Thursday, January 19, 2012

January 1862 - Prelude to Pea Ridge

Pea Ridge National Military Park
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, not just one of the largest battles west of the Mississippi, but one of the most significant actions of the entire Civil War.
As part of the commemoration of this battle that preserved Missouri for the Union, I will be posting throughout January, February and March on the Pea Ridge campaign, using as often as possible the words of the soldiers, generals and civilians that witnessed it. Be sure to check back regularly for the latest posts.

To try to set the stage as well as I can, the Pea Ridge Campaign began to develop in January of 1862 as two armies began to assemble for battle. The Union army, commanded by Gen. Samuel Curtis, was centered at Rolla, Missouri, a town about 112 miles northeast of Springfield. Curtis was determined to drive Confederate forces, particularly the Missouri State Guard under Gen. Sterling Price, from Missouri and fully establish control over the state, which was very divided in its loyalties.

The Confederates, in turn, were equally determined not only to hold at least part of Missouri if possible, but to stop Curtis from advancing into Arkansas. In mid-January of 1862, however, their forces were scattered and had yet to assemble for battle. The Missouri State Guard, under Price, was clinging to its position at Springfield, Missouri. Gen. Price knew, however, that he could not hold there against Curtis's much larger army.

The Missouri general for more than one month had been begging for help from Arkansas. A force of 3,000-4,000 Confederates were centered around Fayetteville in Northwest Arkansas under Gen. Ben McCulloch. Unfortunately, Price and McCulloch did not get along. Not only would the latter general not reinforce Price, he had gone to Richmond to discuss the situation with officials there, leaving Col. Louis Hebert of Louisiana in command. Hebert promised Price that he would reinforce him in an emergency and did his best to get supplies through to the State Guard, but otherwise maintained his force in its winter quarters around Fayetteville.

To the south in the Arkansas River valley, Gen. James McIntosh commanded a large cavalry force that was wintering around Van Burn and Fort Smith. He had declined a request from Price for help in December and gone instead to support Col. D.H. Cooper in the Cherokee Nation where he had won the Battle of Chustenahlah several weeks earlier.

Van Dorn
To try to end the confusion and bickering in the West, President Jefferson Davis appointed Major General Earl Van Dorn as head of what he would style the "Army of the West." Van Dorn was not yet on the scene in mid-January, but was heading that way. He was not thinking of just halting Curtis, he had dreams of a major offensive campaign. He told his wife on the day of his appointment that he "must have St. Louis."

To Van Dorn would fall the task of pulling together the three major Confederate forces then assembled in Missouri and Arkansas and leading them into battle. He would receive support from Gen. Albert Pike's brigade of Southern-allied Indian troops.

I will continue to post on the Pea Ridge Campaign throughout the coming weeks. To read more about the battle itself, please visit

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