The Confederate defeats in northwestern Arkansas in late 1862, combined with the loss of Fort Hindman in January, left the Confederate presence in the state extremely weak. The largest force consisted of only about 10,000 men in and around Little Rock. They were so weak, in fact, that the Federals no longer had any serious fears that the Confederates would try to retake Missouri. Consequently, they transferred thousands of troops to the east, mainly to aid in the siege of Vicksburg. This left the main Federal garrison at Helena significantly weakened.
In mid-June, the Confederate War Department issued orders to Lieutenant-General Theophilus H. Holmes, commanding the District of Arkansas, to lead a force against Helena in an effort to relieve Federal pressure on Vicksburg. However, it took Holmes almost three weeks to assemble the men and supplies needed for the operation. Holmes’s army consisted of:
- Major-General Sterling Price’s two brigades totaling some 5,000 men
- Brigadier-General James Fagan’s brigade
- Brigadier-General John S. Marmaduke’s two cavalry brigades totaling 2,500 men
- Brigadier-General Lucius Walker’s cavalry brigade
Holmes announced to his troops: “The invaders have been driven from every point in Arkansas save one–Helena. We go to retake it.” Situated on the Mississippi River, Helena served as a supply base both for reinforcements going to Vicksburg and operations still in their planning stages against Little Rock and northeastern Arkansas. The town was garrisoned by about 4,000 Federal troops behind strong natural defenses.
Holmes had been directed by his superior, Lieutenant-General Edmund Kirby Smith, to conduct a detailed reconnaissance of the area before attacking. Holmes did not. Holmes wanted the attack to be a surprise, but delays due to bad weather gave the commander of the Federal garrison, Major-General Benjamin Prentiss, time to learn of and prepare for the impending assault.
By July 3, Holmes’s army of about 7,600 Confederates had come up to within five miles of Helena. Holmes was confident that he had “used every precaution to prevent a knowledge of our approach reaching the enemy.” He planned a four-pronged assault to take place the next day. Although one of the main reasons for attacking Helena was to relieve Federal pressure on Vicksburg, Holmes was unaware that Vicksburg was on the verge of surrender.
Also unbeknownst to Holmes, Prentiss was well aware of the Confederate approach. He called off an upcoming Independence Day celebration and called up the gunboat U.S.S. Tyler for support. Prentiss had been a victim of a surprise Confederate attack at the Battle of Shiloh and was determined not to let that happen again.
Holmes’s Confederates launched their attack on Helena at 3 a.m. They captured three lines of defense, but Federal artillery scattered the attackers with help from the Tyler. Prentiss wired Major-General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding Federals across the Mississippi at Memphis, “We have been hard pressed since daylight (but) thus far we have held our own.” Prentiss believed that the Confederates were “now evidently preparing for a renewed attack in force. I wish you, by all means, to send me re-enforcements.”
But just as Prentiss was pleading for more men, Holmes was issuing orders to withdraw. His attacks, which relied on precision and coordination, were too disjointed to be effective, and he realized that further attempts to break the strong Federal defenses would be futile. Holmes later reported that Helena was “very much more difficult of access, and the fortification very much stronger” than he had expected.
Prentiss reported at 3 p.m., “We have repulsed the enemy at every point, and our soldiers are now collecting their wounded.” But Prentiss expressed concern that his garrison had been “much weakened,” and could be vulnerable to a renewed attack. Prentiss soon realized that there was no need for such worry; Holmes fell back for good, and this became a resounding Federal victory. The Confederates lost 1,590 men, with nearly half of that number captured; the three brigades under Price and Fagan lost over 1,500 of the total. Federals under Prentiss lost just 239, or less than six percent of their total.
Helena remained in Federal hands. Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal naval squadron on the Mississippi, credited the Tyler, which had fired over 400 rounds during the fight, with turning the tide of the battle to the Federals. Porter reported, “First at Belmont, then at Pittsburg Landing, and how here (Helena), the Tyler has been of inestimable value, and has saved the fortunes of the day.”
Holmes’s attack on Helena was doomed to failure. Sending his Confederates across open ground against entrenched defenders had already been proven to fail in previous contests, and his multi-pronged approach was too complex to be executed in the face of such strong defenses. Had Holmes somehow succeeded in capturing Helena, it would have only been a matter of time before a reinforced Federal army came and took it back. And even success would not have accomplished the main goal of the operation, which was to relieve the Confederates at Vicksburg, because they were surrendering that very same day.
The Helena campaign only further weakened the Confederates in Arkansas at a time when they could not afford to be weakened. This emboldened the Federals to take the offensive, and they soon began planning to move on the state capital of Little Rock.
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