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Benjamin Hardin Helm

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Benjamin Hardin Helm
Brigadier General Benjamin Hardin Helm (1831-1863).jpg
Born(1831-06-02)June 2, 1831
Bardstown, Kentucky
DiedSeptember 21, 1863(1863-09-21) (aged 32)
Chickamauga, Georgia
Place of burial
Helm Family Cemetery, Elizabethtown, Kentucky[1]
AllegianceUnited States of America
 Confederate States of America
Service/branchUnited States Army
 Confederate States Army
Years of service1851–1852 (U.S.)
1861–1863 (C.S.)
RankUnion army 1st lt rank insignia.jpg 1st Lieutenant
Confederate States of America General-collar.svg Brigadier General
Commands held1st Kentucky Cavalry
1st Kentucky "Orphans" Brigade
Battles/warsAmerican Civil War

Benjamin Hardin Helm (June 2, 1831 – September 21, 1863)[2] was an American politician, attorney, and Confederate brigadier general. A son of Kentucky governor John L. Helm, he was born in Bardstown, Kentucky. He attended the Kentucky Military Institute and the West Point Military Academy and then studied law at the University of Louisville and Harvard University. He served as a state legislator and the state's attorney in Kentucky. Helm was offered the position of Union Army paymaster by his brother-in-law, President Abraham Lincoln (Helm was married to Emilie Todd, the half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln), a position which he declined. Helm joined the Confederate States Army. As a brigadier general, Helm commanded the 1st Kentucky Brigade, more commonly known as The Orphan Brigade. He died on the battlefield during the Battle of Chickamauga.

Early life[edit]

Helm during his Kentucky State Guard service, 1860.

The son of lawyer and politician John L. Helm and Lucinda Barbour Hardin, Benjamin Hardin Helm was born in Bardstown, Kentucky on June 2, 1831.[3] In the winter of 1846, at age 15, Helm enrolled at the Kentucky Military Institute, where he remained for three months. He left on his 16th birthday to accept an appointment at West Point the same day.[4] Helm graduated in 1851 near his 20th birthday, ranked 9th in a class of 42 cadets.[5] He became a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Dragoons. He served at a cavalry school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and at Fort Lincoln, Texas, but resigned his commission after a year, when he was diagnosed with inflammatory rheumatism.[6]

Helm then studied law at the University of Louisville and Harvard University, graduating in 1853 and practicing law with his father.[7] In 1855, he was elected to the House of Representatives of Kentucky from Hardin County, and was the state's attorney for the 3rd district of Kentucky from 1856 to 1858.[8] In 1856, Helm married Emilie Todd, a half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.[9]

In 1860, he was appointed assistant inspector-general of the Kentucky State Guard, which he was active in organizing.[10] Kentucky remained officially neutral during the American Civil War, but his brother-in-law, now President Abraham Lincoln, offered him the position of paymaster of the Union Army.[11] Helm declined the offer, and returned to Kentucky to raise the 1st Kentucky Cavalry Regiment for the Confederate Army.[11]

Military career[edit]

Helm was commissioned a colonel on October 19, 1861, and served under Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner in Bowling Green, Kentucky.[12] Helm and the 1st Kentucky were then ordered south. He was promoted to brigadier general on March 14, 1862 and, three weeks later, received a new assignment to raise the 3rd Kentucky Brigade, in the division of Major General John C. Breckinridge.[13] During the Battle of Shiloh, Helm used his brigade to guard the Confederate flanks.[13] In 1862, he was also sent to protect the Arkansas, an ironclad warship of the Confederate Navy under construction in Yazoo City, Mississippi.[14] Serving under Breckinridge in January 1863, he was given command of the First Kentucky Brigade, commonly known as the "Orphan Brigade".[15] Helm's brigade was assigned to the Army of Tennessee, where it participated in the 1863 Tullahoma and Chickamauga campaigns.[11] Near the end of the spring of 1863, Breckinridge ordered Helm to deploy the brigade to Vicksburg, Mississippi to participate in General Joseph E. Johnston's unsuccessful attempt to break the siege. Helm called it "the most unpleasant and trying [campaign] of his career".[16]

Battle of Chickamauga and death[edit]

Bust of Helm by Anton Schaaf at Vicksburg National Military Park, 1914

In the fall of 1863, the 1st Kentucky Brigade formed a part of General Braxton Bragg's counteroffensive against Union Major General William Rosecrans in Chattanooga, Tennessee.[17] At 9:30 am on September 20, 1863, the divisions of Generals Breckinridge and Patrick Cleburne were ordered to move forward.[16] Helm's brigade and the others in Breckinridge's division drove into the Federals' left.[16] General Cleburne's division, which was intended to strike near the center of the line, was delayed by heavy fire from Union soldiers, leaving the left flank unguarded.[16] Repeated attempts to overwhelm the Federals were in vain, though some of Helm's Kentuckians and Alabamians managed to reach within 39 yards (36 m) of the Federal line.[16] In less than an hour of the order given to advance, fully one third of the Orphan Brigade had been lost.[18] While the remainder of Helm's men clashed with the Union line, a sharpshooter from the 15th Kentucky Union Infantry shot Helm in the chest.[16] Bleeding profusely, he remained in the saddle a few moments before toppling to the ground.[19] After being carried off the battlefield, Helm's surgeons concluded that his wounds would be fatal.[16] Helm clung to life for several hours. Knowing that his health was deteriorating, he asked who had won the battle. When assured that the Confederates had carried the day, he muttered: "Victory!, Victory!, Victory!".[20] On September 21, 1863, Gen. Helm succumbed to his wounds.[16]

Following his death, Abraham Lincoln and his wife went into private mourning at the White House.[21] Mary Lincoln's niece recalled: "She knew that a single tear shed for a dead enemy would bring torrents of scorn and bitter abuse on both her husband and herself."[22] However, the widowed Emilie Todd Helm was granted safe passage to the White House in December 1863.[23]

In an official report of the Battle of Chickamauga, General Daniel Harvey Hill stated that Benjamin Helm's "gallantry and loveliness of character endeared him to everyone."[21] In a letter to Emilie Todd Helm, General Breckinridge said, "Your husband commanded them [the men of the Orphan brigade] like a thorough soldier. He loved them, they loved him, and he died at their head, a patriot and a hero."[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Benjamin Hardin Helm". Civil War Reference. Archived from the original on 21 January 2011. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  2. ^ Eicher & Eicher 2001, p. 293; Warner 1959, p. 133
  3. ^ Warner 1959, p. 132; Allardice & Hewitt 2008, p. 139
  4. ^ Thompson 1868, p. 338
  5. ^ Thompson 1868, p. 338, Allardice & Hewitt 2008, p. 140
  6. ^ Thompson 1868, p. 339, Allardice & Hewitt 2008, p. 140
  7. ^ Barefoot 2005, p. 148
  8. ^ Thompson 1868, p. 339, Warner 1959, p. 132
  9. ^ Allardice & Hewitt 2008, p. 140
  10. ^ Thompson 1868, p. 340
  11. ^ a b c Warner 1959, p. 132
  12. ^ Barefoot 2005, pp. 149, 150
  13. ^ a b Barefoot 2005, p. 149
  14. ^ Allardice & Hewitt 2008, p. 141
  15. ^ Barefoot 2005, p. 149; Warner 1959, p. 132
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h Barefoot 2005, p. 150
  17. ^ Allardice & Hewitt 2008, p. 138
  18. ^ Allardice & Hewitt 2008, p. 139
  19. ^ Allardice & Hewitt 2008, p. 139; Barefoot 2005, p. 150
  20. ^ Allardice & Hewitt 2008, p. 139; Barefoot 2005, pp. 150, 151
  21. ^ a b c Barefoot 2005, p. 151
  22. ^ Clinton 2010, p. 206
  23. ^ "Emilie Todd Helm". Mr. Lincoln's White House. Retrieved 29 September 2006.


Further reading[edit]

  • McMurtry, Robert (1943). Ben Hardin Helm: "rebel" brother in law of Abraham Lincoln, with a biographical sketch of his wife and an account of the Todd family of Kentucky. Chicago: Civil War Round Table.

External links[edit]