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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Pea Ridge



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.


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 evacuate—though not to surrender—the 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 garrison—two companies of cavalry commanded by Captain Samuel D. Sturgis—had 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.


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 the Trans-Mississippi.

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 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 Guard.

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 Yankee oppression.

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.

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 nonexistent.

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 soldiers—westerners all—got 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 events.

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 Missouri—a foreign country from his perspective—without 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 area.

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)
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 year.

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 1863.

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. Louis—then Huzza!"


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.

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