Tag Archives: Trans-Mississippi

The Battle of Westport

October 23, 1864 – The largest battle of the Trans-Mississippi took place as Major General Sterling Price’s Confederates took on two Federal forces approaching them from opposite directions.

By this time, Price’s incursion into Missouri had brought his Confederates west toward Westport (now part of Kansas City) on the Missouri-Kansas border. A division of Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s Federal Army of the Border under Major General James G. Blunt faced Price to the west, and Federal cavalry under Major General Alfred Pleasonton threatened Price from the east. Blunt had about 15,000 Federals and Kansas militia, and Pleasonton had 7,000 men. Price’s army numbered just 8,000 cavalry troopers.

Price devised a desperate strategy to simultaneously attack both forces and then escape southward back to Arkansas. He directed two divisions under Major General James F. Fagan and Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby to attack Curtis across Brush Creek while Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke’s division attacked Pleasonton at Byram’s Ford, on the Big Blue River. Shelby reported:

“The 23rd of October dawned upon us clear, cold, and full of promise. My division moved squarely against the enemy about 8 o’clock in the direction of Westport, and very soon became fiercely engaged, as usual… Inch by inch and foot by foot they gave way before my steady onset. Regiment met regiment, and opposing batteries draped the scene in clouds of dense and sable smoke.”

Curtis launched a preemptive attack, but Shelby’s famed Iron Brigade quickly repelled it and sent the outflanked Federals across Brush Creek. Elements of Curtis’s force retreated to Westport and the Kansas state line, but just as the line seemed to break, Shelby’s Confederates began running out of ammunition. Price’s men launched several charges over four hours but could not break Curtis’s line. Then Federals found a small ravine and turned the Confederate left.

The Battle of Westport | Image Credit: Flickr.com

At mid-morning, Price learned that Marmaduke was “being attacked with great fierceness by an overwhelming force of the enemy, after a most strenuous resistance, his ammunition being exhausted, had to fall back before the foe.” Pleasonton’s Federals captured the west bank of the Big Blue around 11 a.m., forcing Marmaduke to withdraw. This threatened Price’s supply train, which he had already sent south.

Price positioned the remnants of Marmaduke’s division along with Fagan’s division to guard the southward escape of the valuable Confederate supply train. Shelby’s division facing Curtis would prevent the Federals from pursuing. Price’s men as his train withdrew down the Missouri-Kansas state line.

Shelby dispatched a brigade to hold off Pleasonton’s entire division while the rest of his command tried holding Curtis off. But the Federals were soon threatening the Confederate front and rear at the same time. Shelby wrote, “I knew the only salvation was to charge the nearest line, break it if possible, and then retreat rapidly, fighting the other. The order was given.”

The Confederates attacked Pleasonton, but soon Curtis’s Federals were upon them, “and nothing was left but to run for it, which was now commenced. The Federals seeing the confusion pressed on furiously, yelling, shouting, and shooting, and my own men fighting, every one on his own hook, would turn and fire and then gallop away again.” The Confederates set brushfires to prevent the Federals from seeing where they went.

Following this fight, Curtis informed Federal Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck that “the victory at Westport was most decisive.” Being the largest battle in the Trans-Mississippi theater, it became known as the “Gettysburg of the West.” Of the 30,000 men engaged, roughly 1,500 were lost on each side. This was a much more devastating figure for Price, whose defeated force was much smaller.

As Price’s Army of Missouri retreated back south toward Arkansas, Curtis directed the Federals to pursue.

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References

Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 407; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 478; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 12188-262; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 513; Hattaway, Herman, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 602-03, 816; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 156-61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 587-90; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 474

Hardships on the Confederate Home Front

April 10, 1863 – Southerners endured greater hardships than ever before this year, especially west of the Mississippi River. This led to growing unrest and widespread discontent.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

President Jefferson Davis responded to a letter written by Arkansas Governor Harris Flanagin in January about the importance of the Mississippi River to both his state and the Confederacy. Flanagin also asked Davis to send him more troops from Arkansas and Missouri who were currently serving in other theaters.

Davis wrote, “The defense of the Mississippi River on both banks has been considered by me as of primary importance, and I can assure you that you cannot estimate more highly than I do the necessity of maintaining an unobstructed communication between the States that are separated by the river.”

Referring to Vicksburg and Port Hudson as indispensable, Davis stated:

“If we succeed, as I have confidence we shall, in maintaining these two positions, we preserve the ability to furnish the munitions and ordnance stores necessary for the supply of the troops on the west bank, and to throw across the river adequate forces for meeting the enemy, if he should transfer his campaign from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama to Arkansas and Louisiana.”

Regarding more troops, Davis wrote that “we are sadly outnumbered on all our lines of defense… (though) it will be found that the disproportion between the opposing forces has been more largely against us on the eastern than on the western side. Yet, if we lose control of the eastern side the western must almost inevitably fall into the power of the enemy. The defense of the fortified places on the eastern bank is therefore regarded as the defense of Arkansas.”

As Davis explained:

“Our safety, our very existence, depends on the complete blending of the military strength of all the States into one united body that is to be used anywhere, everywhere, as the exigencies of the contest may require for the good of the whole. The discipline and efficiency of our armies have been found to be far greater when the troops were separated from their homes, and thus delivered from the constant temptation to absent themselves from duty presented by proximity to their families.”

Davis pledged to do his best “to protect your State to the utmost extent of our ability,” and he hoped that the recent appointment of Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith to head the Trans-Mississippi Department would have a “good effect in satisfying the good people of your State, and supplies of arms and munitions will be constantly forwarded as rapidly as our resources and means of transportation will permit.”

Shortages of nearly every necessity began plaguing the Confederacy to the point of causing civil unrest. As a result of the Richmond “bread riot” and other similar incidents, South Carolina Governor Milledge L. Bonham asked legislators to enact measures halting the growing speculation and hoarding of flour, corn, bacon, and other goods.

A North Carolina woman wrote to Governor Zebulon Vance expressing the hardships that she and many other women and children endured on farms. She stated that “a crowd of we Poor wemen went to Greenesborough yesterday for something to eat as we had not a mouthful of meet nor bread in my house what did they do but put us in gail in plase of giveing us aney thing to eat… I have 6 little children and my husband in the armey and what am I to do?”

Several women wrote to Confederate officials begging for them to discharge their husbands from the military. One wife assured the secretary of war that her husband “is not able to do your government much good and he might do his children some good and thare is no use in keeping a man thare to kill him and leave widows and poore little orphen children to suffer while the rich has aplenty to work for them.”

The military draft was also becoming increasingly unpopular and unmanageable. Lieutenant General D.H. Hill, commanding Confederates in North Carolina, wrote a letter to the War Department explaining that enforcement of the draft law in North Carolina was inefficient and corrupt. Confederate officials reported that in Virginia, the Confederate state with the highest population, the draft was netting just 700 recruits per month.

The Confederate Congress recognized the growing unrest as well as the fact that the war would not be won anytime soon. Members approved a resolution declaring that although “a strong impression prevails throughout the country that the war… may terminate during the present year,” the people should instead “look to prolonged war as the only condition proferred by the enemy short of subjugation.”

This contrasted with Davis’s January message to Congress (after the victories at Fredericksburg and Chickasaw Bayou, and before the consequences of the Battle of Stones River had come to light), in which he predicted total victory would come soon. As such, he felt compelled to issue a proclamation to accompany the congressional resolution, addressed “To the People of the Confederate States.”

Davis conceded that he was “fully concurring in the views thus expressed by Congress,” but he urged the people to “point with just pride to the history of our young Confederacy… We must not forget, however, that the war is not yet ended, and that we are still confronted by powerful armies and threatened by numerous fleets… Your country, therefore, appeals to you to lay aside all thoughts of gain, and to devote yourself to securing your liberties, without which those gains would be valueless…”

Davis then called on non-combatants to sacrifice even more for the war effort. He asked planters to grow vegetables for the troops rather than cotton or tobacco for profit:

“Let fields be devoted exclusively to the production of corn, oats, beans, peas, potatoes, and other food for man and beasts, and let all your efforts be directed to the prompt supply of these articles in the districts where our armies are operating.”

Focusing on shortages in the army rather than shortages among civilians, Davis stated, “The supply of meat for the Army is deficient. This deficiency is only temporary, for measures have been adopted which will, it is believed, soon enable us to restore the full ration.”

Claiming that the Confederacy enjoyed a food surplus, Davis announced:

“Even if the surplus be less than is believed, is it not a bitter and humiliating reflection that those who remain at home, secure from hardship and protected from danger, should be in the enjoyment of abundance, and that their slaves also should have a full supply of food, while their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers are stinted in the rations on which their health and efficiency depend?”

The proclamation did little to either reduce the suffering among southerners or boost morale for the war effort.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 271, 273-74; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 166; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 279; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 334-35; 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. 613; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q263

The Battle of Prairie Grove

December 7, 1862 – Major General Thomas C. Hindman’s Confederates attacked Brigadier General Francis J. Herron’s Federals about 12 miles southwest of Fayetteville, Arkansas, sparking a confusing but brutal 12-hour battle.

General Francis J. Herron | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Herron led two divisions of 6,000 men and 30 guns to reinforce Brigadier General James G. Blunt’s 5,000-man division isolated at Cane Hill. Hindman had hoped to attack and destroy Blunt before Herron arrived, but when he learned that Herron was coming up fast, he decided to bypass Blunt, attack Herron first, and then turn back on Blunt. Hindman’s Army of the Trans-Mississippi consisted of 11,300 poorly equipped men and 22 guns.

Herron’s Federals reached Fayetteville, about 20 miles from Blunt, before dawn on the 7th. Hindman dispatched a small cavalry force under Colonel J.C. Monroe to keep Blunt occupied while the rest of the Confederates moved around Blunt’s flank to confront Herron. As Herron’s men continued marching toward Blunt, they were met by Confederate artillery near Illinois Creek, 12 miles down the road. Hindman’s army stood in line of battle at the village of Prairie Grove, between Herron and Blunt.

Hindman ordered an attack, led by Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke’s cavalry and William C. Quantrill’s partisans. Herron, fearing that Hindman had destroyed Blunt’s force, directed his men to stand firm. But the Federals, exhausted from marching nearly 100 miles in three days, began falling back. Hindman did not capitalize on this early advantage; he instead ordered his men to take defensive positions and wait for Herron to attack.

General James G. Blunt | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

As both sides settled into defenses and traded artillery fire, Blunt heard the guns and realized that Hindman had outflanked him. “My God, they’re in our rear!” he exclaimed as he wheeled his troops around and hurried to Herron’s aid.

On the battlefield, Herron guessed that since the Confederates had stopped their advance, their numbers must be small. He therefore ordered an attack; the Federals charged twice but could not make headway. Hindman responded with a charge of his own, but Federal artillery beat it back.

Blunt’s Federals began arriving on the scene around 4 p.m., pouring enfilade fire into Hindman’s flank. Brigadier General J.O. “Jo” Shelby’s Confederate cavalry counterattacked, preventing Blunt from breaking the line. Nightfall ended the fighting.

The Confederates held their ground, but the weather turned bitter cold, the troops lacked ammunition for a second day of fighting, and the animals lacked forage to survive. Thus, Hindman ordered a withdrawal back toward Van Buren during the night. Men wrapped blankets around wagon wheels so the Federals could not hear the retreat. Thousands of soldiers, who had been reluctantly conscripted into the Confederate army, deserted along the way.

About 10,000 men on each side participated in the battle. The Federals sustained 1,251 casualties (175 killed, 813 wounded, and 263 missing), 918 of which were Herron’s. The Confederates lost 1,317 (164 killed, 817 wounded, and 336 missing).

The fight was a tactical draw, but the Confederate withdrawal made it a Federal strategic victory. Herron reported, “The fighting was desperate beyond description,” and accurately predicted, “I think this section is rid of Hindman.” This battle ended Confederate hopes of regaining Missouri, northwestern Arkansas, or the Indian Territory north of the Arkansas River.

Gen Thomas C. Hindman | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The next morning, Hindman sent a request to Blunt under a flag of truce for his men to collect the wounded and bury the dead. Hindman asked for a 36-hour armistice, but Blunt believed this was a ruse to cover a Confederate escape and countered with just six hours. Hindman agreed; his army was already withdrawing, so six hours still gave him a day’s march ahead of his pursuers.

Both Confederates and Federals came out to the battlefield, along with nearby relatives of those in both armies. Some of the wounded had frozen to death, and hogs feasted on some of the corpses. Federal burial parties noticed that many Confederates had frozen to death without suffering any wounds. They also noticed that some Confederates had removed the bullets from the cartridges to fire blanks; this indicated that they had served against their will.

The Federals accused Marmaduke’s Confederates of taking weapons off the dead, prompting Blunt to end the truce and order those responsible captured as prisoners of war. But by that time, most of Hindman’s troops were well on their way to Van Buren, 45 miles south.

Major General John Schofield, commanding the Federal Army of the Frontier over Herron and Blunt, soon arrived on the scene and censured Blunt for not falling back to link with Herron’s reinforcements rushing his way. Schofield also censured Herron for attacking with troops so exhausted that many died of fatigue and exposure instead of combat.

Both the Lincoln and Davis administrations began attaching less importance to actions west of the Mississippi after this battle. President Jefferson Davis had asked General Theophilus H. Holmes, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department over Hindman, to send reinforcements to Vicksburg just before the battle occurred. The casualties sustained during the fight and the desertions afterward meant that Holmes had no reinforcements to spare.

The Confederate high command later sent Hindman east and replaced him with Major General Sterling Price, a Missourian who had long sought to reclaim his state for the Confederacy. Holmes was reassigned from department command to just the District of Arkansas within the department.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 89; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 238; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 11, 49-50; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 236-37; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 151-52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 293; 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. 668; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 358; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 599-600; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 292-93

The Cane Hill Engagement

November 28, 1862 – Federals led by Brigadier General James G. Blunt attacked Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke’s small Confederate cavalry force in a skirmish in northwestern Arkansas.

General John S. Marmaduke | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Marmaduke had expected the Federals to advance from the northwest, but they came forward using the Fayetteville road to the northeast instead, which the Confederates had not guarded. The Federals quickly drove the pickets off and attacked Marmaduke’s unsuspecting flank.

The fight became a nine-hour running battle, with the Confederates being pushed back from position to position as Marmaduke scrambled to assemble a rear guard to protect his supply train. The Confederates retreated down the Van Buren road as their train hurried into the Boston Mountains.

Meanwhile, the chase scattered Blunt’s Federals, so he waited until they could be regrouped before resuming the offensive. Marmaduke continued falling back, with Blunt pursuing. As nightfall approached, the Federals ran into the Confederate rear guard, led by Colonel J.O. “Jo” Shelby’s “Iron Brigade,” which lay in ambush.

Shelby directed his men to form one column on each side of the road. The front line fired, raced to the rear to reload, and the next line fired to hold off the advancing enemy. This stopped the Federal pursuers and ended the engagement, enabling Marmaduke, his men, and his supply train to escape.

The Federals sustained 44 casualties (eight killed and 36 wounded), and the Confederates lost 80 (10 killed and 70 wounded or missing). During the night, Marmaduke fell back to Dripping Springs, eight miles north of Van Buren. This engagement shifted the initiative in Arkansas to the Federals.

Marmaduke sought to counterattack the next day, as Blunt took up headquarters at Cane Hill. The Federals were now over 100 miles from the rest of the Army of the Frontier and its support base at Springfield, Missouri. Confederate Major General Thomas C. Hindman hurried a regiment and a wagon train of ammunition to reinforce Marmaduke.

In his official report written that night, Marmaduke urged Hindman to come up with all “celerity and secrecy” to join in an attack. Hindman replied:

“The crossing will be completed to-morrow, and the command will move on Monday (December 1) at daylight. I shall march moderately, not above 12 or 15 miles a day, if it can be helped, so as not to break the men down before the fight commences.”

Believing that Blunt would stay at Cane Hill until he came up, Hindman added, “To prevent as far as practicable rumors of the movement getting to the enemy, spread the report that Little Rock is threatened, and I am ordered there. This can be done, I hope, without disheartening your men.” Meanwhile, Blunt’s isolated force remained at Cane Hill.

Hindman’s Confederates began crossing the Arkansas River on the 29th. His superior, General Theophilus H. Holmes commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department, wrote him, “You must save the country if you can.” Hindman met with Marmaduke and his other commanders the following day. The Confederates only had enough ammunition for one day of fighting, so the attack needed to be quick and decisive. The leaders worked out a plan to divide the army into four columns, with one each attacking Blunt’s flanks, front, and rear.

In a sudden change of heart, Holmes warned Hindman, “You must not think of advancing in your present condition. You would lose your army. The enemy will either advance on you or for want of supplies will be obliged to return to Missouri.”

As the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi assembled near Van Buren, Blunt dispatched scouts to determine the enemy positions.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 233; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 150; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 290-91; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 552

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