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Battle of Pea Ridge

8/29/2006 • America's Civil War

Information about Battle Of Pea Ridge during the American Civil War

Battle Of Pea Ridge Facts & Summary
Location: Benton County, Arkansas
Dates: March 6–8, 1862
Generals: Union: Samuel R. Curtis | Confederate: Earl Van Dorn
Soldiers Engaged: Union Army: 10,400 | Confederate Army: 16,400
Outcome: Union Victory
Casualties: Union: 1,300 | Confederate: 2,100

This is an account of the Battle of Pea Ridge, fought on March 6–8, 1862, at Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas.

The Confederate strategy was simple: Advance northward through Missouri, defeat the Federal forces there and capture St. Louis, thus commanding the gateway to the West. Southern aspirations were aptly summarized by Major General Earl Van Dorn, who wrote to his wife: “I must have St. Louis…then Huzza.”

Van Dorn clearly understood the significance of taking St. Louis, both for him and his government. Control of St. Louis, a major industrial and commercial center–and a notoriously pro-Union city–would symbolize Confederate control of the entire state. And from a personal standpoint, it would place the supremely ambitious Van Dorn squarely in the center of military power and prestige. All that stood in his way were the outnumbered Union forces in Missouri under the command of Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis. Van Dorn confidently looked forward to a shower of accolades

The Confederacy as a whole had high hopes for its Missouri campaign in the winter of 1861-62. Politically, economically and militarily the state was vital to both the North and the South. Missouri protected the northwestern flank of the newly formed Confederate States of America. The Mississippi River was the strategic link between the eastern and western portions of the Confederacy. And St. Louis, lying as it did at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, was the historic jumping-off place to the Western frontier.

In Earl Van Dorn, the Confederacy had an experienced, aggressive career soldier. A West Point graduate, he had served with distinction in the Mexican War and been wounded several times for his trouble. He had also fought Indians on the Southwestern frontier. A nephew of President Andrew Jackson, he shared Old Hickory’s famous temper and charming way with the ladies. He had also inherited some of Jackson’s political savior faire. At the outset of the Civil War, when he learned that his fellow Mississippian Jefferson Davis wanted to be in charge of his home state’s troops, Van Dorn graciously stepped aside and took another appointment in Texas. In return for helping the South retain control of the Lone Star State during the first chaotic months of the war, Van Dorn was summoned to Richmond by now-President Jefferson Davis, promoted to major general and given the task of winning back Missouri for the hard-pressed Confederacy.

It had been a disastrous winter for Confederate hopes in the West. Already, Union forces under Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had seized Forts Henry and Donelson in western Tennessee and, in so doing, had caused the evacuation of Nashville and the fall of Kentucky and most of Tennessee to Union control. Farther west, in Missouri, Confederate elation following their victory at Wilson’s Creek in August 1861 had turned to despair as superior Federal forces had steadily pushed Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s outnumbered troops southward out of Missouri. By late February 1862, the Confederates had been driven to the Missouri-Arkansas border.

At Fayetteville, Ark., Van Dorn assembled a force of some 16,500 Confederates, including 8,000 Texicans under Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch and 7,000 Missourians under Price. These Regular forces were augmented by a colorful contingent of 2,000 assorted Indians, principally Cherokees, led by the renowned frontiersman Brig. Gen. Albert Pike. Van Dorn eased the personal friction between McCulloch and Price, and he persuaded them to cooperate in his bold plan to retake Missouri, capture St. Louis and move east to link up with General Albert Sidney Johnston and fall on Grant’s Union forces in Tennessee, pinning the Federals between them and bringing about a decisive Confederate victory in the West.

In assembling his army and convincing the other generals to go along with his plans, Van Dorn had already accomplished a significant feat. Moreover, he also seemed to have luck on his side. His force significantly outnumbered the 11,000 Union troops under Curtis, a fellow West Point graduate of no prior military distinction. Indeed, Curtis was more renowned as a politician than a general. A former mayor of Keokuk, Iowa, he had served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives prior to the war. Curtis’ very success worked against him. Following his comparatively easy victories over Price, demands had arisen for the transfer of Union forces from Missouri to other, more threatened theaters of the war.

To achieve his strategic goal of recapturing Missouri for the Confederacy, Van Dorn planned for his units to move west of the Union forces, outflank them, cut their supply lines and fall on them from behind. It was a smaller version of his grand scheme to cross the Mississippi and outmaneuver Grant in western Tennessee.

Never one to delay–and even though he was suffering the after-effects of flu or pneumonia–Van Dorn wasted no time heading north from Fayetteville. The movement began on March 4, following an obligatory address to the troops by their commanding general. A heavy snow was falling. Van Dorn himself was so wracked with fever that he began the journey lying in a wagon. The rugged terrain of the Boston Mountains added to the strain of the march.

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