Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi District, arrived at Camp Defiance in Arkansas to take command of the combined forces of Major General Sterling “Pap” Price’s Missouri State Guards and Brigadier General Ben McCulloch’s Texans, Louisianans, Arkansans, and Missourians. The Confederates had recently retreated from the advancing Federal Army of the Southwest under Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis.
Van Dorn renamed his force the Army of the West and proclaimed, “Soldiers, behold your leader! He comes to show you the way to glory and immortal renown.” The troops, mostly battle-tested veterans, were unimpressed. Van Dorn then called upon Brigadier General Albert Pike to bring his army of Native Americans out of the Indian Territory to join him, even though it had been agreed that the Natives would not be forced to leave their homeland. All told, Van Dorn would have 16,000 men to face Curtis’s army of 10,500.
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, his army 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.
The Confederates were situated along the Telegraph road within the Boston Mountains, south of Fayetteville. 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 intended to capitalize on this mistake by moving his army between the Federal wings and defeating 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 at dawn on the 4th, less than two days after Van Dorn had taken command. Price’s Guards were in the vanguard, McCulloch’s men followed, and Pike’s Natives were in the rear. The column trudged through a flurry of wind and snow.
Van Dorn’s first target was the isolated command of Brigadier General Franz Sigel at Bentonville. Sigel did not learn of the Confederates’ approach until late on the 5th, when they were just a day’s march away. Curtis responded by ordering his Federals to concentrate at the intersection of the Telegraph road and Little Sugar Creek, which was a naturally strong defensive position. Sigel’s men were in motion by 2 a.m. to join Curtis’s main force about 10 miles northeast.
The Federals began 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 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 to surround them. But 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 the animosity between Price and McCulloch would not ruin the operation.
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.
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