Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Final Union Attack at Pea Ridge

This view looks across the open fields of the Pea Ridge battlefield and shows the ground across which the Union army attacked on March 8, 1862, 147 years ago today.

The second day of fighting at the Battle of Pea Ridge opened with the Union army arrayed in full line now facing the Confederates who had formed in the cover of trees south of Elkhorn Tavern. The Confederate army had been dramatically reduced by the defeat of the attack at Leetown and now Van Dorn was outnumbered. The Confederates were also bone tired. They had been marched too hard through bad conditions on their way to the battle. In addition, they were running very short on supplies, including ammunition.

The Federals opened the second day of fighting with a massive bombardment of the Confederate positions. Battery after battery of Union guns rained fire on the Southern lines, creating chaos and heavy casualties.

Then, beginning with its left flank, the Union infantry began its main attack. Striking the weakened Confederate lines like a sledgehammer, the Federal attack split Van Dorn's army in two. His right flank began to retreat up the Telegraph Road, accompanied by Van Dorn and Price, Union in hard pursuit.

The left flank of the Confederate line was essentially abandoned by its commander and the men began to make their way from the battlefield as best they could. Many were captured.

When the cannon thunder in the Ozarks subsided, Samuel Curtis had one one of the most remarkable victories of the Civil War. Missouri was preserved for the Union and Van Dorn's army had been shattered. More than 3,000 men were killed, wounded or captured in the fighting and to this day it is impossible to know exactly how many Confederates were lost. A Southern army that had marched into battle with more men, more cannon and an excellent plan had been smashed. The blame, most felt, fell directly on Earl Van Dorn's shoulders. He drove his men too hard prior to the fight and then led them in the battle exhausted and with insufficient supplies. In addition, he lost over all control of the fight and much of the army battled with no specific orders from its commanding general.

This assessment was confirmed by his disastrous performance at Corinth, Mississippi, later in the year.

The site of the Battle of Pea Ridge is now preserved at the Pea Ridge National Military Park in Benton County, Arkansas. Just a short distance south of the Missouri line, the park preserves more than 4,000 acres of the battlefield and offers a visitor center, driving tour, walking trails, exhibits, interpretive stops and the restored Elkhorn Tavern.

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