Battle Looms in Northwestern Arkansas

March 2, 1862 – Major General Earl Van Dorn led a unified Confederate army northward to confront Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis’s outnumbered Federals in northwestern Arkansas.

Van Dorn, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi District, arrived at the Boston Mountains in Arkansas to create the new 16,000-man Army of the West from:

  • Major General Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guards
  • Brigadier General Ben McCulloch’s Texans, Louisianans, Arkansans, and Missourians
  • Brigadier General Albert Pike’s 800 Native Americans
General Earl Van Dorn | Image Credit:
General Earl Van Dorn | Image Credit:

Van Dorn’s objective was to reverse the recent Confederate withdrawal by reentering Missouri, capturing St. Louis, and possibly even invading Illinois. In so doing, Van Dorn would divert Federal attention and resources from General Albert Sidney Johnston’s efforts to unite Confederate forces scattered among various points in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Curtis opposed Van Dorn by leading the 10,500-man Federal Army of the Southwest into northwestern Arkansas. Van Dorn knew that Curtis had committed a classic military error by dividing his force in the face of a larger enemy–one wing was along the Telegraph road, and another was farther west at Bentonville. Van Dorn planned to move his Confederates between the Federal wings and defeat them both in detail. However, there was intense animosity between Price and McCulloch, as well as their troops, dating back to the Battle of Wilson’s Creek the previous August. This threatened to undermine the cooperation that Van Dorn needed to execute his plan.

Before moving out, Van Dorn issued orders for the men to bring just three days’ rations, one blanket, and 40 rounds of ammunition. No tents, cooking equipment, or extra clothing was allowed. This put the troops at risk of freezing on the Ozark Plateau, starving if they could not defeat the Federals and take their supplies, or both. The Confederates began moving out on the 4th.

The next day, Curtis received word that the enemy was approaching. Having just four infantry divisions along with some cavalry and artillery, Curtis awaited reinforcements as he began pulling back to stronger defensive positions. He also ordered Brigadier General Franz Sigel, commanding two of Curtis’s four divisions at Bentonville, to fall back and join the rest of the army about 10 miles northeast.

By March 6, Curtis’s Federals had begun setting up defenses along Pea Ridge, a high eminence along the northern bank of Little Sugar Creek that got its name from peas growing on vines. They also entrenched themselves near Elkhorn Tavern, north of Fayetteville. Facing south from these positions, the Federals could watch the important Telegraph road running from Fayetteville to Springfield, Missouri. West of the Telegraph road, Sigel’s Federals, mostly German immigrants from St. Louis, could watch the Elm Springs road for a potential Confederate advance.

Meanwhile, Van Dorn’s army continued marching northward from Fayetteville and Elm Springs, with Pike’s command, consisting mainly of three Cherokee regiments, leading the way. The Confederates advanced with hardly any protection from the heavy sleet and snow.

By the afternoon of the 6th, Price’s Missourians had reached the southern end of Pea Ridge. To the west, Brigadier General James McIntosh, McCulloch’s cavalry commander, attacked Sigel’s Federals near Bentonville and tried surrounding them. However, the Federals narrowly escaped and fended McIntosh off with artillery before joining Curtis’s men at Pea Ridge. Curtis prepared to defend against a frontal assault.

The Confederates camped along the Telegraph road that night as Van Dorn met with Price, McCulloch, and McIntosh. Van Dorn’s original plan to divide and conquer Curtis’s two wings was no longer tenable, and the commanders agreed that Curtis’s new positions were too strong to attack frontally. Therefore, a new strategy was needed.

McCulloch proposed taking the Bentonville Detour road at dawn and moving around the Federal right flank, which would threaten Curtis’s supply line and force him to fall back into Missouri. Van Dorn took this idea further–the Confederates would move that night around the Federal right and continue until they reached the Telegraph road behind the Federals, which would cut Curtis’s supply line and force him to surrender. Price’s Missourians would create a diversion by attacking the Federal left near Elkhorn Tavern.

Curtis anticipated some sort of flanking maneuver, but he did not expect Van Dorn to thrust so far into the interior of his lines. Such a move could have easily destroyed the Federal army had the Confederates not been so exhausted, cold, and hungry. Further hampering the plan was Van Dorn himself, who was so ill that he had to direct operations from an ambulance. This kept him from ensuring that Price and McCulloch worked in full cooperation.

The Confederates moved out that evening, leaving their campfires burning to hide their intentions. However, Federal scouts, including “Wild Bill” Hickok, kept a close eye on their movements.


References (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12891-910; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 137; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 116-18; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 140-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 179; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 404; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 281-82; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 813; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 566-67

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