Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"We Were Badly Whiped": A Confederate Account of the Battle of Helena, July 4, 1863

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"We Were Badly Whiped": A Confederate Account of the Battle of Helena, July 4, 1863

Article excerpt

ON JULY 4, 1863, LT. GEN. THEOPHILUS HOLMES ATTACKED the Union fortifications at Helena, Arkansas, in an effort to relieve the pressure caused by the Federal siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Holmes's plan called for a coordinated three-pronged attack on the Mississippi River stronghold, with cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Sappington Marmaduke striking from the north, infantry under Brig. Gen. James F. Fagan attacking from the south, and a division of Rebel infantry under Maj. Gen. Sterling Price hitting the Union center.

Helena's Union defenders manned a series of hilltop fortifications surrounding the town, labeled successively, from north to south, Batteries A, B, C, and D. The defenses were designed so that the four batteries would be able to turn their guns to assist any of the forts that were under attack. Cross-trained artillerists of the 33rd Missouri Infantry Regiment, supported by other Union regiments from Indiana, Kansas, Wisconsin and Iowa, as well as the newly formed 2nd Arkansas Infantry Regiment (African Descent), manned these forts. The guns of a large, earthen fortification-Fort Curtis-covered the batteries from within Helena, as did those of the U.S.S. Tyler, a stout timberclad gunboat prowling the Mississippi River east of town.

Fagan's Rebel troops-James P. King's 35th Arkansas Infantry, Samuel Bell's 37th Arkansas Infantry, and Alexander Hawthorn's Arkansas Infantry Regiment-attacked at 4 A.M. They clawed their way through roads obstructed by felled trees and struggled to maintain a cohesive line amid the rugged ravines of Crowley's Ridge as they approached five lines of rifle pits held by the 43rd Indiana Infantry Regiment.1 Company B of the 33rd Missouri, with a six-pounder James Rifle, a six-pounder field piece, and a twelve-pounder howitzer, manned Battery D. Company B was supported by Companies G, I and K of the 33rd as well as soldiers of the 33rd Iowa Infantry.2

As his troops began skirmishing with the Hoosiers in the first line of rifle pits, Fagan deployed Hawthorn on the right of the Upper Little Rock Road, Bell on the left, and King on Hawthorn's right. "The position assigned to Colonel King threw him, perhaps, on that ground most difficult of all to get over," Fagan reported. "Had it not been for the determined character of this brave young colonel, his regiment, perhaps, would not have been advanced over all the difficulties he met with."3 The Arkansas brigade overran four lines of rifle pits before the exhausted troops collapsed under heavy fire. They managed to take the last line, driving the defenders back into Battery D atop Hindman Hill, when Price's division belatedly attacked Battery C. Fagan recalled:

Of all the many obstacles and threatening fortifications that opposed our advance that morn, there only remained the fort. All other obstacles, natural and artificial, had been overcome. Rugged and almost impassable ravines, the steepest and most broken hillsides, abatis, and line after line of breastworks, had been passed and left behind. Before us there only remained the fort and the plain on which it was built. Notwithstanding the reduced condition of my command and the exhaustion of those yet remaining, I ordered a charge upon the fort. My colonels (King, Hawthorn, and Bell) did all in their power to encourage the men to the attack. The effort was made, but the prostrate condition of my command prevented success, and, after losing in the attempt several gallant officers and many brave men, I formed again in rear of the inner line of riflepits, while the guns of the fort continued to pour forth a furious fire.4

With the Federal lines holding, General Holmes ordered his troops to fall back at 10:30 AM. The bulk of Bell's regiment, trapped in a ravine below Battery D, was captured, including its colonel.5

The Confederate attack had been doomed in part by Holmes's order for the concentrated attack to begin at "daylight," which Fagan and Marmaduke construed to mean at first light. …

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