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Civil War Series

The Campaign for Pea Ridge

   

Despite the temporary disarray in his ranks, McCulloch was confident of success as he prepared for a general assault against Osterhaus's short blue line on the south side of Oberson's field. "In one hour they will be ours," he remarked to an aide. Hébert's infantry formed a line of battle straddling Leetown Road. Because the formation was too long and unwieldy for Hébert to oversee by himself, McCulloch divided the infantry into two wings. Hebért personally directed the four regiments in the thick woods on the east side of the road, while McCulloch assumed temporary command of the five regiments in the well-trampled fields west of the road. McIntosh's cavalry regiments, now largely restored to order, took their places behind the infantry, while Pike struggled without much immediate success to reform the demoralized Cherokees in the woods to the northwest.


(click on image for a PDF version)
THE FEDERALS SMASH MCCULLOCH, AFTERNOON, MARCH 7, 1862
Late in the afternoon, Hébert led four regiments against Davis's division. After some initial gains, the attack faltered when Union forces struck both flanks. Hébert was captured and the Confederates withdrew in disorder. While this was taking place in Morgan's Woods, the bulk of McCulloch's division remained inert on Foster's Farm.

After talking things over with Hebért near Leetown Road, McCulloch rode westward along the Confederate line, conferring with subordinates and encouraging the weary soldiers. The infantry formation west of Leetown Road consisted of the 4th Texas Cavalry Battalion (dismounted), 1st and 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles (dismounted), and 17th and 16th Arkansas. When he reached the western end of the line McCulloch noticed a brushy gap in the belt of trees and decided to observe the Yankees in Oberson's field for himself. "I will ride forward a little and reconnoiter the enemy's position. You boys remain here," he told his staff, "your gray horses will attract the fire of the sharpshooters."

McCulloch had developed the habit of personal reconnaissance during his years with the Texas Rangers. The technique had served him well in Mexico and on the Great Plains, but at Pea Ridge it proved fatal. Osterhaus had no sharpshooters in his command, but Greusel had sent two companies of the 36th Illinois across Oberson's field to form an advanced skirmish line. The Illinois soldiers spread out behind a rail fence that ran along the north side of the field and marked the southern edge of the belt of trees. Nervous about being so far out in front of the main Union line, the infantrymen peered into the woods, alert for any sign of enemy activity.

BRIGADIER GENERAL BEN MCCULLOCH (UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS AT LITTLE ROCK ARCHIVES)

After a few minutes the Union soldiers on the west end of the skirmish line saw a horseman riding in their direction through a brushy gap in the trees. Clad in a black suit and mounted on a tall horse, McCulloch was sharply outlined against a wintry blue sky. Dozens of Union soldiers steadied their rifles on the fence and fired a ragged volley. McCulloch tumbled from the saddle, killed by a bullet through the heart. Because of the brown foliage that clung to the trees even at the end of winter, no one in the Rebel ranks saw him fall.

For nearly an hour the entire Confederate force at Leetown remained immobile, awaiting orders to advance, but no orders ever came. McCulloch seemed to have vanished into thin air. His fate remained unknown until midafternoon when the soldiers of the 16th Arkansas advanced through the belt of trees to drive off the Union skirmishers and stumbled across his body. Command of the division belatedly passed to McIntosh, who ordered the general assault to begin. Instead of remaining in the rear as befitted a division commander, McIntosh impulsively decided to go into the fight with his old regiment, the 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles. But the Arkansans were dismounted and serving as infantry now, and as they slowly picked their way through the belt of trees, McIntosh grew impatient and rode forward alone.

COLONEL JEFFERSON C. DAVIS (USAMHI)

A short time earlier, Greusel had led the main body of the 36th Illinois halfway across Oberson's field to recover the two companies of skirmishers, who were engaged in a firefight with the 16th Arkansas. When Greusel saw the 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles—with McIntosh out in front—emerge from the belt of trees just to the east of the 16th Arkansas, he directed the 36th Illinois to shift to this new target. Seven hundred Union muskets roared and McIntosh toppled over, struck by a bullet through the heart. He fell about two hundred yards east of the spot where McCulloch had died in an almost identical fashion.

The loss of McCulloch and McIntosh caused the abortive Confederate infantry assault west of Leetown Road to sputter out. Most regiments had not moved an inch, and the few that had started forward through the belt of trees, such as the 16th Arkansas and 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles, wavered and then fell back to their starting point on Foster's farm. After the Rebels faded back into the belt of trees and disappeared, the 36th Illinois waited uncertainly in Oberson's field, well out in front of the other Union regiments. When nothing happened, a mystified Greusel led the Illinoisans back to their original position on the south side of Oberson's field to await developments.

Meanwhile, Hebért's wing of the Confederate infantry line of battle, consisting of the 4th, 14th, and 15th Arkansas and 3rd Louisiana, was deployed east of Leetown Road in a forested area known as Morgan's Woods.

Hébert never learned that McCulloch and McIntosh were dead and that he was the ranking officer in the division. When he heard the sporadic firing to the west that felled his superiors, he assumed it marked the beginning of the general assault that he and McCulloch had discussed. Hebért waited in vain for the order to advance. Determined to strike a blow, he finally decided to go forward on his own and led his four regiments south through the woods. An Arkansas soldier proudly remembered that despite being tired, hungry, and footsore, he and his comrades "went in with all the vim and courage that regulars could have displayed." Unable to see any distance ahead, the Confederates unknowingly marched directly toward the exposed right flank of Osterhaus's short line, which did not extend east of Leetown Road.

The confusion and delay occasioned by the deaths of McCulloch and McIntosh allowed the Union defenders just enough time to blunt Hebért's attack. When Curtis received Osterhaus's message begging for support, he dispatched Colonel Jefferson C. Davis's division to the scene. Davis, 33, was a capable West Pointer who, somewhat unfairly, is best known for his memorable name and for murdering another Union general in a personal dispute a few months after Pea Ridge.

Davis pulled his troops out of the Little Sugar Creek fortifications and reached Osterhaus's position with three Illinois and Indiana regiments—about 1,400 men—and the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery Battery. As a Union band incongruously tootled "Dixie," the infantry hurried into Morgan's Woods on the east side of Leetown Road. The new regiments extended the Union line directly across Hébert's path. Colonel Julius White's brigade composed of the 37th and 59th Illinois was first into line, so Davis sent it forward to locate the enemy. Neither Davis nor White realized that the two Illinois regiments were on a collision course with Hebért's much larger force.

THE 37TH ILLINOIS BATTLING HÉBERT'S BRIGADE IN MORGAN'S WOODS. (NPS COLLECTION)

Hébert's Rebels and White's Yankees plowed blindly into each other in Morgan's Woods and opened fire at extremely close range. "Suddenly something like a tremendous peal of thunder opened all along our front," recalled William Watson of the 3rd Louisiana. Staggered by the shock, both lines ground to a halt and an intense firefight erupted in the tangled woods. An Illinois soldier recalled that the air around him was "literally filled with leaden hail. Balls would whiz by our ears, cut off bushes closely, and even cut our clothes."

Soldiers on both sides lay down to avoid the deadly fire. Captain Henry Curtis, Jr., of the 37th Illinois told his mother that his men "would have been utterly annihilated" had he not "fought them flat on their bellies on the ground." Parade ground maneuvers and fancy tactics counted for little in such a fight. As regimental formations broke down on both sides, the struggle degenerated into firefights between company-sized groups stumbling around in the smoky wilderness.

Hébert's men had the advantage in numbers and they gradually pushed White's Illinoisans back. "At the flash of the enemy's guns," wrote Captain Jerome Gilmore of the 3rd Louisiana, "the men would rush madly on them, routing them from behind logs, stumps and trees, shooting them at almost every step." At one point in the contest a hundred or more soldiers from the 3rd Louisiana and 4th Arkansas became separated from their units and emerged from the western edge of Morgan's Woods. Spying the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery Battery in the southeast corner of Oberson's field only a hundred yards away, they surged across Leetown Road toward the Union guns in a disorganized mass.

COLONEL JULIUS WHITE (USAMHI)

The Confederates were momentarily brought to a halt by a single man, Captain William P. Black of the 37th Illinois, who stood in front of the imperiled battery and blasted away with a Colt repeating rifle until being wounded. Black's remarkable act earned him a Medal of Honor and gave the artillerymen time to save four of their six guns. The Confederates swarmed over the two remaining guns and, for a moment, it seemed as if Hebért had achieved a breakthrough. But then Osterhaus's regiments on the west side of the imperiled Union battery came to the rescue. The 36th Illinois and 12th Missouri wheeled out into Oberson's field and drove the Rebels away from the guns. Hebért's men sprinted across Leetown Road under a hail of fire and plunged back into Morgan's Woods.

Shortly before the Confederates made their sideways lunge into Oberson's field, Davis sent Colonel Thomas Pattison's brigade, consisting of the 18th and 22nd Indiana (which he had reclaimed from Osterhaus), around the left flank of Hebért's formation. Pattison was slow to get into position, and his counterattack was hampered by poor visibility in the woods. Navigating by compass, the Hoosiers formed a line of battle facing west and groped forward until they encountered the Rebel flank. Surprised by the unexpected appearance of the Yankees, who seemed to come out of nowhere, the soldiers of the 14th and 15th Arkansas nevertheless managed to change front to their left. They put up a stiff defense amid the tangle of trees and vines and fought the two Indiana regiments to a standstill. Lieutenant Colonel John A. Hendricks of the 22nd Indiana was killed in the encounter.

During the chaotic moments when the Confederates struggled to meet Pattison's flank attack, Hebért and Colonel William C. Mitchell of the 14th Arkansas became disoriented in the smoky woods and drifted away from their own men. About the same time Colonel William F. Tunnard of the 3rd Louisiana collapsed from exhaustion. All three officers were captured by the Yankees. Hebért's loss was a particularly telling blow, for it effectively completed the decapitation of McCulloch's division and left it leaderless and dysfunctional.

The combination of stiffening Union resistance in front and flank and the loss of three key senior officers brought Hebért's bold attack to an end. Exhausted, disorganized, and out of ammunition, the Arkansas and Louisiana troops gave up the fight and streamed to the rear through the darkening forest. Upon reaching Foster's farm, they were disgusted to discover that over two-thirds of McCulloch's division had stood idle during their desperate struggle in Morgan's Woods. Not a single Confederate regimental commander west of Leetown Road had demonstrated any initiative during the most critical phase of the battle.

THE LANE AT THE SOUTH END OF MORGAN'S WOODS. (NPS PHOTO BY BOB NORRIS)

The failure of Hebért's unsupported attack, and the capture of Hebért himself, were the final blows to the ill-starred Confederate effort at Leetown. By four o'clock the fighting had sputtered out except for intermittent artillery fire. Leaderless and listless, the officers and men of McCulloch's division milled around in the lengthening shadows and waited for someone to tell them what to do. After some hesitation, Pike, a nominal brigadier general as commander of the Cherokee regiments, attempted to assume command, but many of McCulloch's officers refused to recognize his authority. Pike eventually led a half dozen regiments and battalions back to Twelve Corner Church. From there the column made its way in the gathering darkness along Bentonville Detour and Telegraph Road to the vicinity of Elkhorn Tavern. Upon reaching the rear of Price's division a few hours before midnight, the exhausted, famished soldiers collapsed in heaps.

Pike was right to attempt to concentrate the army, but his intervention only made things worse. When he marched off in search of Van Dorn and Price with about half of McCulloch's division, he left the other half behind on Foster's farm. As darkness spread across Pea Ridge, some regiments of McCulloch's division took themselves out of the fight altogether and drifted westward toward Camp Stephens in Little Sugar Creek valley. Colonel John Drew and the men of the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles decided they had earned their pay and headed back toward the Indian Territory. Finally, Colonel Elkanah Greer of the 3rd Texas Cavalry took command of who was left and retired a short distance northward to Twelve Corner Church.

Around midnight Greer received an order from Van Dorn to follow the same route around Big Mountain that Pike had taken. By the time Greer's woebegone troops rejoined their comrades near Elkhorn Tavern, it was almost dawn on March 8. Having been without rest or food for two days and nights, the men tumbled out of ranks and fell fast asleep on the cold, rocky ground. McCulloch's division—or what was left of it—would play only a minimal role in the second day's battle.

The four hours of confused, sporadic fighting in the fields and woods around Leetown had significant consequences. Osterhaus suffered a sharp tactical reverse at the outset of the battle, but he succeeded admirably in achieving his primary objective of disrupting Confederate plans. Davis arrived with reinforcements at exactly the right time and place to blunt the only major Confederate thrust of the day. The Union force at Leetown was outnumbered from start to finish, but it was blessed with remarkable good fortune and able leadership at the division and brigade levels. In only a few hours of sporadic fighting the hard-pressed Yankees killed or captured five senior Confederate officers (while losing only one senior officer of their own) and neutralized a powerful Confederate force.

COLONEL JOHN DREW, 1ST CHEROKEE MOUNTED RIFLES (OKLAHOMA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

ANOTHER GENERIC AND WHOLLY IMAGINARY DEPICTION OF THE BATTLE. (FW)

McCulloch and his principal lieutenants initially responded well to the unexpected encounter at Leetown, but everything seemed to go wrong after that. Though McCulloch's division suffered relatively few casualties, it was reduced to a disorganized, demoralized shambles and effectively knocked out of the battle without ever really landing a blow. The most important result of the fight at Leetown, however, was that it kept the Army of the West divided and unable to make effective use of its numerical superiority.

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