By March 6, Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederate Army of the West had marched through snow and sleet to get within striking distance of Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis’s Federal Army of the Southwest entrenched on Pea Ridge, northeast of Fayetteville, Arkansas. During the night, the Confederates left their campfires burning while they moved around the Federals’ right and into their rear. Van Dorn had the numerical advantage (16,000 to 10,500), but his men were exhausted and hungry, having marched 55 miles in three days.
Van Dorn, directing operations from an ambulance due to illness, further compromised his superior manpower by dividing the army in the hopes of executing a “double envelopment”: Major General Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guards marched down the Telegraph road to confront the Federals’ eastern (left) sector near Elkhorn Tavern, while Brigadier General Ben McCulloch’s force was to attack the Federals’ western (right) sector near Leetown. Van Dorn expected the two wings to push the Federals back and reunite at Elkhorn Tavern.
Curtis had anticipated an attack on his right flank, but not such an aggressive drive so deep behind his lines. Near dawn on the cold, dreary morning of the 7th, Curtis realized the extent of the Confederate maneuver and hurriedly ordered an “about face” to meet the threats to his flank and rear. Turning an entire army’s front in the opposite direction was one of the most unusual maneuvers of the war.
Skirmishing opened between 6 and 7 a.m. Delays in positioning the Confederate troops gave Curtis more time to brace his army for the impending attack. Price’s surprise attack on Curtis’s left (now his right) was also slow to generate, and it was not until 10:30 that the first sortie began.
As Price’s Missourians descended on Cross Timber Hollow, a Federal division led by Colonel Eugene A. Carr came up to meet them. Carr positioned his men on high ground near Elkhorn Tavern. Carr was outnumbered two-to-one, but instead of launching a full-scale assault, Price opted to soften the Federals with artillery first. Both sides traded fierce cannon fire before the Confederates slowly made their way up the plateau.
Carr’s troops repelled two Confederate charges, but a third charge knocked the Federals back beyond Elkhorn Tavern. But then they counterattacked and regained the lost ground as Carr repeatedly called for reinforcements. Curtis tried to send what he could to assist Carr while also tending to the western sector. A fourth assault just before nightfall drove the Federals about 800 yards west, as the reinforcements finally began to stabilize Carr’s lines. Both Price and Carr sustained wounds in the fight.
In the western sector, a contingent of Native Americans led by Brigadier General Albert Pike (part of McCulloch’s division) attacked the forward positions of Federal Brigadier General Peter J. Osterhaus. Pike’s Cherokee regiments, led by Colonel Stand Watie, withstood an artillery barrage and then charged the battery in full warrior dress, armed with rifles, bows and arrows, and tomahawks. They sent the Federals running, and many later accused the Natives of scalping their victims.
The Cherokees became disorganized when they stopped to celebrate their victory. This gave another Federal division time to step up and counterattack. Pike could not regroup his command, and the Federals sent the Natives in retreat. Many of them left Van Dorn’s army completely, heading back to the Indian Territory by nightfall. This would be the only major battle of the war that featured Native American combatants.
Colonel Louis Hebert, commanding the Confederate division to Pike’s left, had hoped to capitalize on Pike’s initial success with gains of his own. But the disorganized retreat left his men unsupported in the western sector. Consequently, the exhausted Confederates could not close the gap between themselves and Price as Van Dorn had hoped. As they slowly advanced, McCulloch rode out front to reconnoiter the Federal lines around 10:30 a.m. Wearing a black velvet uniform, he was easily visible among his butternut-clad men, and a Federal sharpshooter shot him dead.
Brigadier General James McIntosh, commanding McCulloch’s cavalry, was quickly informed that he was now in command of the army. It was decided not to inform the troops for fear that news of McCulloch’s death would demoralize them. McIntosh personally led his former cavalry regiment into the Confederate assault, but a Federal volley killed him as well.
Command devolved upon Hebert, but nobody notified him, and he continued his assault against Osterhaus and a newly arrived Federal division led by Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president). But news of the deaths of McCulloch and McIntosh slowly trickled down to the men and damaged their morale.
Leading elements of Davis’s division were initially pushed back, but the Federals began to hold their ground and eventually closed in on three sides of Hebert’s line. Hebert and some of his staffers became separated from the main body of Confederates and were later captured in the woods. Meanwhile, Pike took command of McCulloch’s division and ordered the Confederates in his vicinity to retreat. This caused mass confusion as some troops got the order and obeyed, some got it and did not, and some did not get it at all. And those who did retreat did so in multiple directions.
Pike technically commanded an independent force and was not part of the chain of command to succeed McCulloch. The true successor was Colonel Elkanah Greer, who considered trying to concentrate the division and launch a counterattack. But after meeting with Van Dorn, he instead ordered a withdrawal toward Elkhorn Tavern.
Fighting in both sectors ended by nightfall. The Confederates had gained some ground and inflicted substantial damage on Curtis’s army, but the two wings could not coordinate their efforts to destroy the Federals as Van Dorn had hoped. And the failure to regroup the Natives, along with the deaths of McCulloch and McIntosh, caused considerable disarray among the Confederate ranks.
Van Dorn reported that McIntosh had been alert, daring, and devoted to duty, and his death was significant due to his popularity among his troops. Both McIntosh and McCulloch became the two greatest heroes of this battle. Van Dorn, apparently resentful of Pike’s inability to regroup his Natives, omitted their contribution in his official report. Van Dorn positioned his army in a defensive line running north and south to the west of Elkhorn Tavern. He had only about 6,000 effectives ready to resume the fight.
As both sides settled down, the night turned bitterly cold and the Confederates found themselves separated from their supply train. Van Dorn had neglected to have it follow the army, thus depriving the troops of food and ammunition. Van Dorn understandably reported that it was “with no little anxiety that I awaited the dawn of day.”
At Federal headquarters, Curtis held a council of war. Federal prospects seemed bleak considering that the Confederates had taken Pea Ridge and Elkhorn Tavern, and they cut his supply line to the north. Several officers urged a retreat. However, Curtis knew that McCulloch had been killed and other top officers had also been killed or captured. He also knew that the Natives had left the fight, and he now had about 9,500 troops ready for action.
Guessing that Confederate morale was low, Curtis refused to consider retreat. He instead resolved to concentrate his forces and fight his way through to the north the next morning. Curtis went to sleep, “certain of final success on the coming day.”
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