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The Battle of Pea Ridge

Elkhorn Tavern

The Battle of Pea Ridge or Elkhorn Tavern took place on March 7-8, 1862 in northwestern Arkansas.

Union Brig. General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding the army of the southwest, came south from central Missouri and drove Confederate forces under command of Maj. General Sterling Price out of Missouri and into northwestern Arkansas.

Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn reorganized Confederate troops and launched a counter-offensive hoping to recapture northern Arkansas and Missouri. This is one of few battles where Confederate troops outnumbered Union troops

Union forces were primarily from Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio and over half were German immigrants who were placed in the 1st and 2nd divisions under the command of Brig. General Franz Sigel, also a German immigrant. Native born regiments were assigned to the 3rd and 4th Divisions. Company C of 36th Illinois Infantry was composed of mostly men from Sumner, IL in Lawrence Co.

Union General Curtis, expecting an attack, fortified a defensive position on the north side of Sugar Creek in Benton County, Arkansas. Their position was on either side of Telegraph or Wire Road. Telegraph Road went northeast from Little Sugar Creek to Elkhorn Tavern. This is less than 50 miles east of Bentonville, AR modern day headquarters of Wal-Mart and around 20 miles west of Eureka Springs, AR home of the famed Passion play. The man-made Beaver Lake is now nearby.

Confederate General Van Dorn split his forces in half and sent them north to try to get behind the union troops instead of attacking them head on in their entrenched position. The Confederates made the 3 day march from Fort Stephens, moving east, in the midst of a freezing storm and arrived hungry, tired and strung out along the line of march. Union Gen. Curtis had left his supply trains behind to make better speed, which was a smart decision. He had been warned of the Confederate movements by scouts and Arkansas union sympathizers. 700 Union reinforcements came from the southeast from Huntsville, marching 42 miles in 16 hours (record time). On March 6, union troops were sent to obstruct the Confederate pathway which led from Twelve Corner Church and Cross Timber Hollow. Numerous trees were cut down to block the roadway and had to be cleared before confederate troops could advance with their equipment. The Confederates under Van Dorn did not have an engineer corps to help with removing the trees, were marching by night, worked together poorly and were exhausted.

The plan was for two divisions of Confederate troops to reach Cross Timer Hollow by dawn but only the head or first of the men marching in one division made the target destination. Because of the delay, troops under Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch were ordered to take Twelve Corner Church and then to meet troops commanded by Major General Sterling Price at Elkhorn Tavern. Federal patrols detected both these threats on the morning of March 7. Union General Curtis sent troops up the Wire Road to join the 24th Missouri Infantry at Elkhorn Tavern because he was not certain where the main Confederate force was located.

The Confederate forces under the command of Gen. Benjamin McCullough were composed of a brigade of cavalry under Brig. Gen. James McIntosh, a brigade of infantry under Col Louis Hebert and a combined force of Native Americans from Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole cavalry under Brig. Gen. Albert Pike. These troops swung west on Ford Road and engaged parts of the Union army at a small village called Leetown, where there was a fierce firefight. Shortly before noon on March 7 a union force riding north through timber espied an entire Confederate division under McCullough marching east on Ford Road only a few hundred yards away. A small number of union troops were ordered to attack to give time to deploy union artillery. Three union cannon began shelling the Confederate troops. The Confederate troops were ordered to wheel to the south and attack. The massive Confederate charge overwhelmed the union troops. The Union cannon were captured. Two companies of troops from Iowa were ambushed by Cherokee troops with a large number killed and wounded and then the wounded were murdered and several were scalped.

Two companies of skirmishers from the Illinois 36th Infantry were posted along the southern edge of this same belt of timber which separated two farm fields. Federal gunners began lobbing shells over the belt of timber. Their first shells panicked the Cherokees who rapidly retreated and could not be rallied.

In the fighting around this belt of timber, two Confederate Generals were killed, General Sul Ross leading the 6th Texas Cavalry and General McIntosh. This left Col. Louis Hebert in command although he was not aware of this. Hebert had led his troops on the left flank into the woods for a powerful attack. Confederate colonels on the right flank began to fall back to await orders from Hebert. The right flank was eventually boxed in on three sides and retreated to Ford Road. A small group of Confederate soldiers with Hebert became separated from the rest of their troops in the smoky fighting and were lost in the woods, only to be captured later in the day. Confusion reigned among the Confederate command because of lack of clear chain of command and some units retreated to Twelve Corners Church with others being left in the field and some marching back toward Camp Stephens.

Temperatures fell rapidly after dark, making all concerned miserable. In the early morning hours of March 8, Brig. Gen. Sigel sent scouts into the open prairie west of Elkhorn. A knoll was discovered which would make an excellent artillery position. The 1st and 2nd Union divisions were ordered to march up Telegraph Road and deploy on the left of troops under the command of Union Col. Jefferson C. Davis (not to be confused with Confederate President Jefferson Davis) whose troops had routed the Confederate troops under Hebert in the previous day’s fighting. Davis ordered an Illinois battery to fire a few salvos into the woods opposite his position which provoked a sharp Confederate reaction. Three Confederate batteries opened fire, causing two Union batteries to retreat and Davis to pull his men out of the open and back into the woods. Confederates pushed forward but were driven back.

The 1st and 2nd Union divisions moved into place in a long line to the left of Davis’ troops. Another division took its place on the far left around 8:00 a.m. and then more troops fell into the union line generally facing north. This is possibly the only time during the war when an entire army was visibly deployed in one continuous line of battle from flank to flank. 21 cannon were placed on the knoll west of Elkhorn. Federal artillery began an effective fire upon the 12 Confederate guns opposed to them. When Confederate gunners pulled back under deadly fire, two batteries were ordered to take their place. One of the new batteries panicked and fled. The Confederates were not able to counter the Union fire. After the Confederate guns were rendered nearly harmless Gen. Sigel directed the Union guns to fire into the woods at the Confederate infantry near the base of Big Mountain where the projectiles created a deadly combination of rock shrapnel and wood splinters driving the Confederate Missouri Brigade from its positions. The artillery barrage softened up the enemy position and paved the way for an infantry assault. Union infantry edged forward during the bombardment. The Confederate commander discovered that his reserve artillery ammunition was six hours away on a wagon train and realized he had no hope of victory. Confederate troops retreated on the Huntsville Road. Two divisions of Union troops were sent forward and when they met at Elkhorn Tavern without engaging the retreating Confederate troops, victory was declared shortly after 11:00 a.m.

Two companies of Illinois 36th Infantry Regiment were engaged in fighting on March 6 at Bentonville, on March 7 at Leetown and on March 8 at Pea Ridge. One company was captured briefly but most of the men were freed when they accidentally met up with troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Sigel who were retreating. Private John H. Harris from Tompkins (part of Company C) was killed in the fighting at Pea Ridge on March 7.

After the defeat at Pea Ridge, Confederate troops never again threatened the state of Missouri. Within weeks Van Dorn’s army was transferred across the Mississippi river to the Army of Tennessee, leaving Arkansas with no defensive troops.

Pea Ridge National Military Park was founded in 1956. It is one of the best preserved Civil War battlefields. A reconstruction of Elkhorn Tavern, the scene of the heaviest fighting stands at the original location.

It was my intention to have a story about each battle ready for publication at the anniversary of the battle. Life intervened and I am far behind schedule. Please bear with me as I try to catch up on each of the battles which took place in the summer of 1862.

Claudia Dant

Wabash County Museum

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