Elements of their early success now haunted the Confederate effort. Their Indian allies had enjoyed greatly their thumping of Osterhaus, but they adamantly refused to make another direct frontal assault against entrenched Union positions. Ultimately they withdrew from the battle altogether.On the same wing, Van Dorn suffered another crushing reverse when General McCulloch fell dead, shot by a green Illinois foot soldier as his men gathered for a last surge against the faltering enemy troops. A legendary frontier fighter and friend of Davy Crockett, McCulloch had been a leader of the Texas Rangers and a key figure in the pre-Confederacy republic. His death so demoralized his soldiers that many stopped their charge in midstride and simply faded away into the countryside. To make matters worse, McCulloch’s successor, Colonel James McIntosh, was also killed, and Colonel Louis Hebert was captured. Only Albert Pike remained to gather the remnants of the command and lead them around the north side of Pea Ridge to rejoin Price’s force.
Meanwhile, on the east end of the ridge, Price had been stymied by a determined force that was half his size. Van Dorn, headquartered with Price’s units, became increasingly desperate. He ordered Price forward for a late-afternoon assault despite the exhausted state of the troops and the severe shortage of ammunition. Once again the Confederate artillery did its deadly work, wrecking numerous Union pieces and pressuring the infantrymen crouched down among them. Carr, still calling for reinforcements, was forced to find another defensive line.It was now sunset. Curtis sensed that the danger on his left had diminished, and he sent his reserve division under Brig. Gen. Alexander Asboth to Carr’s relief. Asboth arrived in time to help Carr establish his fourth defensive perimeter of the day. By then the Confederates had shot their last bolt. Wearily, they fell to the ground seeking sleep. The fighting on the Union right dwindled away with the dusk.
During the night, Curtis, who had carefully avoided committing his reserves until late in the day, now calculated correctly that his numerically superior opponent was exhausted. With better interior lines, steady and disciplined maneuvering, capable subordinates and valorous troops, Curtis’ line had held, bent but not broken, throughout a long day of assaults. In the darkness he moved more men to his right, opposite the largest remaining concentration of Rebel troops.
The Confederate positions were now defensive. The troops were still divided into two segments, Price’s on the Union right and the remnants of McCulloch’s force on the left. The Rebel dispositions and the inward curvature of their lines made it apparent to Curtis that the enemy was weakened and not inclined to renew the offensive the next day. Accordingly, he shifted Colonel Davis’ division from the left to the right, joining Carr and Asboth opposite Elkhorn Tavern. Sigel and Osterhaus remained on the left, opposite what remained of McCulloch’s force.
On March 8, the Federal troops enjoyed the benefit of a hot breakfast and the confidence that they had held out against superior numbers. The Confederates, meanwhile, were low on food and ammunition, and they were hardly disposed to make another inspired effort after the myriad frustrations of the previous day. Undeterred, Van Dorn resumed hostilities with a booming cannonade from his still numerically superior artillery. But the firing was without focus, less designed to soften the Union lines for another assault than to test the Northerners’ remaining resolve. The weakness of the barrage indicated to Curtis that the steam had indeed gone out of the Rebel effort. He immediately ordered Sigel’s artillerymen to respond. As the Rebel artillery ammunition dwindled, the Union gunners began knocking the Confederate cannons out, one by one. Meanwhile, the Union infantry surged forward on the left and pushed the Rebels back from the ridge. Sigel, as much surprised as elated, urged his men forward.
The newfound enthusiasm was contagious. Curtis insisted on another precisely timed artillery barrage and a properly synchronized infantry assault. Sigel’s men closed with the Union right and both elements set off toward, around and past Elkhorn Tavern. Their attack carried them over the same ground they had lost the previous day and pushed the dispirited Confederates back along the entire front. Both of Van Dorn’s wings began to dissolve. The Union victory was swift and almost anticlimactic. Curtis, his normally dour demeanor split by an infectious grin, rode among his men shouting, Victory! Victory!
For his counterpart across the way, the question now was how to hold his beaten force together. Van Dorn did not have to decide what to do–his men decided for him. The Confederates beat a hasty, disorganized retreat in three directions to the north. The Indian contingent simply melted away into the vast wilderness of Indian Territory to the west. Van Dorn managed to hold a remnant in place and led them around Curtis’ force back to Arkansas, where more of his troops scattered in every direction, delaying for weeks any serious attempt to reconcentrate and reconstitute another meaningful Confederate force in the region.
A combination of factors had produced a major Union victory at Pea Ridge. The Union artillery, outnumbered throughout the battle, nevertheless displayed accuracy and aggressiveness, particularly on the second day. The numerical advantage of the Confederate force was negated partly by fatigue, first-day battle losses, the refusal of their Indian allies to resume the fight, and low supplies of ammunition. And throughout the battle the Union commanders showed more initiative, flexibility, creativity and zeal than their Confederate counterparts.
Above all, the clear thinking and composed leadership of Samuel Curtis had produced three important and correct decisions that directly affected the course of the battle. First, he turned his force completely around to meet Van Dorn’s attempted double envelopment. Second, he held back his reserves, not employing them futilely or prematurely, until impact could be decisive. And third, he counterattacked at just the right time for such a stroke.
Like so many other Civil War battles, the dreams and aspirations of the combatants, as well as their lives, faded on the bloody field of combat. Van Dorn, despite writing in his report that “I was not defeated, but only spoiled in my intentions,” was denied the public adulation he sought so desperately. For Van Dorn and the rest of the Confederacy, the Battle of Pea Ridge brought no huzza, only defeat.
This article was written by Richard H. Owens and originally appeared in the October 2000 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!