The following is an account of the Battle of Helena Arkansas fought on 4 July 1863 written by Col. A. T. Hawthorne, Commanding Hawthorne's Arkansas Infantry Regiment and sent to headquarters. My great-grandfather, Jeptha D. Armstrong, was captured in this battle and survived the war. His health was ruined while imprisoned and was in poor health the rest of his life. The article was copied for the OR Series, Volume 34, Series II, Pages
SIR: In obedience to orders from Brigade Headquarters, I have the honor to submit the following report of the part my regiment took in the section at Helena on the 4th instant.
At 11 p.m. on the night of the 3d, we left our encampment, 6 miles from Helena and marched to take our position in front of the entrenchments, my regiment being in the advance. The road over which we passed (known as the Hill road from Little Rock to Helena) was extremely rugged, and it was not without considerable difficulty and great fatigue to the men that we succeeded in getting within 1 mile of the enemies' entrenchments. At this point I found the road blockaded with fallen timber to such an extent that I halted the brigade of which I was temporarily in command and sent Captain Millers company of cavalry, which had been in advance, to the rear and sent forward Capt. P.G. ROPER's company (A) deployed as skirmishers.
General FAGAN now arrived at the head of the column, and ordering all the field and staff to dismount, we moved forward as rapidly as possible toward the entrenchments, the skirmishers deployed on either side of the road keeping well in advance of the main body. By orders of General FAGAN, I moved my regiment in double quick by the right flank along the crest of a ridge, running at right angles with the road and parallel with the enemy's first line of entrenchments, and without waiting for the other regiments of the brigade to form, I gave the order to charge, which was responded to by loud shouts along my entire line. The men dashed down the steep declivity, amid a perfect storm of bullets, climbed step by step over vast piles of fallen timber up the rugged sides of almost perpendicular hills and height and drove the enemy in consternation from their first line of defenses. Here I waited to recruit my men, whose strength was very much exhausted, and to give Col. (S.S. Ball) time to form his regiment and move on my left. As soon as Col. BALL informed me that he was ready, our two regiments moved forward together, and after encountering and overcoming obstacles similar and even greater than those in front of their first line, Col. J.P. KING had, by orders of General FAGAN, under a heavy and constant fire, almost super human exertions, placed his regiment 200 or 300 yards beyond my extreme right, partly in the rear of the position occupied by Col. BALL,s regiment and mine. I sent a courier to communicate with him, who returned with the gratifying intelligence that his regiment was in position, and was ready and anxious to charge the enemy. The three regiments now moved forward with a shout and notwithstanding the perfect hail-storm of bullets that assailed us at every step, we soon drove the enemy out of his third line of defense. We soon rallied our exhausted troops, reformed our broken lines, and again charged the enemy, driving him from his fourth lines of entrenchments. It was now 7 a.m. My regiment had been hotly engaged for nearly three hours. The men were completely exhausted. numbers had fainted from the excessive heat and fatigue. Many had been killed and wounded, and a large majority in each of our three regiments were utterly unable to fight any longer. We began to be discouraged. From the very commencement of the action we had been listening for the guns of Generals PRICE, MARMADUKE, and WALKER, but thus far we listened in vain. Every brigade except ours, had failed to attack at daylight, as ordered. Even the guns on graveyard hill were wheeled around and directed against our lines, which they swept again and again from the one end to the other with grape and canister. Heavy and rapid volleys of musketry were heard on our left. General FAGAN announced to us that our friends were storming Graveyard Hill, and ordered us to move forward at once. Our men responded with a shout, dashed down in the deep ravine, climbed the steep side of the opposite hill, and just as the noble brigade of PARSONS' and McRAE swept in triumph across the face of Graveyard Hill, drove the enemy from his fifth and last line of rifle pits back to his forts and under cover of his siege guns, and an attempt was now made by General FAGAN to capture the fort on HINDMAN's Hill, which was immediately in our front, but our men were too exhausted, our numbers too few. The attack was unsuccessful and resulted in the death and capture of many valuable officers and men.
It was here that Capt. WALTON WATKINS, commanding Company D of my regiment was killed while gallantly leading this last and desperate charge. His conduct throughout the engagement had been chivalrous and manly; so much so as to attract universal attention and admiration.
Here also I lost the services of Maj. JOHN B. COCKE, who was severely wounded and compelled to retire from the field. It affords me much pleasure to bear testimony of this gallant officer. His services throughout that desperate fight were invaluable, and his absence was most keenly and sensibly felt. Lieutenants RICHARD J. SHADDOCK, W.H. HINSON and L.R. KINNARD and J.N. THOMPSON were killed while bravely fighting at their post.
But to return to the fight, Graveyard Hill was evacuated soon after it was taken. The other positions to the left of that hill that were to have been taken at daylight had not even been attacked. The firing had ceased at all points, except the firing of our brigade and that of our enemies directed against us. This to be directed against our little band, yet notwithstanding their vast superiority in numbers and positions, both on the right and on the left, we held our position firmly for three long hours.
At 10:30 a.m. I received an order from General FAGAN to withdraw my regiment from the field. I had marched some 40 or 50 paces, in compliance with this order, when I received another, requiring me to leave a small guard to cover our retreat. I called for volunteers, but no one responding, I returned myself, and with 9 men, who volunteered to accompany me, kept up a fire on the enemy for twenty minutes longer. The ammunition was now expended, and I thought it prudent to retire. The enemy was close upon us and was advancing from all points. Not a moment was lost. We retreated as rapidly as possible, but as we descended the first hill the enemy assailed us with a terrible volley of musketry. Three of our little party fell to rise no more. The remaining 6, myself and a Yankee prisoner whom we had kept with us all the time, succeeded in making our escape.
My officers and men, with but few exceptions, deported themselves with great gallantry.
My loss, so far as I have been able to ascertain, is as follows: killed: 20; wounded, 70; missing, 43.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Col. Commanding Regiment,