This Day in Arkansas History: The Battle of Helena

 On July 4, 1863, daylight fell upon Helena, 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.

Helena-West Helena’s Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration kicked-off in May with the dedication of a replica of Fort Curtis, a Union fortress built after Federal forces captured the town in June 1862.

Over the next few years, additional interpretive exhibits and signage will be placed throughout the historic city. Freedom Park will feature five major exhibits that explore the African-American experience in Civil War Helena, following the progression from fugitive slave to Contraband to freedom, and, for some, enlistment in the Union Army. Estevan Hall, the oldest remaining family structure in historic Helena, will serve as a Civil War Helena visitors’ center and provide guests with insight into how families were impacted by the Federal occupation of the city. Other locations for interpretive signage include the four batteries (A, B, C, and D) from 1863’s Battle of Helena – still clearly visible on Helena landscape; the Civil War era Moore-Horner House; the Helena Confederate Cemetery; Court Square Park; Delta Cultural Center, a museum of the Department of Arkansas Heritage; and Helena Museum of Phillips County.

To learn more about Helena-West Helena’s Civil War past, log on to

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