Battles of Helena & Little Rock

On July 4, 1863, as the nation celebrated Independence Day, the Confederate garrison of Vicksburg formally surrendered and Robert E. Lee’s troops retreated from Gettysburg. One more blow to the Confederacy’s hopes took place that day as well, in the Mississippi River town of Helena, Arkansas.

Helena had been an important Union stronghold since July 1862. The city provided a base for Union operations up and down the Mississippi and a convenient staging area for raids into the interior of Arkansas. In the minds of Confederate commanders, the capture of Helena would disrupt Union operations and provide a river bastion in the event that Vicksburg was captured.

By July 3, a Confederate force of about 7,600 under Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes was in position near Helena, ready to launch an attack on the city. Unfortunately for Holmes, the Union defenses were formidable--four hilltop forts plus Fort Curtis, closer to the city, manned by a garrison of more than 4,000 troops.

Holmes’ battle plan was ambitious. His men would launch a simultaneous assault from three directions, a difficult maneuver to coordinate under the best of circumstances. Although Holmes hoped to catch the Federals by surprise, by early morning on July 4 the city’s defenders were in line and waiting for the assault.

The ferocious fighting began about 3:30 that morning. After several hours of desperate attacks, the Confederates withdrew from the battlefield, leaving behind an estimated 1,600 men killed, wounded or missing. The Union garrison suffered approximately 220 casualties. Union forces continued to hold Helena for the rest of the war.

Following the victories at Helena and Vicksburg, Union Major General Frederick Steele was appointed to lead the effort to capture Little Rock, the Arkansas capital. Leading about 15,000 men, Steele faced a Confederate force about half that size, commanded by Major General Sterling Price.

Steele’s men advanced slowly against Confederate opposition, and arrived in the Little Rock area in early September. Rather than simply attack Price’s strongly entrenched positions on the north side of the Arkansas River, Steele opted for a two-pronged approach to Little Rock. A portion of his force crossed the Arkansas southeast of town to outflank the Confederate defenders, while the main body moved north of the river. Price, aware that his flank had been turned and afraid of being trapped in the city, ordered his cavalry to buy time while his infantry and artillery retreated from north of the river. The Confederates successfully evacuated the city, and on the evening of September 10, 1863 Little Rock surrendered to Federal forces. At the cost of less than 150 men, Steele had skillfully captured the capital of Arkansas. The Federals successfully defended a crucial Mississippi River town and captured another Confederate capital in 1863; their next campaign in the Trans-Mississippi (the 1864 Camden/Red River Expedition) did not enjoy the same success.

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