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Pea Ridge: Bloody Turning Point West of the Mississippi

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

Troops Battle Near Elkhorn Tavern

A painting titled "On the Battery" by present-day artist Andy Thomas, details Union and Confederate forces engaged in fierce combat near Elkhorn Tavern on the late afternoon of the first day of battle at Pea Ridge, March 7, 1862.

A painting titled "On the Battery" by present-day artist Andy Thomas, details Union and Confederate forces engaged in fierce combat near Elkhorn Tavern on the late afternoon of the first day of battle at Pea Ridge, March 7, 1862.

Prelude to Battle

In the spring of 1862, the state of Missouri was in a state of utter chaos torn over the question of slavery. The Confederate victory at Wilson's Creek on August 10,1861, left the state of Missouri leaning toward joining the Confederacy rather than staying with the Union led by Abraham Lincoln.

Bands of pro-slavery militia roamed the countryside looking to capture any runaway slaves they could find and to kill any abolitionist, (those who wished to end slavery), who might assist their escape. Union troops stationed at the arsenal in St. Louis battled to keep Missouri from joining the Confederacy along with the state of Arkansas.

American's 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, pledged to preserve the Union and abolish slavery sent Union troops to break up the rebel insurgency in Missouri. Lincoln assigned the task of crushing the pro-slavery forces in Missouri to his newly appointed Union General Samuel R. Curtis.

Soon after his appointment Curtis began to gather his Union army together and prepare them to seek out the rebel army who threatened to take control of Missouri by force. After putting down the rebel insurgence in St. Louis, Curtis advanced his Union army south from the railhead at Rolla into central Missouri. Defeating the rebel army in a series of skirmishes in southwest Missouri he advanced his troops further south, invading the Confederate state of Arkansas.

Once inside Arkansas his army set up camp near Bentonville throwing Confederate forces back as he advanced deeper into northwest Arkansas. Curtis and his Union army invaded Arkansas with approximately 12,000 Union soldiers and 50 artillery pieces. His plan was to block and destroy any further rebel advances into the state of Missouri.

He found an excellent defensive position on the north side of a stream called Little Sugar Creek in rugged Benton County Arkansas. Curtis quickly proceeded to fortify his position for an expected Confederate assault from the south. Due to the lengthy supply lines and a lack of reinforcements Curtis had decided it would not be wise to advance any further into hostile territory.

Commander of Confederate forces in Arkansas, Major General Earl Van Dorn, was surprised by the Union army's invasion. Soon after the Union invasion Van Dorn began to reorganize his forces to halt their advance. He devised a bold plan to destroy the Union army in northwest Arkansas. Afterward Van Dorn would follow up his victory with an advance toward Missouri's capital.

The rebel army consisted of a mixed force of irregulars and Confederate troops totaling approximately 16,000 men. The rebel army even included some 800 native American troops from the Oklahoma Territory led by Albert Pike. Van Dorn's army held contingents from General Price's Missouri State Guard, and Benjamin McCulloch's rebel force stationed at Fort Smith which included cavalry, infantry, and artillery from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri.

The upcoming Battle of Pea Ridge was one of the very few during the American Civil War of 1861-65 which a Confederate army outnumbered the Union opponent.

The Last Hour of Battle at Pea Ridge

The last hour of battle March 8,1862.  General Price and his Confederates were driven from Elk Horn Tavern by Union forces.

The last hour of battle March 8,1862. General Price and his Confederates were driven from Elk Horn Tavern by Union forces.

The Battle for Northwest Arkansas

Samuel Ryan Curtis was an 1831 graduate of West Point, like many other academy graduates in the early nineteenth century, he didn't make the military his career. He spent a year at a primitive post in Indian Territory and then resigned to become a civil engineer and attorney.

After the defeat at Wilson's Creek, Major General W. Halleck decided it was time for a change in leadership of the Union forces giving Samuel Curtis his first combat command, thirty years after graduating from West Point. Curtis arrived at Rolla, Missouri, the day after Christmas in 1861, with orders to assume command of all troops assembling in the area.

In February 1862, Curtis he began to move toward Price's winter quarters in Springfield forty-five miles away. Union troops only a few miles away, Price decided to withdraw rather than try to hold Springfield with his outnumbered and ill-equipped forces.

For the next ten days, Price and Curtis were involved in a running fight as Price and his men fell back into northwest Arkansas. With Curtis and his Union Army nipping at his troop's heels all along the way the two armies would settle in and wait for spring before they continued their fight.

Price's Missourians camped with McCulloch's men in the relative safety of the Boson Mountains south of Fayetteville, as Curtis occupied the old Confederate camp at Cross Hollow near Bentonville.

Earl Van Dorn was born in Port-Gibson, Mississippi, on September 17, 1820. He was the fourth of nine children of Peter and Sophia Van Dorn. Growing up as a son of plantation aristocracy, he was well connected both socially and politically to the antebellum southern power structure.

Jefferson Davis, the future Confederate president, was a neighbor and family friend of Van Dorn. His great-uncle was former president Andrew Jackson and the hero in the battle for New Orleans in the War of 1812.

Although he graduated from West Point in the summer of 1842, Van Dorn was not a model cadet, placing fourth from the bottom of his class of fifty-six but still two places ahead of another cadet who would become well known, James Longstreet of Georgia.

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In January 1862, Van Dorn was given the command of the Trans-Mississippi Department after much deliberation among the Confederate leadership in Richmond. He was the very image of a nineteenth century southern gentleman at five-foot-eight, he made a strong impression on the men he commanded and had a well-known reputation as an aggressive commander.

Van Dorn arrived in Little Rock on January 29, 1862, to take command of the Confederate Army of the West. He would spend the next three weeks making plans for his invasion of Missouri. Van Dorn had written Price promising him that reinforcements were on the way and a new offensive to re-take Missouri would begin on March 20, 1862, with at least fifteen thousand men.

A message Van Dorn received on February 22,1862, changed everything. It announced that the Union army had pushed Price out of Springfield Missouri ten days earlier. Price had been falling back into northwest Arkansas ever since. Price's Missouri State Guardsmen were now settling into a winter camp south of Fayetteville across a ridgeline from Benjamin McCulloch's Confederate army in northwest Arkansas.

After his initial shock from the bad news, Van Dorn began to see this chain of events as an opportunity. The main Union army in southwest Missouri had un-intentionally walked into a trap, with his forces now concentrated, Van Dorn now had a chance to destroy the Union army.

The Union forces now sat a camp fifteen miles north of Fayetteville, with only one road connecting it to its support back in Missouri. If Van Dorn could destroy Curtis and his army, it would give him control of northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri. It would put him closer to his ultimate goal of capturing St. Louis, the gateway to the western United States for Confederate forces.

Van Dorn made plans to leave immediately for the Confederate camps in northwest Arkansas, more than two hundred miles away from his headquarters in Little Rock. He finally had a chance to forge his name into history something he had always fantasized.

Van Dorn was a cavalryman at heart and would conduct the attack at Pea Ridge like he was still back in Texas fighting Indians. At Pea Ridge his army would travel light, so orders were given that all tents and camp equipment would be left behind.

Confederate soldiers would march with their rifle, forty rounds in their cartridge boxes, one blanket and three days rations in their knapsacks. This would seriously diminish the battle readiness of the Confederate forces at Pea Ridge. Most Civil War soldiers could easily eat in one day all the rations a small knapsack could hold.

A supply train with additional ammunition and rations would follow the army, until it arrived, Van Dorn's soldiers would have to live off the land and whatever enemy resources they could capture.

To further complicate matters, on the first day of their march north out of the Boston Mountains toward Fayetteville a late winter snowstorm arrived over northwest Arkansas. The fifty-five-mile march north for Van Dorn's troops became a grueling test of survival, especially for those troops who struggled to keep pace in the blinding sleet and snow.

Many of the Confederate troops would arrive at the battle barefoot after wearing out their shoes on the march to Pea Ridge. It didn't help morale that Van Dorn traveled alongside his frozen troops in a warm ambulance, after becoming ill soon after leaving the Confederate camps.

Benjamin McCulloch

Benjamin McCulloch in the dark velvet suit he wore that day at Leetown March 7,1861. He was perhaps the best Confederate commander on the field of battle that day.

Benjamin McCulloch in the dark velvet suit he wore that day at Leetown March 7,1861. He was perhaps the best Confederate commander on the field of battle that day.

Benjamin McCulloch

The commander of the Confederate army from Arkansas, Benjamin McCulloch, was a frontiersman from Tennessee who as a young man went to Texas to fight for its independence from Mexico with his friend and neighbor David Crockett.

He missed joining Crockett at the Alamo by weeks due to a case of measles in 1836. He later he fought as an artilleryman under the command of Sam Houston at the battle of San Jacinto and served in the congresses of the Republic of Texas and the United States.

He gained a well-known reputation as an Indian-fighting captain with the Texas Rangers. McCulloch would become the first civilian to receive a general's commission in the Confederate army. Soon afterward he would take command of the Confederate forces in Arkansas which later became known as the Army of the West.

Ben McCulloch had achieved considerable military success in the Texas fight for independence and in the republic's Indian wars. He had a national reputation as a Texas Ranger and as Zachary Taylor's chief of scouts in Mexican American War.

He spent three years in California as a forty-niner and sheriff of Sacramento, later he would receive an appointment as a federal marshal of eastern Texas. Yet despite his considerable military experience his hope of commanding more than just a small group cavalry was continually blocked by his lack of a formal education.

Of all the men appointed to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate army not even his fellow Tennessean Nathan Bedford Forrest had spent less time in school.

The strongest of McCulloch's character traits was his self-assurance. To the soldiers of the Confederate Army of the West, Ben McCulloch was fearless leader, a graceful rider, a desperate fighter, a reckless charger, and a great Indian fighter.

If he would have lived in the medieval days of chivalry, many would have ranked him a knight of the most superior class. According to family tradition, the McCulloch's descended from one of the oldest families in the Calloway district of southwestern Scotland, and one of the most warlike.

The first Scot to bear the name McCulloch is said to have served as a captain of horse, standard bearer, and, later, secretary of state to the legendary warrior-king of Ireland, Edward the Bruce.

It was no surprise that he inspired great loyalty and respect among his troops, especially those from Texas. At fifty years of age, McCulloch walked with a slight stoop the result of years of hard frontier life. Despite his age and small size, five feet ten inches, he impressed nearly everyone with whom he met.

McCulloch considered General Price and his state guard nothing more than a mob and was reluctant to work with them except in an emergency. It would create friction between the two commanders which became a public scandal before the end of 1861.

After Missouri's admission to the Confederacy, Governor Jackson and the Missouri congressional delegation in Richmond aggravated the situation by lobbying vigorously and tactlessly for Price's appointment as the overall commander in the Trans-Mississippi.

Van Dorn Loses the Element of Surprise

Van Dorn intended to march around Curtis's flank and attack the Union Army from the rear. This maneuver would either result in Curtis being forced to move north, or risk his troops being encircled and destroyed by Confederate forces.

He ordered his army to travel light, leaving all other supplies behind, including tents and cooking utensils in an effort to surprise Curtis's army entrenched on the Little Sugar Creek.

Rather than attack Union fortifications with a frontal assault, Van Dorn decided to force march his troops around the Union right flank and strike the Federals from the rear in the vicinity of Elkhorn Tavern.

This maneuver would divide Van Dorn's Confederate forces into two wings. One under General Benjamin McCullough whose troops were stationed in winter quarters near Lee Creek in the Boston Mountains. The other rebel force under General Sterling Price was hiding out in the Boston Mountains just south of Fayetteville Arkansas.

The element of surprise and concentration of forces was essential for Van Dorn's plan to be successful. As McCullough's 8,000 cold and exhausted Confederate soldiers marched east along Ford Road on the morning of March 7, 1862, their bayonets glistened in the early winter morning sun.

Unexpectedly McCullough's weary troops were surprised by Union cavalry. McCulloch appeared confident that his men would make short work of the Union troops. "In one hour, they will be ours," he remarked.

Despite the fact that his men were exhausted, having been on the move for over 24 hours since marching from their winter quarters over forty miles away in the Boston Mountains, rebel troops advanced with confidence.

The Federal cavalry bought the Union division commander at Leetown, Peter J. Osterhaus, precious time to bring up his infantry. While wheeling his troops into position to face this new threat, General McCullough was killed when he attempted to scout Union positions, soon after his successor, James McIntosh was also killed nearby.

McCulloch approached the Union positions at Oberson's field in an effort to reconnoiter the enemy's positions he wore a black velvet suit, a brown hat with a narrow brim, and high boots covered with woolen netting. His favorite Maynard rifle was slung over his shoulder. He was mounted on a tall handsome red sorrel that blended into the dead leaves still clinging to the scrub oaks.

As McCulloch rode toward Union positions, clad in black atop his tall horse he was outlined against the cloudless blue sky, he was struck down by a volley of Union muskets along the tree line, killed instantly by a bullet to the heart. The fatal episode occurred only a few hundred yards in front of the stationary Confederate line of battle.

A Confederate soldier would stumble upon McCulloch's body, he still had his boots and pistol, but his watch, rifle, and field glasses were gone. Members of McCulloch's staff would suppress the news of the Texan's death in order to prevent demoralization in the ranks. An error that would have serious consequences while his division was fully deployed for battle.

The unexpected appearance of a sizeable Federal force near Leetown derailed Van Dorn's plan to unite his army at Elkhorn Tavern and capture the high ground at the top of Pea Ridge. After the death of two commanders' confusion reigned in the Confederate ranks in Leetown after losing their most experienced battlefield commanders.

While McCulloch's division had been diverted from its primary objective and had suffered the loss of its famed commander, it had not yet been defeated.

The remaining Confederate forces, which included a brigade of Native Americans commanded by General Albert Pike, attempted to fend off the Union attack. The most unusual troops of the Confederate army were Brigadier General Albert Pike's Indian brigade.

The portrait below gives a glimpse of the Confederate army's dramatic cavalry charge during the battle for Leetown. Over 4,000 Confederates on horseback including Pike's Indians who overran a union artillery position, marking a high point for Confederate forces at the Battle for Pea Ridge.

It was ironic that one of the last Napoleonic cavalry charges on American soil was carried out by untrained Texas and Arkansas frontiersmen only thirty miles from Indian Territory. Newspapers in the eastern United States reported that Pike's Indians scalped Union soldiers during the battle shocking Union leaders.

Once the Union artillery began to lob projectiles in direction Pike's Indians, they melted away into the forest leaving the battle entirely. After Mcintosh and McCulloch were killed in the battle, Pike was left to lead the Confederate forces at Leetown.

Pike's troops were checked by the arrival of another division of Union infantry effectively blunting their attack. After the battle, Leetown would serve as a hospital for Union troops as Van Dorn's Confederates troops stormed Pea Ridge.

Battle for Leetown March 7, 1862

A painting showing the great Confederate cavalry charge at Leetown. If you look closely you can see Albert Pike's Indians charging Union artillery it was the high point of the battle for Confederate troops the charge involved over 4000 men.

A painting showing the great Confederate cavalry charge at Leetown. If you look closely you can see Albert Pike's Indians charging Union artillery it was the high point of the battle for Confederate troops the charge involved over 4000 men.

Map showing Van Dorn's overall strategy to attack the Curtis and his Union army in the rear at Pea Ridge

Map showing Van Dorn's overall strategy to attack the Curtis and his Union army in the rear at Pea Ridge

The Native American Troops at the Battle of Pea Ridge

By early May 1861, Union forces had abandoned all their posts in the Indian Territory, but Confederate leaders were still concerned about the possibility of an invasion of the region from Kansas by Union troops or by marauding groups of Kansas jayhawkers.

Such an invasion would establish a strong Union threat to western Arkansas, mainly to Fort Smith were the Confederate forces were assembling. The cooperation of the various tribes in the Indian Territory, mostly the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaw, Creeks, and Seminoles) would become a vital element to the defense of the region.

In May 1861 the Confederate government commissioned Albert Pike as a special agent to recruit the Indians west of Arkansas. Pike was an excellent choice. He was a lawyer, and a veteran of the Mexican War, also a longtime Whig editor and political leader in Arkansas.

Another important fact was that Pike was well acquainted with the histories and customs of the various tribes and defended several Creeks and Choctaws over the years in the courts of western Arkansas.

In 1852 the Creek nation chose Pike to defend its claims against the United States government for lands seized by Andrew Jackson in the Treaty of Fort Jackson in 1814. As the war began, he negotiated treaties between the Confederacy and the Five Tribes in Oklahoma, which authorized them to organize their own home guard for protection against possible Union invasion.

The treaty resulted in the formation of the 1st and 2cnd Cherokee Mounted Rifles, the 1st Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles, the 1st Creek, and assorted battalions and companies all total around 2,500 troops.

The 800 native troops at the Battle of Pea Ridge were entirely undisciplined and not very well armed. When faced with Union artillery they deserted the battlefield and melted into the woods no longer a factor in the battle.

Confederate Gun

Union artillery used rifled barrels and was more accurate than smooth bore Confederate cannons

Union artillery used rifled barrels and was more accurate than smooth bore Confederate cannons

Battle for Elkhorn Tavern

That same morning as the Battle of Leetown was underway, General Sterling Price's Missouri State Guardsmen struck a Union regiment of the 24th Missouri, near Elkhorn Tavern. Union infantry rushed to the aid of the lone regiment but to no avail. Price was too cautious and failed to reinforce his troops at Elkhorn Tavern, but the Confederate troops still held the numerical advantage.

Successive waves of Confederate infantry attacked Union positions forcing the Union forces to fall back to Ruddick's Field, leaving Elkhorn Tavern to Confederate forces. Some of the heaviest fighting of the first day of battle took place around the Elkhorn Tavern.

Late in the afternoon, Union Commander Curtis supplied his troops with fresh ammunition and organized a counterattack to re-take the Tavern, but the attack was later called off as daylight faded into darkness.

Though Union forces had been beaten badly, during the night Curtis consolidated all his forces to a strong position south of Elkhorn Tavern and prepared for the next day's attack. Confederate forces were forced to sleep beneath the stars on that cold night left with little or no ammunition, and only with what food they could ransack from Elkhorn Tavern.

Confederate generals had left their supply train behind at Bentonville expecting a one-day battle. That decision would dramatically affect the battle a Pea Ridge. Many Confederate troops were barefoot, because the 50-mile march to Pea Ridge they literally wore the shoes off their feet.

Prices troops marched up from Devils Den over the very rugged Boston Mountains in a freezing rain to reach the battlefield just in time to surprise Union troops. To make matters even worse, Union and Confederate forces had to endure a late winter storm that dropped snow over most of the battlefield.

On the morning of March 8, 1862, a furious Union artillery bombardment wrought havoc on the Confederate line around Elkhorn Tavern, lacking ammunition and sufficient artillery support Confederate troops were forced to retreat down Huntsville Road relinquishing the battlefield to the Union troops at Pea Ridge.

Van Dorn was sick with pneumonia and lacked the energy to organize a counterattack against the Union troops atop Pea Ridge. With the Confederate supply train still in Bentonville over 15 miles from the battlefield and in danger of capture by Union cavalry Confederate forces were forced to retreat.

Van Dorn's bold reckless attack was thwarted by better Union leadership and the harsh winter weather. The Union victory at Pea Ridge solidified Union control over northwestern Arkansas and Missouri in 1862.

The defeat at Pea Ridge also meant that Union troops would continue their advance into Arkansas occupying most of the state by the end of the war. Van Dorn was so demoralized after the battle he marched his Army of the Southwest to the east bank of the Mississippi River, leaving Arkansas defenseless as Union troops occupied most of the state.

Van Dorn spent the entire Battle for Pea Ridge in an ambulance with a case of pneumonia, far away from the scene of the battle. A lack of battlefield leadership cost the Confederate forces a victory at Pea Ridge.

Had McCulloch lived to conduct the early moments of the battle it is possible that his troops would have captured the Union supply train at Leetown possibly turning the odds in the favor of the Confederate forces at Pea Ridge.

Elkhorn Tavern

Confederate troops would capture Elkhorn Tavern on March 7,1862, on the first day of the battle. After Confederate troops took the tavern they stopped fighting too hungry and exhausted to continue the battle.

Confederate troops would capture Elkhorn Tavern on March 7,1862, on the first day of the battle. After Confederate troops took the tavern they stopped fighting too hungry and exhausted to continue the battle.

The Tide Turns

The Battle of Pea Ridge was decided on March 8, 1862, the night before Curtis reorganized his army and made sure that all his men were fed, rested, and supplied with ammunition. On the next morning, Union troops were ready to resume combat, but the Confederates were not. Van Dorn needed to re-supply his army but realized he forgot to bring up the supply trains, they were still in Bentonville over 15 miles away from the battle.

Most of the Rebel forces didn't receive any new food or ammunition during the entire battle, on the first day after Confederate troops captured Elk Horn Tavern, they stopped fighting in the middle of the battle to raid the building for whatever food they could find.

The Confederate men and animals were worn out from the march over the Boston Mountains, they arrived at the battle with little sleep, and few supplies. When Curtis attacked on the morning of March the 8th with his entire army the Confederate battle lines began to crumble.

Van Dorn was forced to accept the fact the battle was lost, and that his army was in danger of being trapped and destroyed, he sent his exhausted army east toward Huntsville.

The Battle of Pea Ridge was over, and it was an overwhelming victory for the Union troops who were left in control of the battlefield. The Confederate Army lost over 2,000 soldiers and the Union army lost approximately 1,350 soldiers. The battle of Pea Ridge marked a dramatic turning point for Confederate forces in both Arkansas and Missouri.

As the defeated Confederate soldiers struggled to cross the Arkansas River on their way back to Fort Smith, hundreds of hungry rebel soldiers disenchanted by the defeat drifted away from the army and went home to their farms.

Missouri would stay in Union hands, and the Confederacy in Arkansas suffered a defeat from which they could never completely recover. For the shattered Confederated forces in Arkansas, the battle's aftermath was much more disastrous than the battle itself. It would leave the state of Arkansas open for a Union invasion and a harsh occupation which its citizens would have to endure for another three years.


Clavin, Tom. Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter. St. Martin's Press. 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. 10010 2019

DeBlack, Thomas A. With Fire and Sword Arkansas 1861-1874. The University of Arkansas Press. Fayetteville, AR 72701, 2003.

Knight, James R. The Battle Of Pea Ridge: The Civil War Fight For The Ozarks. The History Press. 18 Percy Street, Charleston SC 29403 , U.S.A. 2012.

Shea, William L. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 116 S Boundary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514 , U.S.A. 1992


Carlos Dunbar on March 13, 2016:

They should have read "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, excellent book on the strategy of beating your enemy.