Fought from March 6 - 8, 1862, the Battle of Pea Ridge, also known as the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern, was the largest battle fought west of the Mississippi River during the American Civil War.
Tenuous Neutrality in Missouri
When the American Civil War began, sympathies in the border state of Missouri were greatly divided. Although many Missourians favored remaining in the Union, Governor Claiborne Jackson strongly supported secession. Despite his secessionist leanings, Jackson affirmed Missouri’s neutrality by agreeing to the terms of the Price-Harney Truce on May 12, 1861.
Lyon and Price Fight for Control of Missouri
When President Abraham Lincoln requested 75,000 troops from Missouri to take up arms against the Confederacy, Jackson withdrew his support of neutrality. A subsequent meeting between Jackson and Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon failed to resolve the matter. Instead, Lyon’s Army of the West and the Missouri State Guard, commanded by former Missouri Governor Sterling Price, engaged in a series of minor battles during the summer of 1861 for control of the state.
McCulloch Takes Command of Rebel Forces in Missouri
By mid-July, Lyon’s army drove Price’s forces into the southwestern corner of Missouri where they received reinforcements from other southern states. Brigadier General Ben McCulloch commanded the newly merged Confederate force. Rather than stand by and watch McCulloch’s army continue to grow, Lyon determined to go on the offensive. On August 9, 1861, he led about 5,400 Union soldiers out of Springfield to assault over 11,000 Rebels encamped near Wilson’s Creek, about twelve miles southwest of the city.
Control of Missouri Undecided Following Battle of Wilson’s Creek
Lyon surprised the Confederates by attacking the morning of August 10 near Wilson’s Creek. During a hard day of fighting, the Rebels killed Lyon. When the Federals exhausted their ammunition, they abandoned the assault. The exhausted Rebels did not pursue, so control of Missouri was still undecided.
Van Dorn Takes Command of Confederate Trans-Mississippi District
After the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, discord between McCulloch and Price caused the former to return Arkansas, while the latter continued operations in Missouri. Seeking unity in the West, President Jefferson Davis intervened in January 1862. Davis created the Trans-Mississippi District and Major General Earl Van Dorn in charge. On January 29, Van Dorn assumed command, established his headquarters at Pocahontas, Arkansas, and began the task of organizing his forces.
Halleck Takes Command of Union Western District
On the Union side, things were also in disarray after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Ineffectual leadership had plagued the Western District. Seeking more stability, in November 1861, the Lincoln administration appointed Major General Henry Halleck, noted for his organizational skills, to command the district.
Curtis Moves into Arkansas
On December 25, Halleck appointed Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis to command the Army of the Southwest. Eager for action, Curtis struck out after Price in January and quickly drove him out of Missouri into Arkansas. By February, Curtis crossed into Arkansas but had to halt his pursuit because his supply lines could not support any further advance. Not wanting to retreat, he established a base along Little Sugar Creek, just south of a hostelry named Elkhorn Tavern, and began foraging operations.
Van Dorn Plans to Surprise Curtis
Meanwhile, Van Dorn developed ambitious plans to sweep through Missouri, to capture St. Louis, and threaten Union operations in Kentucky. The first order of business was to drive Curtis out of Arkansas. On March 4, Van Dorn started north from Fayetteville, Arkansas with approximately 16,000 troops, including 8,000 Texans led by McCulloch, 7,000 Missourians under Price, and approximately 1,000 American Indians, principally Cherokee, led by renowned frontiersman Brigadier General Albert Pike.
Van Dorn’s plan was to advance north as quickly as possible and surprise Curtis’s scattered army before it had time to concentrate. After three days of forced marching through harsh winter weather, the Confederates approached Curtis’s position. The Rebel soldiers were cold, hungry and exhausted, but Van Dorn pressed the attack.
Curtis Deploys Along Pea Ridge
Learning of Van Dorn’s advance, Curtis concentrated the 10,500 soldiers under his command and established a strong defensive position on Pea Ridge, which runs in an east-west direction just north of Sugar Creek.
March 6, 1862 – Van Dorn Tries to Outflank Curtis
Seeing that a head-on attack would be senseless, Van Dorn marched his entire army around Pea Ridge to Curtis’s rear on the evening of March 6 and then split it into two columns. Van Dorn ordered one column, under McCulloch’s command to circle around the west end of the ridge. Meanwhile, Van Dorn led the other column around the east end to trap the Federals in between. Attacking from the rear on each flank, Van Dorn’s plan called for forcing the Yankees off Pea Ridge and defeating them as they retreated toward Sugar Creek.
The assault got off to a bad start for the Confederates. Delays slowed both Confederate columns and by dawn, Union scouts had detected both threats. Curtis used the time to turn his army around to face the Rebel assaults. Curtis also dispatched troops under Colonel Peter J. Osterhaus to determine the strength of the Confederates to the west of his army. These soldiers came into contact with a Rebel column and, during the ensuing melee, killed McCulloch. Brigadier General James McIntosh assumed command of the column, but the Yankees killed him too a short time later. The remaining senior officers could not organize an effective attack in the resulting chaos.
Van Dorn’s column fared much better, pushing the Union forces back throughout the day. Still, the Federals did not break. By nightfall, the Rebels ran low on ammunition because Van Dorn had abandoned his supply lines in his haste to get around the Yankees. During the night, Curtis shifted the bulk of his army to deal with Van Dorn’s column. The next day (March 8), Curtis used his superior artillery to drive the Confederates from the field. By noon, the Federals had won the battle.
The Battle of Pea Ridge was a resounding Union victory. The Confederates suffered approximately 2,000 casualties (killed. wounded, and missing/captured), compared to 1,384 federal losses. The Rebels failed to capitalize on one of the few battles during the war in which they significantly outnumbered their enemy.
The victory secured federal control of Missouri, and it enabled the Union to focus on other areas in the Mississippi Valley. Curtis continued to pursue Van Dorn through Arkansas but never caught him. Eventually, Van Dorn moved his Army of the West to the east side of the Mississippi in response to federal advances in Tennessee and Mississippi.