July 4, 1863: Turning point in the Civil War

By Egon Hatfield, RDECOM History OfficeJuly 3, 2013

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Many consider July 4, 1863 to be the turning point of the American Civil War. Two important, famous, well-documented battles resulted in Confederate defeats: the Battle of Gettysburg (Pennsylvania), July 1-3, and the Fall of Vicksburg (Mississippi), July 4. However, two other major, lesser-known events resulted in two additional Confederate defeats. Both losses, one in Tennessee and one in Arkansas, were influenced by the Vicksburg Campaign.

In central Tennessee, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, leading the United States Army of the Cumberland, faced Gen. Braxton Bragg's Confederate Army of Tennessee. In early May 1863, the federal government feared that Bragg might send reinforcements to Vicksburg. To preclude this from happening, Rosecrans was ordered to begin an offensive in an attempt to tie down Confederate troops.

In late June, Rosecrans moved southeast from Murfreesboro with five corps, totaling approximately 65,000 men. Bragg deployed four corps, totaling about 44,000 men, behind a ridge line called the Highland Rim, covering the avenues of approach to Chattanooga and its rail hub. Though no large set-piece battle occurred, Rosecrans' skillful maneuvering through four passes and around Confederate flanks, forced Bragg southeastward to Tullahoma, then Decherd and finally across the Tennessee River July 4. The Tullahoma Campaign resulted in the Union conquest of central Tennessee.

Historians find it interesting to note that Union technology played a role in the campaign with several mounted infantry units being equipped with the seven-shot Spencer Repeating Rifle.

The rifle's inventor, Christopher Spencer, gained an audience with President Abraham Lincoln, who subsequently invited him to a shooting match and demonstration of the weapon. Impressed with the rifle, Lincoln ordered be produced for the Union Army in 1863.

In its first combat test, Spencer-armed Union troops under the command of Col. John Wilder earned the nickname "Lightning Brigade" when they defeated a numerically superior Confederate force at the Battle of Hoover's Gap, Tenn., June 24, 1863. One week later, Spencer rifles again saw action in the hands of troopers of the 5th Michigan Cavalry Regiment of Gen. George Armstrong Custer's brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg.

With the new weapon, a rifleman could shoot up to 14 rounds per minute as opposed to three rounds per minute with the traditional muzzle-loading musket.

At Helena, Ark., Maj. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss commanded about 4,000 Union troops assigned to the District of Eastern Arkansas. Earlier in June 1863, Prentiss had 16,000 troops siphoned off from his command to assist in the Vicksburg Campaign. This situation pleased Lt. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes, commanding general of the Confederate District of Arkansas. He had about 7,000 men, organized in three divisions, to attack Helena in an attempt to take some pressure off Vicksburg.

Helena was situated 230 miles north of Vicksburg on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Just to the west of the town was Fort Curtis, an earthen bastion. Additionally, four batteries of artillery were placed on hills in a semi-circle. Floating close to the riverbank was the USS Tyler, a paddlewheel steamer armed with one rifled gun and six smoothbore cannon.

On the morning on July 4, Holmes launched an uncoordinated attack, bereft of reconnaissance and intelligence. The three divisions attacked from the northwest, west and southwest. The battle was a Confederate disaster. Only one of the artillery batteries was taken, but Fort Curtis blunted any further advance. The USS Tyler provided naval gunfire support, lobbing over 400 rounds. Confederate dead, wounded, missing and captured (1,636) equaled approximately 20 percent of the attacking force. Union losses were 239.

The Battle of Helena, coupled with the loss of Vicksburg, signaled the end of major Confederate operations in Arkansas, now cut off from the eight states east of the Mississippi River.


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