Skirmish at Helena (September 19–20, 1862)

Location: Phillips County
Campaign: None
Date: September 19–20, 1862
Principal Commanders: Colonel William Vandever (US); Unknown (CS)
Forces Engaged: Approximately 11 pickets from the First Wisconsin Cavalry (US); Approximately 50–100 cavalry from Parson’s Texas Cavalry Brigade (CS)
Estimated Casualties: 1 killed, 3 wounded, 2 missing (US); Unknown (CS)
Result: Confederate victory

A small and inconsequential action, the September 19–20, 1862, Skirmish at Helena is typical of the war fought around Helena (Phillips County) after that city’s capture by Federal troops.

Following the capture of Helena by the Federal Army of the Southwest in July 1862, Confederate leaders in Little Rock (Pulaski County) continued to fear that an attack on the capital would be launched from the Mississippi River port town of Helena. With few troops available to defend Little Rock, Texas cavalry units were tasked with harassing the Union troops in Helena and gathering information about the enemy.

A brigade under the command of Colonel William Henry Parsons was the only unit available to perform these tasks and soon began attacking unsuspecting patrols and pickets on the outskirts of Helena. On the evening of September 19, a group of Confederate cavalry attacked a Union outpost manned by the First Wisconsin Cavalry, wounding three of the four Federal soldiers involved. The Confederates quickly retreated but returned to the area the next morning.

Around daylight on the morning of September 20, another Federal outpost was attacked by Confederate cavalry. After a brief fight, the Confederate force of approximately fifty men retreated, leaving one Federal soldier dead and two missing.

Federal forces under the command of Colonel William Vandever launched numerous patrols in response to these actions but were unable to find the enemy. Because Col. Vandever felt that the Confederate troops were joined by local citizens in the attacks, he stopped giving passes and ordered his men to arrest everyone they encountered on the road.

Unable to launch a large-scale attack on the Army of the Southwest at Helena, the Confederates in eastern Arkansas continued to harass Federal units with these types of small attacks. These attacks kept the Union forces from determining the strength of the Confederates who opposed them, contributing to the Federal decision to not pursue an attack on Little Rock at that time.

For additional information:
Bailey, Anne J. Between the Enemy and Texas: Parson’s Texas Cavalry in the Civil War. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1989.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 13. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1889.

David Sesser
Henderson State University


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