One hundred and fifty years ago was the most decisive Federal victories in the entire Civil War. It was this week in 1863 that the Confederacy put their everything on the line in hopes of a sweeping victory in the North at Gettysburg, in busting the siege in Vicksburg, and if the Rebs could secure a victory in Helena as well, the War would begin to wind down in the favor of the boys in gray. As history would dictate, not a single one of the “what if’s” would materialize, securing the second half of the War forever for the boys in blue.
On the morning of July 4, 1863, the Confederate Army in Arkansas was amassed only a few miles distant from Helena. The battle plan attack included a multi-pronged attack that would culminate in all commanders working together at the same time to pull off a much-needed victory west of the Mississippi River. With ambiguous orders relating the exact time of the attack, the Rebel army managed to pull off one of the most embarrassing defeats the Confederate army experienced in the Trans-Mississippi theater of operations.
With the city well-fortified with four hilltop artillery fortresses (batteries) consisting of two field pieces each, scattered cannons throughout the town, seven siege guns in Fort Curtis, and the U.S. Navy’s gunboat- USS Tyler, the Federal army was very well entrenched and ready for a fight. As the first shots rang out, the Confederates would soon find out how impossible a task it was to take Helena.
The Confederate Army attacked the extreme northern and southern flanks of the Union army. The engagement was general and fierce. As Fagan fought a desperate attack at Battery D, Colonel Brooks was busy engaging the 2nd Arkansas of African Descent on the Little Rock Road. Meanwhile on the north flank, the Union line was holding as the 5th Kansas and 1st Indiana kept the attackers at bay. The battle raged on the two flanks while General Price stood fast in the center of the line. As Price finally made his charge with is Arkansas and Missouri troops through the center of the battle line, the north and south flank fighting was winding down, creating a crossfire of artillery from six positions.
As the Confederates under Price’s command make their final charge through the middle of the Union line, chaos ensued creating a panicked retreat by the Union forces. Confederates were flooding over Battery C toward Fort Curtis when the attack became more of a slaughter. Rebs were falling dead and wounded onto the ground. Casualties went over a thousand before the order was given to fall back. The battle was relatively quick, ending before noon, and leaving the port city of Helena in the hands of the Union army.