Monday, November 21, 2005

Pea Ridge -- March 6-8, 1862

When we left Wilson's Creek we headed for Arkansas, following a route that was often identified as "Old Wire Road." This was a road running from St. Louis to Fort Smith Arkansas and was called "Telegraph Road" at the time of the Civil War.

In late 1861 President Lincoln appointed General Henry W. Halleck commander of the Department of the Missouri. Halleck took on the immediate task of eliminating General Price and his Missouri State Guard as a threat to Union control in Missouri, thus reducing the need for a large contingent of Federal forces, which were needed further to the east.

Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis was appointed commander of the Army of the Southwest, and ordered to immediately engage the Confederate forces that remained in Missouri and northern Arkansas. The supply line for this winter offensive was a bit longer than comfortable, so he appointed a quartermaster, Captain Philip Sheridan, who would go on to gain recognition in later battles.

In the meantime, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, having become aware of the feud between Generals Price and McCulloch, appointed Major General Earl van Dorn commander of the Department of the Trans Mississippi. Generals Price and McCulloch were placed under van Dorn's command, and took their orders from van Dorn.

In the Fall of 1861, a meeting of about 10% of the Missouri Legislature had passed articles of seccession. As far as the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia was concerned, Missouri was now a part of the Confederacy. The problem with this is that the meeting was held about as far away from Jefferson City as could be, without being in Arkansas; the action was not taken with anything near a quorum; and the "government" quickly became a government in exile as it moved to Arkansas.

General Curtis began his offensive with alacrity, and the remaining Confederate forces removed themselves to Arkansas, comprising an army of about 16,000. In early March of 1862 this force, having left its main body of supplies near Fayetteville, marched quickly north on Telegraph Road, intending to capture St. Louis and gain Missouri for the Confederacy.

General Curtis and his 10,500 soldiers of the Army of the Southwest were dug into positions south of Pea Ridge, expecting an assault from the south. Instead, van Dorn bypassed the Union positions and moved his forces around to the north.

Van Dorn's troops had endured a three-day march in wintry weather, and were in no condition to fight effectively. McCulloch's regiments separated from the main force, and were to recombine near Elkhorn tavern, along Telegraph Road. General McCulloch, wearing his customary black uniform and riding a black horse, decided to reconnoiter alone, as he was wont to do. He told his men he would be back shortly and to await his orders. Those orders never came, as McCulloch passed too close to the Union lines and was shot. General James McIntosh was also killed, and a major part of the Confederate Army of the West was without leadership.

Price's units were doing far better and were able to hold Elkhorn Tavern and Telegraph Road. The next day, General Curtis' artillery and troops retook the Elkhorn Tavern and Telegraph Road and drove the Confederate forces back. By this point, General van Dorn's decision to have each man under his command take only 40 rounds of ammunition forced him to order a withdrawal. The Confederacy would never again mount an effective campaign in Missouri, and the Union was able to send troops to the east of the Mississippi River.

As with Wilson's Creek, the decisions made by the commanders were key to which army retreated. Had General van Dorn not left his main supply train 3 days to the south, his superior numbers might well have determined the outcome. Had McCulloch and McIntosh not been killed the first day and had they left standing orders, their thousands of men might have joined the battle in time to turn the tide. The Confederates relied on dispatch riders to pass messages. An alarming number of these disappeared without a trace. The Union commander, General Curtis, on the other hand, was able to communicate effectively with his forces, as well as telegraph St. Louis and receive answers in a timely manner.

The Confederates withdrew deep into Arkansas, where they were near their supply lines and in friendly territory. It would be some time before the Union gained control of the lower Mississippi, Arkansas, and White rivers, thus controlling the supply routes into Arkansas, and gaining the ability to neutralize the Trans-Mississippi West as an obstacle to the restoration of the Union.

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