National Park Service black bar with arrowhead logo
NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Pea Ridge

   

The eight-mile march on Bentonville Detour during the night of March 6 was a terrible experience for the Army of the West. The snow had stopped, but the temperature was even colder than the night before. The shivering column shuffled along at a snail's pace, delayed for hours by confusion, weariness, and frigid streams. Then, just past Twelve Corner Church, the Confederates reached the first barricade of trees that Dodge's woodcutters had felled only a few hours earlier. The column halted as the Missourians in the van struggled to clear the road with only a handful of axes. After two hours the advance began again, only to encounter a second tangle of trees before dawn. Another halt and another two hours lost.

Van Dorn's numerical superiority continued to erode as men dropped out of the ranks in droves. "Every half mile I saw the Infantry in squads of fifty and sixty, and even more lieing on the roadside, asleep, and overcome with hunger and fatigue," wrote Major Lawrence S. Ross of the 6th Texas Cavalry. Other Confederate officers reported that up to one-third of their men fell by the wayside during the seemingly endless night march. At dawn on March 7, the shrinking Army of the West was strung out for eight miles. Price's division had reached Telegraph Road, but Pike's tiny Indian brigade at the tail of the column was still in Little Sugar Creek valley.


(click on image for a PDF version)
VAN DORN ENCIRCLES CURTIS, NIGHT MARCH 6 TO MORNING, MARCH 7, 1862
During the night of March 6-7, Van Dorn marched around Curtis's right flank on the Bentonville Detour. The next morning, Van Dorn and Price turned south on Telegraph Road. McCulloch and Pike branched off at Twelve Corner Church and moved east on Ford Road. Curtis sent Osterhaus and Carr to block the Confederates. Most of the Union army remained in the Little Sugar Creek fortifications.

Despite the loss of manpower and the even more critical loss of time, Van Dorn was elated at the apparent success of his last-minute maneuver to envelop Curtis. He had achieved what every commander dreamed about: his army was squarely across the enemy's line of communications. Still not fully recovered from his illness, Van Dorn emerged from his ambulance, swaddled in heavy clothing, and mounted his horse. It was the supreme moment of his career.

Though a victory of Napoleonic proportions seemed to be at hand, Van Dorn was concerned about the attenuated disposition of the Army of the West. It would be midafternoon before the trailing portion of the long, long column reached Telegraph Road and late afternoon before it arrived at Elkhorn Tavern. Casting about for some way to hasten the concentration of his forces, Van Dorn learned of a lane called Ford Road that connected Bentonville Detour at Twelve Corner Church with Telegraph Road near Elkhorn Tavern. He now made a decision that seemed sound but was to prove controversial and costly.

THE SANDSTONE PROMONTORY ATOP BIG MOUNTAIN PROVIDES A SUPERB VIEW OF THE ROLLING PEA RIDGE PLATEAU. THE VIEW IS TO THE SOUTHWEST WITH LITTLE MOUNTAIN VISIBLE ON THE FAR RIGHT. (NPS PHOTO BY BOB NORRIS)

Price's division, as planned, would proceed south on Telegraph Road around the east side of a rugged, wooded ridge called Big Mountain. McCulloch's division and Pike's brigade, several miles back on Bentonville Detour, would turn south onto Ford Road and march around the west and south sides of Big Mountain. The Ford Road shortcut would save the Confederates both miles and hours. If all went well, the two halves of the Army of the West would reunite around midday near Elkhorn Tavern atop the rolling expanse of Pea Ridge. There the Confederates would deploy for battle and advance upon the unsuspecting Federals with plenty of daylight remaining. Van Dorn had no qualms about dividing his army in the presence of the enemy because he believed the Union army was still occupying the fortifications at Little Sugar Creek, expecting an attack from the south.

That was not the case, Union patrols detected the Confederate movement before dawn on March 7. Curtis received reports of enemy forces on Bentonville Detour near Twelve Corner Church and on Telegraph Road north of Elkhorn Tavern. Curtis was taken aback by the reports. He had expected Van Dorn to spend some time probing the Little Sugar Creek fortifications before making any offensive moves. Methodical by nature, Curtis had difficulty grasping the bold, even reckless, mentality of his opponent. He incorrectly concluded that the presence of Confederate troops to the north was a diversion and that the primary threat still lay to the south along Little Sugar Creek.

Nevertheless, Curtis could not permit even a diversionary enemy force to rampage around in his rear. The broad fields south of Elkhorn Tavern, about two miles north of the Union fortifications, were crowded with hundreds of irreplaceable supply wagons, the vital link between the Army of the Southwest and the railhead at Rolla. Curtis decided to keep about two thirds of his army at Little Sugar Creek and send the other one-third north to intercept the approaching Confederate columns and keep them away from his trains.

Around midmorning on March 7, Curtis directed Colonel Peter J. Osterhaus to withdraw one brigade of his division from the Little Sugar Creek fortifications and head toward the Confederate force reported to be near Twelve Corner Church. A steady and reliable officer, Osterhaus, 39, was a good choice for such an independent assignment. Osterhaus unknowingly was seeking McCulloch's column, which had turned off Bentonville Detour at Twelve Corner Church and was moving around the west side of Big Mountain on Ford Road. Osterhaus rode ahead of his infantry in order to familiarize himself with the countryside atop Pea Ridge. He was accompanied by Colonel Cyrus Bussey and a small cavalry force. Bussey's command consisted of detachments from the 1st, 4th, and 5th Missouri Cavalry and the 3rd Iowa Cavalry—perhaps six hundred men—and three guns from the 1st Missouri Flying Artillery.


(click on image for a PDF version)
THE BATTLE OF LEETOWN BEGINS, LATE MORNING MARCH 7, 1862
As McCulloch marched east on Ford Road, Osterhaus approached from the south and attacked. McIntosh and Pike counterattacked and routed Bussey's small cavalry force on Foster's Farm, but Osterhaus's main line in Oberson's Field held fast. McCulloch and Mcintosh were killed in the belt of trees, throwing the Confederates into disarray. Meanwhile, Davis arrived from Little Sugar Creek.

Around one o'clock the Union advance party clattered through the hamlet of Leetown, passed by Samuel Oberson's large cornfield, and entered a belt of trees. When Osterhaus emerged from the trees onto Wiley Foster's farm, he came to an abrupt halt. Directly in front of him was McCulloch's entire division advancing in a massive formation six regiments wide with flags flying and weapons gleaming in the midday sun. The Confederates had turned the corner of Big Mountain and were plodding eastward on and alongside Ford Road.

Osterhaus was shocked by the sight of so many Rebels. This was not the modest-sized diversionary force he had expected to encounter. It appeared that he had stumbled upon half of the Confederate army! Then he realized that the massive enemy formation was heading directly toward the Union army's trains near Elkhorn Tavern, only two miles to the east. "Notwithstanding my command was entirely inadequate to the overwhelming masses opposed to me," he reported without exaggeration, "I could not hesitate in my course of action." Osterhaus directed Bussey to unlimber his three guns and fire on the tightly packed Confederate formation. The opening shots of the fight at Leetown struck down dozens of Rebel cavalrymen.

COLONEL PETER J. OSTERHAUS (BL)

Now it was McCulloch's turn to be surprised. Like Van Dorn, he believed the Union forces were still in their fortifications at Little Sugar Creek awaiting an attack from the south. He was looking forward, both literally and figuratively, to meeting Van Dorn and Price at Elkhorn Tavern, which lay directly ahead. The last thing he expected was an attack from his right rear.

After a few minutes of confusion in the Confederate ranks, McCulloch sent McIntosh and his 3,000 cavalrymen sweeping across Foster's wheat field toward Osterhaus's position in one of the Civil War's most colorful cavalry charges. Shrieking the Comanche war whoop and brandishing carbines, shotguns, pistols, sabers, Bowie knives, and hatchets, troopers of the 6th, 9th, and 11th Texas Cavalry, 1st Texas Cavalry Battalion, and 1st Arkansas Cavalry Battalion overwhelmed the small Union advance party. "In every direction I could see my comrades falling," recalled Henry Dysart of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry. "Horses frencied and riderless, ran to and fro. Men and horses ran in collision crushing each other to the ground. Dismounted troopers ran in every direction. Officers tried to rally their men but order gave way to confusion. The scene baffles description." The Confederates scattered the Union cavalry and captured the three guns.

MCINTOSH'S CAVALRY BRIGADE SWEPT ACROSS WILEY FOSTER'S FIELDS TOWARD THE BELT OF TREES IN THE BACKGROUND TO OPEN THE FIGHTING AT LEETOWN. THE CONFEDERATES OVERWHELMED BUSSEY'S SMALL UNION DETACHMENT, WHICH WAS DEPLOYED NEAR THE RIGHT EDGE OF THIS PHOTOGRAPH. (NPS PHOTO BY BOB NORRIS)

A few hundred yards to the west, Pike conformed to McIntosh's movements by ordering his Indians to attack as well. The 1st and 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles, some on horseback, others on foot, picked their way through a patch of woods and drove off two isolated companies of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry. Because of a popular but wildly inaccurate Currier and Ives print, there is a persistent myth that the Cherokees took part in McIntosh's massed cavalry charge and that they were dressed in war bonnets and other inappropriate Plains Indian regalia. In fact, the Indians fought on their own in the woods bordering the west side of Foster's farm. Some sported colorful turbans and other items of traditional Cherokee war dress, but for the most part they wore the same mix of store-bought and homespun clothing as did practically every other southerner in the Army of the West. (Only the men of the 3rd Louisiana and 1st Missouri Brigade had uniforms.) The modest Cherokee contribution to the Confederate effort at Pea Ridge was tarnished when a handful of Indians murdered, scalped, and mutilated eight fallen Iowa soldiers.


Immensely relieved, Osterhaus informed Curtis that Greusel's troops "had stood without flinching" despite the temptation to flee. It was a critical moment in the developing battle. Instead of an easy victory, McCulloch would have a fight on his hands.

Survivors of the Union advance party fell back through the belt of trees and raced across Oberson's cornfield. The Yankee cavalrymen thundered past Colonel Nicholas Greusel's infantry brigade which was just entering the field. "It was one of the most wild and exciting scenes that I have ever beheld," recalled Charles B. Stiles of the 36th Illinois. As the horsemen sped past the gaping infantrymen some of them shouted: "Turn back! Turn back! They'll give you hell!"

For a moment the blue ranks wavered, then Greusel shouted: "Officers and men, you have it in your power to make or prevent another Bull Run affair. I want every man to stand to his post." The reference to the shameful debacle outside Washington only seven months earlier did the trick. The rattled infantrymen settled down and resumed their deployment. When Osterhaus arrived a few moments later he found Greusel calmly supervising the formation of a line of battle on the south side of Oberson's field. Immensely relieved, Osterhaus informed Curtis that Greusel's troops "had stood without flinching" despite the temptation to flee. It was a critical moment in the developing battle. Instead of an easy victory, McCulloch would have a fight on his hands.

Osterhaus sent a message to Curtis stating that he had engaged a large enemy force north of Leetown and urgently needed reinforcements. At this stage of the battle the Union force at Leetown consisted of only the 36th Illinois, 12th Missouri, and 22nd Indiana—fewer than 1,600 men—supported by the 4th Ohio Battery and the Independent Missouri Battery. Bussey's cavalrymen were in such disarray that they would not be of much help for some time. McCulloch's powerful force had been weakened by straggling but probably still consisted of about 7,000 men and four batteries of artillery, more than enough to sweep aside the Union command if properly handled. Osterhaus had no illusions about his ability to repel a full-scale attack. His only hope was to hold out until reinforcements arrived.

COLONEL CYRUS BUSSEY (USAMHI)

Greusel was equally anxious. Casting about for some way to buy time, he ordered his artillery to fire in the general direction of the enemy. Though the Confederates were out of sight on the north side of the belt of trees that separated the Foster and Oberson farms, Greusel hoped a rain of shells would cause disorder in the Confederate ranks and interrupt preparations for an assault.

Though Greusel did not know it, the Confederate ranks were in considerable disorder even before he gave his gunners permission to open fire. Thousands of exhilarated Rebel cavalrymen milled around on Foster's farm, gawking at dead and wounded Yankees and telling each other of their exploits during the charge. The bedlam worsened when hundreds of Cherokees rushed up and joined the celebration around the three captured guns. According to one amazed Confederate officer, "the Indians swarmed around the guns like bees, in great confusion, jabbering and yelling at a furious rate." Pike reported that the Cherokees were "in the utmost confusion, all talking, riding this way and that, and listening to no orders from anyone," including him. Annoyed at the breakdown of discipline, McCulloch went to work to restore order and reform his mounted units.

NO PHOTOGRAPHER OR ARTIST WAS PRESENT AT PEA RIDGE, SO NEWSPAPERS REPRESENTED THE BATTLE WITH GENERIC SCENES OF SOLDIERS FIGHTING IN THE WOODS. (NPS COLLECTION)

At that moment the first salvo of Union shells shrieked over the belt of trees and landed on Foster's farm. The Indians had never experienced artillery fire before and were terrified by the explosions that seemed to come out of nowhere. They fled from the field and played only a marginal role in the remainder of the battle. The barrage scattered many of the other Confederates as well and convinced McCulloch that he could not push on to Elkhorn Tavern and leave such a substantial enemy force in his rear. He made the critical decision to halt his eastward movement toward Telegraph Road and deploy his entire division to the south against Osterhaus. Tired and distracted by the chaotic state of affairs on Foster's farm, McCulloch failed to inform Van Dorn of his decision, which meant that the reunion of the two wings of the Army of the West at Elkhorn Tavern would be delayed for several hours at least. The fight at Leetown—the western half of the two-part battle of Pea Ridge—was unfolding.

Previous Top Next


 

History and Culture