Union Base of Operations
General Samuel R. Curtis established his headquarters in Helena knowing that he had secured a Union base of operations in Arkansas. Helena could be readily supplied from Memphis via the Mississippi River, and from Helena the Union army could strike anywhere downriver and into the Arkansas interior.
Almost as soon as he arrived in Helena, Curtis began to harass Confederates in the area. The Union brown water navy controlled the Mississippi, and the army could move up and down the river at will. Curtis sent small detachments of troops on hit-and-run raids that came to be known as “scouts” by both the Federals and the locals. These scouts continued throughout the Union occupation of Helena.
On August 3, 1862, a detachment of about 3,000 Union soldiers under the command of General Alvin P. Hovey left the Pillow Plantation seeking a large Confederate force supposed to be somewhere west of Helena. The Union column marched along the hot, dusty Arkansas roads for four days until it reached Clarendon. Hovey’s soldiers stayed in Clarendon for five days. The march back took another four days. They found no large Confederate force, just partisans and cavalry. Hovey’s command lost four men killed.
On August 28, a detachment that included part of the 56th Ohio Infantry boarded the steamer White Cloud and moved downriver. The soldiers attacked a Confederate camp near Carson Landing, Mississippi, where they captured supplies. They continued to Gladdis Landing, also on the east bank of the river, skirmishing with Confederate soldiers before steaming south. The White Cloud anchored just below Napoleon, Arkansas, where the Union soldiers captured a wharf boat, which they secured and brought back to Helena. Confederates fired at the White Cloud as it passed them heading upriver but inflicted no casualties or damage. The expedition returned safely to Helena on September 2, 1862.
Perhaps the largest operation out of Helena was the Yazoo Pass Expedition, which began in February 1863, and continued into the spring. The purpose of the operation was to find a back door into Vicksburg. Thousands of troops and supplies left Helena, headed for Mississippi and Louisiana. The Union army and navy tried to find a way to reach Vicksburg via the Coldwater and Yazoo rivers. The expedition failed. The soldiers were in the field until March, fighting the river, the elements, and the Confederates.
Two scouts in May 1863 were typical of the many small-scale operations that originated from Helena. On May 5, 1863, Colonel Powell Clayton took a detachment of the 5th Kansas, 5th Illinois and 1st Indiana cavalry regiments and a battery of artillery to “scour the country west and north of Helena, and destroy forage and other supplies. . .” Clayton’s column rode west and crossed Big Creek, arriving in Clarendon three days later. They took the road toward Cotton Plant and got as far as Bayou DeView but could not get across. They turned north and took the Little Rock Military Road and eventually crossed the L’Anguille River. Colonel Clayton, the artillery, and the 1st Indiana Cavalry remained to guard the L’Anguille crossing until the rest of the force returned.
The 5th Kansas and 5th Illinois continued south between the L’Anguille and St. Francis rivers in an attempt to catch Colonel Archibald Dobbins’ Confederate cavalry. The Union soldiers soon realized that General John S. Marmaduke’s brigade was between them and Colonel Clayton. Major Wilton Jenkins turned the cavalry around, determined to fight his way back to the river. In the late afternoon, the 5th Kansas encountered a large detachment of Carter’s Texas Cavalry armed with two pieces of artillery. The Union and Confederate cavalry fought an hour-long engagement before the Union soldiers turned back the way they had come. The cavalry crossed the L’Anguille and returned to Helena. The scout returned eight days later, having burned a steam mill, 50,000 bushels of corn, tons of hay and fodder, and having captured a dozen prisoners. The Union cavalry lost less than twenty men killed and wounded.
The second scout was a much smaller affair. A detachment of the 5th Kansas and 5th Iowa cavalry, some 155 men, left Helena under the command of Major Samuel Walker and rode toward Big Creek. The scout was to proceed twenty miles out of Helena before returning to town. Approximately eight miles out of Helena on the Little Rock Road, the detachment ran into Colonel Dobbins’ cavalry. The Confederates attacked and routed the two companies of the 5th Kansas and the men of the 5th Iowa turned and fled. The Confederates captured two officers and twenty men. The rest of the Kansas cavalry fell back, Dobbins’ cavalry pursuing them for a mile. Major Walker halted and prepared to make a second stand, but as he did so reinforcements arrived from Helena and the Confederates retreated.
The war on the Mississippi River centered on Vicksburg. The Union army wanted the city and the Confederates desperately fought them off time and again. In the spring of 1863, the fortunes of war swung to the side of the Union. On May 14, 1863, Jackson, Mississippi, fell. Two days later, Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant defeated General John C. Pemberton at Champion Hill, forcing Pemberton to withdraw to Vicksburg. Grant then began siege operations, threatening one of the last Confederate bastions on the Mississippi River, the loss of which would effectively cut off the Confederate Trans-Mississippi. Grant attacked the city on May 22. His massive attack failed but the Confederate garrison—hopelessly outnumbered, with little hope of reinforcements and limited food supplies—teetered on the edge. The city would fall if something was not done soon.
To loosen the Union stranglehold on Vicksburg, Confederate General Theophilus Holmes attacked Helena. The city was well defended. Four earthen batteries sat in a north-south arc atop Crowley’s Ridge. Behind the ridge sat Fort Curtis. The gunboat USS Tyler patrolled the river. The July 4, 1863, Confederate assault of Helena was a ghastly failure. Holmes’ army was cut to pieces. Of the 7,646 men who began the battle, 173 were killed, 687 wounded, and 776 missing, a total of 1,636 men. The Union side faired much better. Out of the 4,129 Union soldiers engaged, 57 were killed, 127 wounded, and 36 missing— total casualties of 220.
Vicksburg fell on the same day that Holmes attacked Helena, freeing up thousands of Union troops for operations elsewhere in the theater. The first was the Little Rock Campaign. General Frederick Steelewas sent to Helena and given command of all Union forces in the state. On August 10, 1863, he left Helena with 6,000 infantry for the purpose of capturing Little Rock. He marched to Clarendon where he united with General John Davidson’s cavalry brigade. One month later, Steele’s Union army marched into Little Rock and accepted the surrender of the city. Along the way he lost 137 men. Confederate Arkansas was in disarray.
After Steele left Helena no further major operations originated out of the city but military actions by no means stopped. The Union army maintained a garrison at Helena until after the end of the war. Soldiers in Helena continued to conduct scouts into the countryside; more than fifty are documented between October 1863, and February 1865. These scouts do not include engagements between Union pickets and Confederate cavalry or the actions of the Union garrison fighting Colonel Dobbins’ attempts to destroy the plantation lease system and to terrorize Freedmen in and around Helena.