Lieutenant Adam B. Smith and the Battle of Helena

Adam Burns Smith enlisted in a company being organized at Jefferson City, Missouri on August 14, 1862. The men soon joined other companies at Benton Barracks in St. Louis where they formed Company B of the 33rd Missouri Infantry on August 29th. Young Adam became Second Sergeant of his company as the recruits trained for their upcoming military service. He was promoted to First Sergeant on February 1, 1863.

Adam was born July 5, 1840 in Mason county, Kentucky to a large family headed by Charles and Sarah Smith. Charles worked as a stone mason and remarried in 1855 after Sarah passed away. The family moved to Missouri shortly before the war began. According to records Adam worked as a miller when he enlisted.

On January 5, 1863 the 33rd embarked at Columbus, Kentucky on board the steamer Florence bound for Helena, Arkansas and arrived January 7th. Soon after arriving the regiment participated in several patrols to St. Charles and DeVall’s Bluff, Arkansas without incident. After arriving back in Helena they joined the expedition through the Yazoo Pass that ended at Fort Pemberton.

With that defeat the Union soldiers returned back to Helena where the 33rd were ordered to make camp near Fort Curtis. On May 2nd most of the regiment was put in charge of the fortifications above Helena and began to train as artillery. Other companies were placed in charge of Fort Curtis and its large artillery pieces. Company A was stationed in Battery A; Company C was in charge of Battery B; Company E the guns in Battery C supported by Company H acting as sharpshooters; Company B at Battery D supported by Companies G, I and E acting as sharpshooters. Companies D and F manned the heavy guns of Fort Curtis. As the regiment was reorganized, Sergeant Smith was promoted to Second Lieutenant of Company B on May 3, 1863. John G. Hudson was his Captain and in charge of Battery D. Lieutenant Colonel William H. Heath and Major George W. Van Beck commanded the 33rd Missouri Infantry. The Union army at Helena consisted of about 4,000 men under the leadership of Major General Benjamin M. Prentiss.

Hindman House and Hindman Hill where Battery D was located

Battery D was located along a ridge and hill above the house owned by Confederate General Thomas Hindman. Helena had been occupied territory since July 1862 when the Union Army of the Southwest had marched in unopposed under the command of General Samuel Curtis. From that point forward the army had been building fortifications to defend this important port city along the Mississippi River. At the center of this defense was Fort Curtis, an impressive earthen fort bristling with heavy artillery. To defend the hills above town, four earthen forts known as batteries were built. Gunboats were also docked down at the river. Within a year Helena had become one of the best defended cities in the south. It had also become a center of operations for the Federal army and aided in the siege of Vicksburg.

President Jefferson Davis had been urging Southerners in the Trans-Mississippi Department to do something toward the relief of Vicksburg. After weeks of prodding Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes gathered his forces and marched toward Helena. The Confederate army consisted of about 8,000 men with his largest division commanded by Major General Sterling Price. The plan of battle was to attack the batteries and surge into Helena taking Fort Curtis. Once Helena was under their control, the Confederates hoped General Grant would have to return north and end the siege.

On July 4, 1863 General Holmes had his army ready with orders to charge at sunrise. Brigadier General J.T. Fagan would attack Battery D and Hindman Hill with his brigade from the south. Major General Sterling Price with two brigades would move on Battery C and the center. From the north Brigadier General L.M. Walker would take Battery A. Victory depended on them taking the batteries and rushing the fort all at the same time. Even in armies of today, coordination is difficult, but during the civil war it was almost impossible. Nothing was more evident of this than the Confederate attack on Helena that morning as brigade after brigade attacked individually and at different times.

With information in hand, Union General Prentiss had been ready for days. He had his men up early every morning and in position. He had an abundance of artillery and naval support. His batteries and rifle pits were well sighted for support of each other. The hills at Helena were perfect for defense and any attacking force would have to advance over fallen trees and up steep hillsides. This was a perfect killing field.

Battery D as it looks today

General Fagan’s men attacked first with one regiment along the Lower Little Rock Road and three directly at Battery D and its rifle pits along the Upper Little Rock Road. Rifle pit after rifle pit fell to the victorious rebels before they were finally halted by the belching cannons of Battery D and support from the U.S.S. Tyler. Walker’s Division attacked from the north, but was stopped solid by infantry and cannon fire. Fagan’s men managed to make it right up to Battery D, but were stopped. Taking shelter best they could and firing upward toward the entrenchments. the rebels kept up a brisk fire on Company B and the 33rd Missouri. At that point General Sterling Price ordered his two brigades forward. Up steep graveyard hill where Battery C was located came these brave Arkansas and Missouri men. Fire tearing holes into their ranks, but never faltering, they went over and into the Federal battery. Fighting was hand to hand here as the men of companies E and H of the 33rd Missouri and their support battled the western rebels, but sheer numbers forced them back and off the hill. That’s when Fort Curtis, the Tyler and all other batteries opened up on the hapless men of Price’s Division. General Holmes ordered some of his men to attack toward Fort Curtis while others were sent to help General Fagan take Battery D. As this happened, General Fagan renewed his frontal attack on Battery D but his men were played out. The Battle of Helena had been going on for about four hours and the Confederate army was exhausted. Hundreds lay wounded and dead across the hills and gullies surrounding Helena. Understanding if he stayed his entire army was at risk, General Holmes ordered a withdrawal. It was too late for many of his men though who realized they were trapped. Hundreds surrendered instead of running the gauntlet to freedom. The Battle of Helena was a complete victory for the Union army and General Prentiss ordered his men to start loading the prisoners aboard ships headed for Memphis. Before the battle, boastful Confederates had sent word they were going to celebrate the Fourth of July in Helena. Prentiss was not going to allow even rebel prisoners to eat a meal in his city. He had proven how a well-defended position could stop any adversary, no matter how large. Word soon arrived that Vicksburg had fallen the same day. Helena had truly been for nothing.

Historical Marker at Battery D

Total Union Casualties at the Battle of Helena:

57 killed, 146 wounded, 36 missing or captured

Total Confederate Casualties at the Battle of Helena:

169 killed, 659 wounded, 786 missing or captured

The 33rd Missouri Infantry reported 16 killed, 25 wounded and 9 missing.

Fort Curtis during the Civil War

Lieutenant Adam B. Smith had begun keeping a diary of his time in the 33rd Missouri. He diligently described the Yazoo Pass expedition and continued writing in July. Here is a portion of Smith’s diary starting on July 2nd.

July 2nd – The officers of the battery have been trying to get us some kind of demonstration for the 4th, but I guess it is too late and the weather is too warm. We received orders in the evening to have close inspection of ammunition and to be up at daybreak in the morning and remain under arms until half of an hour by sun. After dark, Colonel Heath and Major Van Beck came up and told us to be in perfect readiness as the rebels were 4000 strong out ten miles on the road which we are stationed and 12000 strong on the Upper Little Rock Road. We were ordered to be up and at our posts half past two a.m.

July 3rd – Were awakened up from a sound slumber at 2 1/2 a.m. and marched to the fort and led a detachment to each gun and laid our arms up against the embankment and seated ourselves about to await the coming of the enemy and which we wished for earnestly.

The next entry is not in the handwriting of Lieutenant Smith.

July 4th – I add to this journal proudly of this officer’s role on the morning of July 4, 1863 at Helena, Arkansas. All troops being forwarded in line of battle. The enemy appeared at 4 1/2 o’clock when I opened fire from Battery D. Lieutenant Smith, doing his duty at all hazards, assessing that nothing on his part was left undone and at about 8 o’clock a.m. the Lieutenant was shot through the right side about the hip. He sent for me. “Captain tell Father I died trusting in the Lord.” I arrived just in time to get that last message he spoke. Signed by Captain John G. Hudson, Commanding Company D.

Second Lieutenant Adam B. Smith was buried with other Union soldiers at Helena. His personal effects were collected and sent back to his family. Below is a list of those items:

1 great coat, 1 blouse, 1 vest, 1 pair of pants, 3 shirts, 2 pair of drawers, 2 pair of socks, 1 fatigue jacket, 2 blankets, 2 rubber ponchos, 1 hat, 1 pair of boots, 1 sword belt, 1 officers sash

After the war, all Union soldiers buried at Helena were removed to the Memphis National Cemetery. Lieutenant Smith’s remains are located at grave 4245.

On May 31st Lieutenant Smith, contemplating his future, had written in his diary. Like many young men of any day he was thinking of where his life was going. Sadly his life would end less than five days later.

I spent most of the day reading in my tent and studying what course I would take in regard to my studies, whether I would take up studies of civil life or of war. I concluded that as I was in the army and probably would have to serve my time out that I would begin the study of war diligently.

References:

FOLD 3.com

Ancestry.com

Findagrave.com

The Diary of Adam B. Smith, 33rd Missouri Infantry

Official Records of the War of Rebellion – Volume XXII, Part 1. pages 384 – 407. Washington, D.C.

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