Category Archives: Arkansas

From David Ash, 37th Illinois Volunteers

Letter from David Ash, Company B, 37th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, three days after the Battle of Pea Ridge.

Sugar Creek, Arkansas

March 11, 1862

Illinois State Flag | Image Credit: All-Flags-World.com

DEAREST ELIZA:

I seat myself down to let you know that I still am alive and enjoying good health. Well, Eliza, I received a letter from you a few days ago that had been on the way a long time. But I was glad to hear from you at any time.

I must try to tell you what we have been doing. Price and McCullough attacked General Sigel on the 6th. He retreated back to our camp, but kept firing into them all the way on the morning of the 7th. Our division was called on to rally and be on hand at any time. We kept moving from one point to another until two o’clock P.M., and we found where they were in the brush around.

Our brigade, the 37th and 39th Illinois regiments, formed a line of battle and marched into the butternuts. We marched up in front of them within about a hundred yards, and firing commenced on both sides. We all dropped down in the brush and fired and loaded. Jim Lee dropped dead at my feet by a shot from one of Company A, which was on our right. I saw the ball strike him on the back part of the head. He never moved a muscle.

The balls flew thick and fast. They cut the brush all around my head, but fortunately none hit me. We all fell back a few rods and loaded and went up on to them again. We fired into them again and they returned the fire. There were four regiments of them engaged at that time and only two of us. They had a good many Indians, one Brag, Louisiana regiment, and I don’t know where the rest are from…

There was a buckshot hit me in the shoulder, just merely going through my clothes, and made a little red spot. The ball had no force at all. It might have hit something before it hit me. I fired eight shots into them the first day, but it was not all over yet.

The morning of the 8th, we were rallied out before sun-up and went about a mile and formed a line of battle along a fence. Three of our company were positioned a few yards to the right along a fence, and our battery began to play upon them. There is two batteries firing at them but they have the best position and we moved back a short distance and formed again. They put balls around us with their battery until we moved, cutting trees off all around us. A ball hit one of our horses on the hind leg and cut it off but out men planted their battery again and began to fire into them, and in a short time they had silenced their battery entirely. They fired over us every time after we moved and did not hurt a man.

Five regiments then formed a line and commenced to advance on to them. We came on to them in about a mile (and) found them in the brush again. We opened on to them again and they ran like whiteheads. But we stopped some of them in the brush for good, they were thick laying dead as they fell. There was a flag taken. It was a beautiful one. Our Lafayette flag waved triumphantly that day. The Illinois 59th had no flag and Colonel White asked Captain Dick for it and he let him have it. It looked grand floating after the enemy, they brought it back honorable.

After we chased them clear out of the brush, we made a halt to rest and wait for orders. As we were very tired, I went all through the brush to see what had been done. I found any amount of dead secesh (secessionists, i.e., Confederate soldiers) and none of our men at all. I guess our division lost two or three men on the 8th and two or three wounded. They wound a great many more in proportion to what they kill than we do, for their guns are not so good–they have a great many shotguns and small rifles. Their surgeons don’t have many of our balls to pick out, for they generally go through.

It is the hardest sight a person could behold to see the dead lying round after they bring (them) in. They lay them in a pile until they get time to bury them. There was twenty-one killed out of our regiment (and) one hundred and nineteen wounded. Albert Hilliard was laying alongside of me when he was shot, says he, “Oh Dave, I am shot.” It was the hardest thing I have done for some time to call the roll the first time after the battle, so many of our boys wounded and one killed. But Eliza, I don’t know whether it is over yet or not, they’ve gone back a piece. It may be they are getting a good ready to come at us again. But I guess we can do the same thing for them every time.

I must close, for my paper has almost run out. If I am spared, I will write to you the first chance I have to send a letter. Dear faithful girl, I bid you goodbye for present. May the richest of heaven’s blessings be yours. Be a good girl and remember me.

D.L. ASH

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Source: Tapert, Annette (ed.), The Brothers’ War: Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray (New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1998), p. 40-42

The Battle of Pea Ridge: Day Two

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.

Brig Gen S.R. Curtis | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Brig Gen S.R. Curtis | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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.

Day 2 fighting | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Day 2 fighting | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 120; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (8 Mar 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 138; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 282-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 119; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 688; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 141-46; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 180-81; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 404-05; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 283-85; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 707; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 813; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 566-67, 707

The Battle of Pea Ridge: Day One

March 7, 1862 – Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederates attacked Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis’s Federals in northwestern Arkansas, as part of Van Dorn’s mission to reclaim Missouri.

General Earl Van Dorn | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

General Earl Van Dorn | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By March 6, Van Dorn’s men had marched through snow and sleet to get within striking distance of Curtis’s Army of the Southwest entrenched on Pea Ridge, near Fayetteville. 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 attacked the Federals’ western (right) sector near Leetown. Van Dorn expected the two wings to reunite as they pushed the Federals back.

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.

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 was also slow to generate, and it was not until 10:30 that the first sortie began.

Battle of Pea Ridge | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Battle of Pea Ridge | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Fighting surged back and forth all day. Three Federal divisions held off attacks from McCulloch, Brigadier General Albert Pike, and a portion of Price’s Missourians in the western sector, which became the Federal left after the troops about-faced. Meanwhile, Colonel Eugene A. Carr’s Federal division, supported by artillery, repelled Price’s main force near the important intersection at Elkhorn Tavern.

In the western sector, Pike’s Cherokee regiments, led by Colonel Stand Watie, withstood an artillery barrage from Colonel Peter J. Osterhaus’s Federal division. The Natives then charged the battery in full warrior dress, armed with rifles, bows and arrows, and tomahawks. They sent the Federals running, with many later accusing 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 was the first and last major battle of the war that featured Native American combatants.

McCulloch, on Pike’s left, had hoped to capitalize on Pike’s initial success with gains of his own. However, 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.

McCulloch had been the second-ranking Confederate brigadier general, and his death demoralized the troops. Brigadier General James McIntosh, McCulloch’s cavalry commander, replaced him but was killed just minutes later while leading a charge against the divisions of Osterhaus and Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president). This, along with the capture of the Confederates’ third-ranking officer, further damaged troop morale.

Meanwhile, brutal fighting occurred in the eastern sector. Carr’s Federals repelled two charges by Price’s Missourians, despite being outnumbered two-to-one. A furious third charge knocked the Federals back beyond Elkhorn Tavern, but they counterattacked and regained the lost ground as Carr repeatedly called for reinforcements. A fourth assault just before nightfall drove the Federals about 800 yards west, as more Federals finally arrived to stabilize Carr’s lines.

Fighting ended by nightfall. The Confederates had gained some ground and inflicted substantial damage on Curtis’s army. However, the two wings could not coordinate their efforts to destroy the Federals as Van Dorn had hoped. And the failure to regroup the Cherokees, 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. As both sides settled down for the night, the Confederates found themselves separated from their supply train. Van Dorn had not directed it to follow his army, thus depriving the troops of food and ammunition.

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. However, Curtis knew that McCulloch had been killed, and that other top officers had also been killed or captured. He also knew that the Natives had left the fight. Guessing that Confederate morale was low, Curtis resolved to concentrate his forces and fight his way through to the north the next morning.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 120; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (7 Mar 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12910; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 138; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9562; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 381, 461-62; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 282-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 118-19; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 143; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 179-80; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 404; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 458, 585; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 566-67

Battle Looms in Northwestern Arkansas

March 2, 1862 – Major General Earl Van Dorn led a unified Confederate army northward to confront Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis’s outnumbered Federals in northwestern Arkansas.

Van Dorn, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi District, arrived at the Boston Mountains in Arkansas to create the new 16,000-man Army of the West from:

  • Major General Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guards
  • Brigadier General Ben McCulloch’s Texans, Louisianans, Arkansans, and Missourians
  • Brigadier General Albert Pike’s 800 Native Americans
General Earl Van Dorn | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

General Earl Van Dorn | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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, Van Dorn 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.

Curtis opposed Van Dorn by leading the 10,500-man Federal Army of the Southwest into northwestern Arkansas. Van Dorn knew that 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 planned to move his Confederates between the Federal wings and defeat 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 on the 4th.

The next day, Curtis received word that the enemy was approaching. Having just four infantry divisions along with some cavalry and artillery, Curtis awaited reinforcements as he began pulling back to stronger defensive positions. He also ordered Brigadier General Franz Sigel, commanding two of Curtis’s four divisions at Bentonville, to fall back and join the rest of the army about 10 miles northeast.

By March 6, Curtis’s Federals had begun 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 Pike’s command, consisting mainly of three Cherokee regiments, leading the way. The Confederates advanced 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 surrounding them. However, 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 Price and McCulloch worked in full cooperation.

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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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12891-910; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 137; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 116-18; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 140-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 179; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 404; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 281-82; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 813; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 566-67