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Unlike Major Smith, most of the other 7,645 Confederate soldiers poised to storm Helena harbored no premonitions of death or defeat. “We were told,” testified Lieutenant William H. H. Shibley of the 35th Arkansas Infantry, “that the Federals were entirely ignorant as to our approach; that the city would be very easily taken and everything in like manner until some almost thought we would take the city with but little fighting or probably find the city evacuated.”16

The chain of events that propelled this naďve little army to Helena began on May 23, 1863, when Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon urged that friendly forces west of the Mississippi mount a major operation to help relieve their comrades besieged in Vicksburg. Seddon also asserted that an “attack on, and seizure of, Helena, while all the available forces of the enemy are being pushed to Grant’s aid,” would “secure a great future advantage to the Confederacy.” It took until June 14 for Seddon’s recommendation to reach Little Rock and Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes, the elderly, infirm, and indecisive commander of the District of Arkansas. Holmes was enjoying an unaccustomed spell of resolution thanks to the receipt of a mistaken report from his cavalry. Gray troopers prowling around the outskirts of Helena claimed that the Union garrison had been stripped to the bone to bolster Grant. On June 15 Holmes wired Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, his immediate superior and the commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department: “I believe we can take Helena. Please let me attack it.” The following day, a telegraph operator at Kirby Smith’s Shreveport headquarters clicked this encouraging reply: “Most certainly do it.”17

The army Holmes mobilized to reclaim Helena consisted of Major General Sterling Price’s 3,095-man infantry division and Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke’s 1,750-man cavalry division from Jacksonport, along with Brigadier General James F. Fagan’s 1,339-man infantry brigade from Little Rock. These units were to rendezvous with Brigadier General L. Marsh Walker’s 1,462-man cavalry brigade, which was already posted outside Helena with orders to deny the Federals knowledge of Holmes’ advance. “The march upon Helena was really terrible-especially for infantry,” reported Major Henry Ewing of Marmaduke’s staff. Four straight days of heavy rains in eastern Arkansas flooded rivers, creeks, and bayous, turned the roads to mud, and threw Price’s struggling foot soldiers off schedule by seventy-two hours. This delay gave Prentiss the extra time necessary to foil Walker’s efforts to shroud Confederate movements and intentions with secrecy.18

Holmes arrived at the Allen Polk house on the morning of July 3. There he convened a council of war to divulge his plan of attack. The district commander made it clear to his generals that he considered Battery C on Graveyard Hill at the center of the Union line “to be the strongest of all the enemy’s works, and the key to all his defenses.” To seize this crucial point, Holmes assigned Price’s division, his strongest formation, and he stressed that he wanted Battery C carried and held at all costs. The remaining Rebel infantry in Fagan’s brigade received the job of taking Battery D on Hindman Hill directly south of Battery C. Holmes designated Marmaduke’s division to capture Battery A on Rightor Hill northwest of Helena. Walker’s brigade would shield Marmaduke’s left flank and go on to occupy the city once Rightor Hill fell.19

Holmes desired a synchronized attack against Helena’s long defensive perimeter. Instead of choosing a specific time to engage the enemy, however, Holmes announced, “The attack on Helena will be made to-morrow at daylight.” As it turned out, not all of Holmes’ officers defined “daylight” the same way he did, which would lead to unnecessary confusion and delays the next day.20

Between dusk and midnight, different elements of Holmes’ army left their bivouacs and started out for their jumping-off points nearer Helena. “The night was a beautiful one,” observed Lieutenant Shibley of Fagan’s brigade. “The moon and stars shone beautifully and all nature seemed unconscious of the awful deeds we soon expected to execute.” At 1:30 a.m., General Fagan detached Colonel William H. Brooks, the 34th Arkansas Infantry, three cavalry companies, and an artillery section from the brigade’s column. The general instructed Brooks to stage a demonstration at daylight against the works south of town. Fagan wanted Brooks to prevent the Federals posted there from sallying forth to menace the brigade’s right flank.21















Private John Floyd of the 8th Missouri Cavalry participated in the unsuccessful Confederate attack on Battery A. Courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia




Brigadier General James F. Fagan and his dogged, hard-fighting brigade of Arkansas infantry captured the five lines of rifle pits protecting Battery D, but they lacked the numbers and the stamina to take the battery itself. Courtesy UALR Archives.

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