Union Commanders at Helena during the Civil War

St. John's Episcopal Church

Helena had a number of Union generals  and colonels in charge during the Civil War while it was occupied territory.

March To Helena.                                           Friday, July 11, 1862

Written by a correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette with General Curtis and his Army on their march from Batesville to Helena as it appeared in the New York Times, Monday, July 21, 1862.

At daybreak, an advance of 2,000 cavalry, under General Washburn, started for Helena sixty five miles distant.  Nobody was aware of our coming.  We charged into town, heard of a boat with men crossing to the opposite side.  Brought a brass four pound howitzer on the levee, fired a few shots and brought up a white flag on the boat and the latter to this side.  A few negroes and citizens were aboard.  We did something smacking of war and the town was ours.  The army will be here in due time, holding communication once more with the outward world- “Mighty glad to get out of the wilderness.”

“The New York Times”, New York, New York, Monday. July 21, 1862. Page 8

On July 12, 1862 the Army of the Southwest marched into Helena, Arkansas unopposed.  A soldier in the 13th Illinois Infantry described their entrance into the city. “With three rousing cheers, such cheers as the Thirteenth only can give, we close our columns, and with firm and steady step to the music of our band, pass through the streets of Helena,  the strongest and healthiest regiment in the grand Army of the Southwest.”

Mark K. Christ, editor, Rugged and Subline: The Civil War in Arkansas,                                                                                            University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas,1994, pp 42-43.

Helena, Arkansas would now be Union occupied territory for the rest of the Civil War and be home to a number of strong commanding officers.  They follow in order from July 1862.

Samuel Ryan Curtis


Ahead of his victorious Army of the Southwest rode Major General Samuel Ryan Curtis.  Samuel Curtis was born near Champlain, New York on February 3, 1805.  In 1809 his family moved to Ohio.  After graduating from West Point in 1831, 27th out of 33 students, he was sent to Fort Gibson in Indian Territory.  Curtis resigned from the military on June 30, 1832 after serving about a year in the army.  Returning to Ohio he became a civil engineer until the outbreak of the Mexican-American War.  Leaving his work the patriotic young engineer accepted the colonelcy of the 2nd Ohio Volunteers.  After the war, he got involved in Whig politics and worked three years as the city engineer in St. Louis.  Samuel Curtis then moved  to Keokuk, Iowa, where he was elected mayor in 1856. He then decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican that same year and got elected with the support of railroad interests. As a member of the House, he was a major supporter of the Transcontinental Railroad and a strong opponent of slavery.  Both of these beliefs would impact his career in the Civil War.  After Fort Sumter  was fired upon, he resigned to join the army.

On June 1, 1861 Samuel Curtis became Colonel of the 2nd Iowa Infantry. After being promoted to Brigadier General, he reported to Benton Barracks in St. Louis to drill and train troops.  On September 24, 1861 Brigadier General Curtis assumed command of St. Louis.  Several months later on December 25th, he was made commander of the Union Army of the Southwest and readied his men for a move. Arkansas was invaded February 17, 1862 and he won a major victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March.  As a reward, the brigadier was promoted to Major General. Major General Curtis then led his men across Arkansas to capture the state’s only port on the Mississippi River in July. Helena was a valuable forward operating base for the federals as they moved toward Vicksburg. It also became a center of operations for the immediate area around Helena.  Thousands of slaves had left their plantations to join the Army of the Southwest as it marched across Arkansas and soon hundreds more were pouring into Union lines from around Helena. Taking his cue from other Union generals, Curtis decided not to return these men and women back to slavery.  Instead he referred to them as contraband and made it be known that all slaves who made it into his lines were free.  General Curtis put many of them to work on building a fort which would be named after himself. He also took control of neighboring plantations and started a cotton trading industry in Helena.  Instead of moving to capture Little Rock, General Curtis kept himself and his men busy raiding nearby plantations in Arkansas and across the river in Mississippi. Because of these last two endeavors, Curtis ran into trouble as the newly Union appointed Governor of Arkansas Phelps reported these actions to the President Lincoln.  In late summer 1862, Curtis took a one month leave of absence to travel to Chicago where he served as president of the Pacific Railroad Convention from August 29th to September 24th.  On September 24, 1862 Major General Curtis was assigned as commander of the Department of Missouri. He was replaced by Brigadier General Frederick Steele.

Breckenbaugh, Terry: Curtis, Samuel R. www:http//civilwaronthewesternborder.org

FOLD3.com: Records of Samuel R. Curtis

Samuel Ryan Curtis (1805-1866)- Encyclopedia of Arkansas by Derek Allen Clements of Pocahontas, Arkansas.

Frederick Steele

Frederick Steele

Frederick Steele was born January 14, 1819 in Delhi, New York and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1843.  Friends and classmates with Ulysses S. Grant, he became a Second Lieutenant in the army and served with distinction in the Mexican War from 1847 to 1848. Afterwards, he served at various posts in California and Pennsylvania until the Civil War.

Appointed a major with the Eleventh Infantry on May 14, 1861, Steele commanded a brigade that saw action in Missouri at Dug Springs and the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.  On September 23, he was appointed colonel of the Eighth Iowa Infantry and received his appointment as brigadier general on January 29, 1862. Steele took command of the First Division in Major General Samuel Curtis’s Army of the Southwest on May 9, 1862 and marched into Helena in July 1862. With Curtis on leave, he was made head of the Army of the Southwest at the end of August 1862 and took command of Helena.  General Steele commanded at Helena from August 29th to October 7, 1862.

Coming from a Democrat point of view, Brigadier General Steele disagreed with many of the reforms that his predecessor Curtis had put into place. He ended the policy of giving freedom to escaped slaves and actually moved all freedmen out of his lines.  It was under his command that a large contraband camp was built just south of Helena along the Lower Little Rock Road. He only allowed former slaves who could be employed by the army to remain in Helena.

From October 7 to November 12, 1862 command of the Army of the Southwest fell to Brigadier General Eugene Asa Carr.  On November 13th he took over the District of Saint Louis after Brigadier General Lewis G. Arnold was relieved.

General Eugene A. Carr

In late 1862, General Steele got into a disagreement with a Union chaplain when he returned a young African American girl back to her master.  President Abraham Lincoln even got involved in this situation writing to General Steele on January 22, 1863. In response General U.S. Grant wrote in support of his friend calling him “one of our very best soldiers.”

The Army of the Southwest was broken up and General Steele assumed command of a division in the Army of the Tennessee. He and his men participated in the Yazoo Pass Expedition, the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou and the Battle of Arkansas Post. His nomination for Major General was sent to the U.S. Senate and confirmed on March 13, 1863. With that, General Steele moved on to new endeavors.  While these moves were being made, command at Helena fell to Brigadier General Willis A Gorman.

Frederick Steele: Battlefield Trust

Steele, Frederick: Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Willis A. Gorman

Willis Gorman

Willis A. Gorman was born January 12, 1816 in Fleming County, Kentucky.  The family soon moved to Bloomington, Indiana in 1836 where Willis studied law at Indiana University. He was elected to the Indiana Legislature. When the War with Mexico started, Gorman enlisted in the Third Indiana Regiment and was elected Major in June 1846.  After the regiment returned home, he organized the Fourth Indiana and returned to Mexico. Upon returning home, President Pierce appointed him governor of the Minnesota Territory and he started a law practice in St. Paul.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861 Willis Gorman became Colonel of the First Minnesota Infantry. He was promoted to brigadier general in October 1862.

On December 9, 1862 Brigadier General Willis Gorman arrived at Helena and took command. Instead of taking over a private residence in town, he chose to make the wharf boat on the river his headquarters. The Union soldiers at Helena continued their raids into Mississippi and Gorman worried about his strength being reduced to reinforce the Vicksburg campaign.

In mid February 1863, General U.S. Grant decided to reorganize his command in Arkansas and replaced General Gorman with Benjamin Prentiss.

“Military History and Reminiscences of the Thirteenth Regiment Illinois Infantry”

“Willis A. Gorman-Minnesota Historical Society”

Benjamin Prentiss

general prentiss

Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss was born November 23, 1819 in Belleville, Virginia.  His family moved west to Hannibal, Missouri and later Quincy, Illinois. During the Mexican War, he served as a captain in the First Illinois Infantry and fought at the Battle of Buena Vista.  After the war, he returned to Illinois where he started a law practice.

When the Civil War broke out, Prentiss was commissioned colonel of the Tenth Illinois Infantry. He was ordered to take charge of Union troops in Missouri operating against Confederate state guards. On April 1, 1862 he was made commander of a division under General U.S. Grant in Tennessee. At Shiloh his division defended an area called the Hornet’s Nest and he was captured along with many of his men.  After being held in several prisons, he was finally exchanged in October.

On March 13, 1863 Benjamin Prentiss was promoted Major General and given command of the District of Eastern Arkansas with his headquarters at Helena. Once there he set about organizing the defense of the city including the four batteries protecting the bluffs above the city. He also assisted in the organization of new African American regiments. On July 4, 1863 nearly eight thousand Confederates attacked his force of about four thousand men.  In a bloody four hour battle General Prentiss and his men defeated the Rebels capturing hundreds and ending all threats to Helena.

After Union forces along the Mississippi River were reorganized from the Vicksburg campaign, General Prentiss was ordered to report to Washington to await an assignment.  Instead he resigned his commission on October 28, 1863.  He was replaced by General Napoleon Buford.

Prentiss, Benjamin: Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Benjamin Prentiss: Battlefield Trust

Napoleon Bonaparte Buford

Napoleon Buford

Napoleon Buford was born January 13, 1807 in Woodford , Kentucky.  Buford attended West Point and graduated in 1827.  After a tour on the frontier, he was given a leave of absence to study law at Harvard. Buford later taught at West Point before leaving the service.  He became an engineer and banker in Illinois during the 1840s and 1850s.

When the Civil War broke out, Buford raised the 27th Illinois Infantry and commissioned a colonel.  He led his men at the battles of Belmont, Island Number Ten and Corinth.  It was after Corinth in October 1862 that he fell seriously ill from sunstroke and left field command.

Returning to duty, Brigadier General Napoleon Buford was assigned command of the District of Eastern Arkansas with headquarters at Helena on September 12, 1863.  He would serve in that capacity until March 9, 1865. While in command at Helena his men made numerous raids across the river into Mississippi and fought off Confederate cavalry aimed at disrupting the Union run plantations on the outskirts of Helena.  On July 26, 1864 a Union detachment led by Colonel W.S. Brooks was attacked at Wallace’s Ferry in Western Phillips County.  Brooks was killed along with 18 other men and forty wounded along with four captured.  This was the largest engagement around Helena while Buford was in command. He left Helena in early 1865 and his replacement Alexander McDonald McCook was ordered to take command.

“Napoleon Bonaparte Buford Biography-Civil War Home

Buford, Napoleon: Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Alexander McDonald McCook

Alexander M McCook

Alexander McCook was born in Columbiana County, Ohio, on April 22, 1831.  He attended West Point and graduated in 1852.  After earning his commission as an officer, he spent time teaching at the academy and served with the Third Infantry Regiment on the frontier.

When the Civil War broke out, McCook was commissioned a colonel of the First Ohio Infantry.  Seeing action at the First Battle of Bull Run, he received a promotion to brigadier general of volunteers on September 3, 1861.  Transferred to the Western Theater, he led a brigade and later a division at Nashville, Shiloh, and Corinth.  He was promoted to Major General in July 1862 and took command of a corps at the Battle of Perryville in October. At the Battle of Stones River, McCook’s Corps suffered terrible losses. In September 1863, he led his men at the Battle of Chickmaugua, but was removed from command soon after.

On February 12, 1865,  Alexander McCook was ordered to take command of the District of Eastern Arkansas at Helena. On March 9th, he took command at Helena. With the war over in Arkansas though, his men were left with not much to do.  On April 27, 1865 General McCook was ordered to turn over his command to Senior Colonel Charles Bentzoni and report to St. Louis for service in the West.

Alexander M. McCook: Battlefield Trust

Alexander McDonald McCook: Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Charles Bentzoni

Charles Bentzoni

Charles Bentzoni was born October 11, 1830 in Germany and immigrated to the United States. Bentzoni had served in the Prussian and British armies. He joined the United States Army in May 1857. He served at Fort Columbus, New York until August 1861. He was transferred and soon became First Lieutenant in the 11th United States Infantry. Lieutenant Bentzoni was breveted captain for gallantry at the Battle of Poplar Springs Church, Virginia to date from September 30, 1864. He was promoted to Colonel of the 56th Regiment United States Colored Infantry at Helena on January 29, 1865. In February 1865 Colonel Bentzoni led an expedition to Friars Point, Mississippi. He assumed official command of Helena and Eastern Arkansa on June 12 1865.  He would serve as commander at Helena until being mustered out September 15, 1866.  While in command at Helena, Colonel Bentzoni would help with the establishment of Southland College.  His men raised money and helped the freedmen to start a new life in and around Helena. With the 56th leaving Helena, the city was officially returned to local government.

Company Officers of the 11th U.S. Infantry

Colonel Charles Bentzoni: Findagrave

Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States, U.S. Congress, 1969.



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