Battle of Pea Ridge

“On the Battery” by Andy Thomas

Sterling Price’s victory at Lexington on September 20, 1861, had important consequences for the war in Missouri. Though Union reinforcements forced Price to abandon his position on the Missouri River and retreat back to Springfield, his campaign proved the Missouri State Guard was still an effective fighting force. Union commanders wanted to use St. Louis as a base to conduct operations down the Mississippi River in the spring of 1862. Price and his command threatened these plans and the Federals worried they would have to detain troops for the defense of Missouri.1

Inclement weather and primitive roads usually kept Civil War armies in camp during the winter months. In Missouri however, the Union army wanted to alter the strategic situation before spring arrived. Thus, General Samuel R. Curtis was ordered to risk a winter campaign for control of Missouri. Curtis’ army would face more than the normal dangers while operating in the Ozarks. The rugged, remote region had a relatively small population and a limited food supply that had already been depleted by previous campaigns. Still, taking at least some food from the countryside would be essential since the railroad ended at Rolla, 100 miles from Springfield. Curtis would have to rely on wagons to transport supplies beyond that point. This lengthy supply line would be an inviting target for the Confederates, who could easily force the Federals into a desperate battle for their logistical lifeline.2

The survival of Curtis’ army depended on two crucial factors. The soldiers had to travel light. Each man carried only what was absolutely necessary. Secondly, an aggressive supply officer would have to ensure provisions kept up with the army, regardless of the roads or weather. Fortunately, Curtis made an excellent choice for this all important assignment: Captain Phillip Sheridan. In 1864, Sheridan earned fame and infamy for his destruction of Confederate resources in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan’s service as a Trans-Mississippi supply officer was valuable experience for his later exploits.3

Meanwhile, the Confederate high command was in turmoil. A coalition of Missouri, Arkansas, and Confederate troops had won the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861, but this alliance fell apart in the months that followed. The strained relationship between victorious Generals Benjamin McCulloch and Sterling Price continued as it had before the battle. Like Curtis five months later, McCulloch worried about his supply line. Now forced to care for Union prisoners, in addition to his own troops, the battle exacerbated McCulloch’s already tenuous supply situation. This prevented the Confederates from capitalizing on their victory, and McCulloch had no interest in leading a campaign to the Missouri River with Price.4 In early December, McCulloch retreated to Cross Hollows, Arkansas. This was a wise move. Northwest Arkansas remained a valuable agricultural center which the Confederates could not afford to lose. Also, its proximity to Missouri, just eighteen miles across the state line, made Cross Hollows an ideal location for McCulloch’s winter quarters. From here McCulloch could remain close to his base, protect the resources of northwest Arkansas, and monitor events in Missouri.5

Cross Hollows was a sprawling Confederate encampment ranging from log huts to well-constructed cabins. Most of McCulloch’s men were quartered in cabins built by local resident Peter Van Winkle, who owned a mill near the White River, three miles from what became Camp Benjamin. The Confederate government paid Van Winkle for the lumber and labor he provided, including his small number of slaves.6 Though supplying troops in Missouri and Arkansas was a difficult task, the Confederate army at Cross Hollows was reasonably well-equipped. Archeological evidence suggests most of the soldiers here were armed with .69 caliber smoothbore muskets. The large number of hobnails recovered during excavations suggests their boots and shoes did not hold up well in the rugged hills of the Ozarks. Still, Confederate quartermasters overcame enormous logistical problems to provide their soldiers with the best equipment possible under the circumstances.7

Realizing that a new commander was the best hope for effective cooperation between McCulloch and Price, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered flamboyant cavalryman Earl Van Dorn to take command of the Military District of the Trans-Mississippi.8 However, the strategic situation changed drastically before Van Dorn arrived to assume his new responsibilities. Curtis’ army advanced in January 1862 and Price abandoned Springfield on February 12, determined to join forces with McCulloch once more. Price abandoned a large amount of valuable supplies, a bounty the Federals greatly enjoyed. A Union soldier wrote the Missourians heard exaggerated rumors that Curtis was coming with 60,000 men and carrying black flags, thus, their hasty evacuation.9

Marching south along the Telegraph Road, the Missouri State Guard conducted a fighting retreat for four days, as Curtis followed closely. Though winter precipitation pelted the soldiers, hard fought skirmishes occurred daily. Short rations in the Union army were supplemented by supplies abandoned by the Missouri State Guard. A larger skirmish was fought along Little Sugar Creek on February 17, just south of Elkhorn Tavern, in Benton County, Arkansas. While Curtis remained in position and assessed his options, McCulloch destroyed his encampment at Cross Hollows on February 19, and retreated to Fayetteville.10

Fayetteville was to the Confederates, what Springfield was to the Federals, an important supply center. Tons of valuable military resources were kept there, but McCulloch’s forces had no way of transporting all of the stores. The Confederates salvaged what they could of military value, but also plundered many of the stores. A Fayetteville minister, William Baxter recalled that officers worked valiantly to prevent the looting, but to no avail:

Officers threatened, cursed, called them thieves, made appeals to their manliness and State pride, and to the fact they were among those battling in the same cause; but all in vain; stealing had become a kind of recreation, and they would steal. Gen. Price himself strove to check the disorder which I have attempted faintly to describe, but for once his commands were powerless, and the work of ruin went on.11

After the Confederates gathered what they could take, McCulloch had his troops burn Fayetteville and the army fell back into the Boston Mountains.

Though the Confederate retreat through southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas was a clear strategic defeat, Van Dorn realized it gave him an opportunity. Curtis had failed to prevent the Missouri State Guard from joining their Confederate allies. Worse yet, his Army of the Southwest had marched to the end of its supply line. This led Curtis to divide his army. One division was placed at Cross Hollows, another at McKissick’s Creek. While this exposed position maximized foraging opportunities, it was an inviting target. Van Dorn realized if his army could seize Bentonville, strategically located between the two halves of the Union army, the Confederates could defeat each division separately. The defeat of Curtis would open the way to Missouri, possibly all the way to St. Louis. For this to work, the army had to move fast, before Curtis realized what was happening and concentrated his forces. Van Dorn ordered only essential equipment to be carried on the forced march, a weapon, 40 rounds of ammunition, a blanket and three days worth of rations for each man. All other supplies were left behind. The Confederates had every reason to be optimistic. Van Dorn was seizing the initiative, and as the historian William L. Shea argues, was leading the largest and best equipped Confederate army to serve in the Trans-Mississippi Theatre. As a frontier cavalry commander in the antebellum army, Van Dorn excelled at leading quick, offensive operations. Unfortunately, his army was not a company of cavalry. His failure to understand the logistical challenges associated with moving a large army ensured Pea Ridge would be a devastating Confederate defeat.12

The Confederate advance began on March 4. Things went wrong almost immediately. Van Dorn moved quickly, by ambulance, at the head of the column. Unable to keep up, hundreds of Confederate infantrymen collapsed from exhaustion. A blizzard added to the misery, as temperatures plunged and the roads became virtually impassable. Still, the army valiantly tried to maintain Van Dorn’s torrid pace. Remarkably, the Confederates were only twelve miles from Bentonville on the morning of March 6. But once again, Van Dorn found that the strategic situation had changed. Altered to the Rebel movement by a Fayetteville Unionist, Curtis’ army dug in along Little Sugar Creek.13

Despite this setback, Van Dorn remained determined to attack the Federals. Though hoping the troops would be allowed to sleep that night, McCulloch realized a strategic advantage on the Bentonville Detour, which intersected with the Telegraph Road, near the Missouri line. If Van Dorn’s army reached this junction, Curtis and his command would be cut off from their supplies, and any chance of escape. Van Dorn ordered the army on a night march to seize the crossroads. Unfortunately for the Confederate soldiers, Union commanders had anticipated their movement. The road was littered with trees and by morning, only the head of the column had reached the Telegraph Road. With time running out, Van Dorn ordered McCulloch and Price’s divisions to march on each side of Big Mountain. They would converge at Elkhorn Tavern and strike the Union army from behind, which Van Dorn expected would still be facing south.14

Once again, Federal troops hindered Southern plans. While small units delayed the Rebels, Curtis shifted his army to the North. So far, the valiant Confederate efforts had not paid off. Van Dorn’s unrealistic pace squandered a rare Southern numerical advantage. Worse yet, the Confederate commander had also lost the element of surprise.15 Although Curtis shifted his army to meet the Confederates, he did not wait to be attacked. On the morning of March 7, he ordered Colonel Peter Osterhaus to advance with his division and make contact with the Rebels on the Bentonville Detour.16

McCulloch’s and Osterhaus’s troops collided near the village of Leetown. McCulloch’s cavalry easily pushed back the Union advance in the initial exchange. Half mounted and half dismounted, Cherokee soldiers commanded by Albert Pike drove off two companies of Union cavalry in a separate attack. As the Federals organized a defensive position, Osterhaus opened fire with his artillery and called for reinforcements. Even though the Confederates were obscured from view by trees, the Union barrage had an important effect. Pike’s Native Americans had never been exposed to artillery fire, and the shelling began as a few of them celebrated their victory by scalping and mutilating the Union dead. Unnerved by the artillery fire, they fled in great disorder. The small charge in the opening phase of the battle was their only important action in the Battle of Pea Ridge.

Osterhaus had performed well by slowing the Confederate advance until reinforcements could arrive. McCulloch now realized he would have to attack the Federals with his infantry. The Confederate command structure was decimated in the fighting that developed, and this would be the decisive factor at Leetown. Ben McCulloch was the first critical casualty. Mounted on horseback and dressed in a fine black suit, he was an easy target for skirmishers in the 36th Illinois Infantry. With McCulloch’s death, command went to James McIntosh. He was killed just minutes after McCulloch died.17

Although he did not know it, Colonel Louis Hebert was now the senior Confederate officer at Leetown. Hebert led his men forward in a furious attack on the Union right. The battle raged back and forth throughout the wooded terrain. Union troops were forced to lie down in the face of fierce Confederate fire. Hebert’s troops nearly broke through the Union position, but he became the third Confederate commander on this front to be removed from the fight. In the confusion, he accidentally entered Union lines and was captured.

Lyman Bennett, an officer in the 36th Illinois, vividly described the savage battle that raged in the woods:

Great God what a scene is presented, The mangled trunks of men are thickly scattered around. From each tree or sheltering rock the groans of the wounded arise. Muskets, saddles, horses, blankets, hats and clothes hang on every bush, or in gory manner strew the ground. And now in the valley to the right ten thousand wild cheers proclaim the victory ours. Dead horses, dead men and dismounted guns, are strewed over the blood drenched field, and as some gun is taken or trophy secured, renewed cheering and shouts of gladness ring our upon the air…
Lyman Bennett – March 8, 1862

Union reinforcements and the lack of Confederate leadership brought the fighting here to an end. For Southerners, Leetown was a stark reminder of what could have been. Hundreds of Confederate troops were awaiting orders with no one to lead them as the battle hung in the balance.18

Meanwhile, a larger battle raged near Elkhorn Tavern, two miles east of Leetown. While Osterhaus was preparing to move with his command, Curtis received reports about Confederate troops in Cross Hollow, near Elkhorn Tavern. Curtis believed the movement on the Bentonville Detour was a diversion and the real attack would come at Little Sugar Creek. He was slow to believe that the entire Confederate army was headed for his rear at Elkhorn Tavern. Still, Curtis quickly sent Eugene Carr and his division to investigate. Carr discovered the reports were true and suddenly the Army of the Southwest was engaged on two fronts. Van Dorn personally led Price’s division into the action. With his command deployed deep in Cross Timber Hollow, Van Dorn did not realize his troops outnumbered the Federals in his front. Fortunately for the Federals, Carr, like Ostherhaus at Leetown, performed extremely well. He launched a sharp counterattack that temporarily halted Van Dorn’s offensive. A stalemate ensued for much of the afternoon as the battle raged in the tangled timber. Late in the afternoon, Van Dorn realized his advantage in numbers and attacked. Van Dorn ordered Price to extend his lines, and the Confederates heroically charged up Cross Timber Hollow and overran the Union defenders atop Pea Ridge. Elkhorn Tavern fell in the Confederate onslaught.

The shattered Union forces rallied in Ruddick’s field, along the Telegraph Road. Van Dorn attacked, but this time the Federals held their ground and darkness put an end to the fighting. Both commanders worked hard to consolidate their positions. Curtis was clearly the most successful. The Army of the Southwest concentrated along the Telegraph Road as food, water and ammunition was distributed to the troops. Many Confederate units marched all night from Big Mountain to reach the battlefield. They arrived completely exhausted and many were unable to participate in the second day’s fighting. Worse yet, Van Dorn’s forced marches outpaced the Confederates ammunition supply. The wagons were abandoned along Little Sugar Creek, twelve miles from the army’s current position. Hundreds of Confederate soldiers spent a cold, miserable night on the battlefield gathering food from abandoned Union haversacks and hoping for more ammunition to continue the fight.19

Primary sources describe a wide variety of weapons being used in the Battle of Pea Ridge. Most of these accounts suggest civilian weapons such as hunting rifles and shotguns were common, especially in the Confederate ranks. Recent archeological digs have forced historians to question the validity of this material. The archeological record reveals the overwhelming use of military issue firearms, especially the M1816 and M1842 smoothbore musket. Though antiquated weapons, their effective range was only about 100 yards, compared to 500 yards for rifle muskets, they were very serviceable firearms. Remnants of civilian weapons were found, but in tiny numbers compared to military equipment. Based on recovered artifacts, it seems likely that less than 1% of the soldiers who fought at Pea Ridge carried a civilian firearm.20

Curtis expected a Confederate attack on the morning of March 8. When it did not come, the Federals advanced. Union artillery was brought forward and opened fire on the Rebel position. After a successful bombardment, almost 10,000 Union infantrymen surged forward. The Confederate position collapsed and Van Dorn ordered a general retreat. Casualties were heavy for both sides at Pea Ridge. Curtis’ Union army lost 1,384 men, or about 13% of the total engaged. Confederate records are incomplete, so casualty figures for Van Dorn’s army are difficult to determine. The best estimates place Confederate losses at approximately 2,000, or roughly 15% of their total force.21

Pea Ridge permanently altered the strategic situation in Missouri and Arkansas. The battle forced Confederate commanders to seriously question their ability to hold the Trans-Mississippi, a reality that had already been greatly compromised in February by a relatively unknown Union general. Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, forced the Confederates to abandon middle Tennessee. Thousands of Confederate troops retreated to the vital rail center at Corinth, Mississippi. From here General Albert Sidney Johnston planned a campaign to recapture the lost ground.22

Van Dorn learned little from his mismanagement of the Pea Ridge Campaign. Shortly after the battle he resumed his correspondence with Pierre G.T. Beauregard. Beauregard suggested that Van Dorn could join forces with him in Tennessee. The two could then drive up the Mississippi River and capture St. Louis by water. This plan was as unrealistic as the forced marches he ordered at Pea Ridge, and Van Dorn could not resist the temptation. Van Dorn not only shipped his troops east of the Mississippi, he stripped Arkansas of virtually all war making materials. With no direction from Confederate officials in Richmond, Van Dorn had abandoned Missouri and Arkansas to Union forces.23

Like their Confederate counterparts, many Union troops were transferred east of the Mississippi River after Pea Ridge. Ironically, the absence of large armies actually made the Ozarks even more dangerous place for civilians. With little Confederate oversight, Guerrilla bands operated freely, terrorizing both Union troops and civilians. Union counter-guerrilla operations became increasingly harsh and hundreds of civilians were caught in the middle of a deadly struggle that grew steadily more vicious.

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  1. William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess, Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 3-5.
  2. Shea and Hess, Pea Ridge, 10-11.
  3. Shea and Hess, Pea Ridge, 10-11.
  4. William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 309-312.
  5. Jerry Hilliard, Mike Evans, Jared Pebwoth, and Carl Carlson-Drexler, “A Confederate Encampment at Cross Hollow, Benton County,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly LXVII (Winter 2008): 360-61; Piston and Hatcher, Wilson’s Creek, 315-16.
  6. Hilliard, “Confederate Encampment at Cross Hollows,” 361-63.
  7. Hilliard, “Confederate Encampment at Cross Hollows,” 373.
  8. Shea and Hess, Pea Ridge, 20-22.
  9. Mildred King, “James Beach Letter, February 18, 1862,” Carpenter Cousins Chronicles, March 2007, Local History and Genealogy Information File “Missouri Civil War Personal Narratives” Springfield-Greene County Library District.
  10. Mark K. Chris, ed., Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1994), 21-26; King, “James Beach Letter.”
  11. William Baxter, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove or Scenes and Incidents of the War in Arkansas (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000), 21-23.
  12. Christ, Rugged and Sublime, 27-28.
  13. Christ, Rugged and Sublime, 28-29.
  14. Christ, Rugged and Sublime, 30-31.
  15. Christ, Rugged and Sublime, 30-31.
  16. Shea and Hess, Pea Ridge, 89-93.
  17. Shea and Hess, Pea Ridge, 110-11, 113-15, 142-43.
  18. Christ, Rugged and Sublime, 31-34.
  19. Christ, Rugged and Sublime, 34-37.
  20. Carl G. Carlson-Drexler, Douglas D. Scott, and Harold Roeker, “The Battle Raged…with Terrible Fury:” Battlefield Archeology of Pea Ridge National Military Park (Midwest Archeological Center, National Park Service: Lincoln, Nebraska, 2005), 81, 103-06.
  21. Shea and Hess, Pea Ridge, 270-71.
  22. Shea and Hess, Pea Ridge, 286-89.
  23. Shea & Hess, Pea Ridge, 286-87; William L. Shea, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 2.