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Battle of Helena

July 4, 1863

Often obscured by the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg and the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Helena, fought on July 4, 1863, was the last major Confederate offensive launched in Arkansas during the Civil War.

On March 6–8, 1862, Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis' Union Army of the Southwest scored a resounding victory over Major General Earl Van Dorn's Army of the West at the Battle of Pea Ridge (aka Battle of Elkhorn Tavern) in Benton County, Arkansas. Curtis' triumph secured Federal control of Missouri for the next two years and enabled the Union to focus on other areas in the Mississippi Valley.

Immediately after his success at Pea Ridge, Curtis severed ties with his supply lines and pursued Van Dorn's army farther into Arkansas, while living off of the land, much as Major General William T. Sherman would do in Georgia two years later. Curtis never caught up with Van Dorn, but he did force the Confederate state government to temporarily abandon Little Rock when his troops threatened the state capital in May 1862. Curtis's soldiers also captured and occupied Helena, Arkansas, on July 12, 1862. Located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, between Memphis, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, the city served as a Union base of operations during Major General Ulysses S. Grant's Vicksburg Campaign in 1863.

During the next year, the size of the Federal garrison at Helena swelled to roughly 20,000 soldiers under the command of Major General Benjamin Prentiss. After Grant established a foothold in Mississippi south of Vicksburg, he began transferring troops from Helena to support his operations in Mississippi. By June 1863, only about 4,000 Union soldiers remained in garrison at Helena. Seeing an opportunity to restore the flow of arms and much-needed supplies into Arkansas, and to relieve pressure on Rebel troops under siege at Vicksburg, Confederate leaders began developing plans to wrest Helena from Union control.

On June 18, 1863, Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes, commander of the Confederate District of Arkansas, met with Major General Sterling Price, his field commander, and Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke in Jacksonport (Jackson County), roughly 100 miles northwest of Helena, to design their offensive. Their final stratagem called for a three-pronged assault on Helena in late June. After making a seventy-mile cross-country trek, Price's 3,000 infantrymen would attack from the west, Marmaduke's 2,780 cavalry troopers would advance from the north, and Brigadier General James Fagan would lead a column of 1,770 foot soldiers from Little Rock and approach Helena from the south.

Price got underway on June 22, but his progress was soon slowed by swollen streams and heavy rains that turned the roads to ribbons of mud. The slowdown enabled Prentiss to make preparations for the Confederate onslaught after learning of their approach.

Helena was already a highly defensible position. Located on the west bank of the Mississippi, the town was encircled by four tall hills separated by steep ravines. At the top of each hill, Prentiss had constructed two-cannon batteries (simple-named batteries A,B,C, and D) protecting the city in a semi-circle from north to south. Between the hilltop batteries and the town, the Federals erected Fort Curtis, armed with two 32-pound and five 24-pound siege guns. Adding to the town's already formidable defenses, when Curtis learned of the approaching Rebel forces, he had trees felled blocking the ravines and connecting roads.

The approaching Rebel forces did not reach the outskirts of Helena until early July 1863. On July 3, the Confederate leaders held a final council of war where they agreed that the coordinated attack would begin at "daybreak" the next morning.

The choice of the term "daybreak" proved to be unfortunate for the Rebel commanders. Fagan interpreted the term to mean at "first light." Price understood it to mean at "dawn." Thus Fagan began his assault of Battery D at about 3 a.m., nearly an hour before Price's men attacked Battery C. The delay enabled the gunners of Battery C free to direct their fire on Fagan's infantrymen as they assaulted Battery D.

When Price's men moved into action at dawn against Battery C, they carried their objective, but it was too late to salvage Fagan's efforts to silence Battery D. Meanwhile, Colonel Powell Clayton's defenders rebuffed attempts by Marmaduke's dismounted cavalry to capture Battery A on Rightor Hill. Eventually, Price's men who had achieved a breakthrough, came under fire from both ends of the Union line and from the USS Tyler, which was lending artillery support from the river. By 10:30 a.m., Holmes determined that the disjointed attack had failed and signaled a retreat.

The Confederacy paid dearly for its failed attempt to capture Helena. After-action reports calculated that 1,696 Rebel soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured during the brief encounter. Many of them were left behind, trapped in the entangled, steep ravines, after Holmes ordered the retreat. By comparison, Prentiss reported 239 Union casualties—seven times fewer than his opponent.

The bungled assault on Helena was more than a combat misadventure; it was also a waste of men and materiel. On the same day that the Confederate raiders failed to dislodge their outnumbered opponents, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered his army and the city of Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant, thus rendering the Helena operation pointless.

The failed attempt to capture Helena was the last major Confederate offensive launched in Arkansas during the war. Despite that noteworthy status, however, the Union victory at Helena remains relatively obscure because it shares the date—July 4, 1863—with the fall of Vicksburg, and with the beginning of Robert E. Lee's withdrawal from Pennsylvania following the pivotal Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg the previous day.

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