May 11, 2023 at 6:30 pm
On July 4, 1863, Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes committed 7,646 troops from
the Confederate District of Arkansas to a desperate assault on the Union-held city of Helena on
the Mississippi River. Holmes mounted this effort in response to a plea from Secretary of War
John A. Seddon that Rebel troops in the Trans-Mississippi Department make some
demonstration to relieve pressure on Vicksburg, Mississippi, which was besieged by Major
General Ulysses S. Grant. Although Holmes’ army outnumbered Helena’s 4,129 defenders, those Federals had ringed their post’s landward approaches with an extensive network of fortifications and other obstacles. Major General Benjamin Prentiss, Helena’s commander, also insisted on a high level of vigilance. Catching wind of Holmes’ plans, the Union Navy sent the gunboat Tyler to support Prentiss.
This talk recounts one of the most dramatic battles of the Civil War – one that has been
obscured by the clashes that occurred simultaneously at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and
Vicksburg. Although Holmes’ men fought with astounding valor, the incompetence of their
commanders, combined with the alertness, tenacity, and flexibility of their Federal opponents,
resulted in a crushing Confederate defeat. Heavy Rebel casualties, along with a steep dip in the
survivors’ morale, opened Arkansas to Union invasions that culminated in the capture of Little
Rock and Fort Smith in September 1863.