The Fourth of July marks another anniversary of the Battle of Helena.
It took place July 4, 1863.
Because the Battle of Gettysburg occurred July 1-3, 1863, the Battle of Helena has been overlooked by Civil War historians and amateur history buffs alike.
Because Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, the happenings that day at Helena have fallen even further into the recesses of history.
As noted in a previous Southern Fried blog post, Helena is doing more than any other Arkansas city to capitalize on its Civil War heritage.
As we approach the Fourth of July, let’s remember what happened there 149 years ago.
In the spring of 1861, two militia companies known as the Yell Rifles and the Phillips Guards left Helena to join other Confederate forces. Additional companies would follow.
Now one of the poorest counties in the country, Phillips County was among the richest places in Arkansas at the start of the Civil War with 224 plantations of 100 acres or more. Forty of those plantations had more than 500 acres, and four of them had more than 1,000 acres.
Of the almost 15,000 people in the county, about 9,000 were slaves.
In the Civil War interpretive plan developed for Helena, Joseph and Maria Brent of the Kentucky firm Mudpuppy & Waterdog Inc. write: “The cotton grown on the plantations meant money, and the money brought power. Helena on the Mississippi was a thriving port. Cotton went downriver to New Orleans, where it was exchanged for goods from Europe. The war brought the easy life that Helena’s upper class enjoyed to an end. The Union navy captured New Orleans and controlled traffic on the river. In July 1862, the Union army marched into Helena, capturing the city.
“The Union army used Helena as a supply center and a base of operations. It was also a freedom center. As the Union army marched from Missouri and across Arkansas, thousands of slaves left farms and plantations, following the army to Helena. The escaped slaves, known as contraband, found themselves wards of the army. Unfortunately, the army had no idea how to feed, clothe and house several thousand destitute civilians.”
These escaped slaves were housed in tents, churches, stables and other structures at Helena. Some of them were used to help build Fort Curtis for the Union forces along with a ring of batteries on Crowley’s Ridge that were designed to protect Helena from a Confederate attack.
“Thousands of Union troops came to Helena en route to Vicksburg,” the Brents write. “As a result of the crowded conditions, hot weather and poor sanitation, many men became sick and hundreds died. Helena became ‘hell in Arkansas’ to many Union soldiers.
“Part of the problem was 19th century understanding of disease and sanitation. Many of the drugs given to soldiers were actually poison, including mercury and silver nitrate. At one point, the doctors ordered soldiers not to drink water from the springs on Crowley’s Ridge and to only drink water from the river.”
Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Union forces declared the contraband to be free. Hundreds of the freedmen in Helena joined the Union Army, forming several regiments.
In the area surrounding Helena, Union forces confiscated abandoned plantations and leased the land to sympathizers. These Union sympathizers hired freedmen to raise cotton. President Lincoln believed that the plantation lease system would serve as proof that freedmen would work and serve as productive citizens after the war.
Confederate generals believed an attack on Helena was needed to relieve the pressure on besieged Vickburg and force the Union to use its resources farther north on the Mississippi River.
Almost 8,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes attacked Helena on July 4, 1863.
Writing for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Michael Taylor says that “for the size of the forces engaged” the Battle of Helena was “as desperate a fight as any in the Civil War, with repeated assaults on heavily fortified positions similar to the fighting that was to be seen in 1864 in Gen. Ulysses Grant’s overland campaign in Virginia and Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign.
“It was the Confederates’ last major offensive in Arkansas (besides cavalry raids and the repulse of the Camden Expedition) and the last Confederate attempt to seize a potential chokepoint on the Mississippi. But the Battle of Helena has been little noted and not long remembered.”
Because of its location overlooking the Mississippi River, Helena was considered strategically important. Holmes’ decision to attack came after prodding from Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and Confederate Lt. Gen. Kirby Smith.
Holmes met on June 18, 1863, in Jacksonport with Maj. Gen. Sterling Price and Brig. Gen. John Marmaduke to plan the attack. The Confederate troops left Jacksonport four days later.
Traveling on muddy roads, Marmaduke’s cavalry and Price’s infantry moved south to Moro in Lee County, covering 69 miles in 10 days.
Taylor writes that they had to improvise a ferry over the Bayou DeView after a bridge constructed by Price’s engineer washed away. Meanwhile, Gen. James Fagan headed east out of Little Rock with additional Confederate troops. Their trip was easier since they could travel by rail and steamboat as far as Clarendon.
In a meeting on July 3 at the Allen Polk house five miles west of Helena, it was decided that the battle would begin at daybreak. Fagan would attack from the southwest, Price would attack from the west and Marmaduke would attack from the north.
It’s clear that the Confederates underestimated how strongly fortified the Union positions were.
“Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss had learned at Shiloh in Tennessee about the need for prepared positions,” Taylor writes. “He established four fortified positions on the bluffs north and west of town, Batteries A and B to the north taking advantage of Rightor Hill, Battery C west of the city on Graveyard Hill and Battery D near the home of Gen. Thomas Hindman on Hindman Hill.”
Union intelligence had brought word of the impending attack, and the 4,129 Union forces were on alert beginning at 2:30 a.m. on July 4. Prentiss had trees cut to block the approaches to the city.
Price thought “daybreak” meant “dawn.”
Fagan thought “daybreak” meant “first light.”
Fagan attacked Battery D at first light and came under heavy fire from Battery C to the left of the attacking forces.
An hour later, Price’s men charged up Graveyard Hill at dawn and took Battery C. A charge on Fort Curtis, however, proved unsuccessful.
“To the north, Marmaduke’s cavalry failed to take Rightor Hill, stymied by troops under Col. Powell Clayton in a flanking position on the Union right behind the levee,” Taylor writes. “Col. Joseph Shelby’s attack was repulsed. Marmaduke’s anger about Brig. Gen. Marsh Walker’s failure to advance on the right resulted in a Little Rock duel on Sept. 6, 1863, in which Marmaduke killed Walker.”
Union defenders received support from the timber-clad USS Tyler, which fired 413 rounds from the river.
Holmes ordered a retreat at 10:30 a.m. Large numbers of Confederate troops who were trapped in the ravines of Crowley’s Ridge surrendered.
The Second Arkansas Infantry, which consisted of black soldiers, held the extreme left of the Union line, something that received nationwide attention in the abolitionist press.
“From the Confederate point of view, the Battle of Helena was a tragic waste,” Taylor writes. “The bloody attack turned out to be a cruel and pointless irony, coming as it did on the day Vicksburg fell. Holmes’ army clearly brought with it to Helena a fighting spirit, but morale suffered badly after such a repulse. The fierce riverside battle was the unsuccessful culmination of the last major Confederate offensive in Arkansas. … For the Union, Helena represented the long-awaited crack in the Arkansas Confederate facade.”
Estimated casualties at Helena were 239 Union soldiers and 1,614 Confederate troops.
“The summer heat added to the misery,” the Brents write. “Wounded and sick men filled every house in Helena. Hell had returned in Arkansas.”
In August 1863, 2,000 sick and wounded men were transferred from Helena to hospitals in Memphis and St. Louis.
Fresh Union troops later were shipped to Helena. Under the command of Gen. Frederick Steele, they marched from the city and captured Little Rock.
The overcrowding, heat and poor sanitation also affected the general population of Phillips County. Homes were taken for use as hospitals, storage rooms and offices. Crops and livestock were confiscated. Slaves left the farms by the thousands.
“Helena was never again threatened by a large Confederate army,” the Brents write. “By 1864, more and more freedmen were working on the leased plantations. Those too old, too young or too sick to work lived on the ‘Home Farm’ on the Pillow Plantation about three miles south of Helena. Another large group was housed opposite Island 63, about 11 miles south of the city. After several attacks on the plantations by Confederate cavalry, Union Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, commander of Helena, ordered forts built to protect the freedmen at both locations.”
Northern benevolent organizations sent representatives to Helena to help in hospitals and teach in schools. Quakers from Indiana operated an orphan asylum and later opened a freedmen’s school. The school and asylum evolved into Southland College, which attracted blacks from across the South. The school, which operated from 1865 to 1925, later moved to Lexa.
The federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands — usually known as the Freedmen’s Bureau — operated in Helena from 1865-67.
“The bureau operated schools, distributed rations to both freedmen and white refugees and worked with planters to contract the freedmen for farm work,” the Brents write. “Ironically, it was the Freedmen’s Bureau that developed the concept of the sharecropper. When crop prices were high, this system worked to the advantage of the cropper; when they were low, the cropper ended the year in debt. For the next 75 years, sharecropping was a way of life in the Delta. People were tied to the land by debt with little or no hope of a better future.”
Phillips County had exited one era and entered another.