March 8, 1862 – Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis regrouped his Federal Army of the Southwest and prepared to counterattack Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederates at Pea Ridge and Elkhorn Tavern.
As Curtis concentrated his Federal line on the Telegraph road facing Elkhorn Tavern, Van Dorn intended to renew his assault from the previous day. A chance to capture the Federals’ supplies motivated the starving Confederates. Van Dorn began with a minor artillery bombardment, opting to use just three of his 15 guns.
When the firing stopped, Curtis correctly guessed that the Confederates were low on ammunition and ordered a general advance to start at 10 a.m. Curtis preceded the advance with an artillery barrage of his own, using all six of his guns to silence the Confederates’ cannon. The Federal artillery then turned on the enemy infantry, firing a shot every other second for two hours and inflicting many casualties.
Following the barrage, about 7,000 Federal infantrymen surged forward, led by Brigadier General Franz Sigel’s German immigrants from Missouri and Illinois. Sigel announced to his men before advancing that their only two options were to destroy the Confederates or surrender.
The charging Federals drove Major General Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guards away from Elkhorn Tavern to the east, while two divisions led by Sigel and Colonel Eugene A. Carr drove the Confederates off to the west. The demoralized Confederates quickly wavered all along the line, and Van Dorn ordered a retreat.
Van Dorn could not retreat in the same direction from which he came (the west) because Curtis could cut him off and destroy his army. Van Dorn therefore directed a withdrawal to the east, and then south, to his original encampment near Fayetteville in the Boston Mountains. To Van Dorn’s benefit, the bulk of the Federal attack came against the western portion of his line, enabling the eastern portion to slip away and pushing the rest in the direction that Van Dorn needed to go.
However, what Van Dorn hoped would be a fighting retreat soon became a confused rout, as the Confederates fell back in multiple directions. This resembled the panicked retreat at Bull Run, except this time it was the Confederates who fled.
The bulk of Van Dorn’s army rejoined the supply train around 2 p.m., and by nightfall, most of the Confederates had reached Van Winkle’s Mill, some 20 miles from the battlefield. Sigel’s Federals conducted a half hearted pursuit and camped about 10 miles north, while the rest of Curtis’s army remained at Pea Ridge.
As a consequence of this battle, Missouri remained firmly in Federal hands. Curtis sustained 1,384 casualties (203 killed, 980 wounded, and 201 missing or captured). Colonel Carr later received the Medal of Honor for his performance in the first day of fighting. Curtis wrote his brother after the battle:
“The enemy is again far away in the Boston Mountains. The scene is silent and sad–the vulture and the wolf now have the dominion and the dead friends and foes sleep in the same lonely graves.”
The Confederates had fought well considering their exhaustion and hunger; many had gone into the fight with shotguns or obsolete flintlock muskets to take on state-of-the-art Federal weaponry. Van Dorn suffered about 1,300 casualties (1,000 killed or wounded and 300 missing or captured). His worn out men straggled back toward the Arkansas River and ultimately Van Buren, but it took them two weeks to fully regroup.
Despite being driven off in confusion, Van Dorn reported: “I was not defeated, but only foiled in my intentions.” He acknowledged that no victory could have replaced the cost, which included the loss of Generals Ben McCulloch and James McIntosh on the battle’s first day. However, Van Dorn had high praise for Price’s Missourians:
“During the whole of this engagement, I was with the Missourians under Price, and I have never seen better fighters than these Missouri troops, or more gallant leaders than Gen Price and his officers… Gen Price received a severe wound in the action, but would neither retire from the field nor cease to expose his life to danger.”
The Confederates did not accomplish their goals of regaining Missouri or diverting Federal attention from the Confederate military buildup in northern Mississippi. However, they inflicted enough damage on Curtis to compel him to end his Arkansas invasion and return to Missouri.
Van Dorn ultimately led his Army of the West across the Mississippi River to join Confederates confronting Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s army in Tennessee. This caused great resentment among Brigadier General Albert Pike and his Native American Confederates, who had participated in the first day’s fighting at Pea Ridge, because it broke a Confederate pledge to protect the Indian Territory from Federal invasion.
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