THE PEA RIDGE CAMPAIGN
Early in 1861 representatives from seven southern states met in
Montgomery, Alabama, and formed the Confederate States of America. In
the weeks that followed, United States military posts, arsenals, and
government buildings were seized all across the nascent Confederacy.
Arkansas remained in the Union during this unsettled period, but there
was widespread enthusiasm for secession. There also was widespread
concern that the United States government would attempt to reinforce the
state's two military posts, the Little Rock Arsenal and Fort Smith, to
prevent their seizure by secessionists.
GOVERNOR HENRY RECTOR (UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS AT LITTLE ROCK ARCHIVES)|
At the beginning of February the state was swept by rumors that
Federal troops were on their way up the Arkansas River to reinforce the
tiny garrison at the Little Rock Arsenal. About a thousand militiamen
rushed to the state capital to repel this imaginary force. Governor
Henry M. Rector, an ardent secessionist, saw an opportunity to push
Arkansas one step closer to leaving the Union. He assumed command of the
militia and called upon Captain James Totten to surrender the arsenal.
Totten was well aware that his company of Federal artillerymen could not
possibly hold off Rector's armed mob. He therefore agreed to
evacuatethough not to surrenderthe post in order "to avoid
the cause of civil war." A few days later the Federal garrison marched
down to the Arkansas River to the cheers of a huge crowd. The ladies of
Little Rock presented Captain Totten with a sword for his chivalric
behavior. The artillerymen then boarded a steamboat for St. Louis. After
suitable celebrations, the militiamen returned to their homes.
Rector waited until the outbreak of fighting at Fort Sumter, South
Carolina in April before dealing with Fort Smith, a supply depot on the
border between Arkansas and the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
He sent several hundred militiamen up the Arkansas River on steamboats
to seize the post, only to discover that the Federal garrisontwo
companies of cavalry commanded by Captain Samuel D. Sturgishad
evacuated the place and marched to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Without
firing a shot, Arkansans had rid the state of Federal military forces,
such as they were. On May 6, a special convention met at the State House
in Little Rock and voted in favor of secession. Shortly thereafter,
Arkansas joined the Confederacy along with three other slave states in
the upper south, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee.
CONFEDERATE ARTILLERY STAND GUARD AT PEA RIDGE NATIONAL MILITARY PARK.
(NPS PHOTO BY BOB NORRIS)|
Arkansas was the least populous and least developed state in the
Confederacy. With relatively few people and little in the way of natural
resources, it seemed unlikely that any significant military activity
would take place in what was essentially a frontier region.
Nevertheless, both the Arkansas and Confederate governments did what
they could to get the state onto a war footing. The Arkansas-Missouri
state line now was the border between the United States and the
Confederate States west of the Mississippi River, so it was essential
that military forces be stationed in northern Arkansas. Most regiments
raised in Arkansas were rushed eastward to Tennessee (one regiment even
ended up in Virginia at the opposite end of the Confederacy), but Rector
convinced Confederate authorities to keep some troops from Arkansas and
adjacent states at home to defend the huge area that came to be known as
Confederate soldiers massed in northeast and northwest Arkansas, the
two most likely points of invasion. Brigadier General William J. Hardee
commanded a force near Pocahontas, but within a few months he and his
men were transferred to the east side of the Mississippi River and never
returned. That left only one Confederate army in Arkansas, a force of
8,700 Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana troops at Fort Smith. The commander
of this army was Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch of Texas.
McCulloch, 50, was a veteran of the Texas Revolution, Mexican War,
and two decades of frontier service in the Texas Rangers. Though he
lacked a formal military education, he was an able administrator,
strategist, and tactician who took good care of his men. McCulloch's two
principal subordinates were Brigadier General James M. McIntosh and
Colonel Louis Hebért. Mcintosh, 34, graduated last in his class at West
Point and served for years on the frontier fighting Indians. Courageous
to a fault, he liked nothing better than plunging into a fight. McIntosh
was in charge of the army's mounted troops. Hebért, 41, was a highly
regarded West Point graduate and civilian engineer from Louisiana.
Capable and popular, Hebért commanded the infantry.
McCulloch knew that he could expect no help from the east side of the
Mississippi River if the Yankees made a move in his direction. His
isolated little army would have to fend for itself. To complicate
matters even more for McCulloch, the defense of Confederate Arkansas
depended on events in neighboring Missouri.
THE UNITED STATES ARSENAL AT LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS, FEBRUARY 1861.
(HARPER'S WEEKLY, MARCH 1861)|
The political and military situation in Missouri during the first
year of the Civil War was highly fluid and not a little confusing.
Missouri was a slave state, but only a small proportion of the state's
population owned slaves or advocated secession. Though pro-secessionist
forces were outnumbered, they had the initial advantage of dominating
the state government and the state militia, known as the Missouri State
The Missouri State Guard was commanded by Sterling Price, 53, a
popular politician who had served as a legislator, congressman, and
governor. Price had no formal military training but had performed
reasonably well in New Mexico during the Mexican War. Almost as soon as
the Civil War began, however, Price's shortcomings as a military leader
became evident. These included an abrasive and insubordinate
personality, a lack of administrative and tactical skills, and a
tendency to see the war entirely in terms of liberating Missouri from
Price's Missouri State Guard was the only true militia army of the
Civil War. The ragtag organization consisted of somewhere between 6,000
and 8,000 men, depending on season and circumstances, but it always was
seriously deficient in organization, training, and logistical
Price's Missouri State Guard was the only true militia army of the
Civil War. The ragtag organization consisted of somewhere between 6,000
and 8,000 men, depending on season and circumstances but it always was
seriously deficient in organization, training, and logistical support.
Volunteers came and went as they pleased and provided their own
clothing, camp equipment, and weapons. Discipline was lax to
The Union military commander in Missouri was Brigadier General
Nathaniel Lyon, a fiery regular soldier who was determined to rid the
state of the troublesome Rebels once and for all. During the spring and
early summer of 1861 Price and Lyon struggled for control of Missouri's
population centers and political institutions. A great deal of marching
and counter-marching was punctuated by small clashes at Boonville and
Carthage. By midsummer Lyon had forced the Missouri State Guard into the
southwest corner of the state and Union forces appeared to be on the
verge of a complete victory.
Price was in desperate straits and he called upon McCulloch for help.
This placed McCulloch in a difficult position because his mission was to
defend Confederate territory. But McCulloch recognized that the Missouri
State Guard played an important strategic role: it kept Missouri in
turmoil and served as a buffer between the Yankees and his own
Confederate army in Arkansas. McCulloch therefore edged into Missouri to
reinforce Price in his hour of need.
McCulloch's Confederate army and Price's Missouri State Guard settled
into camp along Wilson Creek a few miles south of Springfield. The
soldierswesterners allgot along well enough, but not the two
commanders. Price's personality quickly began to wear on McCulloch, who
had little patience with political windbags. The deteriorating
relationship between the generals was to have a significant impact on
Lyon was undeterred by news of McCulloch's movement into Missouri and
his juncture with Price. Despite being heavily outnumbered, he struck
the Rebel encampment along Wilson Creek on August 10, 1861. The Union
army had the initial advantage of surprise, but the weight of numbers
gradually turned the tide. At the close of the day Lyon was killed and
his little army was driven from the field. Among the Rebel guns that
contributed to the hard-fought victory at Wilson's Creek was the battery
Totten had abandoned at the Little Rock Arsenal six months earlier.
McCulloch was pleased at the outcome of Wilson's Creek but he was
uneasy at having entered Missouria foreign country from his
perspectivewithout instructions from the Confederate government.
McCulloch also realized that he could not long maintain his army atop
the Ozark Plateau so far north of his supply base at Fort Smith, and he
soon returned to northwest Arkansas. Another factor in his decision to
retire to Confederate soil was his exasperation with Price, whom he
privately disparaged as "nothing but an old militia general."
Exhilarated by the triumph at Wilson's Creek, Price marched north to
the Missouri River in hopes of igniting a popular uprising and filling
his ranks with new recruits. For Price the key to success was the region
in west-central Missouri known as "Little Dixie..."
In contrast to McCulloch, Price was a free agent unfettered by orders
from far-away Richmond or even nearby Jefferson City, which was firmly
in Union hands. There was no functioning Missouri state government at
this time and for all practical purposes Price was on his own.
Exhilarated by the triumph at Wilson's Creek, Price marched north to the
Missouri River in hopes of igniting a popular uprising and filling his
ranks with new recruits. For Price the key to success was the region in
west-central Missouri known as "Little Dixie," the strongly
pro-secessionist counties along the Missouri River between Jefferson
City and Kansas City.
After a two-day siege, the Missouri State Guard captured a small
Union garrison at Lexington on the south bank of the Missouri on
September 20. The Rebel victory threw a fright into Unionists all across
the state, but there was no discernible increase in the number of
volunteers for the State Guard. To make matters worse Price was unable
to sustain his command so far north and fell back to the Springfield
During the fall of 1861 Major General John C. Frémont assembled
another Union army and made a second attempt to crush the Missouri State
Guard, but he was relieved in mid-campaign by President Abraham Lincoln,
who was displeased with Frémont's political machinations and lack of
administrative ability. In November a secessionist rump of the Missouri
legislature declared the state to be a part of the Confederacy. The
legitimacy of this act was dubious, to say the least, but it was accepted
by Confederate authorities in Richmond and a twelfth star was added
to the Confederate flag.
During the winter of 1861-62 the military stalemate in Missouri
continued. During this period of reduced activity the Missouri State
Guard experienced a partial transformation. Confederate president
Jefferson Davis promised Price a major general's commission if he raised
a division of Missouri troops, so Price pressured his followers to join
the Confederate army. Price was especially keen about obtaining the
commission, as it would enable him to outrank McCulloch, whom he now
regarded as his personal nemesis. Unfortunately for Price, only about
half of the militiamen volunteered for Confederate service; the rest
either remained in the State Guard or packed up and returned home.
Several months would pass before the disgruntled Missouri leader finally
received his Confederate stars. During the Pea Ridge campaign, Price was
a major general of Missouri militia in command of a hybrid force of
Confederate and Missouri State Guard troops, a situation unique in
Confederate military annals.
As the new year of 1862 dawned, McCulloch's Confederate army was in
winter quarters in northwest Arkansas several days' march south of
Springfield. The infantry was in well-built and well-stocked cantonments
in and around Fayetteville, Bentonville, and Cross Hollows; the cavalry
and artillery were in the Arkansas River Valley, fifty miles to the
south, where the army's horses and mules enjoyed warmer temperatures and
adequate forage. McCulloch had achieved a small miracle in arming,
equipping, and supporting his troops on the western edge of the
Confederacy. He was confident that his army would be ready for action
when the next campaigning season arrived.
McCulloch did not expect any serious military activity atop the Ozark
Plateau until spring, so he traveled to Virginia to confer with
President Davis about the state of affairs in the Trans-Mississippi,
including his antagonistic relationship with Price. After several months
of increasingly bitter wrangling, the two generals no longer were on
speaking terms and their armies, less than one hundred miles apart,
continued to operate independently of one another. With Missouri now a
nominal Confederate state, with Price on the verge of becoming a
Confederate major general, and with the spring campaigning season
approaching, McCulloch believed the situation west of the Mississippi
River had to be cleared up as quickly as possible.
Davis dealt with the problem by creating the District of the
Trans-Mississippi, a vast area consisting of Missouri, Arkansas, north
Louisiana, and the Indian Territory. McCulloch was the obvious choice to
command the new district, but Davis refused to consider the Texan for
the position because he was not a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.
Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Davis firmly believed
that no one could master the art of high command without the benefit of
a formal military education. After unsuccessfully offering command of
the Trans-Mississippi to several West Pointers, including Braxton Bragg,
Davis finally settled on Major General Earl Van Dorn of Mississippi.
(click on image for a PDF version)
SOUTHWEST MISSOURI AND NORTHWEST ARKANSAS, JULY 1861 TO MARCH 1862|
During the first twelve months of the Civil War, military operations
in the Trans-Mississippi swirled back and forth between the Boston
Mountains and the Missouri River. Confederate victories at Carthage,
Wilson's Creek, and Lexington kept secessionist hopes alive in Missouri
through the end of 1861, but everything would change in the new
Van Dorn, 42, was a West Point graduate who had served with
distinction in Mexico and in the Indian wars on the Great Plains. His
principal qualification for command of the District of the
Trans-Mississippi, however, was his friendship with Davis. Van Dorn
hailed from Port Gibson, a town only twenty miles from Davis's
plantation on the Mississippi River, and the two men had known each
other for years. Davis had a tendency to appoint friends and
acquaintances to important posts, often without regard for
qualifications. Despite his background, Van Dorn proved to be a poor
choice for such an important assignment. Personally courageous, he also
was ambitious, impulsive, and reckless. And he was a ladies' man, a
fatal character flaw that led to his murder by an angry husband in
Van Dorn rushed westward from Virginia to his new post in Arkansas.
The new commander was extremely offensive-minded, something of a rarity
among generals of both sides in early 1862. He intended to recover
Missouri for the Confederacy at the first opportunity. Van Dorn reached
Little Rock in February, then moved to the northeast corner of Arkansas
and established a forward headquarters at Pocahontas, only twenty miles
south of the Arkansas-Missouri state line. It was both a symbolic and a
practical move. Symbolic because it reflected his intention to carry the
war to the Yankees, and practical because Pocahontas was a good
jumping-off point for an invasion of southeast Missouri on the most
direct route to St. Louis. When spring made operations atop the Ozark
Plateau feasible, Van Dorn planned to march north and strike the Yankees
a heavy blow. He provided his wife with a concise summary of his
strategic thinking: "I must have St. Louisthen Huzza!"
MAJOR GENERAL HENRY W. HALLECK (LC)|
Lincoln, meanwhile, solved his own command problems west of the
Mississippi River by appointing Major General Henry W. Halleck to
succeed Frémont as commander of the Department of the Missouri. Halleck,
47, was the prewar army's premier intellectual who was known, somewhat
derisively, as "Old Brains." Though he did not cut a dashing figure,
Halleck was an able administrator and strategist who was determined to
reassert Union control over Missouri. He grasped the fairly obvious fact
that every Union soldier standing on the defensive in Missouri to
counter Price was one less soldier who could be used in the offensive
campaigns he planned to launch on the Tennessee, Cumberland, and
Mississippi Rivers. Halleck is generally depicted as a cautious and
indecisive bureaucrat, but forces under his overall command landed a
series of powerful blows against the western Confederacy during the
first six months of 1862.
Halleck believed it was imperative that Union forces in Missouri
seize the initiative and neutralize Price at once rather than wait for
more suitable weather. He hoped that a winter campaign would catch the
Rebels off guard. On Christmas Day 1861, he placed Brigadier General
Samuel R. Curtis in command of the Army of the Southwest, a force of
about 12,000 men. Curtis's mission was straightforward: he was to
destroy Price's army or drive it out of Missouri.