Curtis, 56, was a West Point graduate who had resigned from the army
and prospered modestly as a civil engineer, attorney, businessman, and
politician in the Midwest. He served capably as military governor of
Matamoras, Camargo, Monterey, and Saltillo during the Mexican War but
saw no combat. A man of many interests, he helped found the Republican
Party and was instrumental in the establishment of the Union Pacific
Railroad. When the Civil War erupted he resigned his seat in the House
of Representatives and raised an infantry regiment in his adopted state
of Iowa. Union commander in chief Major General Winfield Scott
remembered Curtis from the Mexican War and supported his promotion to
brigadier general. Scott's faith in Curtis was not misplaced. Despite
limited military experience, Curtis proved to be the most successful
commander on either side in the Trans-Mississippi.
(click on image for a PDF version)
CURTIS DRIVES PRICE OUT OF MISSOURI, FEBRUARY 12 TO 17, 1862|
Price abandoned Springfield on February 12 and hurried south on
Telegraph Road toward Arkansas. Curtis pursued with half of his army,
while Sigel led the other half on an unsuccessful attempt to block
Price's retreat at McDowell. The second phase of the pursuit was marked
by increasingly intense clashes, culminating in the fight at Little
Sugar Creek (Dunagin's Farm).
Halleck was impatient with the see-saw nature of the war in Missouri.
Every Union setback encouraged the secessionists and demoralized the
loyalists. Another unsuccessful campaign would have repercussions far
outside Missouri by delaying vital operations along the Confederacy's
vulnerable western waterways. "We must have no failure in this movement
against Price," he cautioned Curtis. "It must be the last." On this
point the two Union generals were in perfect agreement.
ROLLA, MISSOURI, IN 1862, THE RAILHEAD AND PRINCIPAL SUPPLY DEPOT
FOR UNION OPERATIONS IN THE OZARKS. (NPS)|
Curtis hurried to the railhead at Rolla, one hundred miles southwest
of St. Louis, to begin preparations for the coming offensive. He had no
illusions about the difficulty of a winter campaign atop the Ozark
Plateau. The vast limestone uplift occupied the southern half of
Missouri and the northern half of Arkansas and was one of the most
rugged and sparsely settled regions in the country. To complicate
matters, every step toward Springfield would take Curtis farther away from
his supply base at Rolla.
Union armies in Virginia and Tennessee were largely transported
and supplied by steamboats and trains, but in Missouri and Arkansas
there were few navigable rivers and even fewer railroads.
Union armies in Virginia and Tennessee were largely transported and
supplied by steamboats and trains, but in Missouri and Arkansas there
were few navigable rivers and even fewer railroads. Atop the Ozark
Plateau there were none at all. The Army of the Southwest and its supply
wagons would have to proceed along primitive frontier roads, much as
American forces had done in northern Mexico fifteen years earlier.
Curtis stripped his command of unnecessary baggage, for he realized that
the Union troops would have to travel light and forage vigorously. He
requested an experienced quartermaster from the regular army and
obtained one in the person of Captain Philip H. Sheridan, a favorite of
Halleck's who would later go on to greater things.
In the process of organizing his embryonic army, Curtis encountered a
vexing ethnic problem. Roughly half of the troops in the gathering Army
of the Southwest were native-born Americans, generally of British stock,
who hailed from the small towns and prairie farms of the Midwest. The
other half were recently arrived immigrants, overwhelmingly from
Germany, who had settled in St. Louis and other urban centers along the
Mississippi River. No other Civil War army contained such a large
percentage of immigrants from a single ethnic group. The situation was
compounded by the presence of a high-ranking German-born officer:
Brigadier General Franz Sigel.
BRIGADIER GENERAL FRANZ SIGEL (USAMHI)|
Sigel, 38, was a graduate of Karlsruhe military academy in Germany,
but his performance during the first year of the Civil War in Missouri
had been uneven. Despite being defeated at Carthage and routed at
Wilson's Creek, Sigel believed that he deserved to lead the next
offensive against Price. Outraged when Curtis was appointed over him,
Sigel resigned in a huff. This caused a political flap because Sigel, an
early master of public relations, had made himself into a symbol of
German commitment to the Union cause. He had a devoted following among
the large German population in Missouri and elsewhere in the country.
Consequently, Halleck convinced Sigel to withdraw his resignation and
return to the Army of the Southwest. Ambitious, erratic, and
unprincipled, but not without genuine military talent, Sigel would play
a curious role in the coming campaign.
Curtis went out of his way to avoid antagonizing Sigel and the
thousands of other German and central European immigrants under his
command. He divided his army into four undersized divisions loosely
based on ethnic lines. Brigadier General Alexander S. Asboth (a native
of Hungary) and Colonel Peter J. Osterhaus (a native of Germany)
commanded the two "German" divisions, while Colonel Eugene A. Carr and
Colonel Jefferson C. Davis, representing Illinois and Indiana
respectively, led the two "American" divisions. Curtis named Sigel
second in command of the army (a meaningless honorific) and gave him
nominal supervision of the two "German" divisions. Curtis came to regret
the latter decision, but at the beginning of the campaign he had no
reason to doubt Sigel's competence.
On January 13, 1862, after two weeks of preparations, Curtis set the
campaign in motion. For the next four weeks the Army of the Southwest
struggled across the Ozark Plateau toward Springfield. Inexperience and
inclement weather caused delays and sometimes brought the long blue
column to a complete stop. Heavy snowstorms were followed by springlike
thaws. A disgusted Union soldier described the resulting situation as
"mud without mercy." After only a few days on the march it was clear to
everyone why armies avoided winter campaigns. Nevertheless, Curtis and
his troops persevered. As the weeks passed the pace quickened and the
Yankees closed in on Springfield.
MAJOR GENERAL STERLING PRICE (TEXAS STATE LIBRARY & ARCHIVES
As Halleck had hoped, Price was entirely unprepared for the
appearance of a Union army in southwest Missouri in the middle of
winter. He had neglected to fortify Springfield, and he rightly feared
that the approaching army outnumbered his own. After dithering for
several critical days, Price swallowed his pride and called upon
McCulloch for assistance. But McCulloch had not yet returned from
Virginia, and McIntosh and Hebért were reluctant to take any important
action without his approval, especially when it involved Price and
Missouri. Price waited for McCulloch or a miracle until the last
possible moment, then abandoned Springfield without a fight and
retreated south. If McCulloch would not join him in Missouri, he would
join McCulloch in Arkansas.
Much to Price's surprise, Curtis followed. Unlike many other
generals at this early stage of the war, Curtis understood that his
primary objective was the neutralization of the opposing army, not the
occupation of territory. After taking permanent possession of
Springfield, he hurried after Price, determined to bring him to battle
at the first opportunity. The result was a rare instance of a sustained
pursuit of one army by another in the Civil War.
For four days the two columns tramped south along Telegraph Road, a
primitive frontier highway that connected all of the major towns in
southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Sharp engagements flared
between the Confederate rear guard and the Union vanguard at Crane
Creek, Flat Creek, and Sugar Creek. The weather turned intensely cold,
and soldiers and animals in both armies endured snow, sleet, and
freezing rain. "I felt like I was dying, I was so chilled," recalled
Samuel McDaniel of the Missouri State Guard. "The snow was all over us,
and our clothes frozen on our bodies." As the grinding chase went on
through McDowell, Cassville, and Keetsville, the trail of Price's army
was marked by broken-down wagons, dead and dying horses and mules, and a
seemingly endless assortment of pots, desks, chairs, bedding, and
clothes. Hundreds of exhausted Rebels also were found along the
roadside. Curtis reported to Halleck that "more straggling prisoners are
being taken than I know what to do with."
Angry at being ignored and embarrassed at being ejected from
Missouri, Price allowed three critical days to pass before he informed
McIntosh and Hebért that he was headed in their direction with a Yankee
army on his heels. When a courier from Price finally arrived in
northwest Arkansas with the astounding news, Confederate cantonments
from Bentonville to Fort Smith exploded into frantic activity as
McCulloch's troops scrambled to prepare for a Union invasion.
The hard-pressed Missourians hurried across the state line into
Arkansas on February 16. No one realized it at the time, but when Price
led his soldiers out of Missouri the Confederacy suffered an
irreversible strategic defeat. Never again would a Confederate military
force return to Missouri with any intention or realistic chance of
staying. From that day forward, Missouri's star was effectively returned
to the United States flag.
THE BUTTERFIELD OVERLAND MAIL AND ELKHORN TAVERN
In 1858 Congress authorized the establishment of an overland mail
service between St. Louis and San Francisco. The $600,000 contract went
to John Butterfield, who established the short-lived but remarkable
operation that bears his name. For three years Butterfield Overland Mail
stagecoaches carried mail and passengers across some of the most
difficult and desolate territory on the continent. Shortly after
Butterfield began operations, a telegraph line was strung between
Springfield, Missouri, and Van Buren, Arkansas, giving the rugged Ozark
portion of the Overland Mail route its common name, Telegraph (or Wire)
Road. The Civil War brought an end to the Butterfield enterprise, but
not before it kindled the national imagination and spurred economic
growth on the southwest frontier.
Elkhorn Tavern was one of several well-known establishments along
Telegraph Road. The prominent two-story log structure, built around
1840, was located at a busy crossroads and served as a community center
of sorts. It was not an official Overland Mail station, but westbound
coaches often stopped at the tavern after the difficult ascent from
Cross Timber Hollow in order to rest the horses and allow drivers and
passengers to obtain food and beverages. But in spite of its name and
variegated functions, Elkhorn Tavern was primarily a residence, the home
of the Cox family, among the more prosperous inhabitants of the
hardscrabble highland area known as Pea Ridge.
Elkhorn Tavern was in the thick of the fighting on March 7-8, 1862.
Jesse Cox was away on business in Kansas selling cattle to the Union
army, but his wife, Polly, along with their three youngest sons and a
daughter-in-law, huddled in the cellar during the battle. The family
survived unscathed, but the tavern, outbuildings, and fences suffered
extensively. Confederate commanders Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price
spent the night of March 7 in the orchard in the north yard. The
building was filled with gravely wounded soldiers of both sides during
the battle and continued to serve as a hospital for weeks afterward.
Union forces returned to northwest Arkansas during the Prairie Grove
campaign in October 1862. The 1st Arkansas Cavalry (Union) was stationed
at Elkhorn Tavern to guard the Union supply line back to Springfield.
When the "Mountain Feds" departed early in 1863, local pro-Confederate
bushwhackers burned the building. The loss of their home was a heavy
blow to the Cox family, but Joseph Cox, son of Jesse and Polly, rebuilt
the tavern on the original foundations in 1865. It remained in the Cox
family until the establishment of Pea Ridge National Military Park in
THE SECOND OR POSTWAR TAVERN, BUILT ON THE ORIGINAL FOUNDATIONS, CLOSELY
RESEMBLED THE WARTIME STRUCTURE. (THE WESTERN HISTORY COLLECTION,
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA)|
The next day, February 17, the Army of the Southwest followed. In
crossing the state line Curtis not only entered Arkansas, he also
invaded the Confederacy. Union bands played patriotic and popular tunes,
including, appropriately enough, "The Arkansas Traveler." Curtis
congratulated his cheering men for being the first Union soldiers to set
foot on the "virgin soil" of Arkansas. "Such yelling and whooping, it
was glorious," Major John C. Black of the 37th Illinois informed his
mother. Exhilarated by the unexpected success of his campaign, Curtis
sent a triumphant message to Halleck in St. Louis: "The flag of our
Union again floats in Arkansas."
CITY AND POST OF FORT SMITH, ARKANSAS (HARPER'S WEEKLY)|
Forgotten in all the excitement was the fact that the purpose of the
Union operation was to enable Halleck to invade the Confederacy hundreds
of miles to the east. Neither Halleck nor Curtis had anticipated that a
limited campaign designed to neutralize Price would take the Union army
out of Missouri and into Arkansas. As sometimes happens with military
operations, Curtis's southward surge into Rebeldom had taken on a life
of its own.
Later that day, about five miles south of the Arkansas-Missouri state
line, Curtis and his men climbed a steep hill and marched past an
establishment named Elkhorn Tavern. The building was located on the
northern edge of a broad tableland known locally as Pea Ridge. Few if
any of the Union soldiers gave the place a second thought, though within
three weeks many of them would be fighting for their lives in the shadow
of the two-story hostelry.
About four miles south of Elkhorn Tavern, on the south side of Little
Sugar Creek, the horsemen in the van of the Union column encountered a
strong line of infantry, cavalry, and artillery blocking Telegraph Road.
For the first time since fleeing Springfield, the Rebels appeared to be
making a stand. The reason for the unexpected shift in tactics was not a
change of heart on Price's part, but the arrival of Confederate troops
from McCulloch's army under the command of Hebért. Hurrying north from
Cross Hollows, fresh Arkansas and Louisiana soldiers met the bedraggled
Missourians trudging south. At Price's request, Hébert deployed
his men across the road on James Dunagin's modest farm after the
Missourians had passed. He intended to halt or at least slow the
oncoming Union force in order to allow Price to reach Cross Hollows, a
dozen miles to the south.
MAJOR JOHN C. BLACK, 37TH ILLINOIS (ILLINOIS STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY)|
COLONEL LOUIS HÉBERT (LC)|
Curtis was undeterred by the sight of the enemy line of battle and
sent his column rushing ahead. He expected the Rebels to follow their
usual pattern of making a brief stand and then resuming the retreat.
Curtis did not realize that he was facing a portion of McCulloch's army.
After an initial clash in which a Union cavalry thrust was repulsed, the
two sides blasted away at each other with artillery until sunset. The
Confederates withdrew in the gathering darkness just as Union infantry
began to arrive in force. The fight at Little Sugar Creek (or Dunagin's
farm) on February 17 was the first significant clash on Arkansas soil
and the first time McCulloch's troops had been in action since Wilson's
Creek six months earlier. It cost the lives of thirteen Union soldiers
and perhaps twenty-six Confederates.
After Little Sugar Creek, Price continued his headlong flight down
Telegraph Road to Cross Hollows, with Hebért bringing up the rear. Cross
Hollows was the principal Confederate cantonment in northwest Arkansas.
There, at last, Price's cold and weary soldiers joined the main body of
Curtis did not pursue. He camped for two days in the valley of Little
Sugar Creek to allow his exhausted men and animals to rest and
recuperate. He studied the local terrain and took careful note of the
limestone bluffs that run along the north side of Little Sugar Creek
valley and form the southern edge of the Pea Ridge tableland. The bluffs
struck Curtis as an excellent defensive position should the Confederates
ever launch a counterattack against his isolated army.
While keeping Little Sugar Creek in mind as a potential defensive
bastion, Curtis nonetheless was determined to maintain the pressure on
Price and McCulloch. Excited local Unionists flocked to his camp and
provided him with information about roads and the Confederate cantonment
at Cross Hollows. Curtis decided not to advance directly toward Cross
Hollows on Telegraph Road but to swing around to the west by way of
Bentonville so as to compel Price and McCulloch to retreat or be cut
ELKHORN TAVERN AS RESTORED BY THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE. THE BUILDING
FACES TELEGRAPH ROAD. (NPS PHOTO BY BOB NORRIS)|
On February 18 Curtis sent Brigadier General Alexander S. Asboth on a
reconnaissance in force to Bentonville, southwest of Little Sugar
Creek. Asboth, 50, a former Hungarian officer, was the weakest of
Curtis's four division commanders, but he was brave and dashing and
proved to be a competent cavalry leader. When he reported that the
rolling terrain west of Cross Hollows was clear of enemy soldiers,
Curtis prepared to move his command in that direction.
Curtis did not know that the Confederates already were abandoning
Cross Hollows. Returning from Virginia, McCulloch reached Cross Hollows
only a few hours after the fight at Little Sugar Creek. He received a
tumultuous welcome from his troops, who cheered and tossed their hats in
the air at the sight of their long-absent commander. As he passed each
regiment the laconic Texan said simply: "Men, I am glad to see you!"
When he reached his headquarters and conferred with McIntosh and
Hebért, McCulloch was shocked to learn of Price's headlong flight from
Missouri and the presence of a Union army on Arkansas soil, only a few
miles to the north at Little Sugar Creek. McCulloch had laid out the
cantonment at Cross Hollows, and he knew that the position was
untenable. It was a large, sheltered camp with plenty of wood and water,
but it was not a defensive strongpoint. The Yankees could simply
march around to the west of Cross Hollows and trap the Arkansas and
Missouri armies against the White River, which flowed past the east side
of the cantonment. (This was precisely what Curtis had in mind.) It was
obvious to McCulloch that the Confederates had to fall back deeper into
Arkansas in order to gain time and room to maneuver. Price, mercurial
and contrary as ever, would have none of it. After retreating for five
days, he inexplicably insisted on making a stand at Cross Hollows
despite the unfavorable ground. Most of his subordinates, however, sided
with McCulloch, Price finally capitulated.
BRIGADIER GENERAL ALEXANDER S. ASBOTH (USAMHI)|
BRIGADIER GENERAL JAMES McINTOSH (BL)|
And so the retreat resumed on February 19. Confederate and Missouri
State Guard soldiers burned the complex of barracks, storehouses, and
mills in Cross Hollows and trudged south on Telegraph Road to Mudtown in
miserably cold weather. The next day they reached Fayetteville, the
principal town in northwest Arkansas. Fayetteville was a major supply
depot, but McCulloch had no way to remove the tons of food, ammunition,
and equipment stored in the town. Because Price had tumbled into
Arkansas without any warning, the Confederate supply system was
unprepared for the emergency. The army's teams and wagons were still
fifty miles to the south in the Arkansas River Valley.
McCulloch was unwilling to permit so much valuable material to fall
into enemy hands, so he made everything in Fayetteville available to the
troops. As the men marched through the center of town they were
permitted to break ranks and grab what they could. A soldier in the 2nd
Missouri named I. V. Smith noted that "nearly every man in the regiment
got a ham or a shoulder or a side of bacon, ran his bayonet through them
and carried it in to camp." He added that "it was a novel sight to see
so much meat on the march." Unfortunately, the disorganized method of
distribution quickly degenerated into looting and vandalism. Soldiers
rushed down side streets and ransacked homes, businesses, and even
churches. McCulloch made no effort to restore order. A disgusted
Confederate officer called the sack of Fayetteville "one of the most
disgraceful scenes that I ever saw."
The situation grew even worse the next day when McCulloch ordered all
remaining supplies in Fayetteville destroyed. Buildings filled with
combustibles, including tons of ammunition, were set afire with no
thought given to the consequences. The resulting explosions destroyed
several city blocks in the middle of town. As a result of McCulloch's
incendiary tendencies, Fayetteville gained the distinction of being one
of the first southern townsbut far from the lastto feel the
hard hand of war.
Burdened with food, clothing, jewelry, toys, and even furniture, the
Confederates staggered south another seventeen miles on Telegraph Road.
They finally halted near Strickler's Station in the Boston Mountains,
the rugged southern escarpment of the Ozark Plateau. McCulloch's army
camped along Telegraph Road; Price's army bivouacked just to the west
along Cove Creek Road. The long retreat from Springfield that had begun
ten days and 120 miles earlier was over.
FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS (BL)|
Word soon reached Curtis that the Confederates had abandoned Cross
Hollows and Fayetteville and fallen back into the Boston Mountains.
Curtis paused to consider the strategic situation. He now faced the two
largest Confederate armies west of the Mississippi River, the same
combined force that had overwhelmed Lyon at Wilson's Creek six months
earlier. Curtis correctly concluded that the Rebels outnumbered his own
small command by a substantial margin. Indeed, the Army of the Southwest
was not only small, it was getting smaller. Attrition caused by hard
marching and the need to garrison Springfield and other vital points
along the long line of communication stretching all the way back to
Rolla had cost the Union army nearly one-fifth of its original manpower.
Curtis had slightly more than 10,000 men under his immediate
command in Arkansas. Moreover, he was over two hundred miles south of
the railhead at Rolla and, despite Quartermaster Sheridan's best
efforts, his supply situation was critical. Foraging was relatively
unproductive because northwest Arkansas had been drained of foodstuffs
by the Confederates for nearly a year. "It looks like starving if we do
not save rations," ominously noted Surgeon George Gordon of the 18th
After mulling over his other options, Curtis decided that he could
best shield Missouri by holding his position in northwest Arkansas. He
dispatched cavalry raids in various directions to gather information and
keep the Confederates off balance. The largest of these operations,
another reconnaissance in force led by Asboth, occupied what was left of
Fayetteville on February 22-26. Despite the presence of Unionist
citizens who hailed Asboth as a deliverer, Curtis concluded that he
could not hold Fayetteville because it was too close to the Rebel armies
lurking a few miles away in the Boston Mountains.
To facilitate foraging as much as possible, Curtis took a calculated
risk and divided his forces. He stationed his two "American" divisions
in Cross Hollows under his personal command and placed the two "German"
divisions under Sigel's command along McKissick's Creek, a short
distance west of Bentonville. Despite this demonstration of trust in his
second in command, Curtis was having serious doubts about Sigel's
capacity for high command. During the pursuit from Springfield Sigel's
behavior ranged from insubordinate to inexplicable. Unable to remove or
demote his principal subordinate for fear of triggering another
political uproar, Curtis had little choice but to continue to allow him
a certain amount of autonomy and hope for the best.
CAPTAIN PHILIP H. SHERIDAN, QUARTERMASTER OF THE ARMY OF THE SOUTHWEST.
Curtis scattered smaller outposts across the countryside to monitor
enemy activities. Cross Hollows and McKissick's Creek were about fifteen
miles apart, and each was about a dozen miles from Little Sugar Creek.
If the Confederates came storming out of the Boston Mountains, Curtis
planned for the Army of the Southwest to reunite atop the limestone
bluffs at Little Sugar Creek and make a defensive stand.
Despite his isolated position and his precarious logistical
situation, Curtis was determined to stand firm in Arkansas and prevent
Price from returning to his old mischief in Missouri. He telegraphed
Halleck: "Shall be on the alert, holding as securely as possible." What
happened next would be up to the Confederates.
Van Dorn was at his headquarters in Pocahontas when he learned of
Price's flight from Springfield and the disastrous series of events that
followed. He abandoned his plans for an invasion of Missouri from
northeast Arkansas and set out immediately on an nine-day journey across
central Arkansas to take personal command of the two Confederate armies
in the Boston Mountains. Along the way he fell into an icy river and
became ill. When he finally reached Van Buren in an ambulancea
less than dashing form of transportation for a cavalrymanhe was
handed a telegram from McCulloch at Strickler's Station. "I have ordered
the command to be ready to march as soon as you arrive," wrote the
Texan. "We await your arrival anxiously. We now have force enough to
whip the enemy." Van Dorn responded in the same vein: "I thank you for
anticipating me in regard to getting in readiness to move forward. We
must do it without delay." In addition to suffering from a fever, Van
Dorn now was burning with anticipation as well.