The Casualty Lists Were Long at Helena, Arkansas July 4, 1863
by Gordon Thorsby
On the morning of July 5, the regiments assembled for roll call and then were dismissed for breakfast. The sergeants of the companies tallied the results. Capt. McCobbs commanding Co. A 30th Arkansas was sickened at the long list of losses in his company. Companies tallied their losses and presented them to Lt. Col. Polk because Col. Hart was left on the field severely wounded. Polk was aghast at the long list. When the four regimental rolls were aggregated by the adjutant and presented to Brig. Gen. Dandridge McRae of 1st Brigade of Sterling Prices’ division, he was not surprised. He knew his brigade had suffered at Helena Arkansas on July 4, 1863.
Two hundred miles upriver from Vicksburg, the Union supply depot at Helena fed Grant’s army. Union troops found few comforts there. They detested the flood riddled swamp-like “Hell-in-Arkansas.” The size of the federal garrison at Helena had peaked at 20,000 but in
June 1863, the garrison totaled only 4,129 soldiers under the command of Major General Benjamin Prentiss (right).
Richmond thought was that Helena was low on troops because they had been diverted to Vicksburg. Pemberton’s Confederate army was in dire need of relief. Secretary of War James Seddon, Lieutenant General Kirby Smith, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis believed taking Helena might break the siege, so Maj. Gen. Theophilius Holmes got the order to attack it. Maj. Gen. Sterling Price had 3,095 men, Marmaduke1,750 cavalry, 1,339 infantry from General James F. Fagan and 1,460 cavalry from General Lucius Walker.
Holmes had numerical superiority, but Holmes had strong doubts as to the effort's success.
Prentiss, the same general who delayed the Confederate army at the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh had improved defenses with hilltop batteries and connected rifle pits in between. He placed two pieces of artillery within each of four redoubts. Lastly, he ordered the garrison to be at post at 2:30 each morning.
Merging the Confederate forces was nightmarish. Beginning the trek to Helena, Price’s men and Marmaduke’s cavalry took ten days to go 69 miles. Pouring rain made marching impossible. For Fagan, his 1300+ man force moved mostly by rail, but one report said, “It was mud & water all the time from ‘knee deep up to the arm pits. It would not be surprising if the number of sick from exposure on this trip will equal that of the killed and wounded in the fight.” The slow march eliminated any chance for surprise. The defenses of Helena were ready.
Holmes (right) called a war council on July 3 before the planned attack. Fagan, Marmaduke and Price would simultaneously attack the Federal trenches from three directions at “daylight.” Prentiss’ men were in position at 2:30 am and picket firing began at 3 AM. What one officer defined daylight being dawn meant something else to others. 3 A.M. was definitely not daylight and Fagan assaulted with three regiments as first in. They overran a line of rifle pits but took awful fire from the artillery batteries.
Confederate artillery could not reach the field to support the infantry. Marmaduke’ s cavalry (dismounted) assaulted their portion of the line to take Battery (A) supported by Walker’s cavalry. In addition to the four batteries defending Helena, the timberclad USS Tyler was anchored in the river firing in support of the Union garrison.
One Confederate soldier recorded that “the hills and hollows running parallel to [the federal] works . . . compelled us to charge over the hills exposed to a deliberate and murderous fire.”
Price joined the fray with his division at 7 AM. Fagan’s infantry and Marmaduke’s cavalry failed to reach their objectives being caught under fire from both Batteries C and D. Fagan’s infantry were played out and simply tried to hang on to their gains. Price's first and second charges were repulsed. The third charge took Battery C. When Holmes arrived at the captured redoubt all organization was gone. To the men, conflicting orders were shouted everywhere. Holmes ordered McRae to attack Battery D and McRae sent 200 men to charge and who were quickly mowed down. Holmes then ordered a regiment of Parsons' Brigade to attack Fort Curtis, which was shredded by Union batteries, Tyler's guns, and a hail of enfilading rifle fire. With further effort only producing more casualties, Holmes ordered a retreat at 10:30 A.M. and the fight was over. Tyler reported firing 413 rounds, hurling shells of mostly eight-inch ten- and fifteen-second shells.
Union losses were 57 killed, 146 wounded, and 36 missing and they still held Helena. Confederates listed 173 killed, 687 wounded, and 776 missing or captured) from 7626 engaged. In an army of that size, the losses were staggering to officers in command and men in the line. The Arkansas regimental losses were significant in McRae’s Brigade. In Glenn's 36th Arkansas, it recorded each name of 21 killed, 70 Wounded and 68 missing for a total of 159 men. The 36th left the field with only 36 men in the regiment. Col. Hart’s 39th Arkansas was a different matter. Hart left on the field (eventually died of wounds). The 39th reported 8 killed, 46 wounded, and 39 missing/captured for 95 total. Col. Lucien Gause’s 32nd Arkansas suffered 17 killed, 46 wounded and 26 captured/missing for a total of 89 losses.
McRae’s Brigade losses that totaled 347 men was bad news. However, losses in Fagan’s and Parson’s Brigades eclipsed McRae’s Brigade. Fagan suffered 435 and Parsons suffered 753 casualties. Altogether, Prices’ division losses totaled 34.6%. The casualties far exceeded Southern losses at First Manassas. Union artillery fire had delivered a deadly fire on men in gray.
Brig. Gen John Marmaduke was furious with Brigadier General Marsh Walker’s failure to provide support in his opinion. They ended the debate by dueling in two months later in September where Walker was killed.
McRae was officially charged for willful failure to provide assistance during the attack. The charges hung over his head until December 1864 when Lt. Gen Kirby Smith ordered McRae found not guilty.
The same day, on July 4, 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia pulled out of Gettysburg in a pouring rain. In Vicksburg, the surrender of a Confederate 30,000-man army was made official and in five days, a 48-day siege at Port Hudson, Louisiana, would end sealing the Mississippi River. In the midst of these developments, this not so small battle of Helena occurred.
Arkansas Digital Archives, https://digitalheritage.arkansas.gov/.
"The Battle of Helena," by Michael W. Taylor, Albemarle, North Carolina, Last Updated: 03/19/2019, https://www.civilwarvirtualmuseum.org/1863-1865/battles-of-helena-little-rock/index.php.
American Battlefield Trust, Helena Battle Facts and Summary | American Battlefield Trust.
Battle of Helena, by Harry Searles , American History central, 7/22/2020
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