Confederate prospects west of the Mississippi River were bleak as the year began. Major General Sterling “Pap” Price, former Missouri governor and current commander of the pro-Confederate State Guards, wanted to reclaim his state for the Confederacy. But he needed help from Major General Ben McCulloch’s Confederates in Arkansas. McCulloch had been reluctant to join forces with Price ever since the Battle of Wilson’s Creek last August, and he and Price had been unable to agree upon a suitable plan of action.
President Jefferson Davis tried to break this tension by appointing Major General Earl Van Dorn commander of the new Trans-Mississippi District. Van Dorn’s main task was to find a way to get Price and McCulloch to work together so they could clear the Federals out of the states on the west side of the Mississippi. Van Dorn had previously commanded the Department of Texas before being transferred to Virginia in late 1861. He had great confidence that he could secure the Trans-Mississippi, as he wrote his wife, “I must have St. Louis–then huzza!”
In late January, Van Dorn arrived at the Confederate encampment on Arkansas’s Boston Mountains to officially take command of what he called the Army of the West. He planned to combine the armies of Price and McCulloch, sidestep the Federals in southwestern Missouri, and capture St. Louis. From there, he would invade southern Illinois and cut Ulysses S. Grant’s supply line at Cairo, Illinois, forcing him to pull out of Tennessee. This would enable the Confederates east of the Mississippi to go on the offensive. But Van Dorn was unaware that the Federals were about to launch an offensive of their own.
Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis commanded the 12,000-man Federal Army of the Southwest, stationed around Lebanon, Missouri. Curtis received orders from Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Department of Missouri, to confront Price’s 8,000 Guards near Springfield and drive them out of the state. Curtis put his men in motion, and they drove Price out of Springfield in mid-February. This completely disrupted Van Dorn’s grandiose plan.
By the 17th, Price’s Missourians had crossed the border into Arkansas and joined forces with McCulloch and Van Dorn in the Boston Mountains. Curtis’s Federals continued their pursuit up to Little Sugar Creek. McCulloch sent up a portion of his force to help Price make a stand, but Price had no intention of doing so and continued his retreat. Curtis sent a cavalry detachment forward that clashed with McCulloch’s men now serving as Price’s rear guard. After a fierce skirmish, the Confederates withdrew. This signaled to Curtis that Price and McCulloch had now joined forces.
The Confederates fell back to strong natural defenses at Cross Hollow, and waited for the Federals to attack. Curtis would not take the bait, instead sending cavalry around the enemy flank to capture Bentonville. This forced the Confederates to abandon Cross Hollow and fall back to Fayetteville. From there, they burned whatever supplies they could not transport and withdrew even further. Curtis’s Federals occupied Fayetteville. This marked the deepest Federal penetration into Arkansas to date.
The Confederates set up Camp Defiance near Crawford. This position, situated deep in the Boston Mountains, was deemed “impregnable” by Federal scouts. Price thought that Curtis could be defeated “by a vigorous combined attack,” but McCulloch believed Curtis’s force to number some 50,000 men. This set the men to bickering again, so they called for Van Dorn to come take personal command of the combined force. As February ended, both sides were poised for a fight.
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