The Battle of Pea Ridge (March 6-8, 1862)

Despite the size of the state and its underdeveloped character, and in view of the small numbers engaged on both sides, military operations did not weaken much in Missouri. In the fall of 1861, and then the following winter, major troop movements were carried out. However, they did not lead to decisive battles until late. The successive changes in the command of the two belligerents were not unrelated to this. It was finally in March 1862 that the battle of pea ridge - or Elkhorn Tavern for the Southerners - would seal the fate of Missouri.

Staff instabilities

Immediately after being sacked and reassigned to West Virginia, John Frémont was replaced as head of the Missouri Military Department by David Hunter, who served in the interim. On November 9, 1861, he made the hasty decision to withdraw the bulk of his troops, who had just retaken Springfield without great difficulty, on Sedalia and then Rolla. This untimely retirement had the effect of handing over all of southwestern Missouri to the Confederates, including one of the few towns in the region that could provide decent winter quarters for an army.

Hunter was soon replaced by Henry Halleck, but it was not until the end of December that he resolved to regain lost ground - with a harsh winter on the way. The month and a half spent in terrible sanitary conditions in Rolla was particularly difficult. Diseases wreaked havoc and spared no one, not even the generals. They considerably reduced the number of northern troops on the ground. These units were nonetheless reorganized in December into a force renamed "Army of the South West" and entrusted first to Franz Sigel, then to Samuel curtis.

Despite their success in the evacuation of Springfield, the Confederates were also struggling. Although the pro-southerner minority in Missouri had the state admitted into Confederation as early as November 28, Sterling Price, head of the Missouri State Guard, was firmly committed to maintaining his command independence from of Benjamin McCulloch, the general placed at the head of the Confederate troops. To resolve their conflict, President Davis created an "Overseas Mississippi Military Department" with authority over all forces west of the river. McCulloch and Price's troops were united under the leadership of their commander, Earl Van Dorn, and formed the "Army of the West".

The Southerners actively recruited in the counties of Missouri which remained under their control, thus swelling their ranks. The success of their allies in the Indian Territory soon enabled them to receive their assistance, notably from the Cherokees. However, they were hardly spared from the harsh winter. The Western Army lacked everything, including basic necessities such as tents, uniforms or shoes. The Overseas Department at the other end of Confederation was far from a priority in war supplies, and most soldiers had to settle for antique flintlock rifles - when they had one.

On December 29, the Federals left Rolla heading south-west. They soon stopped at Lebanon, where they established a forward base for their upcoming offensive against Springfield. Curtis reorganized his army there into two wings, one he handed over to Sigel with the divisions of Peter Osterhaus and Alexander Asboth, the other under his direct command and formed by the divisions Jefferson C. Davis and Eugene Carr. This organization was strongly colored by Politics : Sigel's men were, like him, essentially German immigrants. Sigel, moreover, was a protégé of Frémont, whose sidelining he had not digested - itself due to political reasons. His men had been instrumental in keeping Missouri under Union rule, and Curtis feared upsetting them by removing them from their leader.

Steps under the snow

Once reinforced and supplied, Curtis' men resumed the road on February 10, 1862. After a few minor skirmishes, they entered Springfield on the 13th. The town, almost deserted, had been abandoned by Price, who was there in an advanced position. without McCulloch's support. The Northerners followed behind the Missourians during the following days, in snow and frost. On February 18, they reached Elkhorn Tavern in Benton County at the northwest corner of Arkansas. With their supply lines rather stretched, they settled on a small river, Sugar Creek, which they began to fortify.

Price, meanwhile, continued his retreat to join McCulloch at Cove Creek in the Boston Mountains - a low mountain range north of the Arkansas River. Van Dorn arrived on the scene on March 3, and immediately put in place a somewhat daring plan. His idea was to immediately launch an attack against the Northerners. In order to better surprise them, Van Dorn ordered his men on a forced march: they were to reach their goal in just three days, and travel light: they would only have three days of rations as well.

It wasn't the only reckless component in Van Dorn's plan. Curtis had established his positions on the main road known as the "Telegraph route". Sugar Creek formed steep banks there that Van Dorn was unwilling to assault head on. His idea was therefore to bypass them by another road located further west, a detour of about fifteen kilometers passing through Bentonville. This line joined the Telegraph route north of Sugar Creek, bypassing the main height in the area, called Big Mountain. Once there, the southern army would be between the Federals and their supply base. They could swoop down on their wagons - finding enough to supplement their marching rations - before overtaking the enemy army to annihilate it.

This battle plan was not foolish, but it hinged on two far-fetched things: the swiftness of Confederate forces, and complete passivity on Curtis's part. Van Dorn had neither. His troops reinforced by the Indian brigade of Albert Pike, the southern general set out the next day, March 4. Its army then numbered about 16,000 men, against a little over 10,000 for the Federals. Van Dorn's creative imagination had completely overlooked a wooded, very hilly, and above all frozen terrain. Many of his soldiers walked barefoot in the snow, and the pace of progress was felt. By the evening of March 5, the Confederates had not yet reached Bentonville, and they had only a day's worth of supplies.

In addition, the element of surprise had vanished. Unionists from Arkansas had warned Curtis of the southern maneuver, and he ordered Sigel, whose wing was scattered around Bentonville, to fall back so as not to have to face the full weight of the enemy offensive alone. . Capable of both good and bad - as he had already shown and would still show - Sigel complied unhurriedly, and only when he made contact with the advanced Confederate elements. Although he was in danger of being turned, Curtis retained his cool and decided to fight. He transferred some of his troops to the rear, but left others on Sugar Creek because he feared a pincer attack from the enemy.

Overview of the campaign leading up to the Battle of Pea Ridge, March 1862.

The battle begins

Sigel's rearguard - 600 men and an artillery battery - managed to escape Bentonville with some difficulty when the main body of the southerners approached it on the evening of March 6. A regiment of Missouri cavalry had infiltrated its rear, and Sigel had to fight a first skirmish, in some confusion, to get rid of it. On its heels, Price's division reached the edge of Big Mountain as night fell. Late on their forecasts, the Confederates had exhausted their rations and were going to have to fight on an empty stomach the next day. Never mind, Van Dorn made them quicker, ordering a night march.

This was complicated by the pitfalls sown in front of them by the Federals. The men in blue had cut down trees across the road, which significantly slowed the progress of the Southerners. Van Dorn still had hopes of surprising the enemy in the rear, and he made two crucial decisions. To go faster, he left his ammunition wagons behind. And he ordered McCulloch, too slow for his liking, to lead his division directly south instead of around Big Mountain. In doing so, he deprived himself of the possibility of being supplied and divided his forces.

Despite all these difficulties, the Confederates were hard at work to attack the next morning, March 7 - albeit without breakfast. Due to its shortened route, McCulloch's division soon reestablished contact with the enemy. She literally tripped over Colonel Osterhaus, whom Curtis had sent to reconnoitre with part of his division: the Gruesel brigade and elements of cavalry and artillery. The latter opened fire around 11 am, forcing the Southerners to attack near the small village of Leetown.

McCulloch’s division included Louis Hébert’s infantry brigade, James McIntosh’s cavalry brigade, and Albert Pike’s Indian brigade, the latter also mounted. Pike charged his men on horseback on the northern half-battery, reached it before it could reload its guns, and seized its three cannons. The two Cherokees regiments also fell to the flank of the 3th Iowa Cavalry Regiment, routing it. The rest of the Union riders retreated when McIntosh's brigade attacked them in turn. They nevertheless allowed the Gruesel Brigade to deploy with the rest of the artillery to a good position, on the edge of the forest, with an open field in front of them.

The nine cannons still available to the Northerners immediately opened fire on the position which the Southerners had just captured. Unaccustomed to artillery, the Amerindians flowed back in disorder backwards: Deeply removed from their warrior philosophy, the idea of ​​supporting cannon fire like their Confederate brothers in arms was totally incongruous to them. Pike managed to regroup them and dismount them, but no more. His brigade would no longer play an active role during the first day of fighting.

Fight for Leetown

That didn't stop McCulloch from moving forward. McIntosh's men dismounted as well and deployed to the right, facing the enemy position, while Hebert's infantry attempted to flank Osterhaus's men from the left. Thick thickets separated the Foster Farm, which the Confederates had just taken, from the Oberson Field, on the edge of which the Federal infantry was deployed. It is by wanting to recognize these undergrowth that McCulloch was shot by a northern infantryman. Killed instantly, he left McIntosh at the head of his division.

He chose to push his attack forward, although his forces had progressed haphazardly due to the thickness of the undergrowth. When McIntosh came out of the woods with his lead regiment, they were greeted by heavy fire that caused heavy casualties - including McIntosh, who was also killed. The southern frontal assault "cala" for lack of command : Hébert was now at the head of the division but, isolated on the left of the device, he ignored him. The Confederates repelled an initial counterattack by one of Gruesel's regiments, but in the growing confusion of the battle, their units gradually began to withdraw to the Foster farm.

Meanwhile, Curtis, in a hurry otherwise by the rest of the Southern Army, wasted no time. He sent Davis's division to Osterhaus, which reached Leetown in the early afternoon. His leading brigade, that of Julius White, arrived just in time to prevent Hébert from descending on the right flank of the Gruesel Brigade, but in return it bears the brunt of the enemy attack. She retreated, but slowly enough to allow Davis to shift his other brigade, Thomas Pattison's, to the right in order to flank the enemy.

At the same time, the Osterhaus horsemen, now regrouped after their initial setback, could see that the southern right wing was in disarray and no longer posed a threat. This allowed the Gruesel Brigade to support White and freely convert to the right. Surrounding the southern infantry on three sides, the Northerners then launched a counterattack. Disorganized by the combat and their march through rugged terrain and dense forest, Louis Hébert's men soon retreated. In the confusion, their leader found himself isolated with a small detachment. It ends up being capture by northern riders.

Pea Ridge, March 7, 1862: The fighting around Leetown.

Albert Pike did not learn until 3:00 p.m. of McCulloch and McIntosh's death and Hébert's disappearance. Although not next in the chain of command - that place belonged to Colonel Elkanah Greer - Pike felt that his higher rank (Brigadier-General) authorized him to take over the division. He ordered a withdrawal to the point where she had separated from the rest of the army a few hours earlier. Not all units received his instructions, and the retreat was even deeper. confused than the action that preceded it. Some regiments stopped at the agreed point, others continued their way far back, resuming the route they had arrived at. Finally, those who could circled Big Mountain to lend a hand to Van Dorn and Price, engaged further east on the Telegraph route.

First day at Elkhorn Tavern

Price's division was approaching the Tanyard farm when, at around 9:30 am, it encountered northern infantrymen deployed in skirmishers across the road. These were the advanced elements of Carr's division, which Curtis had sent to meet Price. Eugene Carr had a battery deployed in a forward position, in order to give himself time to line up his infantry. Its lead brigade, commanded by Grenville Dodge, is based aroundElkhorn Tavern, a secluded inn built at the intersection of Telegraph Road and Huntsville Road, which leads east.

Hitherto in a hurry to advance, Van Dorn suddenly lost his aggressiveness against the northern cannons. He carefully deployed his troops and ordered his own artillery. Alone against a score of southern cannons, the battery held out as long as it could - its commander taking a wound in the process. Elkhorn Tavern being located on a plateau named Pea ridge, the Feds had the height advantage. Carr took the opportunity to launch his men forward despite their numerical inferiority, the Southerners having the disadvantage of having to climb the slope.

Pea Ridge, March 7, 1862: The fighting around Elkhorn Tavern, first phase.

Dodge's men, largely outnumbered, had to defend a very stretched line. Helped by the terrain and vegetation, they managed to hold out long enough to allow the arrival of the other brigade of Carr's division, commanded by William Vandever. It deployed to the left of Dodge, and immediately counterattacked enemy forces advancing cautiously on the southern slopes of Big Mountain. Taking in flank the southern brigades of Henry Little and William Slack, Vandever's men inflicted severe losses, in a fight where Slack was fatally injured.

The divisional commanders were not spared. Carr was injured three times, and Price was slightly injured as well. Van Dorn took direct command of the three brigades on his right wing, while Price kept the Missourian Guard contingent on the left under his command. On her own initiative, Little attacked the position held by Vandever. Van Dorn ended up resuming a more frankly offensive attitude and sent Colton Greene's brigade to reinforce him. With the help of Slack's men now led by Colonel Rosser, the right wing of the Confederates pushed back opposite in the direction of Elkhorn Tavern.

Van Dorn then ordered a general attack for 4.30 p.m. After heavy fighting around the Clemon farm, Price managed to break through the northern right wing. The Federals attempted to brace themselves to a semi-circular position around Elkhorn Tavern, to which Curtis was only sending reinforcements in dribbles. With the exception of Vandever, almost all of the senior officers in Carr's division were injured. When Carr told him he could no longer hold the position, Curtis ordered him in return to "persevere ». « He did, Curtis later reported, "and the sad desolation in the ranks of the 4th and 9th from Iowa, Missourians from Phelps, 24th of Major Weston's Missouri, and all the troops in that division would show the price of this perseverance. »

Carr's men eventually gave in, however, and withdrew in good order, leaving Elkhorn Tavern in the hands of their enemies. Joined at about 6:30 p.m. by Curtis himself, who was bringing the main body of Asboth's division with him, they attempted to reestablish a line of defense among the cultivated fields that stretched southwest of the inn. When Dodge pointed out to Curtis that his men had run out of ammunition, his superior ordered a bayonet charge. The soldiers complied, but soon suffered severe casualties, with Asboth adding to the casualty list. Curtis cut short the maneuver. Despite everything, this was enough to halt the Confederate advance: the Southerners too were running out of cartridges, they were hungry - for lack of having captured the northern supply wagons - and night was falling.

Pea Ridge, March 7, 1862: The fighting around Elkhorn Tavern, second phase.

Such is taken who believed to take

Van Dorn remained in a passive posture as he desperately tried to obtain ammunition for his men. It was there all paradox of his situation: If he had managed to cut Curtis off his supply base, he found himself in a similar situation having left his ammunition carts behind. Staying around Bentonville, they were hours away from the battlefield, while the Northerners, for their part, still had theirs and did not risk shortages. The two camps faced each other on a cold night, across the open fields that stretched southwest of Elkhorn Tavern.

Samuel Curtis hadn't been idle overnight, and he hadn't given up on his aggressive state of mind. He regrouped most of his forces against Van Dorn, and planned an attack. Davis' division moved to the left of Carr's exhausted men, while Sigel was to lead his troops - Osterhaus and Asboth divisions - in a maneuver intended to outflank the right flank of the Confederates by a road coming from the west. Sunrise on March 8, however, revealed that the Southerners had prepared for this eventuality.

However, the rising sun also revealed to Colonel Osterhaus, who was on reconnaissance, that the enemy had overlooked a small height to their right. Sigel immediately recognized an ideal position on which to place his artillery, and he decided to march directly on it instead of the complex approach march originally planned. This improvisation would prove to be decisive. As Curtis began firing the cannon at 7 am on the right wing, Sigel was finishing his left wing in two rows, with Osterhaus' division preceding Asboth's. The Southern artillery tried to impede its advance, but it lost its duel with the Northern cannons the faster as its ammunition boxes were nearly empty.

Before 9 a.m. the situation had become critical for the Confederates on their right flank. Van Dorn attempted to retaliate by extending his lines over the southern slopes of Big Mountain, including the few elements of the late McCulloch's division that Pike had managed to bring back with him. The maneuver might be successful, as it would give the Southerners the advantage of height. But Sigel made him concentrate the fire of his artillery against this position: the rocky ground of Big Mountain soon worsened the effects of the Northern bombardment and, as Sigel noted, "pebbles and rocks wreaked havoc as bushes and cannonballs ". The general also slid the elements of Asboth's division to his left: Frederick Schaefer's brigade and the equivalent of two cavalry regiments.

These forces drove the Southerners back without great difficulty. Around 10 a.m., Sigel launched all his troops into a new assault. Powerless for lack of ammunition, Van Dorn soon had no choice but to order a withdrawal. Sigel’s advance threatened to cut off the Telegraph route, so Van Dorn chose to take another route, which led east - that is, completely the opposite of that which the Southerners had followed the previous days. A decision that confused both his pursuers and his own men.

Missouri is lost

Curtis not realizing what Van Dorn was doing, he attacked Davis' division but neglected to do the same with Carr's, when Carr, to the far right of his device, was best placed to cut. the Confederate retreat. But the withdrawal was also carried out in a certain confusion southern side. Part of the right wing troops, pressed by Sigel's men, panicked and threw themselves into the Telegraph road, falling back to where they had come. It was rumored for a while that Van Dorn and Price had been captured. "No one was there to give an order anymore General Pike then reported. By noon the Federals had recaptured Elkhorn Tavern.

Pea Ridge, March 8, 1862.

Pike tried to use his Cherokee horsemen to cover his retreat, but it quickly turned into flight, during which many Confederates were captured. Their losses could have been greater if Franz Sigel, particularly brilliant in the morning's fighting, had not committed an incredible error of judgment believing that the enemy was retreating in the direction of… Missouri! He led his troops far north and did not turn around until the next day, when the Southerners had managed to escape. Their retreat to their base at Cove Creek, without supplies across the snow-capped Boston Mountains, was very difficult, however.

Earl Van Dorn's daring but hasty offensive had failed. Curtis reported the loss of 1,351 men of which 203 were killed. His Southern counterpart placed his at around 800, but it is very likely that Van Dorn - who twice overestimated the numbers he faced - underestimated them to minimize his defeat. The figure of 2,000 seems to be a minimum given the prisoners, but also the undoubtedly high number of soldiers - whether deserters or victims of cold and hunger - lost en route during the retreat.

More importantly, the Battle of Pea Ridge was a serious strategic setback for the Confederacy. In the fight for Missouri, she definitively removed the initiative from the South. Never was the Confederation in a position to threaten Union control over that state thereafter - although the North had a hard time against the secessionist guerrillas that had developed there. The operation that General Price launched in the fall of 1864 was more of a large-scale raid than an offensive, and it ended up in disaster. The defense of Arkansas, a poor state, out of the way and without great strategic value, quickly fell to the second rank of the Confederation’s priorities. Leaving behind only scattered troops, Van Dorn's army was soon transferred to the eastern bank of the Mississippi.


- General article on the Battle of Pea Ridge.

- Allen Parfitt article on the battle.

Video: 1862-09 Battle of Pea Ridge (January 2022).