The Battle of Pea Ridge
Today marks the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Pea Ridge—also known as the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern. Occurring on March 7 and 8, 1862 near Leetown, Arkansas, the Battle of Pea Ridge included American Indian troops under the leadership of Brigadier General Albert Pike. Pike’s “Indian Brigade” supported Confederate General Earl Van Dorn and the Army of the West as they tried unsuccessfully to rout Union Major General Samuel R. Curtis and the Army of the Southwest.
Van Dorn’s initial plan was to take advantage of his numerical advantage—16,000 to the Union’s 10,250—to attack the Army of the Southwest in northern Arkansas and then seize St. Louis, Missouri. Accordingly, Van Dorn ordered his army north toward Fayetteville, hoping to destroy Union detachments scattered near Little Sugar Creek. When his weary troops failed—they had just trekked across the Boston Mountains—Van Dorn shifted strategies and planned a two-pronged rear assault on the Union position; Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch would skirt around Pea Ridge to attack from the west while Major General Sterling Price would take the Bentonville Detour to skirt the mountain from the opposite side. The two forces would then link up at Elkhorn Tavern and launch an assault on the Federals. While Curtis did not anticipate such plans, he did fell trees and make obstructions to delay any Rebel movement around Pea Ridge via the Bentonville Detour.
The Confederate attack commenced the morning of March 7th. Combat ensued when Union Colonel Peter J. Osterhaus’ troops reconnoitered the Confederates. Initially successful, the Confederates focused their attention to Leetown. There, McCullough was killed while trying to investigate the Union position. Union soldiers also gunned down his second in command, Brigadier General James McIntosh, leaving half of the rebel forces without a leader. East of Leetown, Confederate Colonel Louis Hébert—then the ranking Confederate officer on this part of the field—launched an unsupported attack against Colonel Jefferson Columbus Davis’ Third Division. Amidst the woods, Davis’ Division repelled the assault and captured Herbert. Meanwhile, Price was late but more successful in the launch of his assault. By late afternoon, Price’s troops had pushed Colonel Eugene Carr’s Fourth Division back to Elkhorn Tavern. Subsequent flanking movements failed but Price’s men did successfully dislodge Colonel Grenville Dodge’s Fourth Iowa by nightfall.
The outcome of the battle was decided on March 8th. As Curtis spent most of the night preparing his troops, ensuring that they were well fed, rested, and supplied, the Union forces were ready for a second day of fighting. Unfortunately, Van Dorn had failed to bring up the supply trains while he re-concentrated his forces; the rebels had neither food in their stomachs nor ammunition in their guns come the dawn of the 8th. Union cannons quickly forced the rebel retreat, ending the battle decisively in favor of the Federals. One of the bloodiest battles west of the Mississippi River, the Battle of Pea Ridge resulted in 2,000 Confederate casualties and 1,384 Union casualties. Ultimately, the Battle of Pea Ridge played a pivotal role in opening up Arkansas to Union occupation and preserving Missouri in the Union.
Recommended Reading List:
Baxter, William. Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove: Scenes and Incidents of the War in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Clifford, Roy A. "The Indian Regiments in the Battle of Pea Ridge," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 25 (Winter 1947-48): 314-322.
Hess, Earl J. “Cherokees at Pea Ridge, March 7-8, 1862.” The Civil War Trust web site. Accessed March 6, 2012. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/pearidge/pea-ridge-history-articles/cherokeespearidgehess.html.
________., William Shea, William Piston, and Richard Hatcher. Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
Scott, Doug and Steve Black. “Lessons from Pea Ridge: Combining Archeology, History, and Resource Management to Gain Greater Understanding of Past Events." The Civil War Trust web site. Accessed March 6, 2012. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/pearidge/pea-ridge-history-articles/lessonsfrompearidgescott.html.
Shea, William. “Winter Battle: Pea Ridge and the Civil War in the West.” The Civil War Trust web site. Accessed March 6, 2012. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/pearidge/pea-ridge-history-articles/winterbattlepearidgeshea.html.
________. and Earl Hess. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.