he united with Marmaduke.

General John F. Fagan in Little Rock commanded an infantry brigade with a detachment of cavalry. The infantry consisted of 34th, 35th and 37th Arkansas and Hawthorn’s Arkansas Infantry. He also had Miller’s Company Arkansas Cavalry and Densons’ Company Louisiana Cavalry. Adding to Fagan’s firepower were two four-gun batteries—Etter’s Battery and Blocker’s Battery. Together he had approximately1,339 effectives. Fagan arrived at Holmes’ Clarendon headquarters on June 27, where he learned that poor roads and lack of fodder had delayed Price and Marmaduke.

The last part of Holmes’s command was General L. Marsh Walker’s cavalry. Walker, who was in Phillips County near Helena, had two cavalry regiments, the 5th Arkansas Cavalry and Dobbins’ Arkansas Cavalry. Dobbins, a Phillips County native, provided intelligence, enabling Walker to deploy his forces so that they could screen the movements of the Holmes’ army. Walker had about 1,462 men, which included a four-gun battery.

Prior to Holmes’ move on Helena, Marmaduke sent a report that, while false, buoyed the Confederate hopes. On June 14, Marmaduke wrote: “I am firmly of the opinion that all troops that can be spared are being sent to re-enforce Grant; that New Madrid, Memphis, and Helena are very weak.” The misinformation excited Holmes, who wrote Price the next day, “. . . the enemy in Helena are even less numerous than I indicated to you.” In a long letter to Jefferson Davis, Kirby Smith told the president of the coming attack: “General Holmes telegraphs he can take Helena. He has been ordered to take it.” On July 3, 1863, Holmes’ army of 7,646 men and 28 pieces of artillery gathered at the Allen Polk house five miles west of Helena.

As Holmes gathered his scattered command, Union soldiers and African American men were busy building a second line of fortifications on Crowley’s Ridge. A Wisconsin soldier noted in his diary in June: “Small forts are being made on the hills back of town. There is fort A. B. C. D. There is one upon every hill. Rifle pits are being thrown up between the forts.”

The Union defensive works—four batteries on Crowley’s Ridge, rifle trenches between the forts on the ridges, and an abattis of felled trees along the ridge—were complete before the Confederates arrived. Minos Miller described the defenses of the city in a letter to his mother: “. . .east of the high bluffs is breastworks and on four of the highest [bluffs] batteries just below these bluffs is Ft Curtis between the river and the bluffs is a level plain about a half mile wide south of town there is a breastwork thrown up across [the plain] the batteries and about twenty yards in front of the breastworks is cavalry pits [a ditch and abatis] in the river lies the gunboat Tyler. . .”

The 33rd Missouri Infantry, which had been cross-trained as artillerists, served the guns in all of the batteries and Fort Curtis. In preparation for an attack, the ordnance department sent 200 rounds for each gun in the batteries and the fort. The navy sent the well-armed timberclad gunboat, USS Tyler. A third set of earthworks extended from the ridge to the levee, crossing the main road on both the north and south approaches to the city. The streets of the city were barricaded. Cavalry patrols made daily forays into the country. Each soldier was issued 200 rounds of ammunition. Standing orders were for the men to be up by 2:30 a.m. They were at their stations one-half hour before daylight. The men were so thoroughly drilled they could literally get into position in their sleep. The army at Helena was ready.

Waiting for the Confederates was the 13th Division under the command of General Frederick Salomon. Two brigades of infantry made up the Division. The First Brigade under the command of Colonel William E. McLean consisted of the 43rd Indiana, 35th Missouri, 28th Wisconsin and roughly 300 men of the 2nd Arkansas of African Descent. The Second Brigade under Colonel Samuel A. Rice included the 29th, 33rd and 36th Iowa and the 33rd Missouri. Colonel Clayton Powell commanded the cavalry brigade of the 1st Indiana, with two 2-pounder rifled guns, and the 5th Kansas. There were two light artillery batteries, the 3rd Iowa Battery and Battery K Missouri Artillery. General Benjamin Prentiss, who was in overall command, had about 4,100 men to the Confederates 7,646.

Prentiss cancelled his planned Independence Day celebration and instead ordered that a single gun at Fort Curtis be fired when a Confederate attack was underway. In the predawn hours of July 4, 1863, Union pickets discovered Fagan’s Arkansas brigade moving toward town on the Upper and Lower Little Rock Roads. They spread the alarm and the big gun at Fort Curtis broke the calm of the humid morning. A Wisconsin soldier wrote, “At 4 o’clock the gun on Fort Curtis thundered forth its warning that the enemy was coming, and in five minutes every man in the regiment was under arms, and in five more were in their place in the rifle pits to do his duty. We had not long to wait – the butternuts soon came pouring in, and the ball opened in earnest.”

Fagan’s cavalry, led by Colonel William H. Brooks, drew first blood. The Confederate horsemen pushed the Union pickets in, but not before Co. G, 28th Wisconsin emptied a few saddles with a well directed volley. The Wisconsin boys fell back to the line of works before Battery D. Brooks deployed his cavalry east of the Lower Little Rock Road and brought up his artillery. The Confederate artillery fired at least thirteen rounds before being silenced by the guns of Battery K, 1st Missouri, at Fort Curtis and the USS Tyler. Brooks’ orders were to hold the road and the attention of the troops in the earthworks near the river. He got the attention of the soldiers in the earthworks and held at least a portion of the road but his advance stalled. “I deemed it best to hold that force of the enemy in check, and prevent him from reinforcing his most important points of defense. . .” he later wrote.

Theophilus Holmes’ orders for the attack on Helena were straightforward. Three of the four batteries were to be assaulted simultaneously. Fagan was to attack Hindman Hill (Battery D); Price, Graveyard Hill (Battery C); and Marmaduke, Rightor Hill (Battery A). At the same time, Walker was to take his cavalry through the barricade on the Sterling Road and secure town. Holmes set the time of the attack at daylight. Unfortunately, he did not specify just when he considered “daylight.” Fagan and Marmaduke took it to mean first light; Price waited until the sun came up to attack.

With Brooks demonstrating on the Lower Little Rock Road, Fagan and the remainder of his brigade attacked Battery D via the Upper Little Rock Road. Fagan’s men made good progress for about a mile then they encountered felled trees. The Federal soldiers had dropped trees so that their crowns and trunks effectively blocked the road. Deep gullies cut into the soft loess soil of the ridge impeded progress off of the road. Vehicles, including artillery and supply wagons, could go no further. The officers abandoned their horses and the assault continued on foot.

Fagan knew nothing of what awaited him in front of Battery D and his men brought no axes or other tools for clearing trees. Orders were orders, so he pushed forward: “After crawling through the interstices of the closely jutting limbs and boughs, and climbing over the thickly matted timber for 1 mile, my line of skirmishers, who had been ordered by me not to fire, came within sight of the enemy.” It is almost impossible to imagine how difficult that second mile must have been for the Arkansas troops. The climate, terrain and flora in Helena are not hospitable at the best of times, and July is absolutely not the best of times. Briars, poison oak and ivy, insects, reptiles, heat and humidity would have taken a toll even in the early morning hours. To meet the timetable he was given, Fagan had no choice but to persevere.

Fagan placed Colonel Alexander T. Hawthorn’s Infantry in the lead followed by Colonel James P. King’s 35th Arkansas. Fagan ordered Hawthorn’s and King’s regiments into line of battle left (north) of the road. At about 4 a.m. they attacked the first of five lines of Union entrenchments west of Battery D: “The men dashed down the steep declivity amid a perfect storm of bullets, climbed step by step over vast piles of fallen timber up the rugged sides of almost perpendicular hills, and finally, after unheard-of toil and fatigue, scaled the opposing height and drove the enemy in consternation from their first line of defenses.”

The planned coordinated Confederate attack on Helena got off to a fair start. Marmaduke’s brigade left their encampment west of Helena at 10:30 p.m. on July 3 and approached the city down the Old St. Francis Road. Marmaduke sent Walker’s cavalry further east, to approach town via the Sterling Road. When Marmaduke’s cavalry was three miles from Battery A he dismounted his men and moved ahead on foot. A mile further along, he found the road blocked by felled trees. Matters worsened when Marmaduke’s local guides got lost. The light was already turning gray when the Confederate cavalry took position north of Battery A.

In the predawn light, skirmishers of General Joseph Shelby’s Brigade made contact with Union pickets and drove them back toward Battery A. In response, Colonel Samuel Rice sent three companies of the 36th Iowa to hold the rifle pits flanking the battery. [30 and 86] He then brought up the 29th Iowa and ordered them to take and hold the bluffs east of the battery. In the initial assault several of the Iowans were killed and wounded and five captured.

Shelby’s men held a line about 200 yards from the crest of Rightor Hill. The impetuous Missourian ordered a charge only to have the narrow uneven ground in front of the battery break up his line. A volley from the 29th Iowa forced Shelby to end the assault; he pulled back to the high ground opposite the battery.

The 29th and 36th Iowa took the brunt of Marmaduke’s attack. Unlike Fagan’s troops, Marmaduke’s men managed to manhandle their artillery into position. From a sheltered hill the Confederate artillery pummeled the Federal line. The 33rd Missouri manning the guns in Battery A replied with gusto and for an hour or more an artillery duel raged north of town.

The 1st Indiana and 5th Kansas cavalries at the levee stymied Maramduke. The Union cavalry and their two small artillery pieces kept a continuous harassing fire on the Confederate left. To strengthen the line at the levee, Colonel pushed the 1st Indiana Light Artillery and section of the 3rd Iowa Battery forward and brought up four companies of the 36th Iowa to support the batteries. Protected by the levee, the infantry, cavalry and artillery enfiladed the Confederate left. The additional firepower stalled the Confederate advance. Marmaduke ordered General L. Marshall Walker to clear the Federals off the levee.

Walker sent Colonel Archibald Dobbins with 300 or so Arkansas cavalry down the Sterling Road. Dobbins’ command was strung out between Crowley’s Ridge and the river approximately three-quarters of a mile north of Helena. Around 7 a.m., Dobbins moved his men south on the Sterling Road toward the levee where he engaged Powell Clayton’s command. Clayton was probably a little north of Battery A, between the levee and the river north of the entrenchments and road blockade, with the infantry and dismounted cavalry in line along the levee and the artillery in the floodplain east of the levee. Between the road and the levee was a swampy floodplain and a lake or slough. Dobbins’ 300 dismounted cavalry left the road and crossed the open ground, where they encountered small arms and artillery fire.

Dobbins deployed his four-gun battery and used it to hit Powell Clayton’s line. Eventually, five companies of 5th Arkansas Cavalry came forward to support Dobbins’ small detachment. Colonel Robert C. Newton and Dobbins report pushing the Union soldiers on the levee and the artillery back to their rifle pits, which would have been opposite Battery A, almost within the city grid. Union reports contradict the Confederate accounts, at least in regard to the position of the artillery. Lieutenant Melvil Wright of the 3rd Iowa Battery wrote: “This officer [Clayton] then changed the position of his guns to a point on the east side of the levee, on our right, where he remained during the whole engagement.” The 800 or so Confederates who came down the Sterling Road may have pushed Powell Clayton south, but they did not clear them from the Confederate right. As a result, Marmaduke was stuck. The fight at Battery A was essentially over.

South of town, Fagan got three regiments in line and continued his assault on Battery D. Before he reached the summit of Hindman Hill his infantry had to take five lines of entrenchments. Colonel William E. McLean’s plan was to hold the infantry trench/rifle pits until forced out then retreat to the next, making their way up to the large earthen fortification atop the hill. Battery D was perhaps the best defended of all of the Union earthworks. The 43rd Indiana, six companies of 33rd Iowa, an unknown number of the 35th Missouri, and one company of the 28th Wisconsin manned the line in front of Battery D.

Not only did Fagan have to overcome the Union defenders, he also had to overcome the terrain. “The assault upon the rifle-pits was made from both the right and left of the road. Never did men behave with greater steadiness and gallantry than did the troops of those three regiments. Over the heavy timber, the deep gorges, and the precipitous banks they moved. Over opposite to them ran the long line of fortifications, toward which they moved with eager, anxious steps.”

It took Fagan’s men three hours to take four of the five lines of rifle pits below Battery D. As they clawed their way over trees and through ravines they endured continuous fire from the Union infantry in front of them, the artillery above them, and the artillery in Battery C and on the Little Rock Road. By 7a.m. Fagan’s Arkansas brigade had taken the fourth line of rifle pits and the exhausted men stopped to take a much needed rest. As Fagan’s weary men caught their breath, Price began his attack.

General Sterling Price’s infantry finally moved as the sun came up. Because of Price’s tardiness, the guns at Battery C raked Fagan’s men while Battery B’s gunners hammered Marmaduke. About 8 a.m. Price’s division moved on Graveyard Hill. The sun had burned off the morning fog and Price’s line of infantry could be seen from town and from across Crowley’s Ridge. The Confederates surged forward and then all hell broke loose.

Price admitted to halting his command within a mile and a half of Battery C so that, “. . . my division would [not] arrive upon the ground prematurely.” Holmes rode with Price and apparently offered no objection. Price also had problems with local guides; the first fled after the Union line began firing and a second had to be found before the assault could continue. Three ridges stood between Price and Battery C. Here, as at the other batteries, felled trees made the Confederates’ task more difficult.

Price deployed Mosby Parson’s Brigade on the right and Dandridge McRae’s on the left. The terrain caused difficulty and delay with the alignment. The delay, and the obvious pounding that Fagan’s Brigade was taking from the guns on Battery C, spurred Holmes into action. He rode up to Price and demanded to know why he had not attacked. Price blamed the terrain and Parsons. Parsons could not see McRae’s Brigade due to a ridgeline separating the two brigades and he assumed McRae was not in position. At last, with everything in position the order was given and the assault launched.

Once prodded into action, Price’s infantry was up to the task. McRae’s and Parson’s brigades broke cover for the assault on Battery C. With the fog gone, they were easy targets for small arms and artillery fire as they topped each ridge. At the foot of each hill, the lines, which had become disordered, were reformed. Two Confederate brigades—some 3,000 men—rushed at Battery C, which was held by four companies of 33rd Iowa and two companies of the 33rd Missouri, one of which manned the two brass guns.

“On, on they went, yelling like demons, up to the breastworks, and in an instant driving the brave little band of heroes that stood until they actually crossed bayonets” observed Edward S. Redington, 28th Wisconsin Infantry, from his post on Battery B. It took three tries, but Price took Battery C. McRae’s and Parson’s men withstood the Union artillery barrage thrown at them from Batteries C, D and B, the Tyler, Fort Curtis and several batteries along the river—every piece that was within range hit Graveyard Hill. The Confederates brought artillerymen up to turn the guns at the battery on the Union forces in town, but the quick thinking men of the 33rd Missouri foiled them. As they were rushing out of the battery they managed to disable one gun and they took all of the friction primers with them, rendering the other weapons harmless. Inexplicably, the Confederate artillerymen had not brought any friction primers with them.

Bedlam reigned on Graveyard Hill. Regiments were mixed and the command and control system broke down. The earthwork built to defend an assault from the west offered no cover for the Confederates on the hill. In the midst of the chaos, Holmes made his way to Battery C and ordered Parsons, whom he said was the only general-officer present, to attack Fort Curtis. He then gave Price the same order. Somehow, his orders were misunderstood or misinterpreted or, given the terrain, simply difficult to impossible to follow quickly and efficiently. While the Confederates milled around above town Union artillery “. . . thus opened the most murderous fire from our guns that ever men withstood.”

According to Parsons, Holmes ordered one of his colonels to “carry the fort in the direction of town.” The colonel obeyed the order and part of Parsons’ Brigade rushed “with a wild yell of rage” down the slope toward Fort Curtis. They had no chance. General Frederick Salomon, watching the drama unfold from his headquarters at the Thompson house (now known as the Moore-Horner Home), gathered up the scattered Union reserve and made the Confederates pay.

Seeing the breakthrough on Battery C, Salomon ordered Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Pace’s 1st Indiana Cavalry and the Dubuque Battery to Fort Curtis from the levee north of town. The 1st Indiana Cavalry arrived and deployed on the crest of a hill to the left of the Thompson house. They were joined by five companies of 35th Iowa that Salomon brought from the levee south of town and the soldiers who had fled Battery C. Watching the Confederates gather for the attack, Sergeant Henry Carroll, a gunner at the fort, recalled, “They seemed to think they had gained the day but they were woefully mistaken. . . . They began to advance on us. They had to cross seven hundred yards of open ground they seemed as they intended to take us at bayonet point they advanced steadily and briskly while six heavy guns from our fort and also several small companies of infantry that had been driven in from the outer works were mowing them down by platoons under such murderous fire they advanced 400 yards. . .”

The Confederates were met by grape and canister from the guns of Fort Curtis, punished by the Tyler’s big guns, and volley after volley from Salomon’s reserve. “[E]very ball went through their ranks; but still on they came, and some of them nearly reached the fort, but fiends themselves could not stand such a fire, and they broke in all directions.”

The Confederates were stunned. Their officers urged them forward but it was over. The Confederates fell back fighting all the while until, finally, the guns of Fort Curtis and the Union counterattacks became too much. The Confederates retreated into a ravine, surrendering after a brief firefight. Many lost their lives or were wounded in the assault.

With the attack on Battery C diverting the attention of the Union artillery, Fagan made one more attempt to capture Battery D. The Arkansas infantry stood up and charged the fifth rifle pit. “My men sprang forward bravely and defiantly, and after a severe contest succeeded in driving out the enemy, who fled, crowding back into the frowning fort under the cover of the heavy guns.” With the last obstacle secured, Fagan made a final attempt to take the Battery. Hawthorn, King and Bell got their men in line and they assaulted the main work. They hit Battery D, only to be turned back by small arms and artillery fire. It was over. Fagan could go no further. It was 11 a.m.; the men had been fighting, climbing and running up an incline since 4:30 a.m. They could do no more.

To make matters worse, when Fagan got the word to retreat the 37th Arkansas was trapped in a deep ravine on the south side of Battery D. The position protected the Confederates from the artillery in Battery D, but not from the Union infantry. Union forces surrounded the small band of Confederates and moved two guns into position to fire on the trapped men. What was left of Bell’s 37th Arkansas Infantry surrendered to Captain John G. Hudson, 33rd Missouri, commander of Battery D.

“I write this report with deep pain,” wrote Theophilus Holmes after the ghastly failure at Helena. He blamed everyone but himself. His army was cut to pieces—of the 7,646 men who began the battle 173 were killed, 687 wounded, and 776 recorded missing, a total of 1,636 men, nearly a quarter of his force. The Union side fared much better. Out of the 4,100 Union soldiers engaged, 57 were killed, 127 wounded and 36 recorded missing, total casualties of 220.

Prentiss did not pursue the retreating Confederates and with good reason, or at least a good psychological one. Both Prentiss’ and Salomon’s reports overestimated the Confederate strength, citing numbers from 15,000 to 20,000. The soldiers in Helena manned the earthworks the rest of the day and all day July 5. Powell Clayton took his cavalry outside of the Union defenses on July 6. Five miles west of Helena, Clayton inadvertently shelled the Confederate hospital at the Allen Polk house. He captured the Confederate doctors and the wounded but he found that Holmes’ army had slipped away.

It remained for the army and the citizens of Helena to care for the wounded and to bury the dead. The stench of decomposing men and horses must have been almost intolerable. “[O]ne of the most disagreeable & sickening jobs of my life” wrote Benjamin Pearson of the 36th Iowa on July 5, after he led a burial detail. A Wisconsin soldier wrote, “A good many of our men, assisted by the Rebels, have been engaged in burying the dead and the sad unpleasant task is not near accomplished.” It would be many days, even weeks, before all of the men killed in the battle were found and buried.

Prentiss issued General Order No. 36 on July 7, 1863 and it was duly read to the men who had successfully defended Helena: “On the anniversary of our National Independence you met in arms the enemy commanded by the Confederate Generals Holmes, Price, Marmaduke, Parsons and others and though outnumbered four or five to one, you withstood their onslaught and sent them back ingloriously to tell traitors that it is dangerous to wage war against the government you are sworn to defend.”