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Posted November 15, 2003
"A NEW VIEW OF THE BATTLE OF PEA RIDGE"
by Albert Castel
Copyright 1968 Albert Castel. Used with Permission.
This is copyrighted material--the article, the pictures, and the introduction--and may not be copied or reproduced in any form, including on other websites, without permission of the authors.
Books by Albert Castel
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Introduced by G. E. Rule
Albert Castel, over a published career that is approaching fifty years, has proven himself to be the leading historian of the Civil War in the West. With titles like General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West (1968), William Clarke Quantrill: His Life and Times (1962), and Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla (with Thomas Goodrich, 1998), none of those who are serious about studying the war in Missouri can consider themselves well-read on the subject if they have not read Castel. His other titles on the war in the West will also be read for many years to come, and his Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (1992) is an award-winning title that is likely to remain the definitive statement on what was arguably the most important campaign of the war. Dr. Castel’s most recent title, Articles of War: Winners, Losers, and Some Who Were Both in the Civil War, Stackpole Books, 2001, is available from Amazon.com.
“A New View of the Battle of Pea Ridge” originally appeared in the Missouri Historical Review 62/2 (State Historical Society of Missouri, January 1968). While this article offers a solid accounting of the battle itself, where it strikes hardest at the accepted conventional wisdom is in its analysis of the aftermath. Many participants and historians have anointed Pea Ridge as the defining moment of the war in the Trans-Mississippi. Castel disagrees, and makes a solid case that larger forces both before and after this battle determined the course of events in Missouri and Arkansas. One could speculate that the morale boost of a Southern victory at Elkhorn Tavern might have changed the calculus of the Confederate high command that Castel points at as one of his key arguments. Possibly. Given the urgent demands elsewhere, however, it could just as easily been used as an excuse to strip a suddenly “secured” Arkansas –where there is a will to find a reason to do what they want to do, political leaders will usually find it.
Because it was important, dramatic, and one of the few major engagements of the Civil War west of the Mississippi, the Battle of Pea Ridge (otherwise known as Elkhorn Tavern) has been described numerous times, both in general works and special articles. Thus to offer yet another account of it would at first glance seem superfluous, even presumptuous. The only valid scholarly excuse for doing so is the presentation of new facts and fresh interpretations.
Active military operations in the Trans-Mississippi began in June, 1861, when Union forces under General Nathaniel Lyon occupied northern and central Missouri and drove the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard commanded by Major General Sterling Price into the southwest corner of the State. Two months later Price, in conjunction with a Confederate army under Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, defeated and killed Lyon at the Battle of Wilson's Creek near Springfield. Following this success, Price marched to the Missouri River, hoping to spark a popular uprising against Federal rule. He besieged and captured a Union garrison at Lexington, but soon had to retreat again to southern Missouri in the face of a much superior force under Major General John C. Fremont. Fremont pursued Price almost to the Arkansas border and was set to engage him in battle when relieved of command by Lincoln, who ordered his successor to withdraw to central Missouri. Price, thereupon, marched northward once more, then fell back to Springfield where he went into winter quarters. Early in February a Federal army of 12,000, commanded by Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis, advanced on Springfield with the object of driving Price out of Missouri and occupying northwest Arkansas. Too weak to stand, Price evacuated Springfield on February 12, and fled into Arkansas, followed closely by Curtis.
The top Confederate commander in the Trans-Mississippi was Major General Earl Van Dorn. Forty-one, a Mississippian, and a West Pointer, he was brave, determined, and enterprising, but tended to be overambitious in his plans and unlucky in their execution. On assuming his command he had been instructed by General Albert Sidney Johnston, head of all Confederate armies west of the Appalachians, to invade Missouri as a means of relieving Union pressure in Kentucky and Tennessee. He was at Pocahontas, Arkansas, preparing for a movement against St. Louis when, on February 22, news reached him that Curtis had pushed Price out of Missouri. He at once sent orders to McCulloch, whose army was at Fort Smith, and to Brigadier General Albert Pike, commanding Confederate forces in the Indian Territory, to join Price. Then, accompanied by a small staff, he set out on horseback to take personal charge of operations. He was confident that he would defeat Curtis, after which he would “push on” into Missouri.
Meanwhile Price continued to retreat until he reached Cove Creek, where he linked up with McCulloch. Curtis, on orders from Major General Henry W. Halleck, Union commander in the West, halted his pursuit at Fayetteville. On the night of March 1, Van Dorn arrived at Price's headquarters after an arduous journey during which he had become stricken with chills and fever as a result of falling into an icy stream. The next day he took command of “The Army of the West,” as he dubbed the combined forces of McCulloch and Price.
To Van Dorn the Union invasion of Arkansas represented an opportunity rather than a danger. Curtis had moved far from his base into thinly populated, mountainous country, and in order to obtain food and forage had dispersed his forces widely. If he could be attacked before he regrouped, he would not merely be defeated but destroyed, and the way opened to St. Louis. Accordingly Van Dorn's first order to the Army of the West was to prepare three days rations and make ready to march.
On March 4, the Confederates traveled northward on the Telegraph Road, the main highway of the region, connecting Fort Smith, Van Buren, Fayetteville, Bentonville, and Springfield. At Elm Springs, on the afternoon of the following day, they were joined by Pike's Indian Brigade. This brought Van Dorn's total strength to about 16,000 men, supported by 60 cannons. Nearly 7,000 of this number consisted of Price's Missourians, organized into two regular Confederate brigades and several so-called divisions of State Guards. The brigades were commanded by Colonel Henry Little and Brigadier General W. Y. Slack and were the best drilled and equipped of Price's units. The State Guard contingents, on the other hand, were indifferently armed and poorly disciplined, but like most of the Missourians they had acquired some battle experience. Price himself was a man of magnificent physical presence and outstanding courage whose soldiers affectionately called him “Ol' Pap.” Despite his victories he possessed at most only mediocre military ability, but was shrewd and cool in combat.
McCulloch's division contained slightly over 8,000 Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas troops organized into an infantry brigade under Colonel Louis Hebert and a cavalry brigade under Brigadier General James McIntosh. McCulloch was a professional soldier who had gained fame as leader of the Texas Rangers in the Mexican War, and he shared with Price the honors of Wilson's Creek. Unfortunately, however, he and Price had quarreled over the conduct of operations in Missouri and were barely on speaking terms.
The Indian Brigade, 1,000 strong, was attached to McCulloch's division. Aside from a squadron of Texas cavalry it consisted of semi-civilized Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles, their faces daubed with warpaint. The Indians totally lacked discipline, and were in large part armed only with tomahawks and warclubs. Their commander, long-haired and bewhiskered Pike, was a prominent Arkansas politician and an accomplished poet, but by no stretch of the imagination a soldier.
In the meantime Curtis had retired to Bentonville and then, after learning of Van Dorn's advance, to the north bank of Sugar Creek, an excellent defensive position at the southern base of Pea Ridge Mountain near the now extinct hamlet of Leetown. Here he began concentrating his scattered units behind a line of log and dirt breastworks running across the Telegraph Road, up which he expected the Confederates to deliver their attack. He chose to stand on the defensive, as his army had been reduced by the attrition of campaigning to less than 10,500 effectives and he believed that Van Dorn greatly outnumbered him. However the Federals possessed a large, well-served artillery train and the infantry—mainly Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri Unionist troops—were better drilled and equipped than the majority of the Southern foot soldiers. As a general, Curtis was slow and unimaginative, but at the same time steady and tenacious. His army was organized into four divisions of two brigades each, commanded by Brigadier General Alexander Asboth, Colonel Eugene A. Carr, Colonel Jefferson C. Davis, and Colonel Peter J. Osterhaus. Two of these divisions, Asboth's and Osterhaus', were under Brigadier General Franz Sigel, who was second-in-command to Curtis.
Sigel's two divisions still lingered at Bentonville on March 5. Informed of this by scouts, Van Dorn pushed forward on the morning of March 6 with the intention of gobbling them up before they fell back to Sugar Creek. But, according to his own report, the Confederate troops “marched so very slowly” and their officers handled them so ineptly that the attempt failed. On the other hand one of the Missouri soldiers recalled doing the last ten miles to Bentonville “at double quick,” and Sigel declared that he was never in any danger of being cut off, having received ample warning of Van Dorn's approach. In any case, as the Confederates entered Bentonville from the south, Sigel's rear guard left it on the north. McIntosh's cavalry pursued vigorously, but Sigel (who specialized in retreating) made good his escape with little difficulty. Dusk found the Army of the West strung out along the road between Bentonville and Sugar Creek. On the other side of that stream the Union forces waited tensely but confidently for the Confederates to attack on the morrow.
Van Dorn had failed to catch Curtis' army in a dispersed condition. Moreover his troops were tired, hungry, and cold, and he himself suffering so severely from his illness that he was obliged to ride in an ambulance. Nevertheless he remained determined to strike the invaders a crushing blow. Indeed, the only alternative to battle was ignominious retreat.
Late in the afternoon he conferred with Price, McCulloch, and McIntosh. Price favored attacking Curtis from the south and west on his right flank, driving him from his position and finishing him off with cavalry as he retreated into Missouri. McCulloch and McIntosh, on the other hand, proposed a much more ambitious plan: Swinging the army around Curtis' right flank by way of the Bentonville Detour, a rough dirt trail which branched off from the Telegraph Road to the west then rejoined it northeast of Pea Ridge about two miles above the Elkhorn Tavern—a distance in all of some eight miles. In this fashion the Confederates would not only be able to surprise Curtis and attack him from the rear, but would cut his line of retreat to the north and force him to fight under circumstances in which defeat meant destruction. Van Dorn adopted this second plan, which, if successful, would be a maneuver worthy of Napoleon.
The Confederates masked their flanking march by throwing out pickets, lighting camp fires, and pretending to bivouac for the night south of Sugar Creek. Then, as soon as it was dark, they reformed in line of march and moved off on the Bentonville Detour. Price's division, accompanied by Van Dorn, took the lead, followed by McCulloch and Pike. Five hundred of McCulloch's troops and 1,500 Missouri State Guards, all under Brigadier General Martin Green, remained behind to protect the wagon train. Consequently Van Dorn took with him approximately 14,000 men.
Van Dorn calculated that Price's division would reach the Telegraph Road by sunrise—certainly it should not take more than eight hours to march eight miles, even at night. But Curtis had foreseen the possibility of an enemy turning movement along the Bentonville detour and had ordered it obstructed with fallen trees. The necessity of removing these obstructions greatly slowed the Confederate march. In addition, Van Dorn had neglected to make any provision for crossing Sugar Creek, with the result that his soldiers had to pass over a hastily constructed bridge of rails and poles, causing further delay. Thus it was that when the sun began to rise Price was still several miles from the Telegraph Road, and McCulloch and Pike had not even gotten all their troops across Sugar Creek.
Curtis, meanwhile, was deceived by the Confederate campfires into believing that Van Dorn would oblige him with a frontal assault. Also, despite his precaution against a flanking movement, he failed to station pickets on the Bentonville detour. Consequently not until about 8 A.M. did he discover that the Confederates had given him the slip and were in the act of turning his right flank. But fortunately for him, Price did not reach the Telegraph Road until nearly 10 A.M., thus giving him ample time in which to redeploy his forces. Three of the Union divisions—Asboth's, Osterhaus', and Davis'—formed a line west and north of Leetown facing the Bentonville detour, and the fourth division, Carr's, moved up the Telegraph Road to the Elkhorn Tavern. These dispositions meant that Pea Ridge would be a battle in which the Southerners attacked from the north and the Northerners from the south—an untypical yet not unique situation in the Civil War.
Van Dorn had intended to strike down the Telegraph Road with his entire army. But when McCulloch saw that it would take several more hours to get his division into position he obtained permission from Van Dorn to turn off the Bentonville detour and attack west of Pea Ridge. As a consequence the Confederates went into battle in two widely separated wings which, because of the intervening bulk of Pea Ridge, were unable to see each other or communicate readily. The right wing, under McCulloch, advanced against what was now Curtis' left (Osterhaus, Davis, and Asboth). The other wing, headed by Price, marched down the Telegraph Road through a deep valley until it came in view of the Union right (Carr) stationed on a plateau north of the Elkhorn Tavern.
As the Missourians advanced, Van Dorn told Price that McCulloch would attack on the other side of Pea Ridge. Price, surprised and disturbed, declared that this would enable the enemy to concentrate against each wing separately. Van Dorn replied that Price was right, but that it was now too late to do anything about it.
Price deployed his troops, which totaled about 5,500, with eight batteries of light artillery, into the line of battle. Slack's and Little's brigades moved to the right and two State Guard divisions under Brigadier Generals James R. Rains and Daniel M. Frost debouched to the left. All moved forward and occupied some heights on either side of the road, gaining thereby commanding positions from which to assault the Union line. Price enjoyed a two-to-one superiority in numbers over Carr, and his soldiers drove forward vigorously, slowly pushing the stubborn Northern infantry back. Little's brigade spearheaded the attack, while Colonel Grenville M. Dodge's Iowans were the mainstay of the defense. Slack fell mortally wounded and Price suffered painful flesh wounds but remained on the field. In a final charge just before sundown Little's brigade drove the Federals beyond Elkhorn Tavern and seized two cannons.
At this juncture, according to the testimony of Colonel Dabney H. Maury, Van Dorn's chief of staff, the Union forces fled in disorganized rout, but Price “stopped the pursuit and ordered his troops to fall back to take up a position for the night,” thus throwing away a golden opportunity to crush the Union right and win the battle. Maury was in a position to know whereof he wrote, and Union sources admit that Carr's ranks were wavering. But Price did not suspend the battle until darkness fell; Carr by then had been reinforced by Asboth's division, and other Federal units were within supporting distance. Hence if Price had continued to attack, chances are he would not have achieved anything decisive, and he might well have suffered a bloody repulse. As it was his weary but exultant Missourians felt that they had done a good day's work, and they were confident of completing their victory in the morning.
Unknown to them, however, the right wing had met with disaster. McCulloch encountered Osterhaus' division in some open fields north of Leetown. Apparently hoping to catch the Federals off balance, he attacked at once, throwing in his regiments one by one as they came up. The Indians, in a wild rush, captured a Union battery and caused some of Osterhaus' advance units to flee in confusion. However the Indians stopped fighting and began plundering and—at least in a few instances—scalping the enemy dead. Suddenly they came under artillery fire. Panic-stricken, they scurried into the woods, from which they refused to budge. Concurrently the white troops, although putting great pressure on Osterhaus, never attacked with sufficient strength and coordination to gain a decision.
Early in the afternoon Davis' division reinforced Osterhaus. Soon the Confederates began to waver under the murderous Union volleys. Recklessly exposing himself, McCulloch rallied his men for another charge. Then, a perfect target in his dove-colored coat, he tumbled from his horse, a bullet through his heart. McIntosh also was killed and Colonel Hebert taken prisoner. The loss of their leaders dismayed the Southerners, and a strong Union counterattack on the left flank routed them. Pike and Colonel Ellsworth Greer of the Third Texas Cavalry, on whom command now devolved, managed to collect the fleeing fragments and lead them by way of the Bentonville detour to Van Dorn during the night. Fortunately for the defeated and demoralized Confederates, the immediate necessity of reinforcing his hard pressed right made it impossible for Curtis to follow up this victory.
That night Van Dorn took stock of the situation and found it far from encouraging. Half of his army had been routed, the men were famished and bone-tired, and the artillery and cavalry horses “beaten out.” But worst of all, owing to the “strange and criminal mistake” of an unknown ordnance officer the reserve ammunition train had gone back to Bentonville: This meant that it would be impossible to replenish the army's nearly exhausted ammunition supply. Nevertheless he resolved to “accept the gage” of battle on the morrow and hope for the best.
The fighting resumed at dawn. Curtis' entire army now confronted Price's troops and such remnants of McCulloch's division as could be brought into action. The Federals took the offensive, advancing slowly but steadily under the cover of their powerful batteries. Then Van Dorn, deciding that in view of his rapidly dwindling ammunition supply it would be suicidal to continue the battle, ordered a retreat by way of the Huntsville Road. According to the official Confederate reports this movement was made in an orderly and deliberate fashion. However, some of the Southern artillery fled in panic across the Missouri line before returning, Pike's troops were not even notified of the retreat but were left to fend for themselves, and according to one of his soldiers Van Dorn himself became so excited that he sent word to General Green to destroy the wagon train to prevent the enemy from capturing it—an order that Green fortunately ignored. For the Federals were too battered and exhausted to follow up their victory with a vigorous pursuit—or at least so Curtis believed. Had they done so, complete destruction of the Army of the West probably would have ensued.
For a week the Confederates retreated, passing through Huntsville, then turning toward Van Buren. Hundreds of cold, hungry, and discouraged soldiers deserted or straggled, and blood dripping from the wounded congealed into icicles. Finally, on March 16, they reached Van Buren, “weak, broken down, and exhausted.” Here they remained for the rest of the month, reorganizing, reinforcing and recuperating. Casualties at Pea Ridge were reported as between 800 and 1,000 dead and wounded, plus 200-300 missing, but these figures refer mainly to Price's division, so undoubtedly the total loss was considerably higher. On the Union side slightly in excess of one-tenth of Curtis' army was killed, wounded, or missing, and it was some time before it resumed active operations. And when it did, it did not push deeper into Arkansas but instead retired to Missouri.
The Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge was essentially the result of a failure on Van Dorn's part to adjust quickly and appropriately to unanticipated situations. As noted, Van Dorn in his battle plan proposed to strike the Federal rear at daylight. When it became apparent, as it soon must have, that Price's division would not reach the Telegraph Road by that time, he should have abandoned this portion of his plan and hurled the bulk of his army on Curtis' west flank, at the same time sending a smaller force to block the Union escape route to the north. In this way he would have achieved full tactical surprise against Curtis and avoided the fatal gap between the two wings of his army. As it was, Curtis had sufficient time in which to react to the Confederate maneuver, and (as Price had feared) he was able to use his interior lines to deal with McCulloch and Price separately and in sequence.
Indeed it could be argued that Van Dorn would have done better to have adopted Price's suggestion of simply attacking the Union right flank at Sugar Creek. By so doing he would have avoided the complications and great risks inherent in the strategy he did pursue. For in cutting off Curtis' army from its base he did precisely the same thing to his own army, thereby exposing it to potential disaster in case of defeat—a disaster which in fact it escaped only because of the inability (or failure) of Curtis to exploit the Union victory. On the other hand, had he employed a more modest strategy in quest of less ambitious goals he might well have defeated the Federals and imposed on them a retreat as arduous as the one his forces made to Van Buren.
Most of the Confederates attributed their failure to the incredible bad luck by which McCulloch, McIntosh, and Hebert were all killed or captured. However this assumes that if these leaders had remained in action Van Dorn's right wing would have been victorious; this at best is debatable. Moreover, by fighting his army in two widely separated halves Van Dorn created a situation in which the consequences of these three commanders being rendered hors de combat were more serious than otherwise would have been the case: Had Van Dorn been in close contact with the right wing he would have learned of McCulloch's death in time to restore order and prevent demoralization and rout.
Van Dorn himself blamed the “disappointment” at Pea Ridge mainly on the “want of military knowledge and discipline among the higher officers” of his command. “I cannot convey to you,” he wrote the Confederate War Department shortly after the battle, “a correct idea of the material with which I have to deal in organizing an army out here. There is an absolute want of any degree of sound military information, and even an ignorance of the value of such information.” He added that if West Point-trained officers could have been substituted at Pea Ridge for “some of the highest commanders, my orders would have been promptly and intelligently carried out and the enemy's army put to utter rout.”
Undoubtedly these statements contained much truth. But Van Dorn did not name the “highest commanders” whom he considered incompetent, and his strictures probably should be discounted as representing an effort to explain away a failure which in large part was the consequence of his own blunders. Thus in his report on Pea Ridge he greatly exaggerated the Union numbers and losses, minimized his own casualties, and declared “I was not defeated, but only foiled in my intentions”—true, but scarcely the full story.
The military consequences of the Pea Ridge campaign were as follows: By invading Arkansas when they did the Federals disrupted Van Dorn's projected movement against St. Louis, and by throwing back the Confederates at Pea Ridge they ended for the time being any serious challenge to their domination over Missouri. However the significance of these two results should not be exaggerated. Regarding the first, there never was much likelihood that Van Dorn's small and poorly equipped army could have taken St. Louis in any event. As to the second, the basic strategic decision in Missouri was rendered in June, 1861, when Lyon occupied the northern and central areas of the State and drove Price to the Arkansas border. Not only did this give the Federals control over most of the population, wealth, industry, agriculture, and transportation of Missouri, but made it virtually impossible for the South to regain control. For, as Lincoln observed, the North could easily counter any Confederate invasion of Missouri by concentrating superior forces along the line of the Missouri River—which is precisely what occurred when Price captured Lexington in 1861 and again three years later when he once more penetrated the State. And, it should be added, whichever side dominated Missouri would tend to dominate the entire Trans-Mississippi, as the course of the war in that theater amply demonstrated.
Some historians have termed Pea Ridge one of the decisive battles of the Civil War because, they assert, it so discouraged the Confederates that they abandoned their effort in the West and soon after the battle transferred Van Dorn's and Price's forces to the east side of the Mississippi, thereby in effect conceding Missouri to the North. But while it is true that the Army of the West did cross over to Tennessee in April, 1862, leaving Arkansas practically defenseless, this interpretation confuses effects with causes and also overlooks the military situation of the South as a whole at that time. Despite the setback at Pea Ridge, Van Dorn and Price did not propose to quit the struggle in the West. As soon as he reached Van Buren the indefatigable Van Dorn ordered his cavalry to cut Curtis' communications and began preparing for a new campaign, this time against New Madrid in southeast Missouri. As for Price, on March 19 he wrote Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin that “With such additions to my force as I am led to believe will shortly be made ... I do not question my ability to penetrate aggressively the heart of Missouri.” Hence there can be little doubt that within a month after Pea Ridge the Army of the West would have marched northward again had not the Confederacy needed its services elsewhere.
Late in March, Albert Sidney Johnston, fearful that the recent loss of Forts Henry and Donelson would lead to the complete collapse of Confederate resistance in Tennessee, began concentrating all available units at Corinth, Mississippi, for an attack on Grant at Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River—a movement which eventuated in the great Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862). As part of this concentration of forces Johnston ordered Van Dorn on March 23 to bring the Army of the West to the other side of the Mississippi. Van Dorn responded promptly and his troops began crossing the Mississippi on April 8—too late to be used at Shiloh. It was the transfer of Van Dorn's army to the east, more than the defeat at Pea Ridge, that brought an end to any major Confederate effort in the Trans-Mississippi and rendered Missouri secure from Southern invasion. And even that but temporarily, for late in the fall of 1862 a new Confederate army in Arkansas, organized and led by General Thomas C. Hindman, was to advance northward with the intention of invading Missouri, only to be smashed at the Battle of Prairie Grove, not far from Pea Ridge.
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The transfer of the Army of the West to the other side of the Mississippi meant that the Confederate high command decided to treat the Trans-Mississippi as strictly a secondary theater to be subordinated and even sacrificed if need be to the requirements of Virginia and Tennessee. Such a policy, given the military situation that existed in the spring of 1862, was probably the only practical one open to the South. And since this situation never materially improved, but got steadily worse, the policy remained in force to the end. Hence the course of the war in the West was determined largely in the East, and what took place in the West had little or no influence on events east of the Mississippi: Pea Ridge, in the final analysis, is an illustration of this fact.
Ibid., 283; Dabney H. Maury, “Recollections of the Elkhorn Campaign,” Southern Historical Society Papers, II (October, 1876), 181-185.
Sigel, “Pea Ridge Campaign,” 320.
Account of Col. R. H. Musser, St. Louis Missouri Republican, November 21, 1885. Clipping in Daniel Marsh Frost Papers, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis.
Article ©1968-2003 Albert E. Castel
Page, introduction, graphics ©2003 G. E. Rule/D. H. Rule
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