March 6, 1862: Battle of Pea Ridge Arkansas Begins

The largest battle fought in the Trans-Mississippi, the battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas was also notable in that it was one of the few major battles of the Civil War in which the Confederates outnumbered the Union troops.  Union Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis, leading the 10,500 troops of the Army of the Southwest.  Curtis had pursued the Confederate Missouri State Guard out of Missouri.  In Benton County Arkansas, anticipating a Confederate offensive, Curtis took up defensive positions along the north bank of Sugar Creek.  Half of the Union army consisted of recent German immigrants, proudly serving under General Franz Sigel (I fights mit Sigel!), a German immigrant himself, and a hero of the 1848 revolts in Germany.

Curtis was correct.  Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn, one of the more colorful Confederate generals of the War, had been placed in overall command of the Trans-Mississippi District, and he took command of the 16,000 men of the newly created Army of the West.  His plan was simple:  manuever around to the rear of Curtis’ force, destroy it, and march into Missouri and gain that state for the Confederacy.  Leading his troops on a three day forced march, and leaving his supply wagons behind to make better time, the Confederates arrived at Bentonville, Arkansas, north of Curtis’ army, on March 6, 1862, all of them tired and hungry.

Curtis was quite aware of the oncoming Confederates and had brought his scattered units together behind Little Sugar Creek.  Desultory fighting occurred on the 6th, but the battle did not begin in earnest until the 7th.  Curtis had his troops on the northern bluffs of Little Sugar Creek along the Telegraph Road.

Van Dorn’s right under Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch struck the Union forces at Leetown, beginning a fierce firefight. McCulloch’s attack met with success, overrunning a Union battery.  The fighting went on for several hours and was hard-fought, General McCulloch and his successor in command Brigadier General McIntosh being numbered among the slain.  The Confederates ultimately retreated at around 3:30 PM, the Confederate command structure shattered by the heavy fighting, and the troops demoralized.

A separate engagement erupted at Elkhorn Tavern, northeast of the fighting at Leetown, at 9:30 AM, when Confederate cavalry bumped into Union infantry.  Van Dorn, cautious, waited to launch an attack until he had fully deployed Major General Sterling Price’s division.  After a long afternoon of fighting, Price took Elkhorn Tavern, with his advance finally halted by the Union forces a quarter-mile south of Elkhorn.  A brief Union counter-attacked petered out in darkness at 6:30 PM.

Each of the exhausted armies spent a cold and miserable night.  With a fair amount of confusion General Curtis was able to assemble most of the Union army to confront Price south of Elk Horn by dawn on March 8.  General Van Dorn received reinforcement from a few of the units in the division of the late General McCulloch, but his death, and that of his successors, effectively left the other units of that division without an effective command structure and they did not play a role in the remainder of the battle.  Ominously for the Confederates, their supply train had gone astray, along with badly needed reserve supply ammunition.

The day’s fighting opened with an artillery duel.  Skillfully directed by General Franz Sigel, the Union batteries forced the Confederates to withdraw their guns.  The Union artillery achieved such dominance that they were able to actually soften up the Confederate infantry, a fairly unusual occurrence in the Civil War, prior to the Union infantry assault, also led by General Sigel.  Van Dorn’s army had enough and retreated, mostly in good order.  The Union sustained casualties of 1384, with 203 men being killed, as opposed to 2000 Confederate casualties.  Union control of Missouri was now unchallenged, except for a bitter partisan war that would be fought for the remainder of the conflict, and an invasion route to central Arkansas lay open.

Published in: on March 6, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on March 6, 1862: Battle of Pea Ridge Arkansas Begins  
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