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The Civil War's Largest Battle West of the Mississippi River: Pea Ridge Arkansas March 1862

Updated on December 26, 2019
Mark Caruthers profile image

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

The Trans-Mississippi Theater of the American Civil War

The Battle of Pea Ridge would swing the balance of power in favor of Union forces in the Trans-Mississippi Theater.
The Battle of Pea Ridge would swing the balance of power in favor of Union forces in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. | Source

The Battle for Northwest Arkansas

In the spring of 1862 the state of Missouri was in a state of utter chaos torn over the question of slavery. The Confederate victory at Wilson's Creek on August 10,1861, left the state of Missouri leaning toward joining the Confederacy rather than staying with the Union led by Abraham Lincoln. Bands of pro-slavery militia roamed the countryside looking to capture any runaway slaves they could find and to kill any abolitionist, (those who wished to end slavery), who might assist their escape. Union troops stationed at the arsenal in St. Louis battled to keep Missouri from joining the Confederacy along with the state of Arkansas. American's 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, pledged to preserve the Union and abolish slavery sent Union troops to break up the rebel insurgency in Missouri. He assigned the task of crushing the pro-slavery forces in Missouri to his newly appointed Union General Samuel R. Curtis. Soon after his appointment Curtis began to gather his Union army together and prepare them to seek out the rebel army who threatened to take control of Missouri by force.

After putting down the rebel insurgence in St. Louis, Curtis advanced his Union army south from the railhead at Rolla into central Missouri. After defeating the rebel army in a series of skirmishes in southwest Missouri, Curtis advanced his troops further south invading the Confederate state of Arkansas. His army set up camp near Bentonville throwing Confederate forces back as he advanced deeper into northwest Arkansas. Curtis and his Union army invaded Arkansas with approximately 12,000 Union soldiers and 50 artillery pieces, he planed was to block and destroy any further rebel advances into the state of Missouri. He found an excellent defensive position on the north side of a stream called Little Sugar Creek in Benton County Arkansas. Curtis quickly proceeded to fortify it for an expected Confederate assault from the south. Due to the length of his supply lines and a lack of reinforcements Curtis had decided it would not be wise to advance any further into hostile territory.

The newly appointed commander of Confederate forces in Arkansas, Major General Earl Van Dorn, was surprised by the sudden Union invasion and soon began to reorganize his forces to halt the Union army. Van Dorn decided upon a bold plan to destroy the Union army enabling Confederate forces to reopen their gateway to St. Louis. Van Dorn's Confederate army totaled approximately 16,000 men. The rebel army included some 800 Indian troops from the Oklahoma Territory led by Albert Pike, with contingents from General Price's Missouri State Guard, and Benjamin McCulloch's rebel force stationed at Fort Smith which included cavalry, infantry, and artillery from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri. The upcoming Battle of Pea Ridge was one of the very few during the American Civil War in which a Confederate army outnumbered the Union opponent.

The battle of Wilson's Creek August 10, 1861 was the culmination of a campaign that started the previous June, its roots reached back to the "Bleeding of Kansas." A struggle which began in 1854 surrounding the debate as to whether Missouri's western neighbor Kansas would be a free or a slave state. Six years of bloody intermittent violence along the border of the two states had left the citizens of Missouri and Kansas at the mercy of lawless bands of vigilantes. The conflict involved years of electoral fraud, raids, and assaults carried out in Kansas and neighboring Missouri by pro-slavery "Border Ruffians" and anti-slavery "Free-Staters." The pro-slavery group was led by guerrilla leader William Clarke Quantrill (July 31,1837-June 6,1865), who roamed the Missouri and Kansas border region apprehending escaped slaves and murdering those who stood against his raiders. This group was best known for their often brutal guerrilla tactics. His group included the infamous outlaw brothers Jessie James and his older brother Frank James. The James brothers would continue using the same guerrilla tactics over a decade after the war robbing banks and trains in the region. The brothers managed to evade justice under the protection of Confederate sympathizers throughout the region. Quantrill's reign of terror ended after he was mortally wounded by Union troops in Central Kentucky, in one of the last actions of the Civil War in late May 1865.

Most citizens of Missouri hoped to avoid a secession crisis. Their state was western by its geographic location but largely southern in heritage. Yet a tremendous inflow of immigrants, mostly German who lived around St. Louis, and a growing railway system that connected them to the state of Illinois and the North's free-labor economy, led Missouri toward a different future. Although seven Southern states left the Union to form the Confederacy by February 1861, Missouri delegates meeting in convention the following March rejected secession. Most of Missouri's citizens desired neutrality, but its Governor Claiborne Jackson favored the south.

When Fort Sumter fell to Confederate attack in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called on northern states governors to call up 75,000 troops to restore the Union, but Governor Jackson refused to obey his request. Instead, he allowed several pro-secessionist volunteer militia companies to encamp just outside St. Louis, hoping they would seize the Federal arsenal located in the city. As Claiborne secretly negotiated with Confederate authorities in Richmond, many of the pro-Southern militia brazenly displayed Southern flags around St. Louis and its outlying cities. Nathaniel Lyon, a West Point graduate, who was committed to defending his post at the St. Louis Arsenal wanted Missouri to maintain its allegiance to the national government in Washington DC, upset Governor Jackson's plans. With a small force of U.S. Army regulars and a large contingent of volunteers (mostly new German immigrants), he seized the initiative by capturing "Camp Jackson," the encampment of Missouri militia, on May 10, 1861. But Captain Lyon followed his bloodless coup by marching his pro-Southern captives through the crowed streets of St. Louis, a riot soon erupted. His troops fired on the crowd, killing or wounding over one hundred civilians, including women and children.

The "Camp Jackson Massacre" polarized the citizens of Missouri. Most citizens in the countryside would remain loyal to the slave state mentality of the Confederacy, while the citizens in and surrounding the capital of St Louis would remain loyal to the Federal government. To defend the state, previously pro-Union legislature created the Missouri State Guard, a county-based militia divided into nine geographic divisions, each headed by a brigadier general. Jackson named Sterling Price, a Mexican War hero and former governor, as a major general to command the State Guard forces now loyal to the Confederacy. As Missouri's white population between the ages of eighteen to forty-five numbered over 100,000, the military potential of the State Guard was considerable.

Union and Confederate Troops Battle Near Elkhorn Tavern

On the Battery. In this highly detailed painting by present-day artist Andy Thomas, Union and Confederate forces engaged in fierce combat near Elkhorn Tavern in the late afternoon of the first day of battle at Pea Ridge, March 7, 1862.
On the Battery. In this highly detailed painting by present-day artist Andy Thomas, Union and Confederate forces engaged in fierce combat near Elkhorn Tavern in the late afternoon of the first day of battle at Pea Ridge, March 7, 1862. | Source
Pea Ridge March 7, 1862
Pea Ridge March 7, 1862 | Source
Van Dorn attempts to attack Union troops from the rear at Pea Ridge.
Van Dorn attempts to attack Union troops from the rear at Pea Ridge. | Source
Battle for Elkhorn Tavern and the Confederate retreat after Van Dorn's troops run out of ammunition.
Battle for Elkhorn Tavern and the Confederate retreat after Van Dorn's troops run out of ammunition. | Source
Battle of Leetown where the Confederate forces lose their to best leaders.
Battle of Leetown where the Confederate forces lose their to best leaders. | Source

The Battle for Wilson's Creek

Missouri's fate in the Civil War would be determined on a frozen battlefield in the rugged hills of northwest Arkansas. With volunteer regiments recruited from German immigrants around St. Louis and the federal troops from the arsenal in St Louis, newly promoted General Nathaniel Lyon Union drove the secessionist government led by Sterling Price's Missouri State Guard out of Missouri's state capital in Jefferson City. Price's troops fled into the frontier that bordered southwestern Missouri and northwestern Arkansas. Lyon would not be satisfied as long as Price's state guard remained a threat to Union control of Missouri.

In the summer of 1861 Lyon would lead a small Union army into southwestern Missouri. This time Lyon's aggressive tactics would lead to disaster. With his forces outnumbered two to one by Price's state guard and General Benjamin McCulloch's Confederate army from northwest Arkansas, Lyon's pro-union forces would be driven from the field at Wilson's Creek on August 10, 1861.

The battle would cost Lyon his life and leave what was left of his army in disarray as it retreated back to the railhead at Rolla. Price would lead his triumphant state guard northward to occupy the Missouri Valley. But the Missouri State Guard marched without their Confederate allies from northwest Arkansas, McCulloch was unwilling to launch a major invasion of a Union State without more support. McCulloch was shocked to see how poorly equipped Price's state guard troops were, many of the them didn't even have a rifle. He believed that an invasion would not succeed with the large number of Federal troops in Missouri and their control of the railroads in the state. Lyon's successor, General John C. Fremont, with an army of over 30,000 soldiers would re-occupy Springfield in late October 1861.

In November 1861 President Lincoln relieved Freemont of his command and disband his army leaving the Missouri Valley once again open to attack. For the winter of 1861 McCulloch left his men bivouacked in the Boston Mountains, south of Fayetteville until he determined what his next steps would be. On Christmas Day 1861, General Samuel R. Curtis was chosen to command the new Union Military District of Southwest Missouri. Curtis's mission was simply to destroy Price's state guard eliminating the threat to St. Louis and its arsenal.

A reserved Victorian gentleman, Curtis was not the popular image of a dashing military leader. At the age of fifty-six in 1861 he was considered an old man to his younger soldiers. After years of waiting for a command Curtis was tremendously excited about his new assignment. He would quickly establish his command at the railhead in Rolla, to position his troops for a new offensive into southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. With three divisions under his command Curtis would name his new force the Army of the Southwest. He was immediately challenged by General Franz Sigel for the command of his new army. Sigel fled Germany in 1849 to become director of the public schools in St. Louis. Because of his previous military background, rank, and involvement with the two previous Union advances, Sigel believed he should lead the new Union Army of the Southwest. He was also enormously popular with his fellow German soldiers who would make up most of the Union troops in Rolla. Curtis and Sigel managed to work out their differences after their awkward start but their relationship never became cordial.

The rift between the two highest ranking officers of the Union Army of the Southwest eventually led to problems. Most of the troops from Iowa supported Curtis, and supporters of Sigel were mostly Germans, leaving the Army of the Southwest divided. Curtis didn't help matters by filling his headquarters staff with Iowans, including his son and nephew.

Franz Sigel Union Leader at Pea Ridge

Franz Sigel challenged Curtis for command of Union troops, he would lead the German troops at Pea Ridge
Franz Sigel challenged Curtis for command of Union troops, he would lead the German troops at Pea Ridge | Source

Winter Battle at Pea Ridge

Born in New York State, Samuel Ryan Curtis was an 1831 graduate of West Point, but like many other academy graduates in the early nineteenth century, he didn't make the military his career. He spent a year at a primitive post in Indian Territory and then resigned to become a civil engineer and attorney. After the defeat at Wilson's Creek, Major General W. Halleck decided it was time for a change in leadership of the Union forces giving Samuel Curtis his first combat command, thirty years after graduating from West Point. Curtis arrived at Rolla, Missouri, the day after Christmas in 1861, with orders to assume command of all troops assembling in the area.

In February 1862, he began to move from Lebanon, Missouri, toward Price's winter quarters in Springfield, forty-five miles away. On February 12th, with Curtis only a few miles away, Price decided to withdraw rather than try to hold Springfield with his out-numbered and ill-equipped forces. For the next ten days, Price and Curtis were involved in a running fight as Price and his men marched south into northwest Arkansas. With Curtis and his Union Army nipping at Price's troops heels all the way into Arkansas. Now the two armies would settled in, waiting for spring before they continued their fight, with Price camped with McCulloch's men in the relative safety of the Boson Mountains south of Fayetteville, and Curtis occupying the old Confederate camp at Cross Hollow near Bentonville. Over the next two weeks, Samuel Curtis and Earl Van Dorn would determine who would control northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri for the rest of the war.

Earl Van Dorn was born in Port-Gibson, Mississippi, on September 17, 1820, the fourth of nine children of Peter and Sophia Van Dorn. Growing up as a son of plantation aristocracy, he was well connected both socially and politically to the antebellum southern power structure. Jefferson Davis, the future Confederate president, was a neighbor and family friend of Van Dorn. His great-uncle was former president Andrew Jackson and the hero in the battle for New Orleans in the War of 1812. Although he graduated from West Point in the summer of 1842, Van Dorn was not a model cadet, placing fourth from the bottom of his class of fifty-six but still two places ahead of another cadet who would become well known, James Longstreet of Georgia. In January 1862, Van Dorn was given the command of the Trans-Mississippi Department after much deliberation among the Confederate leadership in Richmond. He was the very image of a nineteenth century southern gentleman at five-foot-eight, he made a strong impression on the men he commanded and had a well-known reputation as an aggressive commander.

Van Dorn arrived in Little Rock on January 29, 1862, to take command of the Confederate Army of the West, he would spend the next three weeks planning his spring offensive. He had written to General Price in Springfield Missouri who with his Missouri State Guardsmen were leading the insurrection in Missouri. But things were not going well for General Price and his troops who had suffered a series of defeats after the Confederate victory at Wilson's Creek. Van Dorn had written Price promising him that reinforcements were on the way and a new offensive to re-take Missouri would begin on March 20, 1862, with at least fifteen thousand men. The message Van Dorn received on February 22,1862, changed everything. It announced that the Union army had pushed Price out of Springfield Missouri ten days earlier and that he had been falling back into northwest Arkansas ever since. Price's Missouri State Guardsmen were now settling into a winter camp south of Fayetteville across a ridgeline from Benjamin McCulloch's Confederate army in northwest Arkansas.

After his initial shock from the bad news, Van Dorn began to see these chain of events as an opportunity. The main Union army in southwest Missouri had un-intentionally walked into a trap, with his forces now concentrated, Van Dorn now had a chance to destroy the Union army.

The Union forces now sat a camp fifteen miles north of Fayetteville, with only one road connecting it to its support back in Missouri. It he could destroy Curtis and his army it would give him control of northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri. It would put him closer to his ultimate goal of capturing St. Louis the gateway to the west. Van Dorn made plans to leave immediately for the Confederate camps in northwest Arkansas, more than two hundred miles away from his headquarters in Little Rock. He finally had a chance to forge his name into history something he had always fantasized.

Van Dorn was a cavalryman at heart, and would conduct the attack at Pea Ridge like he was still back in Texas fighting Indians. At Pea Ridge his army would travel light, so orders were given that all tents and camp equipment would be left behind. Confederate soldiers would march with their rifle, forty rounds in their cartridge boxes, one blanket and three days rations in their knapsacks. This would seriously effect the battle readiness of the Confederate forces at Pea Ridge later on in the battle, since most Civil War soldiers could easily eat in one day all the rations a small knapsack could hold. A supply train with additional ammunition and rations would follow the army, until it arrived, Van Dorn's soldiers would have to live off the land and whatever enemy resources they could capture. To further complicate matters, on the first day of their march north out of the Boston Mountains toward Fayetteville a late winter snowstorm arrived over northwest Arkansas.

The march north for Van Dorn's troops became a grueling test of survival, especially for those troops who struggled to keep pace in the blinding sleet and snow. Many of the Confederate troops would arrive at the battle barefoot after wearing out their shoes on the march to Pea Ridge. It didn't help morale that Van Dorn traveled along side his frozen troops in a warm ambulance, after becoming ill soon after leaving the Confederate camps.

Benjamin McCulloch the Commander of the Confederate Forces in Northwest Arkansas

Battle map of the battle for Pea Ridge
Battle map of the battle for Pea Ridge | Source
Benjamin McCulloch in the dark velvet suit he wore that day at Leetown March 7,1861. He was perhaps the best Confederate commander on the field of battle that day.
Benjamin McCulloch in the dark velvet suit he wore that day at Leetown March 7,1861. He was perhaps the best Confederate commander on the field of battle that day. | Source

Benjamin McCulloch

The commander of the Confederate army from Arkansas, Benjamin McCulloch, was a frontiersman from Tennessee who when he was a young man went to Texas to fight for its independence from Mexico with his friend and neighbor David Crockett. He missed joining Crockett at the Alamo by weeks due to a case of measles in 1836, later he fought as an artilleryman under the command of Sam Houston at the battle of San Jacinto, and served in the congresses of the Republic of Texas and the United States. He gained a well-known reputation as an Indian-fighting captain with the Texas Rangers. McCulloch would become the first civilian to receive a general's commission in the Confederate army. Soon afterward he would take command of the Confederate forces in Arkansas which later became known as the Army of the West.

Ben McCulloch had achieved considerable military success in the Texas fight for independence and in the republic's Indian wars. He had a national reputation as a Texas Ranger and as Zachary Taylor's chief of scouts in Mexican-American War. He spent three years in California as a forty-niner and sheriff of Sacramento, later he would receive an appointment as a Federal marshal of eastern Texas. Yet despite his considerable military experience his hope of commanding more than just a small group cavalry was continually blocked by his lack of a formal education.

Of all the men appointed to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate army not even his fellow Tennessean Nathan Bedford Forrest had spent less time in school. The strongest of McCulloch's character traits was his self-assurance. To the soldiers of the Confederate Army of the West, Ben McCulloch was "a bold, graceful rider, a desperate fighter, a reckless charger, and a great Indian fighter. If he would have lived in the medieval days of chivalry, many would have ranked him a knight of the most superior class.

According to family tradition, the McCulloch's descended from one of the oldest families in the Calloway district of southwestern Scotland, and one of the most warlike. The first Scot to bear the name McCulloch is said to have served as a captain of horse, standard bearer, and, later, secretary of state to the legendary warrior-king of Ireland, Edward the Bruce. It was no surprise that he inspired great loyalty and respect among his troops, especially those from Texas. At fifty years of age, McCulloch walked with a slight stoop the result of years of hard frontier life. Despite his age and small size, five feet ten inches, he impressed nearly everyone who he met. McCulloch considered General Price and his state guard nothing more than a mob and was reluctant to work with them except in an emergency. It would create friction between the two commanders which became a public scandal before the end of 1861. After Missouri's admission to the Confederacy, Governor Jackson and the Missouri congressional delegation in Richmond aggravated the situation by lobbying vigorously and tactlessly for Price's appointment as the overall commander in the Trans-Mississippi.

Elkhorn Tavern the Rebel Approach to the Battle of Pea Ridge

A view of the Elkhorn Tavern as the rebels approached the crest of Pea Ridge.
A view of the Elkhorn Tavern as the rebels approached the crest of Pea Ridge. | Source
Elkhorn Tavern the scene of the most desperate fighting in the battle for Pea Ridge.
Elkhorn Tavern the scene of the most desperate fighting in the battle for Pea Ridge. | Source

The Battle Begins at Leetown March 7,1862

Van Dorn intended to march around Curtis's flank and attack the Union Army from the rear. This maneuver would either result in Curtis being forced to move north, or risk his troops being encircled and destroyed by Confederate forces. He ordered his army to travel light, leaving all other supplies behind, including tents and cooking utensils in an effort to surprise Curtis's army entrenched on the Little Sugar Creek. Rather than attack Union fortifications with a frontal assault, Van Dorn decided to force march his troops around the Union right flank and strike the Federals from the rear in the vicinity of Elkhorn Tavern. But this maneuver would divide Van Dorn's Confederate forces into two wings. One under General Benjamin McCullough who's troops were stationed in winter quarters near Lee Creek in the Boston Mountains. And the other under General Sterling Price who were hiding out in the Boston Mountains just south of Fayetteville Arkansas.

The element of surprise and concentration of forces was essential for Van Dorn's plan to be successful. As McCullough's 8,000 cold and exhausted Confederate soldiers marched east along Ford Road on the morning of March 7, 1862, their bayonets glistened in the early winter morning sun. Unexpectedly they were surprised by Union cavalry near Leetown. McCulloch appeared confident that his men would make short work of the Union troops. "In one hour they will be ours," he remarked. Despite the fact that his men were exhausted having been on the move for over 24 hours since marching from their winter quarters over forty-miles away in the Boston Mountains.

The Federal cavalry bought the Union division commander at Leetown, Peter J. Osterhaus, precious time to bring up his infantry. While wheeling his troops into position to face this new threat, General McCullough was killed when he attempted to scout Union positions, soon after his successor, James McIntosh was also killed nearby.

McCulloch approached the Union positions at Oberson's field in an effort to reconnoiter the enemy's positions. At Pea Ridge he wore a black velvet suit, a brown hat with a narrow brim, and high boots covered with woolen netting. His favorite Maynard rifle was slung over his shoulder. He was mounted on a tall handsome red sorrel that blended into the dead leaves still clinging to the scrub oaks. As McCulloch rode toward Union positions, clad in black atop his tall horse he was outlined against the cloudless blue sky, he was struck down by a volley of Union muskets along the tree line, killed instantly by a bullet to the heart. The fatal episode occurred only a few hundred yards in front of the stationary Confederate line of battle. A Confederate soldier would stumble upon McCulloch's body, he still had his boots and pistol but his watch, rifle, and field glasses were gone. Members of McCulloch's staff would suppress the news of the Texan's death in order to prevent demoralization in the ranks. An error that would have serious consequences while his division was fully deployed for battle.

The unexpected appearance of a sizeable Federal force near Leetown derailed Van Dorn's plan to unite his army at Elkhorn Tavern, and capture the high ground at the top of Pea Ridge. After the death of two commanders confusion reigned in the Confederate ranks in Leetown after losing their most experienced battlefield commanders in their division. But while McCulloch's division had been diverted from its primary objective and had suffered the loss of its famed commander, it had not yet been defeated. The remaining Confederate forces, which included a brigade of Native Americans commanded by General Albert Pike, attempted to fend off the Union attack.

The most unusual troops of the Confederate army were Brigadier General Albert Pike's Indian brigade. The portrait below gives a glimpse of the Confederate army's dramatic cavalry charge during the Battle of Leetown. Over 4,000 Confederates on horseback including Pike's Indians who overran a union artillery position, marking a high point for Confederate forces at the Battle for Pea Ridge. It was ironic that one of the last Napoleonic cavalry charges on American soil was carried out by untrained Texas and Arkansas frontiersmen only thirty miles from Indian Territory. Newspapers in the eastern United States reported that Pike's Indians scalped Union soldiers during the battle shocking Union leaders. But once the Union artillery began to lob projectiles in direction Pike's Indians they melted away into the forest leaving the battle entirely. After Mcintosh and McCullock were killed in the battle he was left to lead the Confederate forces at Leetown. But they were checked by the arrival of another division of Union infantry effectively blunting their attack. After the battle, Leetown would serve as a hospital for Union troops as Van Dorn's Confederates troops stormed Pea Ridge.

Battle for Leetown March 7, 1862

Map showing Van Dorn's overall strategy to attack the Curtis and his Union army in the rear at Pea Ridge
Map showing Van Dorn's overall strategy to attack the Curtis and his Union army in the rear at Pea Ridge | Source
A painting showing the great Confederate cavalry charge at Leetown. If you look closely you can see Albert Pike's Indians charging Union artillery it was the high point of the battle for Confederate troops the charge involved over 4000 men.
A painting showing the great Confederate cavalry charge at Leetown. If you look closely you can see Albert Pike's Indians charging Union artillery it was the high point of the battle for Confederate troops the charge involved over 4000 men. | Source

General Albert Pike

Albert Pike a well known politician in Arkansas and the Indian Agent for the Oklahoma Territory. He would led the Indian troops who fought for the Confederates at the Battle for Leetown March 7,1862 .
Albert Pike a well known politician in Arkansas and the Indian Agent for the Oklahoma Territory. He would led the Indian troops who fought for the Confederates at the Battle for Leetown March 7,1862 . | Source

The Indian Troops at the Battle of Pea Ridge

The most unconventional troops in the Confederate army at Pea Ridge were Brigadier General Albert Pike's Indians. By early May 1861, Union forces had abandoned all their posts in the Indian Territory, but Confederate leaders were still concerned about the possibility of an invasion of the region from Kansas by Union troops or by marauding groups of Kansas jayhawkers. Such an invasion would establish a strong Union threat to western Arkansas, mainly to Fort Smith were the Confederate forces were assembling. The cooperation of the various tribes in the Indian Territory, mostly the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaw, Creeks, and Seminoles) would become a vital element to the defense of the region.

So, in May 1861, the Confederate government commissioned Albert Pike as a special agent to the Indians west of Arkansas. Pike was an excellent choice. He was a lawyer, and a veteran of the Mexican War, also a longtime Whig editor and political leader in Arkansas. Another important fact was that he was well acquainted with the histories and customs of the various tribes and defended several Creeks and Choctaws over the years in the courts of western Arkansas. In 1852 the Creek nation chose Pike to defend its claims against the United States government for lands seized by Andrew Jackson in the Treaty of Fort Jackson in 1814. As the war began he negotiated treaties between the Confederacy and the Five Tribes in Oklahoma, which authorized them to organize their own home guard for protection against possible Union invasion. The treaty resulted in the formation of the 1st and 2cnd Cherokee Mounted Rifles, the 1st Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles, the 1st Creek, and assorted battalions and companies all total around 2,500 troops. The 800 native troops at the Battle of Pea Ridge were entirely undisciplined and not very well armed. When faced with Union artillery they deserted the battlefield and melted into the woods no longer a factor in the battle.

Confederate Gun Position at Leetown

The Battle for Elkhorn Tavern

That same morning as the Battle of Leetown was underway, General Sterling Price's Missouri State Guardsmen struck a Union regiment of the 24th Missouri, near Elkhorn Tavern. Union infantry rushed to the aid of the lone regiment but to no avail. Price was too cautious and failed to reinforce his troops at Elkhorn Tavern, but the Confederate troops still held the numerical advantage. Successive waves of Confederate infantry attacked Union positions forcing the Union forces to fall back to Ruddick's Field, leaving Elkhorn Tavern to Confederate forces. Some of the heaviest fighting of the first day of battle took place around the Elkhorn Tavern. Late in the afternoon, Union Commander Curtis supplied his troops with fresh ammunition and organized a counter-attack to re-take the Tavern, but the attack was later called off as daylight faded into darkness. Though Union forces had been beaten badly, during the night Curtis consolidated all his forces to a strong position south of Elkhorn Tavern and prepared for the next day's attack.

Confederate forces were forced to sleep beneath the stars on that cold March night with little or no ammunition, and with what food they could ransack from Elkhorn Tavern, since their generals had left the supply train behind in Bentonville expecting a one day battle. Many Confederate troops were barefoot, because the 50 mile march to Pea Ridge they literally wore the shoes off their feet. Prices troops marched up from Devils Den over the very rugged Boston Mountains in a freezing rain to reach the battlefield just in time to surprise Union troops. To make matters even worse Union and Confederate forces had to endure a late winter storm that dropped snow over most of the battlefield.

On the morning of March 8, 1862, a furious Union artillery bombardment wrought havoc on the Confederate line around Elkhorn Tavern, lacking ammunition and sufficient artillery support Confederate troops were forced to retreat down Huntsville road relinquishing the battlefield to the Union troops at Pea Ridge. Van Dorn was sick with pneumonia and lacked the energy to organize a counter-attack against the Union troops atop Pea Ridge. With the Confederate supply train still in Bentonville over 20 miles from the battle in danger of capture by Union cavalry Confederate forces were forced to retreat. Van Dorn's bold reckless attack proved was thwarted by better Union leadership and the harsh winter weather. The Union victory at Pea Ridge solidified Union control over northwestern Arkansas and Missouri in 1862.. The defeat at Pea Ridge also meant that Union troops would continue their advance into Arkansas occupying most of the state by the end of the war.

The heaviest fighting during the Battle for Pea Ridge took place around the Elkhorn Tavern atop Pea Ridge. The Elkhorn Tavern is located in the Pea Ridge Battlefield National Park. Van Dorn was so demoralized after the battle he marched his Army of the Southwest to the east bank of the Mississippi River leaving Arkansas defenseless as Union troops occupied most of the state. Van Dorn spent the entire Battle for Pea Ridge in an ambulance with a case of pneumonia, far away from the scene of the battle. A lack of leadership would cost the Confederate forces a victory at Pea Ridge. Had McCulloch lived to conduct the battle of Leetown it is possible that he would have captured the Union supply train located there possibly turning the odds in the favor of the Confederate forces at Pea Ridge.


Elkhorn Tavern

Confederate troops would capture Elkhorn Tavern on March 7,1862, on the first day of the battle. After Confederate troops took the tavern they stopped fighting too hungry and exhausted to continue the battle.
Confederate troops would capture Elkhorn Tavern on March 7,1862, on the first day of the battle. After Confederate troops took the tavern they stopped fighting too hungry and exhausted to continue the battle. | Source
General Price's troops surprise Federal troops near Elkhorn Tavern.
General Price's troops surprise Federal troops near Elkhorn Tavern. | Source

Pea Ridge National Park in Northwest Arkansas

The rugged topography of Northwest Arkansas.
The rugged topography of Northwest Arkansas. | Source
Open field near Leetown where the Confederate's cavalry charged union artillery.
Open field near Leetown where the Confederate's cavalry charged union artillery. | Source
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The Geography of the Pea Ridge Battlefield

The forces that fought at Pea Ridge had to deal with a very rugged battlefield with boulders the size of pickup trucks. One thing that impressed all the Union troops who fought in Arkansas was the universal presence and un-ending supply of rocks. One soldier wrote home that "the ground is covered with stones from the size of a pea, up to cliffs of over two hundred feet in height of solid rock, " while another union soldier described the Ozark Plateau as "composed of millions of little rocks thrown together in one huge pile. The Ozark Mountains with its stony hills and steep valley crossed by uncounted small streams, posed serious problems to both armies as they positioned themselves for the battle.

Boston Mountains where Confederate forces camped during the winter of 1861/62.

Confederate Cemetery in Fayetteville Arkansas

Van Dorn's Lack of Leadership Determined the Battle for Pea Ridge

The Battle of Pea Ridge was decided on March 8, 1862, the night before Curtis reorganized his army and made sure that all his men were fed, rested, and supplied with ammunition. On the next morning, Union troops were ready to resume combat, but the Confederates were not. Van Dorn needed to re-supply his army but realized he forgot to bring up the supply trains, they were still in Bentonville over 15 miles away from the battle.

Most of the Rebel forces didn't receive any new food or ammunition during the entire battle, on the first day after Confederate troops captured Elk Horn Tavern they stopped fighting in the middle of the battle to raid the building for whatever food they could find. The Confederate men and animals were worn out from the march over the Boston Mountains, they arrived at the battle with little sleep, and few supplies. When Curtis attacked on the morning of March the 8th with his entire Army of the Southwest the Confederate battle lines began to crumble.

Van Dorn was forced to accept the fact the battle was lost, and that his army was in danger of being trapped and destroyed, he sent his exhausted army east toward Huntsville. The Battle of Pea Ridge was over and it was an overwhelming victory for the Union. The battle was one of the bloodiest west of the Mississippi River. The Confederate Army of the West lost over 2,000 soldiers and the Union army lost approximately 1,350 soldiers. The battle of Pea Ridge marked a dramatic turning point for Confederate forces in both Arkansas and Missouri.

As the defeated Confederate soldiers struggled to cross the Arkansas River on their way back to Fort Smith, hundreds of hungry rebel soldiers disenchanted by the defeat drifted away from the army and went home to their farms. Missouri would stay in Union hands, and the Confederacy in Arkansas suffered a defeat from which they could never completely recover. For the shattered Confederated forces in Arkansas, the battle's aftermath was much more disastrous than the battle itself. It would leave the state of Arkansas open for a Union invasion and a harsh occupation which its citizens would have to endure for another three years.

Sources

DeBlack, Thomas A. With Fire and Sword Arkansas 1861-1874. The University of Arkansas Press. Fayetteville, AR 72701, 2003.

Knight, James R. The Battle Of Pea Ridge: The Civil War Fight For The Ozarks. The History Press. 18 Percy Street, Charleston SC 29403 , U.S.A. 2012.

Shea, William L. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 116 S Boundary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514 , U.S.A. 1992


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      Carlos Dunbar 

      3 years ago

      They should have read "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, excellent book on the strategy of beating your enemy.

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