Reflecting on the Battle of Helena

Kimberly J. Williams
(NOTE: Today’s blog is a portion of a story written in July 2009 about the city of Helena-West Helena’s unveiling of the Civil War Helena Interpretive Plan, which includes interpreting 29 Civil War sites throughout Phillips County. The objective of the plan is “to give a voice to those who were affected by the Civil War in Helena and Phillips County – Union and Confederate, black and white, soldier and civilian, and men and women.” To read the entire story, please click here.)
On July 4, 1863, daylight fell upon Helena, Arkansas, a river town that had been occupied by Union forces over the past year. Located along the banks of the Mississippi River, Helena held a strategic location along the mighty river between Memphis and Vicksburg (in the midst of a forty-plus-day siege led by General Ulysses S. Grant). Memphis, under Federal control since June of 1862, served as an important supply depot and staging area for many of the Union campaigns.

The battle would become an exercise of confusion. Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes, commander of the Confederate District of Arkansas, gave the order to attack Union forces at “daybreak.” The phrase obviously had different meanings to different Confederate leaders. To Confederate Major General Sterling Price, the phrase meant dawn; to Brigadier General James Fagan, it referred to first light. This minor misunderstanding had a major impact on the outcome of the battle – with Fagan’s troops attacking a full hour before Price’s.

The battle was bloody. A total of 239 Union soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. The number for Confederate was nearly sevenfold – 1,696 killed, wounded, or missing. The Battle of Helena secured the Union stronghold on the Mighty Mississippi. The bloody battle also proved to be the last major Confederate offensive in Arkansas.

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