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Due to the dispersed condition of the Rebel forces, Holmes’ retreat order did not reach all his subordinates at the same time, and some never got the word at all. This final communications failure afforded the counterattacking Federals a golden opportunity to add to their bag of prisoners. While mopping up around Battery D, Colonel Mackey and a mixed force drawn from the 33rd Iowa, 43rd Indiana, and 33rd Missouri cornered three to four hundred Arkansans in a deep ravine on the south side of Hindman Hill. The Federals compelled their opponents’ surrender by raking the ravine with two 10-pound Parrott rifles from Battery K, 1st Missouri Light Artillery. Mackey’s prisoners included the colonel and lieutenant colonel of the 37th Arkansas Infantry, along with half their men and two battle flags. Mackey next assisted the 1st Indiana Cavalry and the right wing of the 35th Missouri Infantry in repossessing Battery C. The Federals rounded up three hundred and fifty prisoners on Graveyard Hill, most of them from the 7th and 10th Missouri. Captain Redington of the 28th Wisconsin called on his company to leave the rifle pits at Battery B and pursue some Confederates who were scrambling to escape Mackey’s dragnet. “The boys all started with a yell,” Redington wrote, “and ran down the hill, across the flat and up on the other side.” The Rebels had a half-mile lead on Redington, but his “Badgers” did not come away empty-handed. “We stepped up and made prisoners of 118 not wounded,” the captain related, “and God only knows how many wounded. The hollow was full of them.”45

The Federals exulted over their enemies’ ignominious flight. “We had a grand celebration yesterday on the forth,” Private Barnes of the 29th Iowa scribbled to his wife. “The Rebs Sent us word they was coming to take their Dinners in Helena on the forth we sent them word to come on we would give them a warm Dinner if they come and we was as good as our word sure enough.” Barnes also shared the high praise that Benjamin Prentiss bestowed on the Helena garrison: “General Printice says we cant Be whipped. He Says he never saw Braver men in his life.”46

The Federals grew more subdued when they surveyed the ground in front of their works. “The battle field is the most horrid place I ever saw,” blurted a private in the 36th Iowa. “There are men with their heads shot off, and legs and arms in different places, and in fact you can have no idea of how they looked.” Captain Thomas N. Stevens of the 28th Wisconsin sketched a similarly grim picture: “I went over the field about batteries ‘C’ & ‘D’ in the afternoon. It was a sickening sight. The ridges & ravines were thickly strewn with ghastly corpses covered with gore . . . mutilated in almost every manner by the shot & shell-while the groans of the severely wounded could be heard on every side.”47

Official Confederate records stated that Holmes’ army suffered 1,636 casualties out of 7,646 men engaged-173 killed, 687 wounded, and 776 missing. Nearly a third of Holmes’ infantry were struck down or captured. Parsons reported 764 losses in his brigade, Fagan 435, and McRae 347, making a total of 1,546 foot soldiers. Compared to the infantry, the Rebel cavalry came away virtually unscathed, but a lieutenant in Walker’s brigade was candid enough to concede, “The result was . . . a very disastrous defeat on our part.” The blow sustained by the Confederates was probably worse than Holmes admitted. On July 9, Prentiss reported that his troops had buried at least 400 enemy dead, taken 993 prisoners, and paroled 108 wounded. Union cavalry patrols exploring the countryside in the days following the battle discovered field hospitals crammed with Southerners too badly hurt to be evacuated. The surgeons left to tend these men revealed that Holmes’ army had suffered more than 1,200 wounded.48

Helena’s 4,129 blue-clad defenders came through approximately eight hours of combat with 57 slain, 127 wounded, and 36 missing, or a total of 220. The 33rd Iowa sustained 85 casualties, more than any of Prentiss’ other regiments. The ubiquitous 33rd Missouri ranked second with 50 losses and the aggressive 29th Iowa came in third with 31. No other unit in the garrison lost as many as two dozen men. Reflecting on this lopsided victory a year later, Lieutenant Minos Miller of the 2nd Arkansas Regiment of African Descent declared: “I would be glad . . . if we could have another just such celebration as we had last fourth. To hear them cannons belch and see the fire fly from the Forts batteries and Gunboat and hear the shells singing through the air and them burst over the hills and open the Ranks of the Rebs was grander than any Review.”49

Theophilus Holmes attributed his multiple failures at Helena to his officers’ inability to maintain control over their men. In reality, Holmes’ incompetent generalship doomed a valiant army to a costly defeat. He sought battle on the basis of faulty intelligence and committed his troops to a reckless, poorly conceived, and uncoordinated assault without proper reconnaissance and artillery support. At Helena, Holmes ran into an alert and well-entrenched enemy with plenty of well-placed and mobile artillery. Federal commanders countered every Confederate move with the right mixture of firepower, flexibility, and boldness, and they refused to panic when Battery C fell.50

Even if Holmes’ courageous soldiers could have overcome the handicap of faulty leadership and seized Helena, they would have scored an empty achievement. On the same morning that Holmes’ army spent its strength on the west side of the Mississippi, Vicksburg capitulated to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s decisive triumph instantly overshadowed Prentiss’ able defense of Helena (as did the Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a day earlier). The successful completion of the Vicksburg Campaign also freed large numbers of Federals for operations elsewhere in the Mississippi Valley, particularly Arkansas. By September 10, 1863, the Stars and Stripes would wave over the State House in Little Rock and President Abraham Lincoln could anticipate depriving the Confederacy of another state. Thanks to the Union retention of Helena, the noose strangling Southern independence had grown a little tighter.   

Gregory J.W. Urwin is author of numerous works on the Civil War, including Custer Victorious (1983), and on the Second World War. His book Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island received the General Wallace M. Greene, Jr.,  Award from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. He is general editor of the University of Oklahoma Press Campaigns and Commanders series, and teaches at Temple University in Pennsylvania.

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