The Battle of Pea Ridge, which took place March 7-8, 1862, is a highly obscure military action in large part because none of the generals became heroes after the war. But its impact on the course of the war was immense.
On Christmas Day 1861 Major General Henry W. Halleck placed Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis in command of the Army of the Southwest and directed him to defeat any Confederate forces in Missouri. For the next six weeks Curtis and his army struggled across the Ozark Plateau toward Springfield, the principal town in southwest Missouri. The Missouri State Guard, a pro-Confederate militia under the command of Major General Sterling Price, was located there. Curtis had twice as many men as Price, but Price had potential support from the Confederate army in northwest Arkansas under the command of Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch. Price and McCulloch had joined to defeat Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon at Wilson’s Creek the previous summer, but the two generals couldn’t stand one another and their armies, less than one hundred miles apart, operated independently of one another. President Jefferson Davis tried to fix the situation by placing Major General Earl Van Dorn in charge of all Confederate forces west of the Mississippi River. But before Van Dorn could reach his new command the military situation had changed drastically. Price abandoned Springfield and retreated south to join McCulloch in Arkansas. Curtis followed, determined to bring the Rebels to battle at the first opportunity.
The Missourians entered Arkansas on February 16. Price joined McCulloch at Cross Hollows but the two feuding generals were unable to agree on a course of action and continued to retreat, finally stopping in the Boston Mountains, sixty miles inside Arkansas. At this point, Curtis was facing a combined force larger than his own, which had defeated this army the previous year.
Why were the Confederate forces surprised to learn that the Union army was advancing? Why weren’t they prepared for it?
Winter warfare with troop movement was a distinctly uncommon military tactic in the 19th century. The Confederates were unprepared for the appearance of a Union army atop the Ozark Plateau in the middle of winter.
When Price led his soldiers out of Missouri, the Confederacy had sustained a significant strategic defeat from which it would never recover. No Confederate army would ever return with a realistic chance of staying. The 16,000 men and 65 guns of the Army of the West comprised 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, which numbered only 10,250 men and 44 guns at this stage of the campaign. No other Confederate army ever marched off to battle with a greater numerical superiority.
Curtis made a crucial decision, knowing he was outnumbered. He not only chose to remain, he divided his army in the face of a larger enemy: clearly not the textbook answer. Curtis took a calculated risk and divided his army to occupy Cross Hollows and Brigadier General Franz Sigel’s troops spread out along McKissick’s Creek, twelve miles to the northwest. If the Confederates came storming out of the Boston Mountains, the two wings of the Union army would unite at Little Sugar Creek, a half-dozen miles south of the state line. An imposing line of bluffs behind the stream formed a perfect defensive position.
Conversely, Van Dorn made only one decision, and that was to convert McCulloch’s army into McCulloch’s division and Price’s army into Price’s division, and give the combined force a new name: the Army of the West. Tomorrow we will pick up with Van Dorn’s operational decisions.
Van Dorn decided to march north, seize the junction at Bentonville midway between the two halves of the Union army, and defeat each half in detail. Speed and surprise were essential, so Van Dorn stipulated that each Confederate soldier carry only his weapon, forty rounds of ammunition, a blanket, and three day’s rations. All other supplies were to be left behind in the Boston Mountains. He never once considered the possibility that something might go awry marching men in the winter, let alone that it might, you know, snow. At this moment, a late winter storm swept across the Ozark Plateau and covered the roads with sleet and snow. The pace of the advance slowed to a crawl and the Confederates suffered with no tents and only one blanket to each man. After two dreadful days and nights in the open, the shivering Confederates ate the last of their rations. By the time his army arrived at Bentonville, Sigel had already combined with Price, as had been planned, when Price had learned of the counteroffensive.
The snow had stopped but the temperature was lower than the night before. The Confederate column shuffled along at a snail’s pace, a pace made slower by massive blockades of trees felled by Union engineers. A third of Van Dorn’s troops fell by the wayside during the seemingly endless march. At dawn on March 7, the head of the Confederate column finally reached Telegraph Road deep in the Union rear. Van Dorn was elated. His army was squarely across the enemy’s line of communications. It was the supreme moment of his career. The fact that his army was stretched out for miles, had no supplies, and had been through a disaster did not seem to register with him; he thought he was on the verge of a great victory. Meanwhile, Curtis’ Army of the Southwest had established a defensive position on the bluffs overlooking Little Sugar Creek.
And then Van Dorn made a colossal error. It might seem unbelievable, but he chose to divide his army rather than attack Curtis’ fortifications as a single force. Van Dorn planned to march around the Union right flank. Van Dorn’s two wings were separated by Pea Ridge, advancing on two roughly parallel roads, and subsequently compelled to fight two distinct actions, with neither wing able to support the other
Union scouts had detected the Confederate movement. Curtis was a very methodical man and had difficulty grasping the reckless mentality of his opponent. For several hours he remained convinced that the presence of Confederate troops to the north was a diversion and that the primary threat still lay to the south along Little Sugar Creek. Nevertheless, Curtis could not permit even a diversionary force to rampage around in his rear. The fields near Elkhorn Tavern were crowded with hundreds of supply wagons. Curtis decided to keep two-thirds of his army at Little Sugar Creek and send the remainder to intercept the Confederates and keep them away from his trains.
On the morning of March 7, 1862, the head of Van Dorn’s column struck the 24th Missouri near Elkhorn Tavern. Federal infantry of Col. Eugene Carr’s division rushed to the aid of the lone regiment, but to no avail. Though Van Dorn’s cautious deployment of Price’s force allowed Carr ample time to reinforce his troops at Elkhorn, the Southerners still held the numerical advantage. Successive waves of Confederate attacks on both Union flanks, forced the Yankees to fall back to Ruddick’s Field.
Meanwhile, McCullough’s 8,000 Confederates—veterans of Wilson’s Creek—marched east on Ford Road. Just before noon, they were set upon by Federal cavalry under Cyrus Bussey. Bussey’s attack bought Union division commander Peter J. Osterhaus precious time to bring up his infantry. While wheeling his troops into position, Gen. McCullough was killed, as was his successor, James McIntosh. Confusion reigned in the Southern ranks. When McCulloch was killed, his division fell apart while Van Dorn absorbed himself in the tactical details of Price’s fight. The remaining Confederates—including a brigade of Native Americans under Gen. Albert Pike—attempted to drive off the Federal attack, but were checked by the arrival of Jefferson C. Davis’ division of Yankee infantry. Without support from Price’s troops, the remnants of McCullough’s command were forced to withdraw.
Despite being badly beaten during the fighting on March 7, the Union still held a strong position south of Elkhorn Tavern. That night, Gen. Curtis consolidated his forces, bringing up the divisions of Davis and Osterhaus—the same troops that had successfully driven Benjamin McCullough’s Confederates from the field at Leetown. On the morning of March 8, a furious artillery bombardment wrought havoc on the Southern line. Immediately following, Gen. Franz Sigel led a Union assault, driving in the Confederate right. Davis’ division soon followed, attacking the center. Lacking ammunition and sufficient artillery support, the remnants of McCulloch’s division were compelled to withdraw and were able to escape past Curtis’ right flank, as Curtis held back Carr without knowing the line of the enemy retreat. Though the Confederate army had been allowed to escape relatively intact, the Union victory at Pea Ridge solidified Federal control over Missouri for the next two years.
2) What were the relative casualty rates? 3) Both commanding generals took chances in this battle, both made decisions that went against standard military operations, and both made tactical mistakes. So, why did the Union win and the Rebels lose this battle?
The Confederacy incurred a strategic loss despite having more soldiers on the battlefield. This was the only battle in the entire Civil War when that happened. Moreover, the casualties favored the Union as well. The Union had 1384 (203 killed, 980 wounded, 201 missing) casualties of 10,500 men, the Confederacy had 2500 (at least 800 killed and wounded and 200 prisoners) of 16,000.
When we read standard precepts of war, we have to keep in mind also context, flexibility, and intuition. Custer was wrong to divide his men at Little Big Horn not just because he divided them but because he had no idea what he was facing. At Pea Ridge, Curtis broke the rules but had a plan and a contingency plan. He was prepared for things to go wrong and when they did, he had a fall back plan. He had division leaders who could make judgments on the field. But Van Dorn had no strategic plan, he had no contingency, he had no supplies, and when he lost his division commander, he had no leadership.
- Shea, William L. (1997). Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
- James M McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative. Volumes 1-3. Random House, 1963.