Attack on Helena, Arkansas
Reports of Maj. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss, U.S. Army,
Commanding District of Eastern Arkansas
July 4, 1863
HEADQUARTERS DISTRICT OF EASTERN ARKANSAS,
Helena, Ark, July 9, 1863.
COLONEL; I have the honor to forward the following detailed report of the battle of Helena:
In addition to the vague rumors that have been floating in the public press for several weeks past, I had been informed by trusty scouts that the enemy was co11ecting his forces with the evident intention of making a demonstration at some point on this side of the river. Conceiving that Helena might be attacked sooner or later, I omitted no precaution and spared no labor to add to and strengthen its defenses. To this end I caused rifle-pits to be dug, substantial breastworks to be thrown up, and four outlying batteries to be erected in commanding positions on the bluffs west of the town, and designated respectively from right to left (north and south) by the letters A, B, C, and D.
For ten days previous to the battle, indications of a premeditated attack on this place began to multiply; citizens from the country were not permitted to come to our lines; disaffected residents were unusually reserved, and the enemy's pickets were pushed forward and strengthened. Advised of the character of one of the principal generals said to be in this vicinity, I expected the attack, if one was to be made, would be sudden, and at an early hour in the morning. It was, therefore, ordered, a week previous to the battle, that the entire garrison should be up and under arms at 2.30 o'clock each morning. Wednesday night I learned definitely that the enemy had collected a large force at Spring Creek, distant some 15 miles from Helena, and that an attack would not be long delayed. Arrangements had been made by my patriotic regimental commanders for celebrating in a fit and becoming manner the approaching anniversary of our National Independence. In view of the length of line to be defended by so small a number of troops, it was deemed imprudent to permit the garrison to be assembled en masse, and on Friday, therefore, orders were issued prohibiting a general celebration on the following day. Events justified these precautions.
On Saturday morning, July 4, at 3 o'clock, my pickets were attacked by the enemy's skirmishers. They made an obstinate resistance, holding the enemy well in check until 4 o'clock, when they reached over rifle-pits and breastworks, and joined their respective regiments, which before this time had assumed their designated positions in the entrenchments. The attack was now commenced in earnest, in front and on the right flank; lint the enemy, although assured by his overwhelming numbers of a speedy victory, were driven back again and again. For four hours the battle raged furiously, the enemy gaining little, if any, advantage. Now, however, the attack in front became more furious; the enemy covered every hill-top, swarmed in every ravine, but seemed to be massing his force more particularly against Battery C. I now signaled the gunboat Tyler, the only one at hand, Lieutenant Commander Pritchett commanding, to open fire in that direction. The enemy (Parsons' and McRae's brigades), nothing daunted by the concentrated fire from Fort Curtis, Batteries B, C, and D, the Tyler, and all the infantry I could bring to their support, and led, as I since learn, by Lieutenant-General Holmes and Major-General Price in person, charged upon Battery C. Twice they were repulsed, but the third time, exhibiting a courage and desperation rarely equaled, they succeeded in driving my small force at the point of the bayonet and capturing the battery. Dividing his forces, and sending a part, as a feint, to menace Fort Curtis, the enemy then assaulted Battery D, to reach which they must pass through a deep ravine and encounter a heavy cross-fire. The enemy faltered, seeing which the men in Battery D, and those behind the breastworks, and in the rifle-pits supporting it, sallied forth, and, surrounding more than three times their number, brought them off prisoners. Not to be outdone by their comrades, the men who had been supporting Battery C, assisted by a detachment (dismounted) from the First Indiana Cavalry, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel [T. N.] Pace, gallantly charged upon the enemy in Battery C, retaking it, and capturing as well a large number of prisoners. This was about 10 o'clock. I immediately dispatched two of my aides to carry this information to Colonels [S. A.] Rice and [Powell] Clayton, who, with the remnants of two small brigades, were holding the enemy in check on the right flank, where the attack was only less severe and successful than it had been in front. At 10.30 it became evident that the enemy was withdrawing his forces; but, unaware how severely he had been punished, and learning somewhat of the strength of his forces from prisoners. I could but believe it was for the purpose of massing and attacking my left flank, which I considered the weakest point. The attack was not resumed, however, and, summing up the enemy's loss in killed, wounded, and prisoners, I am no longer surprised. Skirmishing to cover a retreat was kept up until 2 p.m., at which hour all firing ceased.
In the order published to his troops on the 23d of June ultimo, General Holmes says, "The invaders have been driven from every point in Arkansas save one--Helena. We go to retake it." I am happy to be able, to say that the attempt to haul down the Stars and Stripes, on the 4th of July, was an ignominious failure. In short, sir, my whole command not only succeeded in repulsing the enemy's attack, and thus holding Helena, which, if I mistake not, is all that was expected of it, but, in addition, administered to the enemy as severe punishment as he ever received west of the Mississippi, and this, too, with a loss to itself so small as to seem almost miraculous, as will sufficiently appear from the following statistics:
My whole force numbered--
Total - 4,129
The enemy's force, from the best information I can obtain from prisoners and deserters, consisted of eight brigades, formed out of thirty-seven regiments, and numbered, at a low estimate, in aggregate 15,000 men, and was commanded by one lieutenant-general (Holmes), one major-general (Price), and seven brigadier-generals.
My troops lost in--
Total(*) - 220
We have buried of the enemy's killed, at least - 400
The enemy's surgeons admit a loss in wounded ranging from 1,200 to 1,500. His total loss, therefore, in killed, wounded, and prisoners, cannot be less than 2,500. We have also captured 2 colors and near1y 2,000 stand of arms. My thanks, as well as those of the nation at large, are due Brig. Gen. F. Salomon, who commanded the Thirteenth Division, Thirteenth Army Corps, in the temporary absence of Brigadier General Ross, and to whom had been assigned the special supervision of the defenses of Helena; to Col. William E. McLean, Forty-third Indiana Infantry, commanding First Brigade, who held the left flank, and rendered very efficient service on the left wing of the center, about Batteries C and D; to Colonels [S. A.] Rice, Thirty-third Iowa Infantry, commanding Second Brigade, and [Powell] Clayton, Fifth Kansas Cavalry, commanding cavalry brigade, who held the right flank; to one and all the officers and men composing the garrison of Helena, and to Lieutenant-Commander Pritchett and the men under his command for very timely and efficient co-operation. The guns in Fort Curtis and Batteries A, B; C, and D, were handled with great precision and success by the Thirty-third Missouri Infantry.
The members of my personal staff were efficient and tireless in the discharge of their duties. The result shows that all did well, and are entitled to honorable mention.
My command consisted of the following regiments and batteries: Forty-third Indiana Infantry, Twenty-eighth Wisconsin Infantry, Thirty-third Iowa Infantry, Twenty-ninth Iowa Infantry, Thirty-fifth Missouri Infantry, Thirty-third Missouri Infantry, Thirty-sixth Iowa Infantry, Third Iowa, Battery K, First Missouri Light Artillery, constituting the Thirteenth Division, Thirteenth Army Corps; Fifth Kansas Cavalry and First Indiana Cavalry, constituting the cavalry brigade; and the Second Regiment of Arkansas Volunteers of African descent.
I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
B. M. PRENTISS,
Lieut. Col. JOHN A. RAWLINS,