Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas - Day Two

The ground across which the Union army attacked
The learn about the first day of the Battle of Pea Ridge, please click here: Day One, Part One.

The sun rose over the Pea Ridge battlefield on March 8, 1862, 150 years ago today, to find the Union army completing its 180 degree change of front and the Confederate army hungry, exhausted and low on ammunition:

...The sun rose above the horizon before our troops were all in position and yet the enemy had not renewed the attack. I was hardly ready to open fire on him, as the First and Second Divisions had not yet moved into position. Our troops that rested on their arms in the face of the enemy, seeing him in motion, could not brook delay, and the center, under Colonel Davis, opened fire. The enemy replied with terrible energy from new batteries and lines which had been prepared for us during the night. - Gen. Samuel Curtis, USA, April 1, 1862.

Col. Jefferson C. Davis, USA
The opening of the second day of the battle by the men of Colonel Jefferson C. Davis ignited an artillery duel for which the Union army was much better prepared. Curtis moved his batteries into position to create a crossfire that swept the Confederates with shot and shell from multiple directions.

The Southern batteries simply could not match the intensity of fire of the Federal guns. A portion of Van Dorn's army was positioned in the large rock and ravines of the mountain and the exploding shells shattered rock in all directions, inflicting gruesome injuries on these soldiers.

Curtis ordered forward his infantry in a staggered attack that began with the advance of his left:

Position from which the Union left wing attacked
...The left wing, advancing rapidly, soon began to ascend the mountain cliff, from which the artillery had driven most of the rebel force. The upward movement of the gallant Thirty-sixth Illinois, with its dark-blue line of men and its gleaming bayonets, steadily rose from base to summit, when it dashed forward into the forest, driving and scattering the rebels from these commanding heights. The Twelfth Missouri, far in dvance of others, rushes into the enemy's lines, bearing off a flag and two pieces of artillery. Everywhere our line moved forward and the foe as gradually withdrew. - Gen. Samuel Curtis, USA, April 1, 1862.

Telegraph Road, along which part of the Southern army retreated
NPS Photo
As the Federal lines of battle moved forward, the Confederate army disintegrated. In the words of General Curtis, "no force could have withstood our converging line and concentrated cross-fire."

Hungry, tired, out of ammunition, the Confederates realized the battle was lost. According to Van Dorn, he ordered a withdrawal from the field that was carried out orderly and with little pursuit. General Albert Pike, however, told a different story. Pike was not even informed that Van Dorn was leaving the field and went forward for orders to find that the Federal troops were 150 yards away and that the Confederate commander was long gone:

Gen. Albert Pike, CSA
Pike described a disorganized but unhurried retreat of streaming lines of troops from their positions on the main line of battle. The Arkansas general described riding among these men trying to keep them organized as much as possible. He began positioning troops to make a stand on level ground north of the battlefield, but as he moved to bring other men into line, he turned around to find that the line had evaporated and the men once again were moving north. He rushed to catch up with them and tried a second time:

...I rode again to the front and halted the leading battery at the foot of the next level, ordered it into line, facing the rear, gave the necessary commands myself, and had three guns brought into position. Two regiments of infantry were standing there in lines ranging up and down the valley, the flank of each to the enemy. I directed them to form in the rear of the batteries; but at this moment a shell was sent by the enemy up the road from the point of the hill around which we had just passed. The cry of "The cavalry are coming" was raised and everything became confusion. - Gen. Albert Pike, CSA, March 14, 1862.

Gen. Samuel Curtis, USA
Victor of Pea Ridge
Had Albert Pike not assumed command of the Confederate cavalry still on the field and ordered it into position to protect the retreating infantry and artillery, Van Dorn's army might well have been completely destroyed. His impromptu rear guard, however, confused and delayed the Federal pursuit long enough for most of the disorganized Confederate army to escape.

Other officers, particularly those of the Missouri State Guard, also fought delaying actions as the army retreated. It is worth noting that the 200 or so mounted men of Colonel Stand Watie's First Cherokee Rifles were among the last Confederate troops to leave the field.

The Battle of Pea Ridge ended in disaster for the Confederacy, 150 years ago today.

I will post more on the aftermath of the battle in coming days, so be sure to check back often. You can read more about the Battle of Pea Ridge anytime at

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