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At 4:05 a.m., Fagan’s regiments emerged one at a time from a one-mile stretch of road obstructed with felled timber and hurriedly deployed beneath Hindman Hill. Peering over Battery D’s parapet, gunners from the 33rd Missouri’s Company B trained their fieldpieces on the mottled ranks of tan, brown, and gray unfolding from column to line of battle below. Three other companies from the 33rd Missouri and parts of the 43rd Indiana Infantry and 35th Missouri Infantry occupied the lowest of five lines of rifle pits that ran across the face of Hindman Hill like red scars. General Salomon promptly reinforced this threatened sector with two units kept in reserve beside his headquarters near Fort Curtis-the 33rd Iowa Infantry and Lieutenant Orlo H. Lyon’s section of the 3rd Iowa (or “Dubuque”) Battery. Lieutenant Colonel Cyrus H. Mackey placed two companies of the 33rd Iowa in front of Battery D, three in the rifle pits shielding Battery C, one in a ravine between Graveyard and Hindman Hills, and the last four in rifle pits overlooking the Upper Little Rock Road. Like other Union volunteer infantry regiments, the 33rd Iowa was supposed to number ten companies, but it ended up fielding an eleventh company early in the fight. When Helena’s batteries roared their first challenges at the oncoming Rebels, the sick soldiers confined to the 33rd’s camp staggered to their feet, grabbed their Enfield rifle muskets, donned their accoutrements, and fell in. Though excused from duty, these men did not want to miss their regiment’s first real battle. Captain John P. Yerger, the 33rd’s officer of the day, had been detailed to watch the camp, but he seized his chance to see action by leading the invalid company to the sound of the guns.25

Adhering to General Holmes’ timetable, Fagan kicked off the assault on Battery D before his third regiment had time to disentangle itself from the timber and join the brigade’s line of battle. Colonel A.T. Hawthorn’s Arkansas Infantry Regiment and the 37th Arkansas Infantry ignored a “leaden rain and iron hail” and charged the outer line of rifle pits, which the Federals abandoned at the last moment. Instead of fleeing up Hindman Hill, however, Battery D’s defenders jumped into the second line of rifle pits and resumed firing. Fagan’s two leading regiments rested briefly and then chased the Federals out of those fortifications as well. Buoyed by the extra weight of the 35th Arkansas Infantry, Fagan’s men seized the third line, but success was exacting an increasing toll from the dogged Arkansans. “My regiment had been hotly engaged for nearly three hours,” explained Colonel Hawthorn. “The men were completely exhausted.” A rising sun burned away the early morning fog and transformed the day into a typical Helena scorcher, which intensified the agony of Fagan’s panting troops. “Numbers had fainted from excessive heat and fatigue,” Hawthorn added. “Many had been killed and wounded, and a large majority in each of our three regiments were utterly unable to fight any longer.”26

Fagan’s brigade displayed incredible willpower by lurching forward at its brigadier’s behest to storm the fourth line of rifle pits. The Arkansans secured their objective by 7:00 a.m., but they now were too drained physically to assail the fifth line. Sensing that the Confederates had shot their bolt, the Federals above them grew visibly relaxed-but they still attended to the business at hand. “I was surprised at the deliberate coolness with which our men picked off the rebs who were now hiding behind logs stumps and in some rifle pits,” remarked Sergeant John S. Morgan, one of the 33rd Iowa’s fighting invalids. “Men would shoot at rebels as though aiming at buffaloes or deer,” wrote Andrew Sperry, the principal musician in Morgan’s regiment. “Laughing and chatting were the order of the day. Officers would notice the missing shots of their men, and . . . insist in trying a few shots themselves.”27

Up to this point in time, Price’s division had yet to appear on the battlefield. The tardiness of “Old Pap” freed Battery C and Union riflemen on Graveyard Hill to subject Fagan’s left to a galling enfilade fire. Fortunately for the beleaguered Arkansans, Colonel Brooks neutralized those Federals who might have turned the brigade’s right flank.28

The conscientious Brooks launched his diversion at first light, routing a Union picket post and sweeping through a contraband village, where his men killed two or three blacks and captured eight others. Brooks pushed on to Clements House Hill and allowed the Federals assigned to the breastworks half a mile south of Helena a good look at his command. Divided into two sections, Battery K, 1st Missouri Light Artillery, opened fire at the Rebels, but with little effect. Out in front with Brooks’ skirmish line, Captain Fontaine Richard Earle of the 34th Arkansas Infantry quipped, “These . . . two batteries did a great deal of shooting at us but we dodging behind trees were perfectly safe.”29

Brooks’ soldiers had their nerves tested more severely after they attracted the attention of the USS Tyler. Armed with six 8-inch guns-three per broadside-and a 32-pound Parrott rifle in the stern, the Tyler had gotten plenty of practice shelling hostile troop formations a year earlier when it supported Grant at Shiloh. The timberclad stunned Brooks’ force by hurling an 8-inch shell into the midst of a cavalry company, killing three horses and wounding three riders. The Confederates tried to retaliate by unlimbering two guns on Clements House Hill, but return fire from the Tyler and Battery K stampeded the gray artillerists into a hasty withdrawal. Though bested in this gunnery contest, Brooks succeeded in keeping the 2nd Arkansas Regiment of African Descent and part of the 35th Missouri Infantry immobilized in their fortifications the rest of the morning.30

The impulsive and hot-tempered John Marmaduke never let an obstacle, no matter how formidable, stop him from getting into a fight. Marmaduke’s division had lost its way when it attempted to bypass a roadblock in the darkness, but the horseless Missouri cavalrymen managed to attack Battery A only a few minutes behind schedule. Colonel Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby’s brigade spearheaded Marmaduke’s advance, followed by Colonel Colton Greene’s smaller brigade. Marmaduke’s rugged Missourians also shouldered aside enough timber from the Old St. Francis Road to drag along four cannon by hand. Shelby flushed some Union pickets about three-quarters of a mile from Battery A, chasing them to within one hundred and fifty or two hundred yards of that stronghold. As the Missourians occupied the high ground opposite Rightor Hill, Marmaduke’s artillery chief, Captain Joseph Bledsoe, brought two guns into action four hundred yards from Battery A.31

Colonel Rice, the commander of the Union right wing, met Marmaduke with the 29th Iowa Infantry and two howitzers belonging to the 3rd Iowa Battery. If that were not bad enough, Marmaduke also found his left flank and rear scourged by a substantial Northern force under Colonel Powell Clayton on the levee north of Helena. Clayton’s dismounted 5th Kansas and 1st Indiana Cavalry peppered the Confederates with their carbines. At the same time, the Missourians had to endure shelling from the same quarter from a second section of the 3rd Iowa Battery and a pair of 2-pound steel Woodruff guns worked by some 1st Indiana troopers. Colonel Thomas Hart Benton, Jr., threw eight companies of the 29th Iowa into skirmish order, and the aggressive Westerners bounded forward with a lightheartedness jarringly out of place for deadly combat. “We went into the fight alaughing and was mary as School Boys,” boasted Private William R. Barnes. “The Balls fell around me almost as thick as hale our Boys fought most Bravely.” Barnes and his comrades evicted Marmaduke’s cavalrymen from their commanding positions in short order. “We herd their officers cussing their men and telling them to charge on us,” claimed the elated Iowa private. “But tha [they] could not Stand our fire.” The 36th Iowa Infantry increased the pressure on Marmaduke when Rice advanced that regiment to support the 29th.32


Battle of Helena:  July 4, 1863
Copyright DLF Group,
David Fuller





Confederate Forces







Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby commanded the largest brigade in Brigadier General John S.  Marmaduke’s Confederate cavalry division.  Shelby suffered a painful wrist wound while spearheading the attack on Battery A, but he continued to exhort his men to press forward and take their objective.  State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia



Brigadier General Mosby M. Parsons and his Missouri infantry brigade were the first Confederate troops to swarm over the walls of Battery C, but Parsons soon saw his regiments shot to pieces when General Holmes committed them to a hastily ordered and uncoordinated assault against Fort Curtis. Missouri Historical Society

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