Prelude to the Battle
Battle of Pea Ridge
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.
Curtis Threatens Little Rock, Arkansas
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 forced the Confederate state government to abandon Little Rock temporarily when his troops threatened the state capital in May 1862.
Curtis Occupies Helena, Arkansas
Curtis’s soldiers also captured and occupied Helena, Arkansas, on July 12, 1862. On the west bank of the Mississippi River, between Memphis, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, Helena served as a Union base of operations during Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign in 1863.
Federal Garrison at Helena
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.
Confederates Plan Three-pronged Offensive to Retake Helena
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), to plan 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.
Mother Nature Intervenes
Price got underway on June 22, but swollen streams and heavy rains that turned the roads to ribbons of mud hindered his progress. The slowdown enabled Prentiss to make preparations for the Confederate onslaught after learning of their approach.
Federal Defenses at Helena
Helena was a highly defensible position. Four tall hills separated by steep ravines encircled the town on the west bank of the Mississippi River. At the top of each hill, Prentiss 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 ordered his soldiers to fell trees to block the ravines and connecting roads.
July 4, 1863 — Clash at Helena
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 and 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 “first light.” Price understood it to mean “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 freed the gunners of Battery C 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 decided that the disjointed attack had failed and signaled a retreat.
Aftermath of the Battle
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. They left many of them behind, trapped in the entangled, steep ravines after Holmes retreated. By comparison, Prentiss reported 239 Union casualties—seven times fewer than his enemy.
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 surrender 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.