Affairs at Helena

Location: Phillips County
Campaign: None
Dates: December 14, 1862; January 1, 1863
Principal Commanders: Unknown (US); Unknown (CS)
Forces Engaged: 26 men of the Sixth Missouri Cavalry (1862), 27 men of the Twenty-eighth Iowa Cavalry (1863) (US); Unknown (CS)
Estimated Casualties: 24 captured (1862), 27 captured (1863) (US); Unknown (CS)
Result: Confederate victories

A pair of brief engagements near the Federal outpost of Helena (Phillips County), these actions demonstrate just how dangerous serving in Arkansas was for Union troops.

After the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862, the Federal Army of the Southwest moved across southern Missouri and northern Arkansas in an effort to take Little Rock (Pulaski County). Unable to do so, the Union troops eventually took Helena on the Mississippi River and held the town for the remainder of the war. Deep in enemy territory, the Federals in Helena worked hard to establish defensive positions and regularly launched patrols into the surrounding countryside to gather intelligence on Confederate troops in the area.

On December 13, 1862, twenty-six men of Company E of the Sixth Missouri Cavalry (US) were posted about four miles from the main camp. These men were pickets, tasked with warning the main Union force of the enemy’s approach. The force consisted of one commissioned officer, four non-commissioned officers, and twenty-one enlisted men.

Early on the morning of December 14, the Confederates surprised the entire picket force, and twenty-four of the Federal men were captured, while two escaped. In the brief engagement, no Confederate troops were wounded, and not only were the Federals captured, but their horses, arms, and horse equipment were also seized. The Confederate force was either a group of Texas cavalry or a local guerrilla unit—reports list both as being possible culprits in the engagement.

One enlisted soldier who escaped reported the incident to his commanders in Helena. Brigadier General Willis Gorman, commander of Federal cavalry in Helena, claimed that the Sixth Missouri was not a very effective unit and lacked discipline.

A similar situation occurred on January 1, 1863, when twenty-seven men of the Twenty-eighth Iowa Cavalry were captured while on picket duty. Once again, the Federals did not inflict any enemy casualties, and the Confederates escaped.

While ultimately bloodless, these engagements made it difficult for Union commanders in Helena to guard the city.

For additional information:
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 22, Part I. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1889.

David Sesser
Henderson State University


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