As the weather-hampered Confederates trudged through knee-deep snowdrifts and stinging winds, the Union forces under Curtis were moving to meet the approaching threat. At Pea Ridge, a long hill 30 miles northeast of Fayetteville, Curtis consolidated his forces and entrenched along Little Sugar Creek, which ran roughly parallel to the ridge, two miles to the southeast. He centered his operations at Elkhorn Tavern, a well-known watering hole at the eastern end of the ridge. His right flank, the flank Van Dorn expected to turn, rested against Elkhorn Mountain and Pea Ridge. The Union position was sound, reflecting Curtis’ prewar training as an engineer. The creek afforded a natural defensive barrier, and the mountains immediately to the west offered additional protection. To add to the strength of their position, the Federal troops were busily entrenching under the stern gaze of their formidable commander.
As he came upon the Federal positions on the evening of March 6, Van Dorn realized immediately that he would be unable to slip past Curtis’ flank completely unnoticed. He would have to deal with Curtis first, before moving any farther north. Van Dorn decided to take advantage of his superior numbers, the static position of the entrenched Federals, and the terrain itself. The same mountains that provided security to Curtis’ right flank might also serve to mask Van Dorn’s movements to the west. He was further encouraged by a minor success when his advance guard briefly engaged and dispatched a small Union detachment under Brig Gen. Franz Sigel. Van Dorn then determined to bring his force to the rear of the Federal line, thereby negating its entrenchments and its advantageous position behind Little Sugar Creek.
On the night of March 6-7, he ordered his troops, already weary from three days and 50 miles of arduous marching, to make their way along a road called the Bentonville Detour. That movement would allow the Confederates to move past the Union right flank. Shielded from view by the looming mountains, Van Dorn’s troops hoped to use McCulloch’s and Price’s divisions as two arms of fast-closing pincers. They would fall on both Union flanks from the rear, creating a surprise double envelopment from which the outnumbered Federals would have no escape.
In attempting to create a double envelopment, however, Van Dorn had created an ironic problem for himself. His two wings would be attacking in a southerly direction. By cutting off the Federal force from its line of supply and retreat to Missouri, he was also severing his own communications with his rear supply area in Arkansas. Even worse, he had left his slow and cumbersome supply and ammunition trains behind him–in effect, cutting himself off from his own supplies.
The Battle of Pea Ridge (or Elkhorn Tavern) began on March 7. Curtis had gathered his four divisions along Little Sugar Creek; they now numbered 10,500 men after Sigel’s losses the day before. The hollow of the creek and the obstacle of Pea Ridge provided a natural defense. Curtis’ stiff, traditional, old-school demeanor was ideally suited for the developing situation.At the outset of the battle, Van Dorn was confident. He had kept his campfires burning in front of the Union lines all night to mask his maneuvering around their position. Sterling Price’s division had the longest trek, passing around the Union right in a wide arc to bring them behind the left wing. McCulloch had a lesser distance to travel to attack the enemy’s left rear.
On the morning of the 7th, Curtis realized that Van Dorn’s forces were absent from their camps on the south side of Little Sugar Creek. At first he had no idea where they had gone. But a few hours after sunrise, Curtis’ scouts informed him that the Rebels were making their way toward him from the rear, moving through the high ground along Pea Ridge–they were moving in strength.
Curtis could have retreated across Little Sugar Creek, fleeing toward Arkansas or circling back into Missouri. Instead, he chose to fight. He quickly ordered an about-face, not the easiest maneuver to execute, nor the best way to redeploy for a fight. After turning 180 degrees, an army is frequently disoriented–units normally on the left are now on the right, and orders and directions become confused. Yet Curtis and his subordinates maintained good order and discipline.
The Confederates, by contrast, were struggling to meet their timetable. The long mountain trek had delayed them during the cold, dark night. They were coming into attack position a few miles from the Union lines–but they were also a few hours late. By 10:30 a.m., when Price’s men pressed down the Telegraph Road toward the Union position around Elkhorn Tavern, Colonel Eugene Carr was waiting for them. The Federals fought back hard, but Carr’s outnumbered men were soon reeling under the Confederate assault. Again and again, Carr regrouped and formed new defensive lines. He sent word to Curtis that he needed reinforcements.
By noon, Price’s men had pierced Carr’s second line of defense and fanned out around Elkhorn Tavern. Meanwhile, McCulloch’s wing struck the Federal left near Leetown. Curtis had assigned Colonels Peter Osterhaus and Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Southern president) to meet the threat. As with Carr at Elkhorn Tavern, the two Union colonels met the approaching Confederates head-on. But they, too, were outnumbered and hard-pressed to hold on.On both flanks the Confederates had employed their superiority in infantry and artillery to gain–at least temporarily–the upper hand. Gray-clad gunners pummeled the Union lines on both fronts, while Pike’s Indians overran Osterhaus’ first line of defense and immediately paused to begin chanting their victory songs. It would prove a costly diversion.
Curtis was under intense pressure to reinforce both his wings. Osterhaus had been hit particularly hard. He had given up much ground, and in the process had lost several artillery pieces and equipment. Carr, too, was reeling, but so far neither wing had broken. Time was now on the Union side. The repeated Confederate artillery and infantry assaults had consumed much of the remaining daylight. In the waning light, made worse by the thick haze of gunsmoke and dust, few officers could see far enough to plot their next moves with any accuracy.
Two other factors, both attributable to Van Dorn’s earlier tactical decisions, began to have a deleterious effect on the Confederates in the evolving battle. First, after repeated barrages and assaults, they were running low on ammunition. But their extra ammunition was in the rear. Or in this case, in the opposing force’s rear, since the Federals had turned around to face northward, with Little Sugar Creek behind them–and the Rebels’ precious ammunition boxes just across the creek, separated from them by several miles of rough terrain and a thoroughly aroused Federal army.Additionally, the Confederate forces by this time were exhausted. They had had no sleep and little food for almost two days; no sooner had they encountered the Federal force at Little Sugar Creek than they were on the move again, making another long trek through the cold winter night to reach jumping-off points in what was supposed to be the Union rear. But the enemy rear had become the enemy front when Curtis ordered a timely about-face. Instead of a devastating surprise attack against the backs of an outnumbered and outmaneuvered enemy, the Confederates had encountered a determined and ready foe prepared to contest every yard of ground and not at all inclined to flee or succumb.
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