Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis’s Federal Army of the Southwest had been pushed back in the hard-fought battle against Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederate Army of the West on March 7. By next morning, the two armies were facing each other near Elkhorn Tavern in northwestern Arkansas, with the Confederates blocking the Federals’ supply line running north into Missouri. As Curtis concentrated his Federal line on the Telegraph road facing Elkhorn Tavern, Van Dorn intended to renew his assault from the previous day.
Curtis positioned the 1st and 2nd divisions under Brigadier General Franz Sigel west of the Telegraph road, while the 3rd and 4th divisions were to the east. They faced the Confederates to the northeast. Van Dorn’s army was separated from its supply train due to negligence, so capturing Federal supplies served as motivation for the starving Confederates to fight. Having little reserve ammunition, Van Dorn opened with a minor bombardment, using 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 21 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 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 halfhearted pursuit and camped about 10 miles north, while the rest of Curtis’s army remained at Pea Ridge. The Federal supply line into Missouri was secured.
Curtis sustained 1,384 casualties (203 killed, 980 wounded, and 201 missing or captured). Colonel Carr, whose divisions sustained about half of all Federal losses on the first day of fighting, later received the Medal of Honor for his performance. 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 despite widespread exhaustion and hunger; many had gone into battle with shotguns or obsolete flintlock muskets against 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.
From Van Buren, Van Dorn reported to General Albert Sidney Johnston, Confederate commander of the Western Theater, “I was not defeated, but only failed 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. Van Dorn continued to maintain that he could eventually capture St. Louis, but this battle ensured that Missouri would remain firmly in Federal hands. It also failed to divert Federal attention from the Confederate military buildup in northern Mississippi. However, the Confederates inflicted enough damage on Curtis’s army to compel him to end his Arkansas invasion and return to Missouri.
Most men in the Confederate Army of the West blamed Van Dorn for the defeat. He did not commit his entire army to the battle on the 8th, making it clear to many that he continued to fight “for the purpose only of getting off the field without the danger of panic.” A soldier wrote, “General Van Dorn is very unpopular with the whole army. We all feel that our best friends and the champions of the west fell in the persons of McCulloch and McIntosh.” According to a private, “General Van Dorn was perhaps the only man in the army that was whipped. He was a poor general and the men had no confidence in him.”
Van Dorn was especially hated by Price’s Missourians, even though he had high praise for them: “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.”
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 the 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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