Battle of Pea Ridge

History -- Military History -- List of battles

The Battle of Pea Ridge was a land battle of the American Civil War which occurred on 7 March 1862 in northwest Arkansas and essentially cemented Union control of Missouri. This battle is also known as The Battle of Elkhorn Tavern.

Table of contents
1 Strategic Situation
2 Movement to Battle
3 The Battle
4 Aftermath

Strategic Situation

Union Situation

Union forces in Missouri, during the latter part of 1861 and early 1862, had effectively pushed Confederate forces out of Missouri. By the spring of 1862 Union Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis determined to pursue the Confederates back into Arkansas with his Army of the Southwest.

Curtis moved his approximately 10,250 Union soldiers and 50 artillery pieces into Benton County, Arkansas along a small stream called Sugar Creek. Union forces consisted primarily of soldiers from Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio. Over half of the Federal army were German immigrants.

Curtis found an excellent defensive position on the north side of the creek and proceeded to fortify it and place artillery for an expected Confederate assault from the south.

Confederate Situation

Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn had been appointed overall commander of the Trans-Mississippi District to quell a simmering conflict between competing generals Sterling Price of Missouri and Benjamin McCulloch of Texas. Van Dorn's Army of the West totalled approximately 16,000 men including 800 Cherokee Indian troops, Price's Missouri State Guard, Texas Rangers, and regular Confederate troops from Arkansas and Louisiana.

Van Dorn was aware of the Union movements into Arkansas and was intent on destroying Curtis's Army of the Southwest and reopening the gateway into Missouri.

Movement to Battle

General Van Dorn did not wish to attack Curtis's entrenched position head on. On 4 March he split his army into two divisions under Price and McCulloch and ordered them to march north along the Bentonville Detour with the hopes of getting behind Curtis and cutting off his lines of communication. Van Dorn left his supply trains behind in order to make better speed, a decision which would later prove to be a crucial one.

The Confederates made an arduous three day forced march down the Bentonville Cutoff from Fayetteville in the midst of a freezing storm. Many of the Confederate soldiers were ill-equipped and barefoot and it was said that you could find the army by following the bloody footprints in the snow. The Confederates arrived at their destination strung out along the road, hungry, and tired.

Compounding the Confederate problems was the late arrival of McCulloch which led Van Dorn to split his forces in two. Van Dorn ordered McCulloch to circle around the western end of Pea Ridge, turn east along the south face and meet Price's division at Elkhorn Tavern. Van Dorn and Price would travel east along the north face of the ridge, secure Elkhorn Tavern, and wait for McCulloch.

These delays allowed Curtis to begin repositioning his Army to meet the unexpected attack from his rear and get his forces between the two wings of Van Dorn's forces.

The Battle

The Left Wing

McCulloch's troops consisted of Confederate troops under General James McIntosh and two divisions of
Cherokee Indians under Brigadier General Albert Pike. McCulloch's troops swung westward around Pea Ridge and plowed into elements of the Federal Army at a small village named Leetown where a fierce firefight erupted.

McCulloch and McIntosh were killed in action soon after the clash begin and Colonel Louis Hebert was captured completely. These events effectively shattered the command structure and the Confederates were unable to organize an effective attack in the resulting chaos.

The Right Wing

On the other side of Pea Ridge Van Dorn and Price encountered the Federals near Elkhorn Tavern. Van Dorn ordered an attack and by nightfall the Confederates succeeded in pushing the Union forces back. They seized the Telegraph and Huntsville Roads and succeeded in cutting Curtis's lines of communication at Elkhorn Tavern. The survivors from McCulloch's command joined Van Dorn at the Tavern during the night.

Federal Counterattack

On the morning of 8 March Curtis massed his artillery near the Tavern and launched a counterattack in an attempt to recover his supply lines. The massed artillery combined with cavalry and infantry attacks began to crumple the Confederate lines. By noon Van Dorn realized that he was low on ammunition and that his supply trains were miles away with no hope of arriving in time to resupply his men. Despite outnumbering his opponent, Van Dorn had no choice but to withdraw down the Huntsville Road.

Aftermath

Approximately 4,600 Confederates fell in battle at Pea Ridge including a large number of officers. Federal forces suffered approximately 1,400 casualties.

With the defeat at Pea Ridge the Confederates never again seriously threatened the state of Missouri. Within weeks Van Dorn's army would be transferred across the Mississippi River to bolster the Army of Tennessee leaving Arkansas virtually defenseless.

With his victory, Curtis proceeded to move farther into undefended Arkansas with the hope of capturing Little Rock.

The battlefield at Pea Ridge is now Pea Ridge National Military Park located near the town of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. The park is known as one of the best preserved Civil War battlefields. A reconstruction of Elkhorn Tavern, scene of the heaviest fighting, is present at its original location. The park also includes a two and one half mile section of the Trail of Tears.


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