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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Pea Ridge


The following day, Van Dorn climbed back into his ambulance and set out for the Confederate camps in the Boston Mountains, about thirty miles north of Van Buren. During the next two days he conferred with McCulloch and Price and assumed operational command of their two forces. McCulloch's army became McCulloch's division; Price's army (both Confederate and Missouri State Guard components) became Price's division. Van Dorn made no other significant changes except to give the combined force a new name: the Army of the West.

At this time McCulloch's scouts brought word that Curtis had halted his advance and divided his army. Galvanized by the news, Van Dorn announced that a full-scale counteroffensive would begin the next morning. He, McCulloch, and Price quickly decided on a course of action. The Army of the West would leave the Boston Mountains and march north through Fayetteville and Elm Springs to Bentonville. There the Confederates would turn west and overwhelm Sigel's two Union divisions camped along McKissick's Creek. Then the Confederates would turn back to the east and do the same to Curtis's two Union divisions at Cross Hollows. With the Yankees out of the way, Van Dorn and the Army of the West would press on to St. Louis, "then Huzzah!"

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Van Dorn marched north from the Boston Mountains on March 4 and reached Fayetteville undetected. The next day Curtis learned of the Confederate advance and his forces began falling back to the north side of Little Sugar Creek. Van Dorn narrowly failed to cut Sigel off at Bentonville on March 6. After a running fight, Sigel reached Little Sugar Creek safely. Having successfully concentrated his army, Curtis now waited for Van Dorn to make his next move.

The key to success was the road junction at Bentonville. If Van Dorn reached that point before Curtis realized what was happening, the Confederate army would be squarely between the two smaller Union forces. Speed was required to achieve the essential element of surprise, so Van Dorn stipulated that each Confederate soldier carry only his weapon, forty rounds of ammunition, a blanket, and three days' rations. An ammunition train would follow the troops. Tents, camp equipage, and the army's stores of food and forage were to be left behind in the Boston Mountains.


The central flaw in all of this was Van Dorn's assumption that the operation would go exactly as planned. After the inevitable victory, he expected his men and animals to subsist on captured Yankee rations and forage. He apparently gave no thought to alternate sources of supply or to the possibility that things might go awry. Van Dorn's overconfidence was matched by his impulsiveness. The offensive was to begin at once. He did not allow himself time to get to know his principal subordinates, to familiarize himself with the unusual geography of the region, to reorganize the two very different armies awkwardly joined together under his command, or even to recover from his illness. A few days of careful preparation might have made all the difference in the success of the operation, but Van Dorn was a man of action—immediate action—and that was what he demanded and got.

Determined to use all available manpower in the region, Van Dorn ordered Brigadier General Albert Pike in the nearby Indian Territory to mobilize Confederate Indian troops and rendezvous with the Army of the West at Bentonville. Pike was reluctant to follow Van Dorn's instructions because the treaties he had recently negotiated between the Confederacy and the Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Seminoles—stipulated that Indian soldiers were not to be used outside the Indian Territory without their agreement. He also recognized that the Indian regiments and battalions were little more than paper organizations. The men were poorly armed, poorly trained, and, in many instances, poorly motivated. (Half of the Cherokees were such lukewarm Rebels that they defected to the Union side soon after Pea Ridge!) Nevertheless, when Pike raised the issue with the Indians he learned that some were willing to participate in the operation if paid in advance. Despite deep misgivings, Pike dispensed tens of thousands of silver dollars at Cantonment (Fort) Davis and managed to mobilize two Cherokee regiments, a Creek regiment, and a combined Choctaw-Chickasaw regiment. Only the Cherokee regiments reached the Army of the West in time to participate in the battle, another example of the cost of Van Dorn's impulsiveness.

The Confederate counteroffensive to liberate Missouri began on March 4 when Van Dorn led his command out of the Boston Mountains. The 16,000 men and 65 cannons of the Army of the West constituted the largest and best-equipped Confederate military force ever assembled west of the Mississippi River. The Confederates had a three-to-two advantage in manpower and a four-to-three advantage in artillery over Curtis's Army of the Southwest. It was a historic moment: no other Confederate army ever marched off to battle with a greater numerical superiority. Unfortunately for the cause of Confederate independence, the Pea Ridge campaign was a demonstration of the axiom that numbers alone do not guarantee victory.



The march to Bentonville was a disaster. Van Dorn was feverish and distracted. Bouncing along Telegraph Road in an enclosed ambulance at the head of the column, he set an unrealistically rapid pace. McCulloch's troops had been in winter quarters for months and were unprepared for such a strenuous effort. Soon the roadside was littered with hundreds of winded soldiers hobbled by blistered feet. Even Price's Missourians initially overjoyed at the thought of returning home, became disgruntled and remarked that Van Dorn "had forgotten he was riding and we were walking." Then the weather, that most capricious of all military factors, changed dramatically. After several chilly but pleasant days, a late winter storm swept across the Ozark Plateau. Temperatures dropped all day and the road became covered with sleet and snow. Progress slowed to a crawl and the column finally halted amid the charred ruins of Fayetteville. Without tents or cooking equipment, the men passed a singularly dismal night.

The next day, March 5, the situation deteriorated. The Confederates left Fayetteville and plodded north across a wintry landscape. Progress was excruciatingly slow. As darkness fell and the temperature plummeted, the weary men of the Army of the West stumbled into camp at Elm Springs, halfway between Fayetteville and Bentonville. "I will never forget that night," wrote a Missouri soldier. "It had turned bitter cold. . . . We had no tents and only one blanket to each man. We built log heaps and set them afire to warm the ground to have a place on which to lie, and I remember well the next day there were several holes burned in my uniform by sparks left on the ground." The following morning the shivering Confederates ate the last of their rations and set out for Bentonville, twelve miles to the north. Despite the slow pace, Van Dorn remained confident that his plan to take Curtis by surprise was working.


The Indian Removal Act of 1831 led to the migration of thousands of people from the southeastern states of North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. Most or all of the Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Seminoles, often referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes, were compelled to sell their traditional lands to the federal government, which in turn made the lands available to non-Indians for settlement. They then relocated to the Indian Territory, a vast expanse of land that initially encompassed all of modern-day Oklahoma and parts of modern-day Arkansas and Kansas as well.

The Cherokees were the most numerous of the Five Civilized Tribes. After much internal dissension over the wisdom of giving up their lands, the Cherokees signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. They received $5,000,000 in cash and other material benefits in exchange for their agreement to relocate. The other Indian tribes made similar agreements and received similar compensation. The movement west began in the late 1830s and continued for several years. The Indians organized themselves into groups of several hundred people and set out at irregular intervals. Contrary to legend, there was no single route. Some groups trekked overland most of the way. Others traveled on flat-boats and steamboats down the Ohio and the Mississippi, then up the Red and the Arkansas. Because of initial confusion over boundaries, hundreds of Cherokees and other Indians settled briefly in Arkansas before moving a short distance west to Oklahoma.


The movement of so many people, including the very young and very old, was a much more difficult undertaking than anyone anticipated. Roads were primitive, boats were overcrowded, and government-issued rations and other supplies often were inadequate. Harsh weather and other hardships caused thousands of deaths during the migration and the initial period of resettlement in the Indian Territory. The Cherokees collectively referred to the various land and water routes they followed, and their westward migration in general, as "the trail where they cried" or "the trail of tears."

One of the routes used by the Indians passed through the northwest corner of Arkansas. About eight hundred Cherokees returned to the area in 1862 and played a minor role in the battle of Pea Ridge. They were formed into two small Confederate regiments, Colonel John Drew's 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles and Colonel Stand Watie's 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles. The two regiments reflected the continuing division within the tribe over the issue of relocation. Drew's men represented the anti-treaty faction; Watie's the pro-treaty group. Unwilling to be on the same side with people they considered traitors, many of Drew's soldiers joined the Union army after Pea Ridge. Watie's men generally continued in Confederate service for the same reason. The result was a bitter but little-known internecine conflict among the Cherokees that probably caused more death and destruction than the westward movement.

Unknown to Van Dorn, a Unionist resident of Fayetteville and a Union spy planted in the Rebel ranks reached Curtis at Cross Hollows on March 5 and informed him of the Confederate advance. It was fortunate for the Union cause that they did so, for up to that point the Yankees were unaware of the enemy column toiling north toward Bentonville. Few patrols were out and about on March 4 and 5, and those that were reported nothing amiss. The general consensus among Union soldiers seemed to be that no one in their right mind would be moving around in such conditions, and that they might as well stay snug in their tents until the weather cleared.


Curtis received the news of a Confederate advance calmly. He had expected as much for some time, though he was surprised that the Rebels were on the move in such bad weather. Curtis ordered an immediate concentration of his outposts and the two wings of his army at Little Sugar Creek as planned. "They are coming sure," he informed Sigel.

"It was now our turn to run" observed Corporal Sam Black of the 1st Iowa Battery. The troops at Cross Hollows and McKissick's Creek struck their tents and hurried to the rendezvous point. struggling through the same miserable wintry conditions as the Confederates. "It was snowing and most intensely cold," wrote Captain Henry Cummings to his wife in Iowa. "I never suffered so much in my life." The Union columns trudged along all through the day and night of March 5. Deserted buildings along the roads were set afire to light the way and provide a flicker of warmth.

By the morning of March 6 the regiments and batteries of the Army of the Southwest were filing into place on the high ground north of Little Sugar Creek. Among the last to arrive were the footsore soldiers of Colonel William Vandever's brigade, who covered the forty-two miles from Huntsville in only sixteen hours. Curtis was an engineer, and he personally laid out a line of earthworks atop the limestone bluffs. All that day the Union soldiers prepared rifle pits and redoubts and cleared fields of fire as they awaited the arrival of the enemy. It was hard work, but few grumbled, for the labor kept them warm and the fortifications promised a measure of safety in the fight to come.

Late in the afternoon, Colonel Grenville M. Dodge approached Curtis with a suggestion. Dodge had learned of a road called Bentonville Detour that led around the Union army's right flank and into its rear. He urged Curtis to block the road in order to make any enemy movement in that direction as difficult as possible. Curtis instructed Dodge to see to it. As darkness fell, Dodge and six companies of infantry armed with axes hurried off to the northwest. Shortly after midnight the weary soldiers trudged back to Little Sugar Creek. They left behind two enormous tangles of felled trees on Bentonville Detour between Twelve Corner Church and Telegraph Road. Without firing a shot, they had unknowingly struck the Confederates a serious blow.



The only Federal detachment that failed to reach Little Sugar Creek without incident on March 6 was the rear guard of Sigel's two divisions. Curtis probably was not surprised to learn that Sigel was in personal command of the rear guard. During the early morning hours Sigel had pushed his two divisions through the road junction at Bentonville with hours to spare, but then he unaccountably tarried behind to eat a hearty breakfast in a Bentonville hotel. The six hundred men of the rear guard waited in the nearby town square and tried to keep warm while their commander sawed through a plate of ham and eggs.

Sigel must have been on his second cup of coffee when scouts rushed into town shouting that the rear guard was about to be cut off by the van of the approaching Confederate army. Sigel emerged from the hotel and wasted no time leading the rear guard out of town. After a four-mile running fight across snow-covered fields and through narrow valleys east of Bentonville, Sigel finally shook off the pursuing Confederate horsemen and joined the rest of the Army of the Southwest at Little Sugar Creek. What Curtis thought of Sigel's dilatory behavior and brush with disaster is unknown.

When Van Dorn reached Bentonville a short time after Sigel's abrupt departure, he realized that his plan to defeat the Union army in detail had failed. The Army of the Southwest was reunited in an impregnable blufftop location behind Little Sugar Creek, while the Confederate army was in desperate straits. After three extremely difficult days, men and animals were hungry and exhausted. Straggling had become an epidemic. "Such a worn-out set of men I never saw," remembered Sergeant William Kinney of the 3rd Louisiana. "They had not one single mouthfull of food to eat."

Van Dorn refused to consider falling back to the Boston Mountains despite the failure of his plan and the desperate state of affairs in his army. He was determined to strike the Yankees a blow, seize their supplies, and push into Missouri. As darkness fell on the dispirited Rebel army, Pike arrived from the Indian Territory with about eight hundred Cherokees. The Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws were still a day's travel away. The Indians brought no additional food or forage.


That evening Van Dorn conferred with his generals. McCulloch was familiar with the country and told Van Dorn about the Bentonville Detour. The road left Little Sugar Creek valley at a place the Confederates called Camp Stephens, rambled in a northeasterly direction across Pea Ridge, and intersected Telegraph Road just south of the Arkansas Missouri line. More to the point, the road passed around the right flank of the Union army and led directly to the Union rear. McCulloch pointed out that if the Confederates marched along Bentonville Detour and reached Telegraph Road, the Yankees would be cut off from Missouri and might be compelled to surrender. Van Dorn was elated by McCulloch's suggestion, for it offered an almost miraculous opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. He declared his intention to march at once.

For the first time in months McCulloch and Price agreed on something: both men were aghast at the thought of a night march with the men and animals in such pitiful condition. McCulloch appealed to Van Dorn "for God sake to let the poor, worn-out and hungry soldiers rest and sleep that night . . . and then attack the next morning." Price strongly echoed his appeal. But Van Dorn had made up his mind. He insisted that the army move at once. Undeterred by the misgivings of his generals and unaware that Dodge's ax-wielding Iowans were blocking Bentonville Detour at that very hour, Van Dorn set his maneuver in motion.

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