Civil War Series
The Campaign for Pea Ridge
In the deepening twilight Van Dorn emerged from Cross Timber Hollow onto the high ground around Elkhorn Tavern. At last he was atop Pea Ridge. A few hundred yards south of the tavern he reached the junction of Telegraph and Ford Roads. The perplexed Confederate commander searched to the west but there was no sign of McCulloch's division. Van Dorn finally had learned of McCulloch's death (which had occurred four hours earlier), but he still was unaware of the dimensions of the disaster that had befallen the Texan's powerful division. With only half of the Army of the West on hand for the climactic moment of the battle, Van Dorn nonetheless decided to make a final effort to sweep away the stubborn Yankees still clinging to Telegraph Road and win the day. There was no time for the Confederates to reconnoiter or maneuver. Van Dorn ordered an immediate frontal assault against Carr's compact blue line, dimly visible across Ruddick's field.
Unseen by the Confederates in the gloom, Curtis and Asboth arrived at this critical juncture leading hundreds of fresh troops and additional guns from Little Sugar Creek to bolster Carr's weary, rattled men. Shortly afterward the final Confederate attack began. About 3,000 Missourians from both Confederate and State Guard units surged across the fields on either side of Telegraph Road directly toward the Union line. Crouched behind a fence, Vinson Holman of the 9th Iowa heard "their cheers and yells rising above the roar of artillery." But not for long. Blasts of canister from Union guns lined up wheel to wheel plowed dreadful lanes through the ranks of the oncoming Rebels. Despite the mounting slaughter, a few hundred Missourians pressed on. "By this time it was almost dark," remembered Asa Payne, "and we got so near the battery that the fire from the guns would pass in jetting streams through our lines." When the Missourians finally staggered to a halt only fifty yards from Carr's position, the Union infantry rose up and fired.
The ghastly affair was over in less than fifteen minutes. Shaken survivors of the doomed assault streamed back to the woods around Elkhorn Tavern while the Federals cheered and jeered in triumph. The valiant but costly attack in Ruddick's field late on March 7 was the high-water mark of the Confederate war effort west of the Mississippi River and the final instance in which Van Dorn held the initiative at Pea Ridge. Henceforth, Curtis would control the course of the battle.
During the afternoon Curtis gradually came to the realization that he had underestimated Van Dorn's audacity: all evidence indicated that the entire Confederate army had gotten around his right flank and was in his rear. This meant that the Army of the Southwest was facing the wrong way. If he was to avoid disaster he had to turn the army around as quickly as possible. And so, while fighting raged at Leetown and Elkhorn Tavern, the Union army commenced a 180-degree change of front from south to north. Curtis and his staff gradually shifted combat units northward from the Little Sugar Creek fortifications to Pea Ridge. At the same time, and on the same handful of narrow roads and lanes, they hurried the army's ponderous supply trains southward out of harm's way. The successful change of front in the midst of a battle was a complicated undertaking unparalleled in the Civil War.
During the night of March 7, Curtis again demonstrated his mastery of staff work by consolidating the dispersed Army of the Southwest into a compact mass. He abandoned the Little Sugar Creek position entirely and moved all of his scattered forces, including the victorious troops at Leetown, to reinforce Carr's battered division straddling Telegraph Road. He also saw to it that food, water, and ammunition were distributed. There was a good deal of stumbling around in the dark, and one column of troops (led, naturally, by Sigel) took a wrong turn and was lost for several hours, but by dawn on March 8 the Union army was reunited and ready for a second day of battle./P>
Van Dorn attempted to do much the same with the Army of the West, but he was less successful. From his headquarters in the yard of Elkhorn Tavern, he ordered Greer to gather up the fragments of McCulloch's division and hurry to Elkhorn Tavern. As described earlier, Greer dutifully led his skeletal command on an all-night march around Big Mountain on Bentonville Detour and Telegraph Road. The troops and horses arrived near dawn in such pitiful condition as to be almost useless. The Confederates around the tavern were without food except for what was found in Federal haversacks and sutlers' wagons. They also were without adequate ammunition, for in the confusion of the march on Bentonville Detour the previous night, the ammunition train had been left a dozen miles distant at Camp Stephens in Little Sugar Creek valley. No one at Confederate headquarters knew where the ammunition train was, and no one thought to organize a search until the next morning. Van Dorn's failure to organize and oversee a proper staff before launching the campaign now began to take its toll.
Dawn broke on March 8 and Curtis waited to see if Van Dorn would continue to press his attack. When nothing happened, Curtis concluded that the Confederates had shot their bolt and that he now held the initiative. He intended to attack and drive the enemy away from his line of communications, but unlike the previous day, when hasty improvisation was required, he proceeded in a methodical manner. Curtis formed the entire Army of the Southwest into a long line of battle straddling Telegraph Road.
Around eight o'clock all was in readiness. Curtis now did a peculiar thing. He turned to Sigel, an officer he had come to distrust, and directed him to take charge of the artillery massed in the rolling fields west of Telegraph Road and prepare the way for a general assault. Annoyed by Sigel's botched withdrawal from Bentonville on March 6, Curtis had kept the German general sidelined at Little Sugar Creek during most of the first day of battle. What caused Curtis to change his mind and give Sigel a critical assignment on the second day is unknown, but it turned out to be an inspired decision.
Pea Ridge may have been the only time in the Civil War that Sigel was in his element. The former artillerist moved from battery to battery, often dismounting to sight a gun personally, "encouraging the men and giving his directions as cooly as if on parade." Sigel coordinated the fire from six artillery batteries in a modern fashion by concentrating on a single target until it was neutralized, then shifting to a second target, and so on.
As Confederate counterbattery fire slackened and finally ceased under the crushing hail of iron, Sigel advanced the guns and infantry west of Telegraph Road until the opposing lines were only a few hundred yards apart. By midmorning the Union army was in a curved or angled formation over a mile in length; the left flank rested on Ford Road near the foot of Big Mountain, the right flank extended east of Telegraph Road.
The thunderous cannonade of March 8 at Pea Ridge lasted two hours. It was the longest and most intense field artillery bombardment of the Civil War up to that time. Union gunners fired over 3,600 roundsa rate of over thirty shots per minute, or more than one shot every two seconds. Add to this the explosions of the shells and the Confederate response, and it is no wonder that the tremendous noise could be heard over fifty miles away in Fayetteville and Springfield. Captain Henry Cummings of the 4th Iowa was at a loss for words and simply told his wife: "It was the grandest thing I ever saw or thought of."
The devastation wrought on the Confederates was terrible. Outgunned and low on ammunition, Van Dorn's artillery was wrecked or driven from the field. "Such a cyclone of falling timber and bursting shells I don't suppose was ever equaled during our great war," recalled a Missouri gunner. Reflecting on the "perfect storm" of shot and shell that deluged his Texas battery, Captain John J. Good considered it a "perfect miracle that any of us ever came out." Halfway through the cannonade the Confederate guns fell silent.
Confederate infantrymen positioned in the woods on either side of Telegraph Road were not the primary targets of Sigel's methodical bombardment, but they fared poorly nonetheless. Soldiers crouched helplessly behind trees or hugged the ground to avoid the hail of Union projectiles that overshot the Rebel guns. Shrapnel, splinters, branches, and even entire trees crashed down on the men. Most unfortunate of all were the soldiers huddled for protection amid the imposing sandstone pillars on the eastern end of Big Mountain. Solid shot smashed into the sandstone and sent fragments flying in all directions with murderous effect. The Confederate line slowly but steadily disintegrated as dazed or terrified soldiers drifted back to the relative safety of Cross Timber Hollow. The sustained cannonade at Pea Ridge was one of the rare instances during the Civil War in which a preparatory artillery barrage effectively softened up an enemy position and paved the way for an infantry assault.
A member of Curtis's staff observed that during the cannonade the Union commander behaved "about as calmly and with as much composure as if overseeing a farm." Around ten o'clock Curtis said to Sigel: "General, I think the infantry might advance now." As Sigel passed orders down the chain of command, the guns fell silent and nearly 10,000 Union soldiers dressed ranks. The morning of March 8 at Pea Ridge was one of the rare occasions in the Civil War when an entire armyinfantry, artillery, and cavalrywas visible in line of battle from flank to flank. George Gordon of the 18th Indiana spoke for many Union soldiers when he described the imposing martial array as "the grandest sight that I had ever beheld." No record survives of what the Confederates thought.
As drums rolled and bugles rang, the curving blue line swept across the fields atop Pea Ridge, converging on Elkhorn Tavern from the west and south. "That beautiful charge I shall never forget," wrote Captain Eugene B. Payne of the 37th Illinois. "With banners streaming, with drums beating, and our long line of blue coats advancing upon the double quick, with their deadly bayonets gleaming in the sunlight, and every man and officer yelling at the top of his lungs. The rebel yell was nowhere in comparison."
Another Union soldier, Samuel P. Herrington of the 8th Indiana, provided his impressions of the charge in what may be the nearest thing we will ever have to a "live" report of a Civil War battle. "Forward quick time guide right," Herrington frantically scribbled in his pocket diary. "Halt make ready take aim fire. After first shot load at will. Our guns a booming. The battery howling. Wounded groaning. Some excited, I might say all. But we was going forward."
With thousands of wildly cheering and apparently unstoppable Yankees closing in from the west and south, Van Dorn realized that his position was hopeless and ordered an immediate withdrawal. The retreat rapidly degenerated into a rout after Van Dorn and Price rode away to the east on Huntsville Road, leaving thousands of their soldiers still engaged. A few fought to the very end, including Colonel Benjamin Rives of the 3rd Missouri, who was killed while his regiment covered the withdrawal of other Confederate units. But many Rebels concluded, with good reason, that they had been abandoned by their leaders and fled in all directions.
While the Confederates tried to get away, the soldiers of the Army of the Southwest rapidly recovered all the ground lost by Carr's division the previous day. Curtis rode up Telegraph Road behind his advancing line, enthralled by the fierce grandeur of battle. "A charge of infantry like that last closing scene has never been made on this continent," he told his brother. "It was the most terribly magnificent sight that can possibly be imagined." At Elkhorn Tavern Curtis shook hands with Sigel, then rode among his wildly yelling men, waving his hat and shouting "Victory! Victory!"
The soldiers of the Army of the Southwest were dazed by the speed and completeness of their triumph. "It was sometime before I could convince myself that we had indeed won, so hard had been the fighting, so hopeless the issue for two days," wrote an officer in the 59th Illinois. But victory it was, and everyone from generals to privates took a few minutes to congratulate themselves and each other on their good fortune.
Because the dissolving Army of the West escaped on three different roads leading north, east, and west, Curtis did not organize an effective pursuit. Instead he scoured the countryside for Rebel stragglers, collected wagonloads of discarded weapons and equipment, and settled down to care for the wounded of both armies. The latter task was particularly difficult because of the paucity of adequate medical facilities, personnel, and supplies in a frontier region.
Not until the next day did Curtis learn that the bulk of the Confederates were making their way back to the Boston Mountains on the east side of White River. He sent a courier racing north to the telegraph office in Springfield with a message for Halleck in St. Louis: "Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, and Missouri very proudly share the honor of victory which their gallant heroes won over the combined forces of Van Dorn, Price, and McCulloch at Pea Ridge, in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Missouri was safe for the foreseeable future.
The Union triumph did not come cheap. Pea Ridge cost the Federals 1,384 casualties: 203 killed, 980 wounded, and 201 missing, approximately 13 percent of the 10,250 troops engaged in the battle. Confederate casualties are less certain because Van Dorn submitted inconsistent (and implausible) reports of his losses. The Army of the West consisted of over 16,000 men at the outset of the campaign but suffered serious attrition en route to Pea Ridge. A conservative estimate is that the Confederates lost upward of 2,000 of the 12,000 to 13,000 troops actually engaged in the battle, a casualty rate of roughly 15 percent.
The Confederate retreat from Pea Ridge was even more disastrous than the advance. Late on the evening of March 8 most of the Army of the West reassembled at Van Winkle's Mill southeast of the battlefield. The primary problem facing the Confederates was sustenance. The three-day supply of rations issued in the Boston Mountains on March 3 had long since been consumed. The famished men and animals devoured everything in sight, but the rugged, sparsely populated Ozark countryside east of White River provided only a fraction of the food and forage necessary to feed such a hungry horde. "I never knew what it was to want for something to eat until the last fifteen days," Tom Coleman of the 11th Texas Cavalry confided to his parents. Samuel B. Barron of the 3rd Texas Cavalry believed he was "in much greater danger of dying from starvation in the mountains of northern Arkansas than by the enemy's bullets." Hundreds of Rebels wandered away in search of food and never returned to the ranks. The trail of the defeated army was littered with discarded clothing, weapons, and even flags.
For the next week the pathetic column trudged up the narrowing valley of the West Fork of White River and over the crest of the Boston Mountains. The Confederates did not return to their original camps on Telegraph and Cove Creek Roads, which lay a dozen impassable miles to the west, but continued south down Frog Bayou to the Arkansas River. By the time they finally reached the vicinity of Van Buren, they were a pitiful remnant of the army that had opened the campaign two weeks earlier.
While his troops recuperated, Van Dorn received a telegram from General P. G. T. Beauregard. He encouraged Van Dorn move his command to Corinth, Mississippi, as part of a concentration of all Confederate armies west of the Appalachian Mountains. The purpose of this grand design was to defeat Major General Ulysses S. Grant's Union army camped at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. Van Dorn agreed and began shifting his force eastward from Van Buren. Heavy spring rains slowed the march, and the troops did not begin boarding steamboats until April 6. By then it was too late. The battle of Pittsburg Landing or Shiloh was under way, a battle the Confederacy might have won had Van Dorn's thousands of soldiers and dozens of cannons been present.
Van Dorn did more than merely transfer his army from one side of the Mississippi River. He all but abandoned Arkansas and Missouri to the enemy. Acting on his own authority, Van Dorn carried away nearly all troops, weapons, ammunition, equipment, stores, machinery, and animals in the vast area under his command. The former Federal posts at Little Rock and Fort Smith, the objects of so much contention during the heady days of secession, were stripped of everything of military value. One can only wonder whether Van Dorn really understood the political and military ramifications of his actions.
With the now-misnamed Army of the West in Mississippi, and with outraged Arkansas and Missouri political leaders appealing for help, Beauregard assigned command of the denuded District of the Trans-Mississippi to Major General Thomas C. Hindman, a fiery Arkansas politician. Apparently Beauregard considered Hindman to be a one-man army for he neglected to provide him with any troops. When the new commander arrived in Little Rock at the end of May he was shocked. "I found here almost nothing," Hindman complained. "Nearly everything of value was taken away by General Van Dorn." Hindman slowly rebuilt Confederate military strength west of the Great River, but his premature attempt to regain northwest Arkansas in December 1862 came to grief at Prairie Grove, about forty miles southwest of Pea Ridge.
When Curtis learned that Van Dorn was moving down the Arkansas River, he also shifted eastward in order to protect Missouri's vulnerable southern flank. For several weeks the Union army struggled across the central portion of the Ozark Plateau, a scenic but exceedingly rugged and desolate region. By the end of April Curtis knew that Van Dorn had crossed into Mississippi, so he again turned south and drove into north-central Arkansas.
No longer required to shield Missouri, Curtis now invaded Arkansas in earnest. The Army of the Southwest reached Batesville on May 2 and Searcy on May 11. Curtis was hampered by enormous logistical difficulties, but he came within fifty miles of Little Rock before the overland supply route from Missouri reached the breaking point. (Fifty miles was too close for Governor Rector. Instead of attempting to defend the city where he had done so much to encourage secession, he packed up the state archives and fled to Hot Springs. He was much ridiculed and failed to win reelection.) By this time both Halleck and Sheridan had joined Grant's army in Tennessee, and their absence was felt in Missouri and Arkansas. When efforts to create an alternate supply route via the Mississippi and White Rivers failed, Curtis veered away from Little Rock and turned east toward the Mississippi River, where his little army could rest and refit.
Curtis brushed aside several feeble Confederate attempts to halt his progress across the vast alluvial plain of eastern Arkansas. The largest such engagement occurred on July 6 at Cache River, near Cotton Plant. It was a one-sided affair that resulted in the death of 6 Union soldiers and up to 136 Confederate soldiers.
On July 12 the Army of the Southwest marched into Helena on the Mississippi River, finally bringing the long campaign to a close. For the rest of 1862, until Grant began operations against Vicksburg, Curtis could boast that his command in Helena was "farthest south." The town remained in Union hands for the duration of the war. It was a major staging area during the Vicksburg campaign and a primary recruiting center for black troops. On July 4, 1863, a Confederate army attempted to recapture Helena but was repulsed with terrible losses. Helena was the jumping-off point for the campaign that resulted in the capture of Little Rock and Fort Smith in September 1863 and the liberation of the two Federal installations that had been the focal point of the secession crisis two years earlier.
The Pea Ridge campaign was one of the most remarkable operations of the Civil War. During the first six months of 1862, the Army of the Southwest marched over seven hundred miles from Rolla to Helena, crossed some of the most difficult terrain in the country, and fought and won a major battle against imposing odds. Halleck and Curtis achieved their primary strategic objectives of securing Missouri and freeing Union resources for use elsewhere. In addition, they dealt Arkansas a heavy blow. From the Union perspective, the campaign was a tremendous success.
Exactly the opposite was true from the Confederate perspective. Van Dorn, McCulloch, and Price lost Missouri and failed to defend Arkansas effectively. It is no exaggeration to say that the Pea Ridge campaign permanently altered the balance of power in the Trans-Mississippi. Few Civil War operations had such an impact on the course of events.