Helena was a city under siege in January 1863. The Army of the Southwest had marched into the town about six months earlier in 1862. Since that day they had been fortifying Helena and making it a center of Union operations in the area around the town in both Arkansas and Mississippi. However, there were hundreds of Confederate regular and irregular soldiers who watched the garrison carefully for any chance to attack. These irregular Confederates were known as bushwhackers by the Union troops. Any small detachment was in danger once outside the city limits, but they had to go outside in order to pursue the enemy. That is what happened on January 12, 1863 along a small stream outside of Helena in Phillips County, Arkansas.
Lick Creek in Phillips County, Arkansas
Colonel Powell Clayton of the 5th Kansas Cavalry left Helena in charge of an expedition to the White River. They made camp on Big Creek about eighteen miles from Helena. His force consisted of over a thousand men. Lieutenant James B. Bradford was chosen by Colonel Thomas Stephens of the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry to convey dispatches back to Helena. He was given a command of one sergeant and twenty four men of the 2nd to escort him back with these messages.
The small contingent left Big Creek on January 12 at 3 p.m. headed eastward toward Helena. Being informed that rebels were near, he sent three men out in advance. Things went quiet at first and soon they had made it to Lick Creek about twelve miles from Helena. Lieutenant Bradford found the bridge which had recently been built over the creek burned so the men moved down a little further to ford the creek. After crossing about ten men, Bradford and his sergeant were suddenly attacked. The men still on the West bank were quickly gunned down or captured by dozens of Confederates who rushed them firing as they came. Lieutenant Bradford quickly set up a defensive line along the eastern side of Lick Creek with his men firing their revolvers, since they didn’t have their carbines. After firing all of the rounds from their pistols, the men began to retreat away from the stream. As his troops were pulling back they were suddenly attacked by more Confederates on the east shore of the creek. Realizing he was in trouble, Bradford ordered all of the men who could, to follow him for safety. Satisfied with their victory, the unknown rebels did not follow. The lieutenant, sergeant, and three privates successfully made it back to Helena about 7 p.m. At about 10 that night, four more of his men straggled in. One more man came back the next morning stating he saw about nine or ten of the Union men taken prisoner. Five more would eventually return to Helena after being paroled as prisoners by the Rebels. In total, fifteen of the twenty six men who had left Colonel Clayton’s expedition that fateful day from Big Creek would return. The others never did. Although Lick Creek wasn’t large in numbers engaged and there are no Confederate records of the battle, it was the type of engagement that the Union men of Helena had to deal with on a constant basis.
Arkansas Historical Marker of the Skirmish at Lick Creek
Official Records of the War of Rebellion, pages 215 – 232, Chapter xxxiv, Series I, Volume 22. Reports. serial Number 32.
Sesser, David. “Skirmish at Lick Creek.” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.