Map of the Battle of Pea Ridge

Battle of Pea Ridge

This great battle, having been fought in Benton County, deserves a prominent place in its history. On the 18th day of February, 1862, the Federal army, commanded by Maj.-Gen. Samuel B. Curtis, crossed the State line from Missouri and went into camp on Sugar Creek, near Brightwater, in Benton County, Ark. “The Third and Fourth Divisions advanced from this position twelve miles farther south to Cross Hollows, where also the headquarters of Gen. Curtis were established, and the First and Second to Bentonville, twelve miles to the southwest, while a strong cavalry force, under Gen. Asboth, went to Osage Springs. On the 23d Gen. Asboth made a dash into Fayetteville, twenty miles in advance, found the city evacuated, and planted the Union flag on the court-house.” On March 1, Col. Jeff. C. Davis’ division withdrew from Cross Hollows and he took his position immediately behind Little Sugar Creek, covering the Fayettville and Springfield road, and fortified his position in anticipation of an attack from the south. On the 2d of March the First and Second Divisions, under Gen. Sigel, moved to McKissick’s farm, four and a half miles west of Bentonville. Col. Schaefer, with the Second Missouri Infantry and a detatchment of cavalry, was sent to Osage Mills, six miles south by a little east of McKissick’s farm, as a post of observation toward Elm Springs, and for the purpose of running the mill to grind flour for the troops.

Another detachment of cavalry was sent to Osage Springs, five miles southeast of Bentonville, to hold connection with the division at Cross Hollows. On the 5th a detachment under Maj-Conrad was sent from McKissick’s farm to Maysville, on the State line, twenty-one miles west of Bentonville; and another detachment under Maj. Mezaros went to Pineville, twenty-five miles northwest, while a detachment under Col. Vandever had been sent to Huntsville, in Madison County. Meanwhile the Confederate army, commanded by Maj.-Gen. Earl Van Dorn, concentrated in the Boston Mountains south of Fayetteville, and on the 3rd it was on the march to Fayetteville and Elm Springs, its advance arriving at the latter place on the evening of the 5th. On this march Price’s troops in the lead were followed by McCulloch’s division, while Gen. Pike with a brigade of Indian troops brought up the rear. The Federal officers did not learn of this movement until the 5th, when the Confederates were only a day’s march from Sigel’s position at McKissick’s farm. It was the intention of the Confederate commander to move early on the 6th, and if possible cut off and capture Sigel’s two divisions before they could prepare for defense or effect their retreat. Sigel, however, was advised of the advance of the enemy in time to prevent this disaster. Col. Schaefer’s outposts were attacked on the evening of the 5th, and during that night he fell back, under instructions from Gen Sigel, to Bentonville. “At 2 o’clock A. M. of the 6th Gen. Asboth’s division left McKissick’s farm with the whole train, followed by the division of Osterhaus. They passed through Bentonville from 4 to 8 o’clock A. M., and arrived at the camp behind Sugar Creek at 2 P. M., where the Union army was to concentrate.”

For the purpose of defending the main column on its retreat, and to make observations regarding the Confederates’ advance, Gen. Sigel remained at Bentonville, with about 600 men and a battery of six pieces, after all the troops had left the place. At 10 A. M. he discovered that the Confederates were forming a battle line about a mile south of the village. With all possible haste and caution he then set out with his rear guard to follow his main army. The Confederate troops quickly followed, and skirmished with his command until they gained a point on Sugar Creek, about seven miles northeast of Bentonville. Here Sigel went up the creek toward Brightwater, where he joined the main army under Curtis. Van Dorn, the Confederate commander, left his wagon train at the crossing of Sugar Creek, and posted Green’s division there to protect it, and to prevent the Federals from retreating down the valley in case of their defeat. He then advanced his army on the Bentonville and Keetsville road, passing the right of the Federal army as it was then in position facing southward, and passing north of Big Mountain, until, with Price’s command, he reached the Fayetteville and Springfield road at a point north of the Elkhorn Tavern, and in the rear of the Federal army. He expected to reach this point before daylight on the morning of the 7th, but, on account of obstructions placed in the road by Col. Dodge’s Iowa regiment, he did not reach it until nearly 10 A. M. of that day. During the night, while passing along the north side of Big Mountain, McCulloch’s command countermarched, and returned to the west end of Big Mountain, taking position immediately west and south thereof, with his lines facing south and southwestwardly. During the night of the 6th the Federal army rested in line of battle, facing southward from behind Sugar Creek. Gen. Asboth’s division held the extreme right, Col. Osterhaus was on his left, Col. Davis next, and Col. Carr, with his division, on the extreme left. The extreme right was so retired as to face southwest. Curtis expected to be attacked from the south, and had made preparations accordingly, but early on the morning of the 7th he learned that his enemy was in his rear instead of the front; and, after consultation with his division commanders at Pratt’s store. he faced about and directed Col. Carr to take position at Elkhorn Tavern, while Col. Bussey was directed, with the cavalry of the different commands (except the Third Illinois) and with three pieces of Elbert’s battery, to move by Leetown against the enemy supposed to be advancing in that direction. A brigade of infantry and another battery from Sigel’s command were sent to support the cavalry, and Col. Osterhaus was also directed to accompany Col. Bussey for the purpose of taking control of the movement. Davis’ division then moved to the support of Osterhaus on the left to contend with the Confederate forces under McCulloch, while Asboth moved to the support and assistance of Carr’s division on the right to contend with Price’s command. The lines of the latter faced south, southwest and west, forming a sort of semi-circle, the left of which overlapped the right of the Federal lines.

As the lines of the respective armies were formed on the morning of the 7th, before the engagement began, Price’s command of the Confederate army, under the immediate control of the commanding general, Van Dorn, lay east of Big Mountain, while McCulloch’s forces lay west and southwest thereof, and thus all immediate communication between the two portions of the Confederate army was cut off. The Federal army was also divided, as before stated, in order to contend with the divided forces of the Confederates, but Gen. Curtis established his headquarters near Pratt’s store, and kept up communication between the two portions of his army. When the battle opened on the morning of the 7th the Federal cavalry sent out from Sigel’s command to meet McCulloch’s advance was repulsed, and in turn the Confederates were checked in their onslaught by the command of Osterhaus. “At this point,” says Gen. Sigel, “the speedy arrival of Col. Jeff. C. Davis’ division on the right of Osterhaus, and its energetic advance, turned a very critical moment into a decisive victory of our arms. McCulloch and McIntosh fell while leading their troops in a furious attack against Osterhaus and Davis. Hebert and a number of his officers and men were captured by the pickets of the Thirty-sixth Illinois (cavalry), under Capt. Smith, and of the Forty-fourth Illinois Infantry, under Capt. Russell. Thus the whole of McCulloch’s column, deprived of its leaders and without unity of command, was thrown into confusion and beaten back. Though a great advantage was gained on our side by the death and capture of those leaders, the principal cause of our success was rather the quick rallying and excellent maneuvering of Osterhaus’ and Davis’ forces, as well as the coolness and bravery of their infantry, supported by Welfley’s, Hoffman’s and Davidson’s batteries. Osterhaus changed his front twice, under the fire of the enemy, to meet the dangerous flank attack and pressure of Hebert’s Louisiana and Arkansas infantry, while the brigades of Davis, by striking the left of McCulloch’s advancing column, threw it into disorder and forced it to retreat.”

During the day the left wing of the Confederate army, under Van Dorn and Price, was eminently successful, as conceded by Gen. Sigel, who says: “In spite of the heroic resistance of the two brigades of Dodge and Vandever, and the re-enforcements sent them during the afternoon, they were forced back from position to position until Elkhorn Tavern was taken by the enemy, and our crippled forces, almost without ammunition, their artillery reduced by losses of guns, men and horses, their infantry greatly reduced, had to seek a last shelter in the woods and behind the fences, separated from the enemy’s position by open fields, but not farther than a mile from our trains. They formed a contracted and curved line, determined to resist, not disheartened, but awaiting with some apprehension another attack. Fortunately the enemy did not follow up his success, and night fell in, closing this terrible conflict.”

Of the Indian forces in McCulloch’s column Col. Drew with his Cherokee regiment retreated to the southwest toward Bentonville, while Col. Greer, who succeeded McCulloch in command of the wing, moved with the remainder of the force during the night and joined Van Dorn, taking position on his extreme left the next morning. Col. Stand Waitie, with his Cherokee regiment, retreated to Bentonville during the second day of the fight. It is said that the hardest fighting in this battle took place between the forces of the Confederate left and the Federal right. When the battle opened the position held by the Federal right was stoutly maintained, and it was with a fearful struggle and heavy loss to both sides that they were dislodged and compelled to fall back. With repeated attacks on the Federal line it was compelled to fall back, so that when the day’s engagement closed the left of the right wing rested near the foot of Big Mountain and the right a short distance east of Pratt’s store. This was confronted by the advanced line of the Confederates, who had captured Elkhorn Tavern, and formed their line west and south thereof, with their right resting at the foot of the mountain. The withdrawal of the Confederates’ right wing from in front of the Federal left enabled Sigel to move eastward, with the division of Osterhaus along the south side of the mountain, to the relief and support of the right wing, which had been sorely pressed during the day. During the night of the 7th the division of Col. Davis was called in from Leetown, and this brought the Federal army all together.

On the first day of the fight, while Van Dorn and Price were so vigorously pushing their columns forward with marked success, they hoped that the right wing under McCulloch was equally successful. But learning of his death, and that of McIntosh. the repulse of the right wing, and the state of affairs in general. Van Dorn concluded to retreat, and during the night Green’s division. that had been left back on Sugar Creek to guard the wagon train. was ordered to fall back and secure the train from exposure to capture. Early on the morning of the 8th the Federal line was re-formed, with the division of Asboth on the left (near the mountain), Osterhaus’ division in the center, and that of Davis on the right, with Carr’s division in a retired position to the rear of Davis right, and immediately in front of Pratt’s store, the whole facing generally to the east, and confronting the Confederate line. The latter, as formed on the morning of the 8th (Saturday), was as follows: Little on the right. next to the mountain and directly in front of the Federal forces under Asboth and Osterhaus; Frost next on the left; Greer and Hill next, with Gates’ cavalry on the extreme left. Gen. Curtis opened the battle on the second morning with cannonading, and having selected a good position he moved on to the Confederate forces, who seemed to fight more on the defensive than on the offensive, as they had the day before. “However, opposite the left of the Federal line, near Elkhorn Tavern, Van Dorn made a determined effort to hold the spur of hills, the top of which was crowned and protected by rocks and bowlders. Some of Price’s infantry had already taken possession of it, and a battery was being placed in position, when Hoffmann’s and Elbert’s batteries were ordered to direct their fire against them, chiefly with solid shot. Not more than fifteen minutes elapsed before the enemy evacuated this last stronghold.” About the same time two Federal regiments advanced from the center and right into the woods, engaged the Confederate infantry and drove it back, and another Federal regiment (the Twelfth Missouri) captured the Dallas battery. At this juncture the Federal right advanced on to the Confederate left, the latter yielding, and the general retreat of the Confederate army now began. It fell back over the same ground it had gained the day before, and the main army, which remained in order, retreated to the southeast on the Van Winkle road. Some detachments cut off from the main army retreated in other directions, being followed by Federal forces toward Keetsville, in Missouri, and to a point beyond Bentonville, in Arkansas.

It is claimed by those who served in the Confederate army that Van Dorn’s only object in maintaining the fight on the second day was to enable his trains and forces to make a successful retreat. The retreat took place before noon. The Federal army remained on the field, having won the victory which the Confederates felt confident of winning during the first day of the fight. The plan of attack adopted by Gen. Van Dorn was a wise one, and could he have reached the vicinity of Elkhorn Tavern by daylight on the morning of the 7th, as he expected to, he would have found the Federal army unprepared to receive his attack, and would in all probability have won the victory. Again, as it was, if the column of McCulloch had been properly handled, the Confederates might have gained the day. But be that as it may, it was a great victory to the Union cause, inasmuch as to a great extent it kept the war out of Missouri for the next two years, and completely defeated Van Dorn’s contemplated project of capturing St. Louis and extending the war into Illinois. It is the province of this work, however, only to give the history, and not to make extended comments on what “might have been.”

On the second day of the Pea Ridge battle Brig.-Gen. William Y. Slack, commanding a force under Gen. Price, was mortally wounded in a charge made on a part of the Federal line. His home was in Chillicothe, Mo. He was a lawyer by profession; was a captain in the Mexican War under Sterling Price, who was then a colonel.

Composition, strength and losses of the contending armies at Pea Ridge:

Federal Army: Brig.-Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, commander.

First and Second Divisions, Brig.-Gen. Franz Sigel.

First Division, consisting of two brigades of infantry and two batteries of artillery, commanded by Col. Peter J. Osterhaus.

Second Division, cousisting of the First Brigade, some unattached troops, and two batteries: Brig.-Gen. Alexander Asboth.

Third Division, consisting of two brigades, one battery and some cavalry: Col. Jeff. C. Davis.

Fourth Division, consisting of two brigades, one battery and some unattached cavalry and infantry: Col. Eugene A. Carr.

Effective force of Union army, 10,500 infantry and cavalry, with forty-nine pieces of artillery. [See “Official Records” VIII, page 196.]

Total loss of Union army: 203 killed, 980 wounded, and 201 captured or missing. Total 1,384.

Confederate Army: Maj.-Gen. Earl VanDorn, commander.

Missouri State Guards: Maj.-Gen. Sterling Price.

Confederate Volunteers: Various commands.

State Troops: Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Divisions.

McCulloch’s Division (various commands): Brig.-Gen. Ben. McCulloch.

Pike’s command. consisting of Indians and a squadron of Texas cavalry: Brig.-Gen. Albert Pike. Other troops not included in the foregoing.

Effective force of Confederate army: Price’s command, 6,818, with eight batteries of artillery ((Official Records, VIII, page 305)); McCulloch’s command, 8,384, with four batteries of eighteen pieces ((Official Records, VIII, page 763)); Pike’s command, 1,000 ((Official Records, VIII, page 288)); aggregate, 16,202 infantry and cavalry. This, of course, includes the number left back with Green to guard the trains. The Confederate loss has been reported at 800 to 1,000 killed and wounded, and between 200 and 300 prisoners, which, if correct, would make the loss about equal to that of the Federal army.

Map of the Battle of Pea Ridge
Map of the Battle of Pea Ridge

Elkhorn Tavern

The site of this famous tavern was settled in 1832 by James Hannors, of Illinois, who, in 1834, sold it to William Redick, also from Illinois. The latter built the house known as the “Elkhorn Tavern.” It was an ordinary two-story frame, with a front porch to each story, and a brick chimney on the outside at each end, and was adorned on top with a huge pair of elk-horns taken from an animal killed by Mr. Casedy, who settled the site of Pratt’s store, which still remains on the Pea Ridge battle-field. During the battle of Pea Ridge Mr. Cox, who lived in the tavern, was obliged, with his mother and his young wife, to seek protection in the cellar. The Federals took the elkhorns from the building, and sent them finally to New York, and during the latter part of the war the house was burned. In 1886 Mr. J. C. Cox, who still owns the property, rebuilt the tavern upon the original plan and on the original site. Then, through the assistance of Col. Hunt P. Wilson, of St. Louis, who, with the Confederate army, participated in the battle, he procured the return of the elk-horns and placed them upon the new building, where they are now gazed upon by the many who visit that historic place.

Back to: Benton County, Arkansas History

Source: History of Benton, Washington, Carroll, Madison, Crawford, Franklin, and Sebastian Counties, Arkansas. Chicago, IL, USA: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1889.


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