The Battle of Pea Ridge remains almost an anomaly, a bloody and important battle fought in northwestern Arkansas, yet almost ignored by Civil War buffs engrossed in wartime action east of the Mississippi River.
The Pea Ridge battlefield is worth a visit — and prepare for something different from Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas, and other familiar battlefields closer to Maine.
Pea Ridge National Military Park preserves the heart of the terrain across which the two-day battle raged in March 1862. The park abuts U.S. Route 62, easily accessible from Bentonville, and Arkansas Route 62, which winds back into the foothills northwest of the park.
As to what happened here in late winter 1862, a Confederate army numbering some 16,000 men moved north to invade Missouri and capture St. Louis. Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, a vaunted warrior who could not keep his hands off other men’s wives, commanded the Southerners.
Dug in along Little Sugar Creek near Leetown in northwestern Arkansas were some 10,500 Union soldiers led by Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, not a familiar name in Civil War lore. The creek flows south of Leetown and Elkhorn Mountain, a rugged outcropping of the Boston Mountains that dominate the region.
Seeking to destroy Curtis’s army, Van Dorn split his army after slipping past Curtis’s left flank via the so-called “Bentonville Detour.” The maneuver placed the Confederates on Elkhorn Mountain, behind the Union army.
While Van Dorn would attack south along the Telegraph Road (also called the “Wire Road”), Texas Brig. Gen. Ben McCulloch and his infantry and cavalry (the latter including many Indian riders from Oklahoma Territory) would circle to the west along the Bentonville Detour and strike south toward Leetown. Attacking on March 7, 1862. McCulloch’s infantry struck Union troops near Leetown, his Indian cavalry ran amuck over some Federal infantry, and an Illinois skirmisher shot McCulloch dead.
His second-in-command, Brig. Gen. James McIntosh, died while leading a charge. The Southern infantry almost drove off the Union forces, but arriving reinforcements stabilized the Federal line, and Confederate troops later withdrew from the Leetown sector.
Led by Van Dorn and Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, the Southern troops attacking along the Telegraph Road shoved the tenaciously defending Union troops southwest past Elkhorn Tavern to Ruddick’s Field, open terrain along the road about a quarter mile beyond the tavern.
Darkness ended the March 7 fighting. His Leetown lines no longer threatened, Curtis shifted his attention to Van Dorn on March 8. Brig. Gen. Franz Sigel, soon a familiar name in the Virginia theater, commanded Curtis’s 1st and 2nd divisions; he ordered Union artillery massed on a slight knoll rising in the vast fields below Elkhorn Mountain.
The Federal gunners silenced their Southern counterparts, Curtis’s infantry advanced en masse, and Van Dorn soon ordered his troops to withdraw. Pea Ridge went into history as a Union victory.
Van Dorn ultimately messed with the wrong married woman, and her husband shot him dead. Price fought at Iuka and Corinth in Mississippi and later commanded an army that invaded Missouri in late 1864. Curtis later commanded the Union’s District of Missouri; he defeated Sterling’s invading Confederates at Westport, Missouri on October 23, 1864.
I recommend reading up on the battle before visiting Pea Ridge National Military Park. Its entrance lies off Route 62. The understated visitors’ center houses a small, but excellent museum focused on the battle and on the Civil War in this region.
Visitors can drive, bike, or walk the battlefield, and a long horse trail follows a section of the Ford Road that was here in ’62. The trail extends onto Elkhorn Mountain.
The one-way tour route starts just west of the visitors’ center and runs clockwise around the core battlefield before ending at the visitors’ center. Key stops along the tour route include the Leetown Battlefield; “Armies Collide,” the site where additional fighting took place on March 7; East Overlook, providing an outstanding battlefield vista; and Elkhorn Tavern.
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.