Maj. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss, USA
Lt. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes, CSA
The Confederates rounded up six brigades (about 7,500 men) from all over eastern Arkansas to attack the Union garrison of 5,000.
Holmes inflicted only 200 casualties but suffered over 1,600.
Holmes moved against attacked Helena in an effort to relieve pressure on Vicksburg. But his plans were hazy: he also had plans to invade Missouri and rather than focus on either objective, he tried to prepare both.
He gathered six brigades, although most of the men were conscripts, and poorly motivated. They were also poorly equipped: some had no weapons, while the majority had muskets rather than rifles. Supplies were scarce, and so were wagons to move them. Still the Confederates had to do something to help Pemberton's men at Vicksburg and Holmes decided on attacking Helena.
But they started too late and moved slowly. Holmes joined his field army on June 18, and troops started marching on the 21st. Then on the 26th they plunged into the swamps around the Mississippi, which took over a week to cross. Not only did they slow the army's movement, the boggy ground swallowed many of the wagons with their valuable supplies. It was only on July 3 that Holmes fly-bitten men clambered out of the swamp, about 5 miles from Helena.
A quick scout showed the Union forces well entrenched on hills surrounding the town - and their flanks protected on both sides by gunboats. Holmes may have had a 3:2 edge in numbers, but to attack fortifications he needed far more men and more artillery too. He compounded the problem with bad orders. Rather than punch through the defenses in one place he spread five of his six brigades into a wide but weak attack (the sixth was supposed to support all the others "as circumstances may justify"). Perhaps the wide attack would stop Union reserves from supporting everywhere at once, but Holmes didn't name a time for the attack, just "daylight" which each brigade commander interpreted for himself. Finally the dawn attack meant the troops would have to march into position across unfamiliar ground in the dark.
Almost everything went wrong. Units were delayed groping their way across the five miles between their camps and Helena. Then the attacks didn't come at once, but at various times between 2:30 and 5am. Union rifle and artillery fire shredded the Confederate columns, and pinned the attacking troops down. Unable to move, demoralized by the march and the confusion of the attack, several bodies of Confederate troops surrendered to smaller Union detachments. (In one case fellow Confederates reckoned that the surrendering troops hadn't fought hard enough, and snipers shot their comrades in the back.) Only one small Union position was overrun, and lacking adequate reserves, it couldn't be held. By 10:30am Holmes had to break off, having suffered savage - and pointless - losses.
He pulled back to Little Rock, back through the swamp, and with every mile his army shrank. The men talked it over with each other and knew Holmes' quality of leadership; they knew enough about fighting to know he was responsible for their miserable march and the pointless battle. And they chose not to give Holmes another chance to kill them, and went home.
Not only did Helena stay a Union base, Holmes' army was weaker than if he never attacked - weaker in numbers and morale. The expedition to Missouri was obviously cancelled, since with Vicksburg's fall Grant could spare men to reinforce Missouri. What's more, the weakened Rebel position in central Arkansas was an invitation for a Union attack. This came a month later, and Little Rock was soon in Union hands, the fourth state capitol occupied by Federal forces.
Content provided by:
American Battlefield Protection Program, Heritage Preservation Services, National Park Service.