Fought between December 28, 1861–July 12, 1862, the Pea Ridge Campaign was arguably the most significant military operation in the Trans-Mississippi theater during the Civil War.
Contested between December 28, 1861–July 12, 1862, the Pea Ridge Campaign was arguably the most significant military operation in the Trans-Mississippi theater during the Civil War. Over the course of the six-month-long Union offensive, Brigadier General Samuel Ryan Curtis’ Army of the Southwest drove General Sterling Price‘s Missouri State Guard out of Missouri, defeated Major General Earl Van Dorn‘s Confederate Army of the West at the Battle of Pea Ridge, and established a Union military bridgehead at Helena, Arkansas, that served as a vital jumping-off point for the pivotal Vicksburg Campaign.
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.
June 17, 1861: Battle of Boonville
On June 13, 1861, Governor Jackson’s Confederate-leaning state government abandoned their temporary capital at Jefferson City and relocated to Boonville. Leading a small force of about 1,700 Federals, Lyon pursued and defeated elements of Price’s militia on June 17 at the Battle of Boonville. The federal victory forced Jackson and the Missouri State Guard to retreat to the southwestern part of the state, leaving the Union in control of central Missouri.
August 10, 1861: Battle of Wilson’s Creek
Following the federal victory at the Battle of Boonville, Price’s forces, isolated in southwestern Missouri, were in desperate straits. Price’s closest ally was Brigadier General Ben McCulloch‘s force of about 8,700 Confederate soldiers stationed at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Following Price’s pleas for help, McCulloch reluctantly led his soldiers into Missouri to reinforce Price. Upon arriving in Missouri, McCulloch took command of the merged Confederate and militia forces, which he named the Western Army.
Undeterred by the arrival of Confederate reinforcements, Lyon led about 5,400 Union soldiers out of Springfield to assault over 11,000 Rebels encamped near Wilson Creek, about twelve miles southwest of the city, on August 9, 1861.
On the morning of August 10, Lyon surprised the Confederates by attacking. During a hard day of fighting, the Rebels killed Lyon. When the Federals ran low on ammunition, they abandoned the assault, leaving the Confederates in control of southwestern Missouri.
Price Back on the Offensive
Following the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, McCulloch, who did not get along with Price, returned his forces to Arkansas. Emboldened by the Confederate victory, Price resumed offensive operations in central Missouri. After a two-day siege, the Missouri State Guard captured a small Union garrison at Lexington on the south bank of the Missouri River on September 20.
Federal Command Shakeup in the West
On August 30, 1861, Major General John C. Frémont, commanding the Department of the West, issued a proclamation freeing the slaves of people in Missouri who had taken up arms against the United States. Not wishing to alienate Missourians, President Lincoln directed Frémont to rescind his order on September 11. When Frémont refused, Lincoln instructed General Winfield Scott to issue orders to relieve Frémont of his command. On October 24, 1861, Scott issued General Orders No. 18 (Headquarters of the Army) temporarily replacing Frémont with Major General David Hunter as commander of the Western Department.
Two weeks later, on November 9, 1861, Scott issued General Orders, No. 97 (Headquarters of the Army) reorganizing federal forces in the West. Among other changes, Scott’s order created the “Department of the Missouri, to include the States of Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Arkansas, and that portion of Kentucky west of the Cumberland River, to be commanded by Major General H. W. Halleck, U.S. Army.”
Upon assuming command and establishing his headquarters in St. Louis, Halleck decided that he had to drive Price’s militia forces out of Missouri before he could begin operations to secure Union control of the Mississippi River.
Confederate Command Shakeup in the West
By December 1861, word of the growing animosity between McCulloch and Price reached Confederate President Jefferson Davis‘ ears. On January 10, 1862, Davis attempted to resolve the rift by appointing Major General Earl Van Dorn as commander of both men’s forces in the newly created Trans-Mississippi District of Department No. 2. On January 29, Van Dorn assumed command, established his headquarters at Pocahontas, Arkansas, and began organizing his forces. By then, Union forces had launched a winter campaign that would drive Price’s militia out of Missouri.
Pea Ridge Campaign
December 28, 1862: Union Cavalry on the Move
On December 25, Halleck issued Special Orders, No. 92 (Department of the Missouri) assigning Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis to command the District of Southwest Missouri. Curtis assumed command of the Army of the Southwest on December 28 and immediately dispatched a cavalry expedition toward Price’s headquarters at Springfield. Curtis instructed Colonel E. A. Carr:
You are expected to go beyond Springfield, or as far as to feel the enemy, and, if in broken ranks, fall on him and cut him to pieces. If found in superior numbers, and with artillery and infantry in force, you will not give him battle, but strive to draw him up by cautions and safe retrograde movements.
On January 13, 1862, Halleck wired Major General George B. McClellan (who had replaced Winfield Scott as General-in-Chief of the Army) that:
Our cavalry sent to Springfield found Price in strong force. They have been obliged to fall back to Lebanon and probably to the Gasconade. I have ordered General Curtis to move forward with all his infantry and artillery. His force will not be less than 12,000.
Halleck’s order set the Pea Ridge Campaign into action.
February 12, 1862: Skirmish at Pearson’s Creek
As Halleck expected, his winter campaign caught Price unprepared. When the surprised Confederate leader learned of Curtis’ approaching army, he requested reinforcements from McCulloch in Arkansas. McCulloch, however, was in Virginia meeting with President Davis. His subordinates did not know if they were authorized to send troops into Missouri, so Price’s requests went unanswered.
With the Federal army bearing down on his headquarters, Price decided to abandon Springfield.
To cover his withdrawal, Price dispatched the First Missouri Cavalry to delay the Yankee army, which was encamped about eight miles northeast of Springfield. On February 12, the Rebel troopers skirmished with Curtis’ forward pickets near Pearson’s (Pierson’s) Creek. When Curtis sent his artillery forward, the Rebel cavalry retreated.
February 13, 1862: Curtis Occupies Springfield
While his troopers delayed Curtis at Pearson’s Creek on February 12, Price abandoned Springfield and marched his main force into Arkansas. Curtis occupied Springfield unopposed the next day. That evening, Curtis met with his senior officers, and at Brigadier General Franz Sigel‘s suggestion, decided to divide his army and pursue Price along two paths.
February 14–16: Federals Head South and Skirmish in Pursuit of Price
On February 13, Curtis followed Price’s direct route of retreat down Telegraph Road leading two divisions. Sigel led two divisions along a more circuitous route intending to flank the fleeing Rebels and trap them at McDowell, Missouri.
As Curtis’ divisions headed south, his cavalry skirmished with Price’s rearguard on February 14 at Crane Creek. That engagement was counterproductive because it prompted Price to speed up the pace of his retreat. As a result, his forces passed through McDowell before Sigel completed his flanking maneuver. By the time Sigel reached McDowell to spring his trap on February 16, Price was crossing into Arkansas.
Curtis’ cavalry continued to press south and skirmished with Price’s rearguard on February 15 at Flat Creek, and on February 16 at Cross Timber Hollow, before Price crossed into Arkansas.
February 17, 1862: Battle of Dunagin’s Farm (aka Action at Sugar Creek, Action at Little Sugar Creek)
Shortly after the Missourians entered Arkansas on February 16, soldiers from the Army of Arkansas, commanded by Colonel Louis Hebert, reinforced them. The next morning, Price and Hebert agreed that Hebert’s men would serve as a rearguard to cover Price’s retreat to Cross Hollows, where McCulloch’s Army of Arkansas was in winter quarters.
Hebert deployed his troops on the bluffs south of Little Sugar Creek, intending only to make a show to delay Curtis. When Curtis ordered an artillery barrage, followed by a cavalry charge, Hebert was forced to fight about a half-mile south of the creek near Dunagin’s Farm.
The short battle that followed was costly to both sides. The Yankees suffered thirteen killed and about twenty wounded. The Confederates did not document their casualties, but Curtis claimed the Rebels left twenty-six dead on the field. Although the results were inconclusive, Hebert’s rearguard action enabled Price’s bedraggled troops to reach Cross Hollows safely. On the Federal side, Halleck reported to General-in-Chief McClellan that:
The flag of our Union is floating in Arkansas.
Price’s retreat into Arkansas was a notable event in the Civil War. Only an unsuccessful raid into Missouri in 1864 ever imperiled federal control of the state for the rest of the rebellion.
February 19, 1862: Rebels Abandon Cross Hollows and Head Farther South
By the time Price reached Cross Hollows, McCulloch had returned from Virginia. When McCulloch learned Curtis had pursued Price into Arkansas, he decided to abandon Cross Hollows, fearing he was vulnerable to attack from the west. Smarting from being chased out of Missouri, Price disagreed, but Curtis prevailed.
On February 19, the Southerners burned their billets and headed farther south along Telegraph Road. Upon reaching Fayetteville the next day, the Rebels looted the town before setting it to the torch rather than allowing its stores to fall into Union hands. The Confederates then retreated another seventeen miles along Telegraph Road before halting near Strickler’s Station in the Boston Mountains.
Curtis Changes Plans
When Curtis learned that McCulloch and Price had abandoned Cross Hallows, burned Fayetteville, and established defensive lines in the Boston Mountains, he ended his pursuit with good reason. The merged forces of the Army of Arkansas and Missouri State Militia outnumbered the roughly 10,000 federal soldiers who had followed Curtis into Arkansas. In addition, the Yankee army was now 200 miles south of the closest supply railhead at Rollo, Missouri.
With little chance of effectively foraging in the winter, Curtis decided the best way to prevent the Rebels from re-entering Missouri was to shorten his supply chain and establish defensive lines near Little Sugar Creek. He deployed Brigadier General Franz Sigel and two divisions of German-American soldiers along McKissick’s Creek, a short distance west of Bentonville. Curtis maintained operational command of his two remaining divisions stationed at Cross Hollows.
As the Army of the Southwest dug in along Little Sugar Creek, the Confederates were preparing to go on the offensive.
March 4, 1862: Van Dorn Plans to Surprise Curtis
On January 29, 1862, Earl Van Dorn arrived at Pocahontas, Arkansas, and assumed command of the Trans-Mississippi District. The ambitious general had grand plans to sweep through Missouri, capture St. Louis, and threaten Union operations in Kentucky. The first order of business was to drive Curtis out of Arkansas.
When Van Dorn received word of the drama playing out in northwest Arkansas, he headed for the Boston Mountains to take operational command of McCulloch’s and Price’s forces. Upon arrival, he nominally reorganized the two forces. McCulloch’s former Army of Arkansas became McCulloch’s division, and Price’s Missouri State Guard became Price’s division. Van Dorn renamed the merged force the Army of the West.
On March 3, Confederate scouts informed Van Dorn that Curtis had divided his army. Eager to take advantage of the situation and defeat each wing in detail, Van Dorn issued orders for the Army of the West to advance the next day.
March 6–8, 1862: Battle of Pea Ridge
On March 4, Van Dorn started north from the Boston Mountains with roughly 16,000 troops, including 8,000 Texans led by McCulloch, 7,000 Missourians under Price, and about 1,000 American Indians, principally Cherokee, led by renowned frontiersman Brigadier General Albert Pike.
After a forced march through harsh winter weather, the Confederates approached Sigel’s position near Bentonville. When Curtis learned of Van Dorn’s advance on March 5, he ordered Sigel to move his forces to Little Sugar Creek. As Sigel moved out, Van Dorn barely missed isolating Sigel’s two divisions before Curtis could concentrate his army on March 6.
Curtis Deploys Along Pea Ridge
After reuniting the Army of the Southwest, Curtis concentrated his 10,500 soldiers 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
Following Sigel’s narrow escape, Van Dorn’s opportunity to defeat Curtis’ army in detail had evaporated, but he still itched for a fight. Over the objections of McCulloch and Price who argued that their men were exhausted, Van Dorn ordered his entire army to march around Pea Ridge on the night of March 6. Van Dorn intended to get to Curtis’ rear, cut his supply line, isolate him from Missouri, and force him to surrender.
Upon arriving at Curtis’ rear, Van Dorn split his army into two columns. He deployed one column under McCulloch’s command at the west end of the ridge. Meanwhile, Van Dorn led the other column to the east end, aiming to trap the Federals in between. Attacking from the rear on each flank, Van Dorn intended to force the Yankees off Pea Ridge and defeat them as they retreated toward Sugar Creek.
March 7, 1862: McCulloch is Killed, and Van Dorn Falters
The assault got off to a bad start for the Confederates. Delays slowed both Rebel 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 killed McCulloch during the ensuing melee. Brigadier General James McIntosh assumed command of the column, but the Yankees killed him 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.
March 8 – Late March 1862: Rebels Withdraw
On March 8, Curtis used his superior artillery to drive the Rebels from the field. By noon, the Federals had won the battle. By late evening, the remnants of the defeated Confederate Army of the West gathered at Van Winkle’s Mill southeast of the battlefield. Having exhausted the three-days’ rations they were issued on March 4, the famished Rebel soldiers began scouring the immediate area for food. The sparsely populated countryside provided only a fraction of the food and forage the army needed to subsist. Hundreds of stragglers searching for food never returned. By late March, what remained of the army reassembled at Van Buren, Arkansas.
April 1862: Rebels Abandon Arkansas
At the request of General P. G. T. Beauregard, Van Dorn abandoned Arkansas in April, moving his command to Corinth, Mississippi, to prepare for a grand assault on Major General Ulysses S. Grant‘s Army of Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. Poor weather prevented Van Dorn’s army from leaving Arkansas until April 6, 1862, the first day of the Battle of Shiloh.
May 2, 1862: Action at Batesville
When Curtis learned that Van Dorn had left Arkansas nearly unprotected, he renewed his drive south. On May 2, one brigade of the Army of the Southwest marched into Batesville nearly unopposed and skirmished with a few Confederates encamped nearby.
May 19, 1862: Battle of Whitney’s Lane
By May 9, Curtis’ army entered the town of Searcy and stopped to prepare for a strike against Little Rock, roughly fifty miles to the southwest. Curtis ordered foraging parties to scour the area for much-needed supplies. On May 19, about 150 Texas cavalrymen mounted a punishing assault against Yankee foragers on farms along Whitney’s Lane. In a battle that lasted roughly an hour, the Federals suffered fifty-one casualties compared to just ten for the Rebels. More importantly, the Confederate victory buoyed the spirits of Confederate soldiers and civilians in central Arkansas. Coupled with continued Rebel cavalry harassment, and dwindling Union supplies, the setback at Whitney’s Lane prompted Curtis to cancel his planned assault on Little Rock.
June 2, 1862: Curtis Heads Southeast
On June 2, Curtis held a council of war. He and his subordinates agreed to march southeast along the White River to establish a more reliable line anchored at Helena, Arkansas, on the Mississippi River. Leaving Batesville in late June, the federal army looted and destroyed roughly $1.5 million worth of property as they marched across Arkansas. Over 3,000 escaped slaves either followed the army or fled north to Missouri.
July 7, 1862: Action at Hill’s Plantation (aka Battle of Cotton Plant)
As Curtis prepared to head for Helena, Confederate Major General Thomas C. Hindman cobbled together a force of 4,000 Texas cavalry and 1,500 Arkansas infantry to hinder the Yankees’ progress. The Rebels harassed the Union troops throughout their trek.
The most significant confrontation occurred on July 7 at Cache River, near Cotton Plant, Arkansas, about sixty miles northwest of Helena. As the vanguard of Curtis’ army pressed forward, it stumbled into a Confederate ambush. The Rebels forced the Yankees to retreat about a quarter-mile before being stopped by Union reinforcements. A Confederate retreat turned into a rout as more Federals arrived. The Rebels suffered between 9 and 50 casualties compared to just 63 for the Yankees. The Action at Hill’s Plantation was the last conflict of note of the Pea Ridge Campaign.
July 12, 1862: Curtis Occupies Helena, and the Pea Ridge Campaign Ends
On July 12, 1862, the Army of the Southwest marched into Helena, bringing an end to the Pea Ridge Campaign. During the six-month-long expedition, Curtis’ soldiers marched over 700 miles of rough terrain, sometimes with minimal rations during often inclement weather.
In mid-August, the Federals began constructing Fort Curtis, which was dedicated on October 30, 1862. Protected by the fort, Helena remained in Union hands for the rest of the Civil War, despite an unsuccessful Confederate assault on July 4, 1863. A vital Union outpost, Fort Curtis served as an important staging area for the Vicksburg Campaign, a training ground for United States Colored Troops, and a safe haven for escaped slaves in Arkansas.
The successful Pea Ridge Campaign was a significant triumph for Union forces west of the Mississippi River. Capped by the federal victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge, only a failed offensive by Price in 1864 ever threatened Union control of Missouri for the rest of the war. Additionally, Curtis’ advances through Arkansas contributed to the fall of Vicksburg and cemented Union control of the Mississippi River in 1863.