Submitted by J. B. McConville
---- — The Civil War for Appanoose County remained a time of great struggle and turmoil in the summer of 1863. The federal North or Union states, including Iowa, remained pitted against the South or Confederate states. Missouri remained a border slave state and as such remained embattled over the questions of slavery and states’ rights. Many battles were fought nearby in Missouri for control of the state. Missouri had both Union and Confederate forces in the fight. By the summer of 1863, 150 years ago, the struggle remained slow and uneven despite the Union superiority in men and firepower.
Appanoose County remained keenly patriotic and constantly on edge throughout because of its proximity to the Great Struggle. With a population of 12,000, Appanoose County ultimately contributed around 800 men in a continual process of recruitment of volunteers. Appanoose County men contributed to many volunteer units, including the 6th Iowa Infantry, the 17th Iowa Infantry, the 3rd Iowa Cavalry and the 7th and 8th Iowa Cavalry along with many other infantry and cavalry units.
Over half of all Appanoose county volunteers had joined the 36th Iowa Infantry Regiment in the Fall of 1862. Francis Marion Drake of Unionville had been commissioned Lieutenant-Colonel by the Iowa Governor. Other leaders included attorney Thomas M. Fee, who was elected captain of Company G. Joseph Gedney, a farmer from south of Numa was elected captain of Company I. William F. Vermilion, a physician from Iconium was elected captain of Company F. Dr. Sylvester H. Sawyer of Unionville was commissioned as regimental surgeon. In all, about 400 Appanoose County men helped fill the ranks of the 36th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. The remainders of the ranks were filled out with men from Monroe County and Wapello County under the command of Colonel Charles W. Kittredge of Ottumwa.
In the spring of 1863 the 36th Iowa had taken part in the ill-fated Yazoo Pass or Fort Pemberton Expedition. The unit was 600 strong at the time because of illnesses in camp. They had embarked down the Mississippi River in an effort to open up an alternate route near Moon Lake in Mississippi. The goal was an attempt to encircle the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Miss. from the north. After seeing action at Shell Mound, Miss., they spent 40 days of wading in the Coldwater River before abandoning the expedition. Fort Pemberton proved to be too well fortified and it was deemed too risky to proceed. After suffering greatly from freezing rain and high winds, cold, flu and fever, they finally turned back to camp at Helena, Ark. in April 1863.
Helena, Ark., on the Mississippi River, was an important staging point for units training and preparing for further action on down the Mississippi. It was overcrowded with troops and health conditions were poor. However, the 36th soon commenced a physically rigorous daily regimen of drill and building of fortifications in anticipation of an expected Confederate attack in late June of 1863. The 36th Regiment had the assignment to build breast works and trenches in support of Battery A at Fort Curtis, located on the north side of the Union defenses. Together with the 33rd Iowa infantry, they dropped trees across the roads surrounding the town of Helena to help protect against attack. The Union or federal line ran in a semicircle around the town as it faced the Mississippi River.
At the same time, Union General Ulysses S. Grant continued to attempt to encircle the town of Vicksburg, Miss. with his federal army, which included many Appanoose County men from the 6th Iowa Infantry, Company D stationed near Haynes Bluff. Grant then laid siege to the town of Vicksburg in an effort to force surrender and open up the Mississippi River to Union control.
Finally, on July 4, 1863, a Confederate force, at first estimated at between 8,000 –10,000, attacked Helena from three sides. It was a Confederate attempt to relieve pressure on the besieged city of Vicksburg. It was to occur on the very same day as the Union attack and victory in the Battle of Vicksburg. Major General Benjamin M. Prentiss originally had at Helena about 20,000 federal troops, but most had transferred in June to Vicksburg to strengthen the siege, leaving only about 4,600 troops behind to defend Helena.
At Helena, the Union forces fought a savage, bloody, all-day attack under a burning hot sun. They had the fire support of the U.S. Navy gunboat Tyler anchored in the river offshore. The Confederates under Lt. General Theophilus H. Holmes had planned a coordinated attack from three sides of the city. They nearly succeeded in capturing some of the federal redoubts with deadly hand-to-hand combat. But Helena’s defenses proved to be too strong.
Confederate General (and future Missouri governor) John S. Marmaduke led the cavalry attack, Major General (and former Missouri governor) Sterling Price led the infantry attack. Brig. General James Fagan and current Arkansas Governor Harris Flanagin were additional Confederate military leaders. General Holmes had said to “attack at daylight.” General Price thought this meant attack at sunrise. General Fagan and General Marmaduke interpreted this as attack at first light, almost an hour after General Price had commenced his assault. Poor coordination and good Federal defenses doomed the attack.
The 36th Iowa celebrated their victory by collecting and burying rebel corpses. Vicksburg also surrendered to General Grant on July 4. At the same time, the Union achieved a great victory at Gettysburg, Penn. The Battle of Helena was certainly not the biggest battle of the day, yet was quite important in helping to achieve control of the Mississippi Union. These victories ended Confederate threats to federal operations along the Mississippi River and cut off regular lines of communication and supply between rebel forces, essentially splitting the Confederacy in half for the remainder of the war.
Following the Battle of Helena, the 36th Iowa Appanoose County men became part of the 7th Corps under Major General Frederick Steele and went into garrison duty at the federal supply base at DuVall’s Bluff, Ark. on the White River. In July and August, the regiment went on a guard assignment to Pine Bluff, Ark.
More to come later.