previous next

The attack on Helena. [from the N. Y. sun July 1896.] a Veteran's story of the desperate Fourth of July battle. An attempt to save Vicksburg. It failed, However—the attempt of 8,000 Confederates to dislodge 4,000 Yankees was Unsuccessful—a true and thrilling Fourth of July story.

“These are souvenirs of the one Fourth of July I shall never forget,” said a Confederate veteran in Washington, on his way to the reunion at Richmond. He held up in evidence a pair of empty sleeves, which showed both arms cut off just below the elbows so evenly, that it might have been done by a stroke from a butcher's cleaver.

I didn't lose them burning powder for fun, either. I knew that everything we toyed with that day was loaded; loaded to kill. The same with the enemy. It was a Yankee shell at Helena, fired from the gunboat Tyler, which placed me on the retired list, where I have been since July 4, 1863.

I was an officer in Fagan's Arkansas brigade and I never enjoyed a picnic beforehand in my life, as I did that stealthy 1oo-mile march from Little Rock to give the Yankees in their works at Helena a Fourth of July surprise party. You see, we had been lying idle all summer in Arkansas, while Grant closed the coils around our people at Vicksburg. We numbered about 8,000 men, consisting of our brigade, two brigades of “ Pap” Price's Missourians, and Marmaduke's cavalry, and “Joe” Shelby's brigade counted in. Holmes was our commander, and one day he telegraphed to army headquarters, “ I believe we can take Helena. Please let me attack it.” The reply was, “Go ahead and do it!” Should we take Helena, why Grant would simply have to call off his dogs at Vicksburg, and “sick ” 1 them on us, for, don't you see, we could shut off Yankey navigation in the [198] Mississippi and starve the enemy out at Vicksburg. Oh, we enjoyed the prospect, for we outnumbered the garrison at Helena two to one.

The city of Helena lies in the lowlands on the Arkansas shore. Its water front was guarded by the gunboat dyler, famous at Forts Henry and Donelson. On the land side there was an unbroken chain of fortifications extending from the river bank above the town to the bank below. The western front of the city was about half a mile in length and just outside the limits, nearly opposite the centre, was a heavy earthwork, mounting siege guns.

I give you these details to show that the contract was a good-sized one. Yet there was a heap in our favor. The Yankees had but 4,000 men in Helena, and although they had plenty of cannon they lacked the trained artillerists to handle them. The gunners that day were green hands detailed from the 33d Missouri Infantry, and the way they handled the pieces made us wish we had met another kind. But we knew very little of the actual situation until we struck it all of a sudden about daylight on Independence Day. Our three columns, Marmaduke's, Price's, and Fagan's, told off in storming parties and reserves, moved against the batteries and intrenchments lying across our paths. There were six roads from the interior to the town, and the defenders, being ignorant as to the particular one or ones we would use, were compelled to watch them all. Our brigade attempted to take along some field artillery, but about a mile out from the lines we found the road obstructed, and on both sides of it the country was cut up into ravines, making it impassible for cannon. Our officers were obliged to dismount and leave the horses behind, and our men, with free use of limb, barely made their way through the labyrinth of obstructions in time to meet the engagement. We were the first to open the ball, and as soon as the straggling line could pull itself together it moved forward in battle order. Here a gorge intervened; there a steep hillside loomed before us, and the thicket and trenches in front were alive with sharpshooting riflemen.

The three regiments of the brigade charged on both sides of the road, and soon after daylight had carried four lines of rifle pits. But there had been no attack at any other point. The day was frightfully hot, and our poor fellows soon began to drop from heat and exhaustion as well as from Yankee bullets. The guns on Graveyard Hill were abreast of us, and poured their shots among our scattered men. It was with relief that we saw Price's line march to the assault of that battery, and as they did so we rallied for one more [199] charge on the last remaining rifle pits on Hindman Hill. That we carried, and the enemy fled to the shelter of Fort Curtis. On abandoning the guns to us the Missouri novices had the cunning to spike the pieces, or we would have turned them upon the walls of Fort Curtis. It was while attempting to drill out one of the guns for a shot at the old flag that I lost my arms by a shell from the gunboat. My hands were together in a line, and all at once I wondered why I could not twist the worm I had held a second before. Men who saw me say I stared and grinned like a madman, not knowing what had happened. When at last I realized what had happened, I ran forward in the charge with our men toward the ditch of the fort. Not only the gunboat fire, but that of the fort itself, which was bastioned, raked the walls, and our men were terribly repulsed. There was no hope but surrender, and our sharpshooters back in the rear shot down every man who attempted to go into the enemy's lines. So we were between two fires. We might have been saved yet had not Price's men made a terrible blunder. They were ordered to carry Graveyard Hill, which they did most gallantly, and instead of pressing on in our flank and rear to support us in the assault of Fort Curtis, they passed on to the town itself. Seeing no way of escape to the rear of our column, I joined them, and lay for three hours in a house by the wayside, where my wounds were dressed by a surgeon.

Meantime the gunboat firing and the fusillade from Fort Curtis sweeping the ground over which we had charged, retreat over the same line was out of the question. I made my way towards the outposts on the north, and had the good luck to fall in with Mariaduke's cavalry, which had charged upon the battery north of the town. I struck Shelby's brigade, and that ended my adventures that terrible Fourth of July; but as I have talked chiefly of my deeds and those of my own command. I wish to add a little incident to show that heroes were all over the field that day. Shelby had with him that famous battery of flying artillery, manned by “DickCollins, and known on all the border for the spirit with which it entered a fight. Collins' guns always went in on a charge with the squadrons.

On moving out that day toward the battery assigned him to capture Battery A, Shelby found the road barricaded, and Collins quickly cut loose the teams and his gunners hauled the pieces around the obstructions by hand, letting the horses pick their way. Shelby advanced too far without support, and the guns of a field battery, as well as those of Fort Curtis and the gunboat Tyler, opened on his brigade. A counter charge followed; Shelby was wounded and the [200] slaughter around Collins' guns was awful. General officers and aides helped to work the pieces. Finally the horses were all shot down, and the line was compelled to retreat under the withering fire. Shelby, reeling in his saddle from the loss of blood through an artery severed at the wrist called for volunteers to save Collins' guns. At the cry, “The battery is in danger,” hundreds of the troopers turned back. Shelby said: “Fifty, only fifty! Bring the battery back or remain yourselves.” Collins and his lieutenants were still fighting bravely but hopelessly. The dead horses were cut away, ropes attached, and the guns dragged back safely to the lines. Fifteen only of those fifty volunteers got out unscathed and twenty remained where they fell.

Since that day at Helena I tell the boys I would rather buck against a hoodoo than try to down Old Glory on the Fourth of July.

1 This was the verbal order accredited to the late Major-General William Smith, twice Governor of Virginia. He did not deny to the Editor, in cordial converse, the implication, as to his desires, but said that his command was ‘At 'em boys!’ Let the credit of this unique order rest where it may.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Joe Shelby (8)
Charles N. Collins (6)
William H. Price (4)
Marmaduke (2)
U. S. Grant (2)
Fagan (2)
William Smith (1)
Mariaduke (1)
Theophilus H. Holmes (1)
Robert P. Dick (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
July 4th (6)
July, 1896 AD (1)
July 4th, 1863 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: