On June 12, Union General Stephan A. Hurlbut reported from Memphis that Gen. Sterling Price had left Little Rock with a force of 4800 men and was moving toward Helena. Having heard similar reports, Commodore William “Dirty Bill” Porter, in a precautionary move, sent a fleet of gunboats to the river city including the USS Bragg, Hastings, and Tyler. ( Schieffler, George David. “Too Little Too Late to Save Vicksburg: The Battle of Helena, Arkansas, July 4, 1863.”)
Helena is situated 70 miles downriver from Memphis and 230 Miles above Vicksburg at the point where Crowley’s Ridge meets the Mississippi. When hostilities opened in 1861, it was a busy agricultural and commercial center with a population of 1500 of which one third were slaves. The Federal garrison posed a constant threat of invasion to the rest of the state. The Confederate High Command in Richmond thought an attack on the Federal base might alleviate those problems and draw troops away from the siege around Vicksburg. (Mark K. Christ, “Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas” University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 1994.
East of the Mississippi, and perhaps 200 air miles below Vicksburg was another Southern stronghold, Port Hudson. As with Vicksburg, batteries were emplaced on the bluffs which commanded the entire river front. The gap between the two strong points allowed cross theater communication, as well as beef from western Louisiana and Texas.
Approximately 7000 troops manned the fortifications under Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner, a West Point grad and so far, a competent field commander
The 18th Infantry was among three Arkansas units at Port Hudson. Company ‘E’ was primarily from Arkansas County and first commanded by Captain Felix Robertson, a planter from near the Arkansas River. Captain C. J. Miller of St Charles was in charge at this time in 1863.
The 18th came together as a unit at DeValls Bluff in March, 1862 and went directly to Pocahontas Arkansas before taking up positions at Fort Pillow Tennessee. They endured more attrition from disease then from causalities like those suffered at Corinth Mississippi, the following October. For this reason the 14th, 18th, and 23rd Arkansas Infantry’s were consolidated with Colonel Oliver P. Lyles of Crittenden County, in charge. Right now, all the troops were in rags and without shoes. None were without hats of every shape and fashion. It was likely palmetto was the most common material to serve as a heat shield from the tropic like weather, rampant on the lower Mississippi.
Captain Robert H. Crockett formerly of the “Crockett Rifles” joined the 18th as a Private and was elected Major in April, 1862, then promoted to Colonel, in November through seniority. This well liked officer, whose popularity ascended from the pre-war Arsenal crises at little Rock, had refused retention in his Company ‘H,’ 1st AR Infantry when his enlistment was nearly over. Now he grimly contemplated his destiny for Port Hudson was under siege like its upstream counterpart.
One hundred and fifty years ago, following excursions and raids into Missouri, the Confederate forces in Jacksonport reported in good condition and ready for another confrontation with the enemy of blue coats, now settled in eastern Arkansas. On June 9, 1863, General Sterling Price sent General T. Holmes a dispatch noting the “efficient condition” of his 4,058 soldiers.
This dispatch also relayed that General Marmaduke ascertained that there are approximately 4000-5000 Union soldiers garrisoned in Helena. The dispatch concludes with a note that “…were a movement conducted with celerity and secrecy [on Helena], by which you could concentrate the commands of Generals Frost and Fagan with this column, I entertain no doubt of your being able to crush the foe at that point.
The dispatch did not, however, note the impassable terrain surrounding Helena, nor did it relay the existence of hilltop forts (batteries) surrounding the Delta town, nor did it mention the six 24-pound and one 32 pound siege guns in Fort Curtis in the center of town. It is intelligence omissions such as these that would bog the Confederate Army into a failed attack less than a month away.
Maj. Gen. Sterling Price and his staff arrived at Little Rock during the first week of April from service east of the Mississippi River. The charismatic general, who’s overriding ambition was to reclaim Missouri for the Confederacy, took command of an infantry division. His arrival was hailed by the Western press and did much to dispel the gloom which had settled among the troops as a result of recent defeats in Arkansas. (Albert Castel, General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 1968) 139, 142.
Part of his division consisted of Arkansas Gen. Dandridge McRae’s Brigade which included the 32nd Arkansas Infantry, a regiment composed of companies who were glad to be near their homes in Jackson and Woodruff counties. Company ‘E’ (‘E,’ 30) of the 30th Arkansas, was made up of conscripts and volunteers from all areas of Arkansas County. Captain John A. Trimble, a prior service member from the “Crockett Rifles,” had command of the company. Captain John R. Maxwell, previously of the “DeWitt Guards” headed ‘I,’ 26, which was partially manned by former citizens from Lagrue Township. These flatlanders had endured man killing marches during the Prairie Grove Campaign which occurred six months ago in northwest Arkansas, but actual combat made them veterans.
After urging Gen. Holmes to consider an attack on Helena to relieve pressure on Vicksburg, Price marched his division to Jacksonport, where he assumed command of all Confederate forces in northeast Arkansas. His first action was issuing a strong denunciation of lawlessness and plundering by Southern troops in the area. He had with him his own train of commissary stores to sustain his division while maintaining his popularity. (Castel, General Sterling Price) 143.
Skirmishing near and around the Helena enclave continued despite Federal Gen. Powell Clayton’s scorch and plunder expedition early in the month. His design was to eleminate the Southern mounted men’s ability to subsist in east Arkansas. But on the morning of May 25th his regimental Major, Samuel A Walker in command of companies from the 5th Kansas and the 3rd Iowa, were intercepted after departing Helena for a scout down the Little Rock Road.
A 3rd Iowa Cavalry participant later wrote: “In a short time Company ‘A’ found a few Rebels with whom they began skirmishing. When near (Allen) Polk’s Plantation, Dobbins (Col. Archibald S.) whole regiment was encountered first by the Fifth Kansas who soon retreated; then Companies ‘A’ and ‘B’ fought them until ordered by Major Walker, to fall back which we did after firing every shot in our firearms. When we reached the bridge we halted and prepared to give the rebels fight if they pursued. The Major attempted to halt the men from his regiment and at the same place, but it was too close to the enemy for them. After laying there for a short time the Rebels sent in a flag of truce for permission to bury their dead and take care of their wounded, which permission the Major foolishly granted; thus giving them time to get away from the cavalry coming from town to his help.” (Boyle Journal, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines, Iowa.)
The plantation was five miles west of the town and no watercourse existed between the two points. The bridge spoken of likely spanned a ravine. Lt. Col. Francis M. Chrisman was the Executive Officer of Col. Dobbin’s Regiment and one Kansas Noncom noted in his journal Maj. Walker went out to investigate the battle-ground after the truce began. On his return he reported: “….the Rebel loss acknowledged 30 wounded; did not say how many killed. Col. Crissman gave the number of his forces at 300, mostly of Dobyn’s command. Col. Chrisman was wounded in the right wrist.” The sergeant went on to quote their loss at 14 killed and wounded. Of the 3rd Iowa, 1 killed, three wounded, and 20 captured. (Bondi, August, Autobiography of August Bondi. 1833-1907, Galesburg Illinois, 1910) 99.
LITTLE ROCK—The Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission has approved an application for an Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Historical Marker in Crittenden County, ACWSC Chairman Tom Dupree announced today.
The historical marker will be located on Mound City Road in Marion and will commemorate the 1865 sinking of the steamboat Sultana in which as many as 1,800 former Union prisoners of war were killed. The City of Marion is sponsoring the marker.
Through the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission Historical Marker Program, the ACWSC works with local partners to help tell the stories of how the Civil War affected communities around the state. The Commission hopes that there will be at least one marker in each of the state’s 75 counties by the end of the commemoration in 2015. To date, 64 markers in 41 counties have been approved.
For more information on sesquicentennial plans, visit www.arkansascivilwar150.com or e-mail email@example.com.
The Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission is housed within the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. The AHPP is the Department of Arkansas Heritage agency responsible for identifying, evaluating, registering and preserving the state’s cultural resources. Other agencies are the Arkansas Arts Council, the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, the Old State House Museum, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and the Historic Arkansas Museum.
One hundred and fifty years ago, both the Confederate and Federal armies were in constant states of alertness. The war thus far has left soldiers and citizens weary and there was no end in sight. Food prices were soaring, supply routes had been shut down across the South, and Arkansas was not fairing very well. Following a busy month of fighting and scouting, the war would not slow down in June, 1863.
Throughout June, 1863, there were military actions scattered throughout the state, from Fayetteville in the NW corner to near Lake Village in the SE corner. Following is a list of skirmishes throughout the state in June, 1863:
04 – Skirmish, Fayetteville
11 – Scout to Jacksonport
14 – Skirmish, Newton County
15 – Skirmish, Fayetteville
16 – Skirmish, Grand Lake
22 – Skirmish, Bentonville
25 – Skirmish, Madison
28 – Skirmish, Gaine’s Landing