Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas

This weekend will mark the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. The battlefield is now preserved at the massive Pea Ridge National Military Park in Northwest Arkansas.

The battle was unique among major battles of the Civil War in that it marked one of the few times when Confederate forces went into action with a major advantage in manpower and artillery over their Union counterparts. Unfortunately, Major General Earl Van Dorn wasted his advantages through poor planning and even poorer command and control during the battle.

Van Dorn pushed his men too hard through freezing conditions as he approached the battlefield and also left vital supplies behind. Even so, he surprised the Union army of Major General Samuel Curtis by sweeping undetected around the right flank of Curtis's entrenched army and closing in from the flank and rear. It had the potential to be a major victory and open the door for an invasion of Missouri. Van Dorn had mentioned in a letter to his wife that he planned to take St. Louis.

It was not to be. The first Confederate column stormed in behind the Union right flank, but its commanders - Generals Ben McCulloch and James McIntosh - were shot down within fifteen minutes of each other and the attack stalled and disintegrated.

Unaware of what was happening with the first attack, Van Dorn sent General Sterling Price smashing up from the hollows and ravines toward the Union rear. Hard fighting by severely outnumbered Federals, however, bogged down Price's attack in the area around Elkhorn Tavern.

By the end of the day on March 7, 1862, Van Dorn had failed in his plan to strike Curtis's army from the rear and destroy it. Curtis, meanwhile, had executed a remarkable 360 degree change of face for his army and the next morning led it into battle against Van Dorn's exhausted and hungry men. By the time the fighting was over, it was Van Dorn's army that had been largely destroyed. His men soon began calling him General "Damn Born" as an expression of their disdain for his leadership.

The Battle of Pea Ridge was one of the largest battles of the war in the West and saved Missouri for the Union. I'll be posting more about this dramatic engagement over the coming days, but you can always read more by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/pearidgeindex.

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