The Confederate strategy was simple: Advance northward through Missouri, defeat the Federal forces there and capture St. Louis, thus commanding the gateway to the West. Southern aspirations were aptly summarized by Major General Earl Van Dorn, who wrote to his wife: "I must have St. Louis…then Huzza."
Van Dorn clearly understood the significance of taking St. Louis, both for him and his government. Control of St. Louis, a major industrial and commercial center–and a notoriously pro-Union city–would symbolize Confederate control of the entire state. And from a personal standpoint, it would place the supremely ambitious Van Dorn squarely in the center of military power and prestige. All that stood in his way were the outnumbered Union forces in Missouri under the command of Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis. Van Dorn confidently looked forward to a shower of accolades.
The Confederacy as a whole had high hopes for its Missouri campaign in the winter of 1861-62. Politically, economically and militarily the state was vital to both the North and the South. Missouri protected the northwestern flank of the newly formed Confederate States of America. The Mississippi River was the strategic link between the eastern and western portions of the Confederacy. And St. Louis, lying as it did at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, was the historic jumping-off place to the Western frontier.
In Earl Van Dorn, the Confederacy had an experienced, aggressive career soldier. A West Point graduate, he had served with distinction in the Mexican War and been wounded several times for his trouble. He had also fought Indians on the Southwestern frontier. A nephew of President Andrew Jackson, he shared Old Hickory’s famous temper and charming way with the ladies. He had also inherited some of Jackson’s political savior faire. At the outset of the Civil War, when he learned that his fellow Mississippian Jefferson Davis wanted to be in charge of his home state’s troops, Van Dorn graciously stepped aside and took another appointment in Texas. In return for helping the South retain control of the Lone Star State during the first chaotic months of the war, Van Dorn was summoned to Richmond by now-President Jefferson Davis, promoted to major general and given the task of winning back Missouri for the hard-pressed Confederacy.
It had been a disastrous winter for Confederate hopes in the West. Already, Union forces under Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had seized Forts Henry and Donelson in western Tennessee and, in so doing, had caused the evacuation of Nashville and the fall of Kentucky and most of Tennessee to Union control. Farther west, in Missouri, Confederate elation following their victory at Wilson’s Creek in August 1861 had turned to despair as superior Federal forces had steadily pushed Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s outnumbered troops southward out of Missouri. By late February 1862, the Confederates had been driven to the Missouri-Arkansas border.
At Fayetteville, Ark., Van Dorn assembled a force of some 16,500 Confederates, including 8,000 Texicans under Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch and 7,000 Missourians under Price. These Regular forces were augmented by a colorful contingent of 2,000 assorted Indians, principally Cherokees, led by the renowned frontiersman Brig. Gen. Albert Pike. Van Dorn eased the personal friction between McCulloch and Price, and he persuaded them to cooperate in his bold plan to retake Missouri, capture St. Louis and move east to link up with General Albert Sidney Johnston and fall on Grant’s Union forces in Tennessee, pinning the Federals between them and bringing about a decisive Confederate victory in the West.
In assembling his army and convincing the other generals to go along with his plans, Van Dorn had already accomplished a significant feat. Moreover, he also seemed to have luck on his side. His force significantly outnumbered the 11,000 Union troops under Curtis, a fellow West Point graduate of no prior military distinction. Indeed, Curtis was more renowned as a politician than a general. A former mayor of Keokuk, Iowa, he had served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives prior to the war. Curtis’ very success worked against him. Following his comparatively easy victories over Price, demands had arisen for the transfer of Union forces from Missouri to other, more threatened theaters of the war.
To achieve his strategic goal of recapturing Missouri for the Confederacy, Van Dorn planned for his units to move west of the Union forces, outflank them, cut their supply lines and fall on them from behind. It was a smaller version of his grand scheme to cross the Mississippi and outmaneuver Grant in western Tennessee.
Never one to delay–and even though he was suffering the after-effects of flu or pneumonia–Van Dorn wasted no time heading north from Fayetteville. The movement began on March 4, following an obligatory address to the troops by their commanding general. A heavy snow was falling. Van Dorn himself was so wracked with fever that he began the journey lying in a wagon. The rugged terrain of the Boston Mountains added to the strain of the march.
As the weather-hampered Confederates trudged through knee-deep snowdrifts and stinging winds, the Union forces under Curtis were moving to meet the approaching threat. At Pea Ridge, a long hill 30 miles northeast of Fayetteville, Curtis consolidated his forces and entrenched along Little Sugar Creek, which ran roughly parallel to the ridge, two miles to the southeast. He centered his operations at Elkhorn Tavern, a well-known watering hole at the eastern end of the ridge. His right flank, the flank Van Dorn expected to turn, rested against Elkhorn Mountain and Pea Ridge. The Union position was sound, reflecting Curtis’ prewar training as an engineer. The creek afforded a natural defensive barrier, and the mountains immediately to the west offered additional protection. To add to the strength of their position, the Federal troops were busily entrenching under the stern gaze of their formidable commander.
As he came upon the Federal positions on the evening of March 6, Van Dorn realized immediately that he would be unable to slip past Curtis’ flank completely unnoticed. He would have to deal with Curtis first, before moving any farther north. Van Dorn decided to take advantage of his superior numbers, the static position of the entrenched Federals, and the terrain itself. The same mountains that provided security to Curtis’ right flank might also serve to mask Van Dorn’s movements to the west. He was further encouraged by a minor success when his advance guard briefly engaged and dispatched a small Union detachment under Brig Gen. Franz Sigel. Van Dorn then determined to bring his force to the rear of the Federal line, thereby negating its entrenchments and its advantageous position behind Little Sugar Creek.
On the night of March 6-7, he ordered his troops, already weary from three days and 50 miles of arduous marching, to make their way along a road called the Bentonville Detour. That movement would allow the Confederates to move past the Union right flank. Shielded from view by the looming mountains, Van Dorn’s troops hoped to use McCulloch’s and Price’s divisions as two arms of fast-closing pincers. They would fall on both Union flanks from the rear, creating a surprise double envelopment from which the outnumbered Federals would have no escape.
In attempting to create a double envelopment, however, Van Dorn had created an ironic problem for himself. His two wings would be attacking in a southerly direction. By cutting off the Federal force from its line of supply and retreat to Missouri, he was also severing his own communications with his rear supply area in Arkansas. Even worse, he had left his slow and cumbersome supply and ammunition trains behind him–in effect, cutting himself off from his own supplies.
The Battle of Pea Ridge (or Elkhorn Tavern) began on March 7. Curtis had gathered his four divisions along Little Sugar Creek; they now numbered 10,500 men after Sigel’s losses the day before. The hollow of the creek and the obstacle of Pea Ridge provided a natural defense. Curtis’ stiff, traditional, old-school demeanor was ideally suited for the developing situation. At the outset of the battle, Van Dorn was confident. He had kept his campfires burning in front of the Union lines all night to mask his maneuvering around their position. Sterling Price’s division had the longest trek, passing around the Union right in a wide arc to bring them behind the left wing. McCulloch had a lesser distance to travel to attack the enemy’s left rear.
On the morning of the 7th, Curtis realized that Van Dorn’s forces were absent from their camps on the south side of Little Sugar Creek. At first he had no idea where they had gone. But a few hours after sunrise, Curtis’ scouts informed him that the Rebels were making their way toward him from the rear, moving through the high ground along Pea Ridge–they were moving in strength.
Curtis could have retreated across Little Sugar Creek, fleeing toward Arkansas or circling back into Missouri. Instead, he chose to fight. He quickly ordered an about-face, not the easiest maneuver to execute, nor the best way to redeploy for a fight. After turning 180 degrees, an army is frequently disoriented–units normally on the left are now on the right, and orders and directions become confused. Yet Curtis and his subordinates maintained good order and discipline.
The Confederates, by contrast, were struggling to meet their timetable. The long mountain trek had delayed them during the cold, dark night. They were coming into attack position a few miles from the Union lines–but they were also a few hours late. By 10:30 a.m., when Price’s men pressed down the Telegraph Road toward the Union position around Elkhorn Tavern, Colonel Eugene Carr was waiting for them. The Federals fought back hard, but Carr’s outnumbered men were soon reeling under the Confederate assault. Again and again, Carr regrouped and formed new defensive lines. He sent word to Curtis that he needed reinforcements.
By noon, Price’s men had pierced Carr’s second line of defense and fanned out around Elkhorn Tavern. Meanwhile, McCulloch’s wing struck the Federal left near Leetown. Curtis had assigned Colonels Peter Osterhaus and Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Southern president) to meet the threat. As with Carr at Elkhorn Tavern, the two Union colonels met the approaching Confederates head-on. But they, too, were outnumbered and hard-pressed to hold on. On both flanks the Confederates had employed their superiority in infantry and artillery to gain–at least temporarily–the upper hand. Gray-clad gunners pummeled the Union lines on both fronts, while Pike’s Indians overran Osterhaus’ first line of defense and immediately paused to begin chanting their victory songs. It would prove a costly diversion.
Curtis was under intense pressure to reinforce both his wings. Osterhaus had been hit particularly hard. He had given up much ground, and in the process had lost several artillery pieces and equipment. Carr, too, was reeling, but so far neither wing had broken. Time was now on the Union side. The repeated Confederate artillery and infantry assaults had consumed much of the remaining daylight. In the waning light, made worse by the thick haze of gunsmoke and dust, few officers could see far enough to plot their next moves with any accuracy.
Two other factors, both attributable to Van Dorn’s earlier tactical decisions, began to have a deleterious effect on the Confederates in the evolving battle. First, after repeated barrages and assaults, they were running low on ammunition. But their extra ammunition was in the rear. Or in this case, in the opposing force’s rear, since the Federals had turned around to face northward, with Little Sugar Creek behind them–and the Rebels’ precious ammunition boxes just across the creek, separated from them by several miles of rough terrain and a thoroughly aroused Federal army.Additionally, the Confederate forces by this time were exhausted. They had had no sleep and little food for almost two days; no sooner had they encountered the Federal force at Little Sugar Creek than they were on the move again, making another long trek through the cold winter night to reach jumping-off points in what was supposed to be the Union rear. But the enemy rear had become the enemy front when Curtis ordered a timely about-face. Instead of a devastating surprise attack against the backs of an outnumbered and outmaneuvered enemy, the Confederates had encountered a determined and ready foe prepared to contest every yard of ground and not at all inclined to flee or succumb.
Elements of their early success now haunted the Confederate effort. Their Indian allies had enjoyed greatly their thumping of Osterhaus, but they adamantly refused to make another direct frontal assault against entrenched Union positions. Ultimately they withdrew from the battle altogether.On the same wing, Van Dorn suffered another crushing reverse when General McCulloch fell dead, shot by a green Illinois foot soldier as his men gathered for a last surge against the faltering enemy troops. A legendary frontier fighter and friend of Davy Crockett, McCulloch had been a leader of the Texas Rangers and a key figure in the pre-Confederacy republic. His death so demoralized his soldiers that many stopped their charge in midstride and simply faded away into the countryside. To make matters worse, McCulloch’s successor, Colonel James McIntosh, was also killed, and Colonel Louis Hebert was captured. Only Albert Pike remained to gather the remnants of the command and lead them around the north side of Pea Ridge to rejoin Price’s force.
Meanwhile, on the east end of the ridge, Price had been stymied by a determined force that was half his size. Van Dorn, headquartered with Price’s units, became increasingly desperate. He ordered Price forward for a late-afternoon assault despite the exhausted state of the troops and the severe shortage of ammunition. Once again the Confederate artillery did its deadly work, wrecking numerous Union pieces and pressuring the infantrymen crouched down among them. Carr, still calling for reinforcements, was forced to find another defensive line.It was now sunset. Curtis sensed that the danger on his left had diminished, and he sent his reserve division under Brig. Gen. Alexander Asboth to Carr’s relief. Asboth arrived in time to help Carr establish his fourth defensive perimeter of the day. By then the Confederates had shot their last bolt. Wearily, they fell to the ground seeking sleep. The fighting on the Union right dwindled away with the dusk.
During the night, Curtis, who had carefully avoided committing his reserves until late in the day, now calculated correctly that his numerically superior opponent was exhausted. With better interior lines, steady and disciplined maneuvering, capable subordinates and valorous troops, Curtis’ line had held, bent but not broken, throughout a long day of assaults. In the darkness he moved more men to his right, opposite the largest remaining concentration of Rebel troops.
The Confederate positions were now defensive. The troops were still divided into two segments, Price’s on the Union right and the remnants of McCulloch’s force on the left. The Rebel dispositions and the inward curvature of their lines made it apparent to Curtis that the enemy was weakened and not inclined to renew the offensive the next day. Accordingly, he shifted Colonel Davis’ division from the left to the right, joining Carr and Asboth opposite Elkhorn Tavern. Sigel and Osterhaus remained on the left, opposite what remained of McCulloch’s force.
On March 8, the Federal troops enjoyed the benefit of a hot breakfast and the confidence that they had held out against superior numbers. The Confederates, meanwhile, were low on food and ammunition, and they were hardly disposed to make another inspired effort after the myriad frustrations of the previous day. Undeterred, Van Dorn resumed hostilities with a booming cannonade from his still numerically superior artillery. But the firing was without focus, less designed to soften the Union lines for another assault than to test the Northerners’ remaining resolve. The weakness of the barrage indicated to Curtis that the steam had indeed gone out of the Rebel effort. He immediately ordered Sigel’s artillerymen to respond. As the Rebel artillery ammunition dwindled, the Union gunners began knocking the Confederate cannons out, one by one. Meanwhile, the Union infantry surged forward on the left and pushed the Rebels back from the ridge. Sigel, as much surprised as elated, urged his men forward.
The newfound enthusiasm was contagious. Curtis insisted on another precisely timed artillery barrage and a properly synchronized infantry assault. Sigel’s men closed with the Union right and both elements set off toward, around and past Elkhorn Tavern. Their attack carried them over the same ground they had lost the previous day and pushed the dispirited Confederates back along the entire front. Both of Van Dorn’s wings began to dissolve. The Union victory was swift and almost anticlimactic. Curtis, his normally dour demeanor split by an infectious grin, rode among his men shouting, Victory! Victory!
For his counterpart across the way, the question now was how to hold his beaten force together. Van Dorn did not have to decide what to do–his men decided for him. The Confederates beat a hasty, disorganized retreat in three directions to the north. The Indian contingent simply melted away into the vast wilderness of Indian Territory to the west. Van Dorn managed to hold a remnant in place and led them around Curtis’ force back to Arkansas, where more of his troops scattered in every direction, delaying for weeks any serious attempt to reconcentrate and reconstitute another meaningful Confederate force in the region.
A combination of factors had produced a major Union victory at Pea Ridge. The Union artillery, outnumbered throughout the battle, nevertheless displayed accuracy and aggressiveness, particularly on the second day. The numerical advantage of the Confederate force was negated partly by fatigue, first-day battle losses, the refusal of their Indian allies to resume the fight, and low supplies of ammunition. And throughout the battle the Union commanders showed more initiative, flexibility, creativity and zeal than their Confederate counterparts.
Above all, the clear thinking and composed leadership of Samuel Curtis had produced three important and correct decisions that directly affected the course of the battle. First, he turned his force completely around to meet Van Dorn’s attempted double envelopment. Second, he held back his reserves, not employing them futilely or prematurely, until impact could be decisive. And third, he counterattacked at just the right time for such a stroke.
Like so many other Civil War battles, the dreams and aspirations of the combatants, as well as their lives, faded on the bloody field of combat. Van Dorn, despite writing in his report that "I was not defeated, but only spoiled in my intentions," was denied the public adulation he sought so desperately. For Van Dorn and the rest of the Confederacy, the Battle of Pea Ridge brought no huzza, only defeat.
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