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American Civil War: Battle of Pea Ridge

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American Civil War: Battle of Pea Ridge

Battle of Pea Ridge, March 7, 1862

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Pea Ridge - Conflict and Dates:

The Battle of Pea Ridge was fought March 7-8, 1862, and was an early engagement of the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders:

Union

  • Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis
  • 10,500 men

Confederate

Battle of Pea Ridge - Background:

In the wake of the disaster at Wilson's Creek in August 1861, Union forces in Missouri were reorganized into the Army of the Southwest. Numbering around 10,500, this command was given to Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis with orders to push the Confederates out of the state. Despite their victory, the Confederates also altered their command structure as Major General Sterling Price and Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch had shown an unwillingness to cooperate. To keep the peace, Major General Earl Van Dorn was given command of the Military District of the Trans-Mississippi and oversight of the Army of the West.

Pressing south into northwest Arkansas in early 1862, Curtis established his army in a strong position facing south along Little Sugar Creek. Expecting a Confederate attack from that direction, his men began emplacing artillery and fortifying their position. Moving north with 16,000 men, Van Dorn hoped to destroy Curtis' force and open the way to capture St. Louis. Eager to destroy outlying Union garrisons near Curtis' base at Little Sugar Creek, Van Dorn led his men on a three-day forced march through severe winter weather.

Battle of Pea Ridge - Moving to Attack:

Reaching Bentonville, they failed to capture a Union force under Brigadier General Franz Sigel on March 6. Though his men were exhausted and he had outrun his supply train, Van Dorn began formulating an ambitious plan to assault Curtis' army. Dividing his army in two, Van Dorn intended to march north of the Union position and strike Curtis from the rear on March 7. Van Dorn planned to lead one column east along a road known as the Bentonville Detour which ran along the north edge of Pea Ridge. After clearing the ridge they would turn south along the Telegraph Road and occupy the area around Elkhorn Tavern.

Battle of Pea Ridge - McCulloch's Defeat:

The other column, led by McCulloch, was to skirt the western edge of Pea Ridge then turn east to join with Van Dorn and Price at the tavern. Reunited, the combined Confederate force would attack south to strike at the rear of the Union lines along Little Sugar Creek. While Curtis did not anticipate this type of envelopment, he did take the precaution of having trees felled across the Bentonville Detour. Delays slowed both Confederate columns and by dawn, Union scouts had detected both threats. Though still believing that Van Dorn's main body was to the south, Curtis began shifting troops to block the threats.

Due to the delays, Van Dorn issued instructions for McCulloch to reach Elkhorn by taking the Ford Road from Twelve Corner Church. As McCulloch's men marched along the road, they encountered Union troops near the village of Leetown. Dispatched by Curtis, this was a mixed infantry-cavalry force led by Colonel Peter J. Osterhaus. Though badly outnumbered, the Union troops immediately attacked around 11:30 AM. Wheeling his men south, McCulloch counterattacked and pushed Osterhaus' men back through a belt of timber. Reconnoitering the enemy lines, McCulloch encountered a group of Union skirmishers and was killed.

As confusion began to reign in the Confederate lines, McCulloch's second-in-command, Brigadier General James McIntosh, led a charge forward and was also killed. Unaware that he was now the senior officer on the field, Colonel Louis Hébert attacked on the Confederate left, while the regiments on the right remained in place awaiting orders. This assault was halted by the timely arrival of a Union division under Colonel Jefferson C. Davis. Though outnumbered, they turned the tables on the Southerners and captured Hébert later in the afternoon.

With confusion in the ranks, Brigadier General Albert Pike assumed command around 3:00 (shortly before Hébert's capture) and led those troops near him in a retreat north. Several hours later, with Colonel Elkanah Greer in command, many of these troops joined rest of the army at Cross Timber Hollow near Elkhorn Tavern. On the other side of the battlefield, fighting began around 9:30 when the lead elements of Van Dorn's column encountered Union infantry in Cross Timber Hollow. Sent north by Curtis, Colonel Grenville Dodge's brigade of Colonel Eugene Carr's 4th Division soon moved into a blocking position.

Battle of Pea Ridge - Van Dorn Held:

Rather than pressing forward and overwhelming Dodge's small command, Van Dorn and Price paused to fully deploy their troops. Over the next several hours, Dodge was able to hold his position and was reinforced at 12:30 by a Colonel William Vandever's brigade. Ordered forward by Carr, Vandever's men attacked the Confederate lines but were forced back. As the afternoon wore on, Curtis continued to funnel units into the battle near Elkhorn, but Union troops were slowly pushed back. At 4:30, the Union position began to collapse and Carr's men retreated back past the tavern to Ruddick's Field about a quarter mile to the south. Reinforcing this line, Curtis ordered a counterattack but it was halted due to darkness.

As both sides endured a cold night, Curtis busily shifted the bulk of his army to the Elkhorn line and had his men resupplied. Reinforced by the remnants of McCulloch's division, Van Dorn prepared to renew the assault in the morning. Early in the morning, Brigadier Franz Sigel, Curtis' second-in-command, instructed Osterhaus to survey the farmland to the west of Elkhorn. In doing do, the colonel located a knoll from which Union artillery could strike the Confederate lines. Quickly moving 21 guns to the hill, Union gunners opened fire after 8:00 AM and drove back their Confederate counterparts before shifting their fire to the Southern infantry.

As Union troops moved into attack positions around 9:30, Van Dorn was horrified to learn that his supply train and reserve artillery was six hours away due to a mistaken order. Realizing he could not win, Van Dorn began retreating east along the Huntsville Road. At 10:30, with the Confederates beginning to leave the field, Sigel led the Union left forward. Driving the Confederates back, they retook the area near the tavern around noon. With the last of the enemy retreating, the battle came to an end.

Aftermath of the Battle of Pea Ridge

The Battle of Pea Ridge cost the Confederates approximately 2,000 casualties, while the Union suffered 203 killed, 980 wounded, and 201 missing. The victory effectively secured Missouri for the Union cause and ended the Confederate threat to the state. Pressing on, Curtis succeeded in taking Helena, AR in July. The Battle of Pea Ridge was one of the few battles where Confederate troops possessed a significant numerical advantage over the Union.

Selected Sources

 

 

 

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