Battle of Helena - Fort Curtis
The battle of Helena occurred in the summer of 1863 as Confederate forces attempted to gain control of Fort Curtis. The fort was of strategic importance given its location on the Mississippi River and the Union's strategic effort to control the river as a way of severing the Confederacy in two. Despite temporarily taking control over Battery C, the Confederates failed to secure control of the fort and ended up retreating from the Union defenders. Following Lincoln's decision to recruit black regiments for the Union, black men from Arkansas were among those who prevented the Confederacy from gaining control over this strategic area. The unit at that time was known as the Second Arkansas Colored Infantry. Today, the site is home to a reconstructed fort and numerous signs and exhibits that preserve the history of the battle and the history of the Civil War in Arkansas.
Backstory and Context
The battle of Helena was the last Confederate attempt at control of the Mississippi river. Often overlooked because it was fought the same day the Confederates at Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered to Grant, as well as being the day after the battle of Gettysburg, the battle of Helena was one of the last major offensives in Arkansas. Fort Curtis was a major Union base for the Mississippi River, being close to Vicksburg. This led to increased interest by the Confederates to attack and take control of the area and push out the Union, and in the summer of 1863, they took their chance.
The Confederates under the leadership of Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes planned to attack the city’s fort Curtis on July 3, 1863, gathering within just a few miles of the city. Major General Benjamin Prentiss, leader of the Federal army, knew of an incoming attack from enemies, and had his men wake early in the morning to prepare for battle. At 3:30 in the morning the attack began, with Confederates focusing on the batteries. The Confederates were shelled by the defending Union army easily, and besides capturing Battery C, their attack failed before reaching the fort. By 10:30, the Confederate army began to retreat, ending their battle on the fort. Fort Curtis never was attacked by the Confederates again, and the fort was used in capturing Little Rock in September. The fort was abandoned after the war, and the city of Helena grew to encompass it.
The Second Arkansas Colored Infantry defended the Union position. The regiment consisted of former slaves and they held the extreme left of the Union line, suffering only five wounded during the entirety of the battle. These new recruits included men who had fled slavery and worked as laborers for the Union including cooks, nurses, and laborers. After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January, Union policy towards black enlistment changes and these men decided to fight in the army as free men. This was the start of the black soldiers fighting in Arkansas. Today, the site of the battle includes a reconstructed of Fort Curtis that is open to visitors. Now a part of the Delta Cultural Center, the site is a part of the larger Helena Civil War history, and guests can explore the military and the cultural history of the Civil War and its impact on the area. Battery C, the only Battery captured by Confederates during the battle, was reconstructed and is available for guests to visit.
- Bowman, Michael. "Completing an Incomplete History: The African American Narrative in Civil War Helena." Race, Gender & Class 22, no. 1-2 (2015): 236-47. Accessed April 1, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/26505336.
- Taylor, Michael W. Battle of Helena, Encyclopedia of Arkansas. September 4th 2018. Accessed April 1st 2020. https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/battle-of-helena-1129/.
- Sesser, David. Fort Curtis, Encyclopedia of Arkansas. April 5th 2016. Accessed April 1st 2020. https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/fort-curtis-7681/.