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Civil War Series

The Campaign for Pea Ridge

   

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.


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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 COMMISSION)

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 1962.

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 McCulloch's army.

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 off.

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 towns—but far from the last—to 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 Indiana.

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. (LC)

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 ambulance—a less than dashing form of transportation for a cavalryman—he 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.

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