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Grant’s Operations against Vicksburg
May 25, 1863
Major Samuel Walker, Lieutenant Samuel J. McKee (US); Lieutenant Colonel Francis Chrisman (CS)
Fifth Kansas Cavalry, Third Iowa Cavalry (US); First Arkansas Cavalry, Nineteenth Texas Cavalry (CS)
5 killed, 20 wounded (US); unknown (CS)
On May 25, 1863, Confederate and Union forces engaged in a skirmish on and near Polk’s plantation, roughly six miles west of Helena (Phillips County). The fighting was part of the Federal army’s ultimately successful campaign to hold Helena for the Union.
Union troops had occupied Helena since summer 1862, but Ulysses S. Grant’s need for men in his campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the spring of 1863 weakened the town’s garrison. Confederates under the command of General Theophilus Holmes, aware of Grant’s actions, wanted to retake Helena.
A Federal scouting mission departed from Helena on the morning of May 25 and clashed with Confederate pickets along Little Rock Road. The Union forces consisted of roughly 150 cavalrymen from the Fifth Kansas under Major Samuel Walker and the Third Iowa under Lieutenant Samuel J. McKee. Union soldiers pushed forward for a mile, reaching an open field with a line of trees just beyond. An African-American guide informed Walker that Rebel troops were hiding in the woods. Two Federal detachments under McKee searched the area, but found nothing.
As it looked for Rebels, Walker’s main force began fighting with the Confederate First Arkansas Cavalry, led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Chrisman (most his men were part of Colonel Archibald Dobbins’s regiment), and mounted troops from the Nineteenth Texas. Before the Federal detachment arrived on the scene, Chrisman had smashed the main Union position.
Walker’s forces retreated toward Helena, with troops engaged in desperate fighting, at times hand-to-hand. The Federals fled for a mile before establishing a new position at a bridge over a deep ravine. There, the Confederates halted. Chrisman, fearing the position too strong to attack, and believing Union reinforcements were coming, withdrew. The Federals held the bridge until later in the day, when Chrisman sent a flag of truce to Walker so that they might collect the dead and wounded. The Confederates turned Polk’s plantation into a hospital.
The plantation belonged to Allen J. Polk, a North Carolina–born planter who had studied law in Tennessee before moving to Arkansas. Polk was in Little Rock (Pulaski County) at the time of the skirmish at his plantation. His house was destroyed sometime in the 1870s or 1880s.
According to an Iowa soldier in Helena, the Federals at Polk’s plantation were “badly cut up.” Union losses were roughly five killed, twenty wounded, and more than twenty captured. Confederate losses are unknown but likely comparable to the Union dead and wounded. The Rebels scored a tactical victory, though perhaps their greatest loss was that of Col. Chrisman, whom General Thomas Hindman called “bold and active.” Chrisman suffered a serious arm wound on May 25, which forced him to resign his commission in August.
Confederates were in control of the field after the Polk’s plantation skirmish, but their campaign for Helena would go down to defeat in July.
For additional information:
Fry, Alice L. Following the Fifth Kansas Cavalry: The Letters. Independence, MO: Two Trails Publishing, 1998.
Sparkman, Lyle B. “Brindletail Confederate.” White County Heritage 31 (1993): 23–30.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. 22, Pt. 1, pp. 340–341. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1888.
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Last Updated 1/7/2013
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