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Civil War Round Table of Arkansas

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226 Perry St., Helena, AR 72342, (870) 338-9831

Helena, Arkansas. (Photo courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission)
Description: The Battle of Helena is represented by four Union battery sites, which are in various states of preservation (and are all on private property). The July 4, 1863 battle was a major defensive victory for the Union forces and provided a third crushing defeat within 48 hours (Lee began his retreat from Gettysburg, and Vicksburg surrendered on this same day) for the Confederacy. Battery A is located near Adams and Columbia Streets; Battery B is near Liberty Street; Battery C is near Clark and York Streets; and Battery D is on Military Road. Other points of the Battle of Helena are interpreted through historical markers throughout the city of Helena. An additional point of interest is the Confederate Cemetery in Helena, which contains the graves of many of the Southern casualties of the battle, as well as the final resting place of one of the South's great generals: Patrick Cleburne, a resident of Helena.

Admission Fees: Free.

Open to Public: Daily: Daylight hours. Tourist Information Center: Daily: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Visitor Services: None.

Regularly Scheduled Events: Columbus Day weekend in October: King Biscuit Blues Festival.

Directions: From I-40 east: take U.S. 49 southeast to Helena. From I-40 at Memphis: take U.S. 61 south to U.S. 49. Take U.S. 49 west to Helena. Pick up driving tour brochure at the Tourist Information Center on Hwy. 49. 

Tour Today As They Did In 1863

Touring Helena just as they did in 1863 is limited because of today's growth. However, Tom Ezell, historian, re-enactor, and member of the SCV, has provided a short self guided tour for those visiting today. Modern-day Helena has grown a great deal, and has lapped over the hills to form the town of West Helena.

There isn't a whole lot of wartime or antebellum Helena left except for about half a dozen houses that have been converted into bed-&-breakfast inns for the most part. Most of the battery sites (D, on Hindman Hill; C, on Graveyard Hill; B, and A, on Rightor Hill) have been preserved in part and can be visited. The slopes where the Confederate charges occurred have pretty much been overtaken by housing development, the overlooks from the battery positions now look back into town, not to the west where the bad guys were and where most of the fighting took place.

For the most part, the federal regiments camped in the small plain between the west edge of town and the foot of the hills surrounding the towns. I don't recall exactly where the camps were for the Minnesota regiments were, but a fellow named Charles Maggio (proprietor of Maggio's Family Grocery at 70 Highway 20. (Take the first left turn as you come off the Mississippi River Bridge onto Highway 49) is an avid relic hunter, and has documented most of the Federal camps there. His little store is more of a museum than a grocery store, and is well worth a visit while you are in town.

The Federal campsites are all under the residential areas of town, now, so you will likely be tramping through folks' back yards to get there. The site of Fort Curtis is marked, about one block east of 49B, and is currently occupied by a large Baptist church. This marks the western edge of town from 1860-1865, and from there to the hills is the open area for the Federal camps.

Civil War Things to See in Helena:

1.   Phillips County Library & Museum, on Pecan Street. Nice assortment of relics and historical articles from Helena, including Cleburne's personal "Book of Common Prayer" that is about the only artifact of his that's still in Arkansas other than his tombstone and monument. Several artifacts from CS Maj. General Thomas C. Hindman, who was also a resident of Helena, including the bullet that killed him in 1868. In addition, on display is a hand-painted silk flag presented to the Helena volunteers (the Phillips County Guards) in 1861 as they marched off to War.

2.   Maple Hill Cemetery, on Holly Street. The main cemetery is where Hindman and his family are buried at the end of the entrance drive. Turn right immediately as you enter the cemetery and follow the little signs to the Confederate Cemetery over on the next hill. Cleburne's monument stands here to the left of the drive on top of the hill, across from a larger Confederate monument. Many of the CS dead from the July 4, 1863 Battle of Helena are buried here, as well as other Helena CW veterans. Behind Cleburne's monument is the small tombstone brought from his original grave near Columbia, TN; and Cleburne is actually buried under this marker -- not under the monument. Take time to enjoy the view... including that of the Mississippi River just in the distance.

3.  Downtown Helena: Mostly focused on the annual "King Biscuit Blues Festival" held each October. A good part of Civil War Helena was wiped out when the built and upgraded the levee to help keep the river out of the streets late in the 19th century. The main street down in Old Helena now is Cherry Street, which was three blocks back from the waterfront during the War. Cleburne lived in a hotel on Front Street (or Water Street, since it faced directly onto the river bank and the wharf boat), and the old Nash & Cleburne drug store was at Front and Rightor Streets if I remember right. Be sure to visit the Delta Cultural Center at Cherry and Missouri streets, there is a fair effort at interpretation here, and it's a good place to get oriented as to the other sights and sites in town. Good places to eat include Pasquale's Tamales (tamales, sandwiches, and Louisiana cuisine) and Oliver's (steaks and seafood), service is great and friendly at both places, and prices are cheap.

4.  Battery C and Battery D sites. These will take a bit of navigation to get up to... ask the ladies at the Delta Cultural Center for a map and directions. Battery C offers an especially nice view back into the old town, and where the Federal camps were. You'll need to park by the fence down the hill and slip past the chained gate (to stop vehicles since part of the road is washed out just on the other side), but it's well worth it, and no one will bother you about it.

That is pretty much it. Be advised that Helena and Phillips County are deep in the Mississippi Delta, and all that implies. There are some nice places and houses with the folks with the Old Money, and there are some places that much verge onto slums. It's a poor county.

There are several good references to read before starting your tour, for example Ed Bearss' article on the 1863 battle, printed in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly (about 30 years ago), the chapter (34) on Helena in Warren Grabau's new book, "Ninety-Eight Days: A Geographer's View of the Vicksburg Campaign", as well as Perdue's biography of Cleburne, "Pat Cleburne: Confederate General"; Mauriel Joslyn's collection, "A Meteor Shining Brightly"; and Neal and Kremm's biography of Hindman, "The Lion of the South."  The Federal campaign to occupy Helena is covered in the closing pages of William Shea's and Earl Hess' "Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West" and opening of Michael Banasik's "Embattled Arkansas: The Prairie Grove Campaign of 1862."

What Happened...

The Battle of Helena, July 4, 1863

From Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas;
Courtesy of the Department of Arkansas Heritage

In June, General Holmes met with one of his top subordinates, Sterling Price, to plan for what he hoped would be just such a victory. "Old Pap," as the fifty-three-year-old Missourian was affectionately known, had enjoyed a distinguished prewar political career and had seen action at Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Corinth, Mississippi. He was extremely popular with the troops. One Arkansas soldier wrote to his girlfriend, "[I]f Gen'l. Price should come to the Department the joy of the troops would be incapable of restraint. Cheers loud and long, & salutes from artillery would be the inevitable result." But quarrels with Jefferson Davis had relegated Price to subordinate roles like the one he now held under Holmes.

The subject of his discussion with Holmes was an attack on the Mississippi River port city of Helena, situated 70 miles downriver from Memphis and 230 miles above Vicksburg at the point where the base of Crowley's Ridge meets the Mississippi. The town's origins dated from the early years of the nineteenth century. When the war broke out, it was a busy agricultural and commercial center with a population of 1,024 white citizens and 527 black slaves. Since its occupation in July 1862 by Union troops under Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis, Helena had been a constant thorn in the side of Arkansas Confederates. Not only did the Federal occupation allow Union forces to control trade and to influence the sentiments of the surrounding region, but the Federal garrison also posed a constant threat of invasion of the rest of the state. The Confederate high command, including Secretary of War James A. Seddon, thought that an attack on the Federal base there might alleviate those problems and might draw some troops away from the campaign against Vicksburg. If the town could be captured, it would provide the Confederates with a strategic position on the river to compensate for the possible loss of Vicksburg.

Price was eager to attack. He informed Holmes that his men were "fully rested and in excellent spirits," and that he "entertained no doubt of... being able to crush the foe" at Helena. Holmes was not so sure. He noted, "If [as reports indicated] there are 4,000-5,000 men in Helena, fortified as they are, to take it would cost too much." But on June 14, Marmaduke reported that all the Federal troops that could be spared had been sent downriver to Grant at Vicksburg, leaving Union forces at Helena "very weak." Holmes changed his mind. He wrote to Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, at Shreveport, "I believe we can take Helena. Please let me attack it." Smith shot back, "Most certainly do it."

The Confederate plan called for Price's infantry and Marmaduke's cavalry to move from Jacksonport to the vicinity of Helena, where they would unite with forces from Little Rock under the command of Brig. Gen. James Fagan, a Mexican War veteran and former Arkansas legislator. Holmes would travel from Little Rock, accompanied by Gov. Harris Flanagin, to take personal command of the attack .

In Helena, twenty thousand Federal troops and additional thousands of former slaves had swelled the town's population to several times its normal size. There was a shortage of housing, and health and sanitary services had deteriorated badly. The departure of several thousand troops to join the campaign against Vicksburg had alleviated these conditions to some degree, but Union soldiers still complained that the town was cold and wet in winter, hot and disease-ridden in summer. To compound these conditions, the town's streets were often turned into impassable mud by frequent rains. Some Iowa soldiers had rechristened the town "Hell-in-Arkansas."

But in early 1863, at least one of those Federal soldiers found cause for celebration. Twenty-one-year-old Minos Miller of the Thirty-sixth Iowa Infantry wrote to his mother in January, " [W]e are rejoicing today over Brags [sic] defeat [at Murfreesboro, Tennessee] and Old Abe's [Emancipation] Proclamation. We got the news last night at 8 o'clock that all the negros was free and them that was able for servis [sic] was to be armed and set to guarding foarts [sic]. I think the Union is safe and all will be over by the forth [sic] of July."

On April 7, Miller attended a speech by Adjutant General of the Army Lorenzo Thomas, who was promoting the raising of black regiments for service in the Union army (under white officers). Reaction to Thomas's address was so favorable that three companies of a hundred soldiers each were recruited immediately, forming the nucleus of the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment (African Descent). 

Encouraged by the response to General Thomas's appeal, army officials made plans to create a second black Arkansas unit. Throughout the remainder of the spring, the first companies of the Second Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment (African Descent) were formed. Minos Miller volunteered to serve as an officer in this new regiment. On June 12, he wrote to his mother, "Our regiment is about 300 strong. We are drilling every day. The negros learn fast and will fight well. We have tried ours twice and know they will stand fire." The First Arkansas soon left Helena for service in Louisiana, but the Second remained in Helena throughout the summer. As Minos Miller had predicted in his letter to his mother, the Fourth of July would be a momentous day, but not in the way he had imagined. The Rebels were about to give the entire Federal garrison at Helena an opportunity to "stand fire."

The Confederate commander arrived at the Allen Polk house, five miles from Helena, on July 3. His arrival did little to arouse the confidence of the troops. One wrote, "General Holmes and his staff are here. Poor old creature. I wish he was somewhere else, for I do not think him a fit subject to command an army." What Holmes found when he arrived probably caused him to wish he were somewhere else as well. He reported, " [T] he place was very much more difficult of access, and the fortifications very much stronger, than I had supposed before undertaking the expedition."

The difficulty of access was the work of nature. The town was rimmed by a series of hills cut by deeply thicketed ravines. The fortifications were largely the work of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss, a forty-four-year-old native of Virginia (now West Virginia), who had made a name for himself at the battle of Shiloh with a ferocious stand against the attacking Rebels along a sunken road that came to be called the "Hornets' Nest." Captured and paroled, he was promoted to major general in March of 1863 and given command of the District of Eastern Arkansas, which was headquartered at Helena. (For all practical purposes, Helena was the only part of the "district" securely in Union hands.)", Prentiss's command had been surprised at Shiloh. He was determined that he would not be surprised again. In late June, as reports began to indicate that an attack was imminent, he ordered his men to be up and at their posts by 2:30 a.m., and he felled trees along the roads leading into town. An Independence Day celebration, which had been planned by some of his officers, was canceled.

The departure of a large number of troops for Vicksburg left Prentiss with only four thousand effective men. But Shiloh had taught him the defensive value of the proper use of terrain, and he began to use Helena's topography to strengthen his position. The town's principal defense was Fort Curtis, an earthen bastion on the western edge of town. To supplement this position, Prentiss placed four batteries, protected by breastworks and rifle pits, on four hills that formed a rough semicircle around the town. He designated these batteries, north to south, as A, B, C, and D. Additional firepower was provided by the U.S.S. Tyler, a paddlewheel steamer 180 feet long and 42 feet wide, anchored off the river bank. The Tyler was armed with one thirty-pounder Parrott gun and six eight-inch smoothbore cannon. Her upper deck and pilot areas were covered by five-inch-thick oak bulwarks.

These defenses were formidable, but Holmes had not come all this way for nothing. He planned a Coordinated attack from three sides. Marmaduke's 1,750 dismounted cavalry would attack Rightor Hill northwest of town (where Prentiss had placed Battery A). He would be supported on his left by a cavalry brigade under Brig. Ben. L. M. Walker, a West Pointer from Tennessee. Walker was charged with preventing any Federal reinforcements from reaching Rightor Hill. Fagan's 1,339 men would move against Hindman Hill southwest of town (Battery D). The main thrust would be made by Price's 3,095 men against Graveyard Hill near the center of the Union defensive perimeter (Battery C). Holmes ordered all attacks to begin "at daylight" on July 4.

Coordinated attacks were difficult under the best of circumstances, and conditions on this Independence Day were far from ideal. Marmaduke's advance toward Rightor Hill was stalled by enfilading artillery and small-arms fire from Federal troops along the levee to his left and rear. He expected Walker to protect his left flank, but Walker was concerned about his own left flank and refused to move to Marmaduke's aid. The animosity that developed between the two men over this incident would have severe repercussions later in the year.

Farther to the Confederate right, a problem of communication hindered the assault. Fagan had interpreted Holmes's order to attack "at daylight" to mean at first light, but when his men began their assault on Hindman Hill, they came under withering fire from Battery C on Graveyard Hill, which, to Fagan's consternation, was not under attack by Price. Unable to bring along Fagan's artillery because of the felled trees that obstructed the road and pounded by artillery from Batteries D and C, the Rebels moved up the hill "amid the leaden rain and iron hail." They managed to overrun the protecting rifle pits, but were pinned down short of the battery.

More than an hour after Fagan launched his attack, Price, who apparently had interpreted "at daylight" to mean sunrise, began his attack on Graveyard Hill. His men now became the center of attention for the Federal defenders. Minos Miller's Second Arkansas was on the far left of the Union line and had a ringside seat for Price's attack. Miller later described it in a letter to his mother: "Directly we heard the Rebbels cheering and knew they were charging on the batteries. In a minute we could see column after column pouring over the hills toward battery C. As soon as they come in sight of Fort Curtis the gunboat and every battery that could get range of them let into them with a vengence. The air was full of shells and we could see the rebbels lines open and see them falling in all directions."

Twice repulsed, the Confederates charged a third time, "yelling like so many fiends let loose from the bottomless pit." Exhibiting, in Prentiss's words, "a courage and desperation rarely equaled," they carried the hill and captured the battery. Price immediately attempted to turn the captured cannon on the retreating Federals but found, to his dismay, that the guns had been disabled. His had been the only element of the Confederate assault to reach its objective, and his troops continued to attract the fire of every available enemy gun.

Holmes arrived on Graveyard Hill shortly after its capture and proceeded to give a series of confusing and contradictory orders that only made matters worse. Some of Price's men moved to attack Fort Curtis, while others attempted to go to the relief of Fagan. But exhaustion, confusion, the July heat, and the intense Federal fire combined to render both attempts futile. Fagan's men were forced to retreat back through the rifle pits they had taken at such great cost earlier in the day. At 10:30, realizing that the situation was hopeless, Holmes ordered a general retreat. The battered Rebels withdrew toward the Polk house, their rear guard skirmishing to cover their retreat until around 2 p.m. The attack had failed; the battle of Helena was over. 

A Wisconsin soldier who visited the area around Graveyard Hill shortly after the battle wrote, "The battlefield is no pleasant place to visit, covered with men wounded in all ways-some with brains exposed, others shot through the body with grape shot, or a larger ball still sufficient to nearly cut the body in twain. But if there is anything that calls on the sympathy of a man it is to took upon a wounded man, with deathlike and pale face, groaning and wreathing with the greatest possible pain." Another Wisconsin soldier wrote to his father, "[J]ust to see the rebels lying in piles where they charged up the hill. it was awful. I never want to spend another such a "Fourth of July." But Minos Miller was upbeat. He wrote to his mother, "[W]e celebrated [the Fourth of July] here by giving the rebs one of the worst floggings they ever had."

Prentiss had indeed performed a defensive masterpiece. His losses were 57 killed, 146 wounded, and 36 missing for a total of 239. His fortifications had helped hold off a numerically superior foe. The Tyler had proved particularly devastating to the attackers. Its commander, James M. Prichett, reported that the gunboat had fired 413 rounds during the battle, and he estimated that these accounted for at least 600 Rebel casualties.

In his official report, Holmes wrote, "My retreat from Helena was effected in the most perfect order and without the slightest demoralization of any kind." But a soldier from Boonsboro (now Cane Hill), Fontaine Richard Earle, wrote to his girlfriend, Amanda Buchanan, "The most important item of all is that we were repulsed and retreated, and kept on retreating until now." Of Holmes, he wrote, "Poor old soul, . . . the whirring 64 pound bombs was too much for him. He is at L[ittle] R[ock] verr[y] sick, in which condition I leave him and hope he will stay so."

For the Confederates, the battle had been a disaster. Of the 7,646 men involved, 173 were killed, 687 wounded, and 776 missing or captured for a total of 1,636. Nothing had been gained, and desperately needed men had been lost. A Union soldier summed up the battle in a letter to his father: "The general opinion here now is that the enemy fought desperately and with a bravery and determination worthy of a better cause." Years later, a Confederate officer who had lost both hands on Graveyard Hill to a shell from the Tyler wrote, "Since that day at Helena I tell the boys I would rather buck against a voodoo than to try to down Old Glory on the Fourth of July... Yes, the union is good enough for me on the Fourth of July and every other day in the year, and I don't regret the price I paid for finding out!"

The demoralizing effect that the defeat at Helena had on Arkansas's Confederates was compounded by the news that Lee had been repulsed at Gettysburg on July 3 and was retreating south into Virginia. Even more devastating was the news that Vicksburg had surrendered to Grant on July 4. Fontaine Richard Earle fully understood the significance of this turn of events. He wrote to Amanda, "This Department is now fully cut off from the Eastern portion of the government, and we must stand or fall alone. No helping hand can be extended across the Mississippi River to aid us.... The varying war-cloud is now growing dense and dark, but hope looms beyond.", As the late summer of 1863 approached, even hope was coming to be in short supply. 

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