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Civil War Articles
Sherman's March
Movement around Pope's Army
Timothy Webster, Pinkerton Man and Spy
The Third Day at Gettysburg
Colonel Patrick O'Rorke
Stanley at Shiloh: A Improbable 'Indiana Jones'
Ringgold Cavalry in Alleghenies
Special Order 191: Ruse of War?
15th Illinois Infantry
8th New Hampshire Infantry
Confederate Railroad
Shenandoah Campaign
Fredericksburg Campaign
Commanders and Censors
Unconventional Warfare
Sun Tzu and Overland Campaign
ACW Military Theory
Bear Creek Massacre
Nutmeggers on Antietam Creek
Nathan Bedford Forrest
The City Point Explosion
Dalton to Atlanta-Sherman vs. Johnston
The Maple Leaf Adventure
The Battle of Pea Ridge
History of 138th PA
The Battle of Franklin
Want of Nail: Confederate Ironclads
Battle of Wilson's Creek
Life and Death of the 10th NJ Inf
The Death of General Zook
Barrancas: The First Shots
Custer and the Battle of Waynesboro
Skirmish in the East Woods
The Battle Rainbow
The Mistake of All Mistakes
Stony Hill Tour
6th WI at Gettysburg
Witmer Farm
Barlow's Knoll
Wheatfield at Gettysburg

Allen Parfitt Articles
Dalton to Atlanta-Sherman vs. Johnston
A Path Across the Rhine: Remagen
The Battle of Cowpens
Popski's Private Army
The Battle of Pea Ridge
Bicycle Blitzkrieg: Singapore
Battles of Sparta: Mantinea
Battle of Franklin

Recommended Reading

Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West

Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road

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The Battle of Pea Ridge

The Battle of Pea Ridge
by Allen Parfitt

The story of the Confederate States of America usually starts in places like Charleston and Richmond, goes on to Nashville and Montgomery, and winds up at New Orleans and Vicksburg. But the Confederacy did not end at the Big River. There were three Confederate states, and potentially a fourth beyond the Mississippi, and some visionaries dreamed of extending the young nation clear to the Pacific Ocean. But through most of the Civil War the Trans-Mississippi was a backwater, an afterthought to events happening elsewhere. There were many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important was a fierce battle fought in the wilds of northwestern Arkansas on March 7-8,1962.

When Major General Henry Halleck assumed command of the Western District of the United States Army in November 1861 he inherited a mess. His predecessors, John Fremont and David Hunter, had been ineffectual, and the one fighting general in the department, Nathaniel Lyon, had been killed in a bloody defeat at Wilson's Creek in southern Missouri. Halleck was an intelligent and experienced officer, but did not have either the ability nor the inclination to command troops in the field. He was an excellent military administrator, and he saw it as his job to organize the department, find some generals, and give them the resources to roll back the rebel tide in the west. Fortunately, he found a couple of good fighting generals. One of them is very famous: Ulysses S Grant. In early 1862 Grant started the career which led him to supreme command of the Union armies and the White House by advancing on Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. The other is less well known: Samuel Curtis. Halleck gave Curtis the job of clearing the southerners out of Missouri and beyond.

On the Confederate side there were two small armies west of the Mississippi. The first was essentially a Missouri State army, although its troops were gradually being absorbed into Confederate service. Its commander was Major General Sterling Price. Price was a politician rather than a soldier, although he had seen military service during the Mexican War. He had been governor of Missouri, and a United States congressman. He had initially opposed the secession of Missouri from the Union, but had been offended by Union leaders' attempts to suppress secessionists around St. Louis, and had become a fervent Confederate. He was brave, popular with his troops, and throughout the war he battled on with one idea in mind: to secure Missouri for the Confederacy. This narrow focus did not take into account the big picture of military operations throughout the South, but it meant that Price was still annoying the Union army in Missouri long after almost everyone else had given up on the Trans-Mississippi.

The other rebel army was commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch. He was even more colorful a character than Price, and had considerably more military experience. He had barely missed accompanying Davy Crockett to the Alamo, had fought in the Texas War of Independence, the Mexican War, served in the Texas Rangers, and had fought against the Indians. The experienced but roughhewn McCulloch and the more sophisticated Price did not like each other. Price felt he outranked McCulloch, but since his commission was from the State of Missouri (Confederate version) and McCulloch's was from Richmond, McCulloch did not see it that way. Finally Price agreed to serve under McCulloch, and together they had won the battle of Wilson's Creek. But after the battle they had gone their separate ways, McCulloch moving back south into Arkansas while Price continued his efforts to conquer Missouri.

Jefferson Davis looked at the situation and concluded sensibly that what was needed was an area commander, an opposite number to Halleck. He offered the job to Braxton Bragg, who refused it. This was probably a blunder on Bragg's part. Bragg would go on to become the most controversial general in the Confederate army, which is saying a lot, and would experience triumph and ignominy as commander of the Army of Tennessee. No one ever questioned his ability as a trainer and organizer of troops, and he had a good grasp of logistics. He would have had plenty of scope for his talents in Arkansas and Missouri and, in spite of their differences, he might have gotten on better with Price and McCulloch than he did with his generals in Tennessee. Davis ended up choosing a man who was unlike Halleck as it is possible to be. The man who got the job was Major General Earl Van Dorn. He was a career soldier, a West Pointer. Jefferson Davis attached great importance to a formal military education. Like most of his military generation Van Dorn had fought in Mexico and on the frontier. He was ambitious, dashing, impetuous, and a ladies' man. He headed for Arkansas with big plans for an offensive, hopefully ending up in St. Louis.

Meanwhile General Curtis had started south in January 1862 with a small army to drive Price out of Missouri. Price realized that his army was inadequate to stop Curtis on its own, and retreated to Arkansas. As Curtis advanced his supply lines became longer and longer. He had an energetic and efficient supply officer named Philip Sheridan who would eventually make quite a name for himself, but the roads were terrible, the weather was lousy, and even a small army of about 10,000 needs a lot of food, not to mention ammunition and fodder for the animals. Just beyond the Missouri border into Arkansas Curtis ground to a halt. His supplies could take him no farther. He sat down, dispersed his troops somewhat to facilitate foraging, and wondered what to do next. He couldn't advance, didn't want to retreat, and hadn't fought a battle. But he didn't need to worry about finding the Confederates. They were coming to find him.

Van Dorn blew into Van Buren, Arkansas, south of the Boston Mountains near the western edge of the state, on March 1, 1862. The weather was still cold, he was sick, he had almost no staff, but he made plans for an immediate advance. The next day, in spite of still feeling poorly, he went north to Strickler's Station on the main road north and met with Price and McCulloch to plan the offensive. He had about 15,000 troops at his disposal, outnumbering Curtis 3 to 2. Determined to gain the greatest possible numerical advantage he summoned troops from yet another source: Indians.

There were quite a large number of Indians living in Indian Territory, right next door to the coming theater of action. These were Cherokees, Chickasaws, Creeks, Choctaws, and Seminoles who had been displaced from their homes further east by Andrew Jackson a generation before. They were factionalized, some favoring the Confederacy, others the Union. With the help of some Texas cavalry, the former group had gained ascendancy in the Territory, and had organized several military units. The man the Confederacy had designated as its representative to them was another unusual man, Albert Pike. Although he had little or no military experience, he was given the rank of brigadier general in order to command these troops, at least in theory. Pike was a very short fat man, a poet, a journalist, and a long time friend to the Indians. He had mainly in mind that armed Confederate Indians would act as a buffer for northern Texas and hold Indian Territory for the South. He had, in fact, signed treaties with them stipulating that they would not be asked to serve outside Indian Territory. But Van Dorn needed soldiers, and he sent a summons to Pike asking him to lead the Indians to join in the coming offensive. Pike warned him that the Indians would not do well in a structured battle against disciplined troops, and that they themselves were neither well mounted nor well armed. But he loyally gathered as many followers as would come, maybe a thousand in all, and led them east.

Perhaps, as Price and McCulloch led their soldiers north on the Telegraph road into northern Arkansas, this is a good time to address a major issue of the campaign: Confederate troop quality. Many accounts of the battle list the poor quality and training of the Confederate army as a major contributing factor in the coming debacle. "The collection of troops of which Van Dorn assumed command was anything but a well disciplined army" (Woodworth p114). [Van Dorn] "was handed an army of ill-disciplined, poorly armed, underfed disorganized troops.…"(Hartje p158), to give two examples. These opinions are often based on two quotes. The first is from an article in "Battles and Leaders" by Colonel Thomas Snead, who was on Price's staff. "McCulloch......saw in the Missourians nothing but a half-armed mob led by an ignorant old militia general…" However, this is Snead's opinion of McCulloch's opinion before Wilson's Creek. The other quote is from Van Dorn: "I found the want of military knowledge and discipline among the higher officers to be so great as to counterbalance their gallantry and the courage of the troops...I cannot convey to you a correct idea of the crudeness of the material with which I have had to deal in organizing an army out here.…" This comes after the Battle of Pea Ridge. A battle had been lost in spite of superior numbers, a battle which probably should have been won. It was not in Van Dorn's nature to say to his superiors "I blew it!" So he wrote instead that his officers and soldiers let him down. This is unfair and unfortunate. Van Dorn's soldiers marched until they dropped, fought until they died, and when all was lost, successfully retreated in the face of the enemy, wondering out loud if they hadn't really won. The main trouble with Van Dorn's officers was they kept getting killed, wounded or captured as they valiantly led their men forward. Keep in mind that this was March, 1862. Shiloh, The Peninsula, Stone's River, and a hundred other battles were still in the future. Van Dorn asked as much of his "Army of the West" as any other general during the war, even Stonewall Jackson, and they responded by giving him their best. They were probably as good soldiers as any others in the country at this stage of the war. And when it was all over it was their perception that he had let them down, rather than the vice versa. The unspoken corollary to the idea that the Confederate troops weren't very good is the assumption that the Union soldiers were better. Otherwise, how could they have won the Battle of Pea Ridge? The Northern soldiers were doubtless better armed and better fed, but there is nothing in the accounts of the battle to suggest that they were better trained or better disciplined. In assessing the battle it would seem that troop quality and morale were about equal.

Van Dorn's first idea was to advance as fast as possible in hopes of catching the Union army before it could concentrate. He had his eye in particular on Bentonville, famous today as the headquarters of Wal-Mart, where two divisions of Curtis' army were stationed. The commander at Bentonville was Brigadier General Franz Sigel. He had been at Wilson's Creek, where he had led an unsuccessful flanking movement, and he was to see a great deal of service in the Civil War. His name became a byword among historians of the war for being a general who owed his commands more to his political and ethnic ties than to his ability. There were over a million Americans of German descent in the United States at the outbreak of the war, most of them in the north. They rallied around the Stars and Stripes in great numbers, many of them enlisting in the Union Army. Sigel had received a military education in Europe, had fought in the 1848 attempts to bring democracy to several German states, and had fled to America when that movement collapsed. He was very popular in the German community, considered himself an accomplished soldier, and yearned for high command. He was second in rank to Curtis, and the two small divisions under his control at Bentonville both had large numbers of Germans, and were under the command of generals of German background, Peter Osterhaus and Albert Asboth.

On the evening of March 5 a spy reported to Curtis that the Confederates were moving north. He had been planning to draw back his advanced posts anyway, principally because of the lack of forage, which now had to come down the long supply route from Missouri. Now he sent orders to Sigel to withdraw all his troops to join up with the rest of the army north of Sugar Creek. Early the next morning Osterhaus' and Asboth's divisions headed north. Sigel himself stayed in Bentonville with a rear guard of about 600 men, infantry, cavalry, and a battery of flying artillery. He stated in his article in "Battles and Leaders" that he stayed behind "For the purpose of defending the main column on its retreat, and with the intention of finding out whether the enemy was approaching in strong force.…" He found out in a hurry: by ten o'clock overwhelming numbers of Confederates were approaching Bentonville and although he did not tend to be a quick mover Sigel perceived that it was time to get out of town. The road from Bentonville to Sugar Creek and the rest of the Union army went due east, and then turned north through a narrow defile. Had the Confederate cavalry under Brigadier General James McIntosh also gone east over open ground Sigel and his rear guard might have been cut off and captured, but instead the Confederates went north, then turned east, got into difficult terrain, and Sigel was able to conduct a fighting retreat, making good use of his flying artillery. In his official report Van Dorn stated that "We had the mortification to see Sigel's division, 7000 strong, leaving it as we entered. Had we been one hour sooner we should have cut him off with his whole force, and certainly have beaten the enemy the next day." Maury repeats this assertion. They're both writing nonsense, as the bulk of the Union forces were long gone before any Confederates arrived at Bentonville.

Van Dornís army advanced to a road junction known as "Camp Stephens". They had now been marching for three days, and the army was totally out of food and forage. It appeared that Van Dorn had the unenviable choice of assaulting Curtis' strongly posted forces in the high ground of Pea Ridge beyond Sugar Creek or retreating ignominiously back into central Arkansas. He met with Price, McCulloch, and McIntosh in the late afternoon to decide what to do the next day. Pike and his Indians arrived that day, but apparently Pike was not in time for the meeting. McCulloch was familiar with the area, and suggested a flanking movement via a road going north from their present location called the "Bentonville Bypass", then east on a lateral road to the flank of the Union position. Van Dorn wondered where the Bypass came out. He was told that it went completely across Pea Ridge, past Big Mountain and finally intersected the main Telegraph road due north of the Federals. Van Dorn could immediately see the possibilities. If his army could march the length of the Bentonville Bypass he could take Curtis directly from the rear, cutting the Union general off from retreat or supplies. He ordered the movement to begin that very night.

Curtis was comfortable with his position and eager for a fight, but he was not totally unmindful of the danger of being flanked. When Colonel Grenville Dodge, commanding a brigade of Curtis' 4th division went to the commander suggesting that he place some obstructions on the Bypass Curtis told him to go ahead. Dodge and his men felled trees across the road in several places before retiring to their camps

It was a long and very difficult night for Van Dorn's exhausted and hungry men. Sugar Creek had to be crudely bridged and Dodge's obstructions cleared away. Many regiments stood for hours in the freezing night, waiting to go forward. Many soldiers fell out, unable to go a step further. Yet by dawn, the advance units of the Confederate army had reached their destination on the main road, north of the Union lines. Price's men were strung out along the northern section of the Bypass, but were moving up nicely. However, McCulloch's division was behind them and Pike's Indians were still further back. And last of all came the abbreviated supply trains. Van Dorn decided that there was no possibility of getting his whole army to the main road in time to fight that day. He consulted with McCulloch, and ordered the Texan to take his division and head straight east on the lateral road south of Big Mountain called Ford Road. This meant that Van Dorn's army was divided, but with luck Curtis would not only have to contend with an enemy directly on his rear, but with another force on his flank.

On the morning of March 7th General Curtis received reports at his headquarters near Pratt's Store from scouts that enemy activity had been detected both to the west and to the north. Concerned that his army had been flanked, he sent the scouts out again to see what was going on, and called a Council of War. Apparently some of his officers felt that if the army had been flanked it should retreat, but Curtis was determined to fight and, indeed, had he wished to retreat it would have been difficult for him to do so with Confederates directly on his rear. However, Curtis was unwilling to pull all his forces from his defensive lines above Sugar Creek, fearing that the flanking movement was just a prelude to an assault from the south. He ordered General Peter Osterhaus to take a sizable force of several thousand men west toward Twelve Corners Church at the junction of Ford Road and the Bypass, and General Eugene Carr to take a brigade of about a thousand men directly north to Elkhorn Tavern on the main road to see what was going on there.

As Van Dorn advanced with Price and his division directly south on the main road he was hopeful that he had achieved complete surprise. His troops, exhausted but optimistic, were marching through a gloomy gorge called Cross Timber Hollow. Big Mountain was west of them, on their right, and rugged hills were to their left. Because the floor of the gorge was several hundred feet below the level of Pea Ridge, it was hard for Van Dorn and Price to see what was ahead of them. At about ten o'clock Van Dorn reached the place in the road where it climbed steeply up onto Pea Ridge toward Elkhorn Tavern. The Tavern, which would be at the center of the ensuing battle, was a large timber structure, with outbuildings and a big yard. It would be subsequently burnt and rebuilt during the Civil War; the building there at the present time is a reconstruction. Suddenly, firing broke out. Van Dorn's cavalry, leading the advance, had run into a small Union infantry unit blocking the road. Van Dorn decided to deploy his army. Some historians are critical of this decision: "Instead of continuing to advance toward Elkhorn Tavern and the expected rendezvous with McCulloch's division, Van Dorn directed Price to halt, deploy his entire division in line of battle, and ‘move forward cautiously‘. It was probably the most uncharacteristic order he ever issued, and it gave the Federals the one thing they needed most--time." (Shea and Hess, p159) This seems harsh. Van Dorn was a very aggressive--at times reckless--commander, but he was an experienced professional soldier, and he was well aware of the absolute necessity of deploying Civil War era troops from marching to fighting formation before engaging the enemy. With 20-20 hindsight it seems possible that his men could have brushed the Federals out of the way, climbed up onto Pea Ridge and deployed before Carr's men arrived. But Van Dorn had no way of knowing that, and his decision to put his men in position to fight as soon as firing broke out seems prudent and sensible. It is interesting that Shea and Hess commend the Union General Osterhaus for doing a similar thing on the other side of the battlefield. It is also a commentary on the level of training of Price's troops that they executed the deployment very creditably in spite of the difficult terrain, and the fact that they had marched all night on empty stomachs.

The first unit of Carr's troops to arrive was an artillery battery, and it immediately went into action, spraying the slowly climbing Confederates with solid shot. But in spite of the rigorous march and the shortage of fodder, the Rebels had brought plenty of artillery and soon fourteen guns were hammering the Federal artillerymen. Artillery on both sides would play a large role in this battle, all the more because the difficult terrain forced both sides to concentrate their artillery in places it could get to. Originally Carr had thought to descend into Cross Timber Hollow and push back any Confederates he found there. But when he arrived he quickly perceived that there were lots and lots of Rebels below him, more than he could handle. So he decided to fight a defensive battle along the edge of the Ridge, and called for help. He also ordered his outnumbered troops to move cautiously forward to discourage the Confederate advance. It was still quite cold, and smoke from the continuous artillery firing tended to sink, creating a very murky battlefield. Struggling uphill against unknown enemy forces, the Southerners settled in, and across much of the battlefield lively firefights broke out, without either side moving very much forward or backward.

Curtis could hear the fighting from his headquarters. In response to a request from Carr he sent for the other brigade of the 4th division to help him, and about noon he decided to go over there and see for himself what was going on. When he got to Elkhorn Tavern he found that Carr was even further forward and rode up to see him. They had a brief unrecorded conversation, during which we might guess that Carr asked for as many reinforcements as possible. It is worth noting that both generals were under fire at this time, but neither was injured. Then Curtis rode back to his headquarters, meeting the second brigade on the road. Curtis also observed that his army's trains we much too close to the front, having been posted behind the lines of the expected battle on Sugar Creek, so he gave orders for them to be moved further south.

When his second brigade arrived Carr had about 2000 men, roughly a fifth of Curtis' army. In spite of the loss of men caused by the difficult march, the Confederates had about 5000 men available Van Dorn and Price could not tell how many Federals were in front of them, but they knew that if they wanted to win this battle, they needed to get up that hill toward Elkhorn Tavern, and as the afternoon wore on they began to increase the pressure on Carr's outnumbered troops. They sent units of the Missouri State Guard to the east--their left--to outflank Carr's men. Around five o'clock these troops gained the ridge and swung around along the Huntsville road on Carr's right flank. The Union troops could not stand against this attack, and fell back. This meant that the whole Union line had to fall back with them, and it did. For the most part, the Union troops were able to retreat in good order, but the Confederate troops were conscious of finally gaining ground in this desperate struggle, and as they reached the top of the plateau and pushed the Federals back past Elkhorn Tavern, Price's men thought they had won the battle. But Van Dorn had heard some bad news. To appreciate this bad news, we must now turn our attention to events which had been taking place at the same time two miles away on the other side of the battlefield.

General Peter Osterhaus had been assigned to push toward the northwest to see what the Confederates were up to. He had several cavalry regiments, some guns, and a strong brigade of infantry. As he moved toward the hamlet of Leetown he encountered a large open field containing several farms. Beyond the field was a belt of woods. He decided to deploy his infantry at the south edge of the field, and advance with his cavalry and a couple of guns. This was an extremely prudent decision, and similar to one that Van Dorn was making at almost the same time a couple of miles away. When Osterhaus pushed through the woods onto another large field he saw a breathtaking sight. The Ford Road, which was right in front of him, was full of Confederate troops, marching east. Osterhaus knew this was bad, very bad. If unchecked, those rebel soldiers would slam into Carr's flank, rout the Union wagon trains, and win the battle. Like the responsible officer that he was, Osterhaus took action. He had his artillery battery open fire, and he ordered a cavalry charge. But before his cavalry could get in motion they were swept off the field by a mass of Confederate horsemen. Alerted to the presence of Union troops by the cannon fire, McIntosh wheeled his men and charged. Outnumbered six to one, the Union troops put up only a brief resistance. Even Pike's Indians got into the act, attacking on the right flank and overrunning the Union guns. Osterhaus himself rode back to his line of infantry to warn them not to be panicked by the retreating cavalry, and to organize the defense. He also sent a messenger to Curtis alerting him to the danger and requesting help.

As was often the case, the victorious Confederates were as much disorganized by the wild melee as the defeated Federals. Texas cavalry and Indians were milling around, yelling, grabbing food and, in the case of the Indians, scalping prisoners. However, one Texas regiment continued to pursue the retreating Union troops through the belt of trees into the field beyond, and came under fire from the long line of deployed infantry at the far edge of the field. They quickly retired through the trees and their commander told McCulloch what he had seen. This got his attention in a big way. He certainly could not leave a large body of infantry on his flank. He stopped his marching troops, and began to deploy them along the Ford road, facing south. While this was going on he characteristically decided to ride forward through the trees himself to see what he would be facing. McCulloch never wore a uniform, and was wearing a black suit and a large brown hat. As he emerged from the trees he was in plain sight of Union skirmishers and sharpshooters that were stationed well in advance of the main Union line. They opened fire on the lone horsemen, one bullet pierced his heart and killed him instantly.

Now letís stop for a moment and indulge in some alternate history. Let us imagine that the bullet which killed McCulloch merely grazes his hat. He rides back through the trees, and gives the order to advance. The Federals resist fiercely, but McCulloch has some 7000 troops at his disposal, and by extending his line slightly he outflanks Osterhaus on his right, just as Price was doing on the left, some four miles away. The Union troops are forced to retreat, wheeling to refuse their exposed flank, until they are facing almost directly west and lying along Telegraph road. McCulloch is able to link up with Van Dorn near Elkhorn Tavern. With the Ford Road under his control, McCulloch sends back a messenger to bring up the Confederate supply trains from Camp Stevens, and the exhausted Rebels finally get something to eat during the night and replenish their ammunition. The outnumbered Federals are bent back into an L shaped line, with the apex somewhere near Pratt's Store. The next day the Confederates advance on both wings.....

In reality, the battle would take a very different course. Confederates advancing through the trees drove off the Union sharpshooters who were looting McCulloch's body. But his staff, fearful of the psychological impact on McCulloch's troops, did not announce his death. General McIntosh was quietly informed that he was in command. Instead of ordering his troops forward, McIntosh decided to lead them forward. Telling the units along Ford Road to stand by for orders, he led an Arkansas regiment into the trees. Getting a little too far in advance of his own men, he was also shot dead. The only Confederate unit to attack was a large brigade from Louisiana led by Colonel Louis Hebert. Hebert had received McCulloch's orders to advance, and he led his brigade into a dense thicket east of the open fields, near Little Mountain. When Confederate staff officers realized that Hebert was now the ranking officer in the division they sent a messenger asking for orders. But Hebert and his men had disappeared into the woods and could not be contacted. Actually, Hebert's movement was very dangerous to the Federals. There were absolutely no Union troops in front of him, and Osterhaus' right flank, as well as his left, was completely exposed. Had the rest of McCulloch's attack developed as planned, the results for the Union army might have been even more dire than predicted in my "alternate history" paragraph above. But Hebert's men found it slow going. The brush was very thick, the ground was uneven, and to make matters worse, a tornado had gone through sometime before and left hundreds of fallen trees on the ground. In the meantime Curtis had pulled a division out from the Sugar Creek lines. He had intended to send it to Carr's relief, but receiving the desperate cry for help from Osterhaus he decided the situation on his left sounded even more serious, and diverted the division, commanded by an acting brigadier general improbably named Jefferson Davis, toward Leetown. Davis arrived around 2:00, and put his troops in east of Osterhaus' line, just in time to meet Hebert's advancing Lousianians in a fierce confused battle in the thick woods. Herbert and his men were unable to dislodge the Federals. Eventually some Confederates drifted back through the woods toward Ford Road, others got completely disoriented, wandered further and further south and east, and were captured. Colonel Hebert was among the latter group.

Along the Ford Road Confederate units stood, waiting for orders that never came. The surviving officers of McCulloch's division seemed paralyzed, unable to take any action. Eventually they decided that Colonel Elkanah Greer of the 3rd Texas Cavalry was in command, and he sent word to Van Dorn that McCulloch and McIntosh were dead, Hebert was missing, and what should he do? It apparently occurred to no one that there was still a Confederate general among the troops along Ford Road. In his official report General Albert Pike wrote that "About 3:00.......Major Whitfield informed me that Generals McCulloch and McIntosh were both killed, and that 7000 of the enemy's infantry were marching to gain our left....Totally ignorant of the country and the roads nor whether the whole or what portion of General McCulloch's command had been detached from the main body for this action, I assumed command and prepared to repel the supposed movement of the enemy." The 7000 men were, of course, entirely imaginary, and Pike's "command" consisted of various bits and scraps of Texas cavalry and Indians, maybe a thousand men in all.

A messenger from Colonel Greer finally reached Van Dorn about 5:30 with the unwelcome news that half his army was leaderless and defeated. Shea and Hess suggest that he should have immediately ridden over and taken command of McCulloch's division, leaving Price in charge on the left. But although Price was still active, he had been wounded, and it must have seemed to Van Dorn as though the battle could still be won right in front of him. He sent a message to Colonel Greer to "hold his position", and concentrated on pushing the Union forces beyond Elkhorn Tavern. However, Curtis had finally decided that there was no threat at all from the south, pulled his last division out of the defenses there, and sent it to Carr's assistance. With the help of these fresh troops, the Federals managed to stabilize the front north of Pratt's Store as night fell over the battlefield.

Van Dorn sent messages to Greer and Pike asking them to bring the troops from McCulloch's division around to the rest of the army via the Bypass. Then, sick and exhausted, he lay down like the rest of his army to get a little sleep. In doing so he failed to deal with a small but very important detail. The supply train for the Confederate army was back at Camp Stephens. The previous morning the trains, at the back of the army, had hardly started when fighting broke out. The officer in charge, General Martin Green, received no orders, but prudently held the trains up to see how the battle would develop. Had all gone well, he could have moved his trains up along Ford Road. But as we have seen, all did not go well. As day passed into evening Green had no idea what to do. He kept collecting more soldiers. In addition to the wagon guards, two raw but eager regiments of Arkansas soldiers came into camp, and flotsam and jetsam from McCulloch's division floated down south on the Bypass as well. He finally sent a messenger around dawn to try and find out what was going on. About the same time Price realized that he had no idea where the trains were, and sent a messenger to try and find them. By the time that both messengers reached their destination, probably passing each other on the road, it was much too late for the trains to reach Price and Van Dorn. The Army of the West would have to fight another day without food or ammunition. All accounts of the battle correctly note this as a huge blunder on Van Dorn's part. In his official report he stated that "In the course of the night I ascertained that the ammunition was almost exhausted, and that the officer in charge of the ordnance supplies could not find his wagons, which, with the subsistence train, had been sent to Bentonville." Shea and Hess establish that this incompetent supply officer was completely imaginary, and that the trains were at Camp Stephens instead of Bentonville. Also, it was mid-morning before Van Dorn realized that he had no supplies. Had Green received orders around dusk on the 7th to move to the support of the army, he could and would have done so, via the Bypass and Cross Timber Hollow. But by dawn the trains might as well have been at Bentonville or Little Rock or the Moon for all the good they could do Van Dorn and his starving army. It would have taken at least six hours for the slow-moving wagons to make the trip around Big Mountain. How could such a mistake have happened? One answer, of course, is that Van Dorn was always careless about logistics. Indeed, this entire campaign was conducted in defiance of the ordinary rules of military logistics. Only the courage and hardihood of Van Dorn's western soldiers made the battle possible at all. A second answer was Van Dorn's physical condition. He was sick when the battle started, and by the time the shooting stopped we can imagine that his overpowering need for rest made coherent thought almost impossible. A third factor was his lack of staff. It is the job of military staff to help a commander with those little details that get overlooked. It was not that Van Dornís supply officer was incompetent--he didn't have a supply officer! He was essentially running the campaign out of the back of his ambulance, and there was no one to pick up the slack.

On the other side Curtis was feeling confident about his chances. It had been a long hard day, but he had successfully turned his entire army around 180 degrees, had taken the best the Rebels had to throw at him, and was in a position to put his entire army in line the next day. His supplies were right at hand, and his position was strong. Not all his officers were equally as confident. Asboth in particular was totally despondent, and convinced that defeat was staring the Union forces in the face. He recommended cutting their way through the Confederate forces and escaping north. Asboth circulated around the camp, trying to infect other officers with his defeatism. Several woke Curtis up to express concern. He gave them all the same message: We'll concentrate the army, fight the enemy at Elkhorn Tavern, and beat them. He did have to intervene to prevent Sigel from taking his two divisions back to positions on Sugar Creek to rest and eat. The concept was good, but it was problematical whether the men would have had time to get back in line by the time battle was joined in the morning.

When morning broke over Pea Ridge the ground was still foggy and smoke lingered from the previous day's battle. Curtis ordered Sigel to move his divisions up from where they were camped around Pratt's Store to form left of Carr's divisions, making a continuous Union line stretching from Big Mountain around in a wide arc extending well to the east of Telegraph Road. The little German got his troops moving with commendable haste, having already sent Osterhaus to reconnoiter the ground. Osterhaus noted a low hill known as Whefley's Knoll and recommended that the Union line encompass it, as guns posted there would command the entire west part of the coming battlefield. A breeze came up, blowing away the residual smoke and fog, and Confederate and Federals alike could see the whole Union army, regiment after regiment marching up and deploying in impressive array. Soldiers who had fought there commented afterward on the striking spectacle.

The Confederates could not feel confident as they watched the Union Army deploy. For the first time in the battle, they were outnumbered. Pike had brought maybe a thousand men from the right wing of McCulloch's division, and very early in the morning, another couple of thousand arrived with Colonel Greer. These last men were so exhausted that Van Dorn didn't wake them with the rest of the army. The rest of McCulloch's fine division was dead, wounded, captured, drifting south, or still wandering around in the woods. Van Dorn's artillery was concentrated in the open area around Elkhorn Tavern, and his battle line stretched from the slopes of Big Mountain out along the Huntsville Road.

Artillery opened the second day's battle around 10:00. If the Confederate artillery had dominated the battlefield on the 7th, the 8th belonged to the Union gunners. Sigel placed all his left wing artillery on or around Whelfley's Knoll, and, staying with his gunners, personally directed concentrated fire on the Confederate right, driving first one rebel battery, then another from the field. Then he directed the guns against Confederate troops on the slopes of Big Mountain, toppling boulders and trees, and driving them away from their right flank. While his guns were pushing the Confederates back, Sigel began to advance his infantry slowly. McWhiney and Jamieson credit Sigel with being one of the first to use this technique of successive advances. This was no doubt Sigel's finest day of the war, and it makes the historian wonder if an excellent artillery officer was lost in the mediocre general.

It was about this time, as Confederate batteries were running out of ammunition, that it finally dawned on Earl Van Dorn that he had no supplies, and that the battle could not be continued. Indeed, his army was in a terrible predicament, because it could not withdraw the way it had come. Federal troops were much closer to the corner of Ford Road and the Bypass than he was, and could cut him off easily. But Van Dorn was feeling slightly rested, and the fever had left, so he came to a logical, but brilliant solution. Since the army could not go north, south, or west, it would have to go east. A poor road led eastward into more or less nothing, but that was the route they would have to take. He sent a message to General Green, who had started north to meet him, to turn around and head southeast. They would get together somewhere in central Arkansas. Meanwhile General Price had finally succumbed to his wound, and was loaded into an ambulance, alive, but out of action. Before he left he requested that Van Dorn take as many of his wounded Missourians with the army as possible, which was done.

Most historians of the battle conclude that Van Dorn was outgeneraled. Audacious concept, poor execution. However, there is no doubt that the difficult retreat was brilliantly handled. When General Curtis remarked to General Sigel "The infantry could probably advance now." and almost ten thousand Federal soldiers rose up and advanced, they met very little resistance. It seemed as though the Confederates had vanished into thin air. Sigel's divisions went charging down into Cross Timber Hollow, but they found only severely wounded and stragglers. In fact, they went so far north that Curtis had to peremptorily order them back; having won a hard fought battle, he had no intention of abandoning his position. One factor that helped the Confederates to make their retreat is that Curtis led with his left, since Sigel's two divisions had suffered the least on the previous day, and the artillery concentration had had its greatest effect on the Confederate right.

So Van Dorn's battered legions escaped, leaving the Huntsville road to angle south on an unnamed track and eventually ending up in a tiny hamlet called Van Winkle's Mill. There they slept, and found some parched corn to assuage their hunger. Much of the artillery had stayed until the last moment to cover the retreat, had taken the road north through Cross Timber Hollow, then wandered east, but scouts managed to find them, and reunite the lost canoneers with the rest of the army. But it was not a happy army. General Rains of the Missouri State Guard was placed under arrest for saying what everyone was thinking: "No one was whipped at Pea Ridge except Van Dorn!"

Pike and his Indians were not with the defeated army. They had had enough. Pike himself rode down Cross Timber Hollow, tried and failed to organize a last minute defense there, then turned his horse west toward Indian Territory. He got there safely, found that most of his followers were there ahead of him, and spent the rest of the war dealing with the fallout from the Union Army's unpleasant discovery that a number of their soldiers had been apparently murdered and scalped during the first day's battle.

So why did the battle end this way, with exultant Union troops serenading their commander with shouts of "Victory! Victory!", and discouraged Confederates slinking off into the wilds of northern Arkansas? The first reason was undoubtedly Van Dorn's impatience in starting the campaign. Curtis' army was not going anywhere, and there was no reason why Van Dorn could not have taken a week to get well himself, meet his officers, assemble a staff, and move supplies forward. Had his campaign jumped off in Bentonville, his men could have gone into battle fed and rested. Even the weather would have been better. A second reason was the strong leadership provided by Curtis. He kept his head in a difficult situation, and performed the feat of turning his army around 180 degrees to fight a battle directly in its rear. He was well served by his subordinates--but it's a characteristic of good generals that they make their officers better. Men like Grant and Lee were always getting the most out of their generals; losers like McClellan and Bragg were always let down. Carr had a reputation as a cantankerous subordinate, Sigel would go on to a miserable career, yet both did well at Pea Ridge. A third factor was the untimely death of McCulloch and McIntosh. Being a Civil War general was a dangerous occupation. The requirements of command and control meant that generals of that era were often close to the front line, often under fire. The list is long: Johnston, Jackson, Reynolds, Lyon, Polk, McPherson.......and dozens more. But McCulloch and McIntosh seem to have taken risks that were excessive, even by Civil War standards. When they were killed, both men were literally out in front of their entire division. Union casualties totaled almost 1400 men, including 200 dead. Confederate casualties are unknown. Shea and Hess estimate 2000, but discuss on pp270-271 the problems with Van Dorn's reported casualty numbers, and the difficulties with accurately assessing Southern losses.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Union victory at Pea Ridge. Had Van Dorn won his battle, with serious damage to Curtis' small army, it could have changed the war in the West. One can imagine several possibilities--Grant called back from his march into Tennessee, A.S. Johnston given time to assemble and train his army, Confederate control of most of Missouri, threatening St. Louis. We'll never know. But for a battle of this size and importance, Pea Ridge had surprisingly little resonance. Although the Union was desperate for a victory, the battle was overshadowed by Grant's picturesque capture of Ft. Donelson, and the huge and bloody battle of Shiloh that followed. And the Confederates were not eager to dwell on such a disappointing outcome. Jefferson Davis in his interesting but impersonal "Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government" dealt with Pea Ridge In this way: "Meanwhile some active operations had taken place in that part of General Johnson's command west of the Mississippi River. Detached conflicts with the enemy had been fought by the small forces under Generals Price and McCulloch, but no definite result had followed. General Van Dorn had been subsequently assigned to the command, and assumed it on January 29, 1862. General Van Dorn was ordered to join General Johnston by the quickest route. Yet only one of his regiments arrived in time to be present at the battle of Shiloh." Since Davis did not gloss over Confederate defeats (he devoted an entire chapter to Shiloh), he had completely forgotten about Pea Ridge by the time he wrote "Rise and Fall" (1877-78) or he recalled it as a minor reverse, too unimportant to mention.

As Davis recorded, Van Dorn did bring his army east of the Mississippi. He commanded the Army of the West in the futile and bloody attempt to recapture Corinth, Mississippi in October of 1862, led a successful raid on Holly Springs in December, and was killed in Tennessee by an angry doctor who felt Van Dorn was too friendly with his wife. Curtis held various commands west of the Mississippi, meeting and defeating Price again at the battle of Westport in 1864. It seems strange that a man with such a brilliant victory was not given larger commands, considering the trouble that Lincoln was having finding competent generals. Today the Pea Ridge National Military Park is considered by many to be the Civil War battlefield least changed from its appearance from 1862.

Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2007 Allen Parfitt.

Written by Allen Parfitt. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Allen Parfitt at:

About the author:
Allen Parfitt is a retired teacher.  He has had a life-long interest in military affairs.  He lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan with his wife and four cats.  He is continually adding to his library of books on military history.

Published online: 01/07/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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