Battle of Pea Ridge
(also known as Elk Horn Tavern)
Location: Benton County, AR
(near Garfield, AR)
Dates: March 6-8, 1862
Samuel R. Curtis, Brigadier General
Earl Van Dorn, Major General
Missouri was one of the most hotly contested states in the Union.
Abraham Lincoln knew the strategic importance of Missouri to the Union and
thus established his department of the West in St Louis. In August,
1861, Federal troops led by Brigadier General
Nathanial Lyon pushed
southwest, from St Louis, to the Springfield, Missouri area, to confront
Missouri State Guard troops under Major General
Sterling Price, and
Confederate troops under Brigadier General
Ben McCullough. On August
10, these troops met at Wilson's Creek, where Lyon would be killed (the
first general to die in the Civil War) and Union troops would be repulsed.
After the defeat at Wilson's Creek, Union troops would move back to Rolla,
and St. Louis, for the winter. Missouri State Guard troops, under
Price, would remain on the offensive, taking a fort near Lexington, Missouri
in September. Price would winter his troops in the vicinity of
McCullough would winter his troops near the Boston
Mountains in northwest Arkansas.
In November, 1861, in order to bring a
cohesive command to the Department of the Missouri,
John C. Fremont was
removed in favor of Major General
David Hunter and then by Major General
Henry W. Halleck on November 18, 1861. Halleck was called "Old Brains"
for his tactical understanding of fighting battles. However,
preferring to administrate, from St. Louis, he left Brigadier General
Curtis in charge of the troops near St. Louis. In December, 1861,
Curtis' command would become known as the Army of the Southwest.
Curtis was instructed, by
Halleck, to push the rebel troops
from the state of Missouri. Moving his troops to the Springfield area,
on February 11, Curtis would push Price's Missouri State Guard troops down
the Telegraph Road and into northwest Arkansas. Price would unite with
McCullough in the vicinity of the Boston Mountains. Curtis, in pursuit
Sterling Price, stopped along Little Sugar Creek, just south of a
hostelry, Elkhorn Tavern.
In early March, Jefferson Davis installed Major
Earl Van Dorn to command his Army of the West. Immediately
traveling to northwest Arkansas, he met with his new lieutenants -
Sterling Price. Van Dorn, being an aggressive fighter,
immediately made plans to engage Curtis.
Curtis, expecting Van
Dorn to attack from the south, fortified his position along Little Sugar
Creek. His defensive works were impressive, and he was certain he
could handle anything
Van Dorn could deliver.
Moving out on March 4, a day
that brought snow to northwest Arkansas, Van Dorn pushed his troops north.
On March 6, Van Dorn encountered, and quickly routed Federal rear guard
troops commanded by Brigadier General
Franz Sigel, near Bentonville.
Van Dorn pressed on, outpacing his supply train, marched his two divisions
along Bentonville Detour, determined to get behind
Curtis, blocking his
escape route north, into Missouri. Bentonville Detour, being a little
known local road became clogged with Confederates. By mid-morning
Price's division had reached Telegraph Road, north of Elkhorn Tavern, but
McCullough's troops were still far behind. In order to shorten their
route, Van Dorn instructed McCullough to take a shorter route, south of
Elkhorn Mountain, meeting Price's troops at Elkhorn Tavern. This
fateful decision would haunt Van Dorn, as he separated his army, in front of
a powerful foe.
Curtis, being alerted by
Sigel, early on March
7, had pressed his troops into action, reversing his army, that was facing
south, to face north, the direction Van Dorn would approach from. This
was truly a feat and was one of the most celebrated "changes of front"
occurring during the Civil War.
Determining to hit the rebels in their
flank, as they moved south on the Telegraph Road, Curtis sent two divisions,
Peter Osterhaus and Brigadier General
Jefferson Davis (no relation to the
Confederate president, Jefferson C. Davis), toward the settlement, Leetown.
In the Foster farm field, north of Leetown, Union cavalry and an artillery
battery, were surprised to find
McCullough's division moving east on Ford
Road, in route to meet Price at Elkhorn Tavern. With cannon unlimbered, the Federals enfiladed the rebels.
McCullough, quickly dispatching his cavalry, supported by two regiments of
Cherokees, scattered the Union forces and captured the battery.
Osterhaus time to deploy his division in Oberson's corn
field, south of the Ford Road. Partially protected by fences, the
Union troops were engaged by McCullough. With McCullough riding on a
horse, far in the front, wearing a simple black coat, he became an
easy target for Union skirmishers.
McCullough was shot and died
instantly, unknown to many of his own troops. Command devolved to
James McIntosh, who lead a general infantry assault
further to the Confederate left. While leading one of his regiments,
McIntosh was also killed. This ended fighting in the Oberson field.
Further left of McIntosh's position, CS Colonel,
Louis Hebert, led 2,000
rebel troops into a dense thicket of woods, east of the Oberson field.
They ran into the two regiments of the Union division commanded by Brigadier
Jefferson Davis, pushing them back toward Leetown and capturing two
Federal cannons. Davis sent two Indiana regiments, from his other
brigade, to the right, into the rebel left flank while troops under
Osterhaus hit Hebert's right flank. Hebert, was forced to retreat to
the Ford Road and resumed his march, east, to Elkhorn Tavern to meet with
Price's Missouri troops.
About this time,
arrived at Leetown
with additional Federal reinforcements. This effectively secured
this sector of the battlefield allowing them to march toward the fighting
now occurring near Elkhorn Tavern.
While the fight at Oberson's field was
Van Dorn pushed
Price's troops down the Telegraph Road, towards
Elkhorn Tavern. Just north of the tavern, the Confederates had to
cross a deep canyon, called Cross Timber Hollow. Federal 4th division
troops, under Colonel
Eugene Carr, were on the south side of Cross Timber
Hollow, on the Pea Ridge plateau. This was an excellent defensive
position, but the one division could not hold back Price's much larger
force. Leaving many wounded, and dead, rebels, in Cross Timber Hollow,
Price pushed Carr south of Elkhorn Tavern, near the Clemon farm. This
area of the battlefield was to endure the most desperate fighting of the
day. Fighting for the day ended, as darkness began to cover the field
During the overnight hours,
Curtis, undeterred, began to
consolidate his troops south of Elkhorn Tavern, in a formidable line of
battle. On the other side of the field,
Van Dorn was enjoying his
achievements in pushing Curtis' troops south of the tavern. His plan
was to finish his work in the morning, believing it would be a fairly quick,
and easy conclusion of the battle. However, he forgot one very
important thing. He had left his supply train miles behind him with
food and ammunition.
At dawn, on March 8,
Curtis' troop placements were as
follows, left to right: 1st Division (Osterhaus), 2nd Division (Asboth), 3rd
Division (Davis), 4th Division (Carr). These were faced by
the left, and the remnants of
McCullough's army on the right - many of which
were entrenched on the face of Elkhorn Mountain.
With the sky beginning to
brighten, the Confederate Army could see the entire Union Army spread before
them. It was an amazing sight, one which the soldiers would remember
years into the future. Under cover, of the largest artillery
bombardment, to that point in the war,
Sigel advanced his troops, turning on
his right flank, and pushing the remnants of
McCullough's troops from their
entrenchments on the rebel right. At this point,
Curtis advanced the
rest of his troops on the Union right.
Van Dorn was caught by surprise by the aggressive Union offensive.
Furthermore, realizing he had little artillery ammunition to face the
Federal offensive, he ordered a retreat southeast on the Huntsville Road,
with many of his troops, on the right, scattering towards the north, not
rejoining Van Dorn for several days. Many of the rebels dropped their
weapons and returned home, never to rejoin the Confederate effort.
Unaware of which direction
Van Dorn's Army of the West retreated,
did not give pursuit until the following day, never catching up with him.
Outcome: Union victory
Union: 1,384 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 2,000 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Samuel Curtis would continue to pursue
Earl Van Dorn through Arkansas, but would
not catch him. Van Dorn, having been directed by
Johnston, to join him at Corinth, MS, would leave Arkansas in late March.
Unfortunately, he as not able to arrive in time to reinforce Johnston's
troops that would be mauled by
U.S. Grant at Shiloh. Having been
William Rosecrans at Corinth, Van Dorn would be replaced by Lieutenant
John Pemberton. Later, Van Dorn would be "murdered" by a
jealous husband, claiming he had "destroyed the sanctity of his home."
Curtis' victory at Pea Ridge would remove any organized Confederate efforts
in Missouri for the remainder of the war, with the exception of a brief,
largely unsuccessful, incursion by
Sterling Price during September and October 1864.
Unfortunately, Missouri would continue to be plagued by rebel guerilla
warfare through the remainder of the war - and beyond.