Pea Ridge – Crisis in the West I

March 7th- 8th, 1862

Earl Van Dorn came west with great expectations. He knew what opportunities awaited a bold commander there, and his professional boldness had been tested and applauded. Approaching his prime at forty-one, he was dark-skinned and thin-faced, with a shaggy mustache, an imperial, and a quick, decisive manner; “Buck,” his fellow Confederates called him. Except for his size (he was five feet five: two inches taller than Napoleon) he was in fact the very beau sabreur of Southern fable, the Bayard-Lochinvar of maiden dreams. Not that his distinction was based solely on his looks. He was a man of action, too—one who knew how to grasp the nettle, danger, and had done so many times. Appointed to West Point by his great-uncle Andrew Jackson, he had gone on to collect two brevets and five wounds as a lieutenant in the Mexican War and in skirmishes with Comanches on the warpath. In the end, he had been rewarded with a captaincy in Sidney Johnston’s 2d Cavalry, adding his own particular glitter to that spangled company.

He was a Mississippian, which simplified his decision when the South seceded; for him there was little or none of the “agony” of the border state professionals. Furthermore, as it did for others blessed or cursed with an ache for adventure, the conflict promised deferment of middle age and boredom. He came home and was made a brigadier, second only to Jefferson Davis in command of Mississippi troops, and then received the command itself, with the rank of major general, when Davis left for Montgomery. This was much, but not enough. Wanting action even more than rank, and what he called “immortal renown” more than either, Van Dorn resigned to accept a colonel’s commission in the Confederate army and assignment to service in Texas. Here he found at least a part of what he was seeking. At Galveston he assembled a scratch brigade of volunteers and captured three Federal steamships in the harbor—including the famous Star of the West, which had been fired on, back in January, for attempting relief of Sumter—then marched on Indianola, where he forced the surrender of the only body of U.S. regulars in the state.

For these exploits, characterized by incisiveness and daring, he was tendered a banquet and ball in San Antonio and had his praises sung in all the southern papers, though perhaps the finest compliment paid him was by a northern editor who put a price of $5000 on his head, this being nearly twice the standing offer for the head of Beauregard. In acknowledgment of his services and fame, the government gave him a double promotion and summoned him to Richmond; he was a major general again, this time in command of all the cavalry in Virginia. Even this did not seem commensurate with his abilities, however. Presently, when Davis was in need of a commander for what was to be called Transmississippi Department Number 2, he had to look no farther than his fellow-Mississippian Earl Van Dorn, right there at hand. It was another case, apparently, of History attending to her own.

Within nine days of his mid-January assignment to the West, despite the fact that he was convalescing from a bad fall suffered while attempting a risky ditch jump—he was an excellent horseman; his aide, required by custom to try it too, was injured even worse—Van Dorn established headquarters at Pocahontas, Arkansas, and began a first-hand estimate of the situation. This in itself was quite a task, since the command included all of Missouri and Arkansas, Indian Territory, and Louisiana down to the Red River. But one thing he had determined at the outset: he would go forward, north along the line of the Mississippi, taking cities and whipping Yankee armies as he went. In short, as Van Dorn saw it, the campaign was to be a sort of grand reversal of Frémont’s proposed descent of the big river. On the day of his appointment, already packing for the long ride west from Richmond, he had written his wife: “I must have St Louis—then huzza!”

So much he intended; but first, he knew, he must concentrate his scattered troops for striking. Ben McCulloch’s army of 8000 was camped in the Boston Mountains south of Fayetteville, the position it had taken after the victory over Lyon at Wilson’s Creek. Off in the Territory, moving to join him, was a band of about 2000 pro-Confederate Indians, Creeks and Seminoles, Cherokees, Chickasaws and Choctaws, won over by the persuasions of the lawyer-poet, scholar-duelist, orator-soldier Albert Pike, who led them. Sterling Price’s 7000 Missourians, under pressure from a superior Federal army after their late fall and early winter successes in their home state, had fallen back to a position near the scene of their August triumph. Combined, these three totaled something under half the striking force the new commander had envisioned; but 17,000 should be enough to crush the Federals threatening Springfield—after which would come St Louis, “then huzza!” Van Dorn planned to unite at Ironton, fight, and then swing north, augmented by the enthusiasts a victory would bring trooping to the colors. Deep in the bleak western woods, he hailed his army with Napoleonic phrases: “Soldiers! Behold your leader! He comes to show you the way to glory and immortal renown.… Awake, young men of Arkansas, and arm! Beautiful maidens of Louisiana, smile not on the craven youth who may linger by your hearth when the rude blast of war is sounding in your ears! Texas chivalry, to arms!”

This might have brought in volunteers, a host bristling with bayonets much as the address itself bristled with exclamation points, though as events turned out there was no time for knowing. By now it was late February, and the pressure of the 12,000-man northern army against Springfield was too great. Price gave way, retreating while his rear guard skirmished to delay the Federals: first across the Arkansas line, then down through Fayetteville, until presently he was with McCulloch in the Boston Mountains, the southernmost reach of the Ozarks. By that time, Pike had come up too; Van Dorn’s command was concentrated—not where he had wanted it, however, and not so much by his own efforts as by the enemy’s. Then too, except in the actual heat of battle, Price and McCulloch had never really got along, and they did no better now. Both appealed to their leader at Pocahontas to come and resolve their differences in person.

Van Dorn was more than willing. In four days, after sending word for them to stand firm and prepare to attack, he rode two hundred horseback miles through the wintry wilds of Arkansas. Arriving March 3, he was given a salute of forty guns, as befitted his rank, and that night orders went out for the men to prepare three days’ cooked rations and gird themselves for a forced march, with combat at its end. The Federals, widely separated in pursuit of Price, were about to be destroyed in detail.

Early next morning the Southerners set out, 17,000 men and sixty guns moving north to retake what had been lost by retrograde: as conglomerate, as motley an army as the sun ever shone on, East or West—though as a matter of fact the sun was not shining now. Snow fell out of an overcast sky and the wind whipped the underbrush and keened in the branches of the winter trees. Price’s Missourians led the way, marching homeward again, proud of the campaign they had staged and proud, too, of their 290-pound ex-governor commander, who could be at once so genial and majestic. McCulloch, the dead-shot former Ranger, wearing a dove-gray corduroy jacket, sky-blue trousers, Wellington boots, and a highly polished Maynard rifle slung across one shoulder, rode among his Texans and Arkansans; “Texicans” and “Rackansackers,” they were called—hard-bitten men accustomed to life in the open, who boasted that they would storm hell itself if McCulloch gave the order. Off on the flank, in a long thin file, the Five Nations Indians followed their leader Albert Pike, a big man bearded like Santa Claus except that the beard was not white but a vigorous gray. He rode in a carriage and was dressed in Sioux regalia, buckskin shirt, fringed leggins, and beaded moccasins, while his braves, harking back to their warpath days, wore feathers stuck in their hats and scalping knives in their waistbands, some marching with a musket in one hand and a tomahawk in the other. The knives were for more than show; they intended to use them, having promised their squaws the accustomed trophies of battle.

Van Dorn also rode horse-drawn. He rode, in fact, supine in an ambulance, still feeling the effects of the ditch-jump back in Virginia and down as well with chills and fever as a result of swimming his mare across an icy river two days ago in his haste to join the army and get it moving. The mare was hitched alongside now, available in emergencies, and Price rode alongside too, identifying passing units and ready to relay orders when the time came. The new commander was nothing if not a man of action, bold and forward, sick or well, and the troops he led had caught something of his spirit. Trudging up the road down which they had retreated just the week before, they were in a high good humor despite the norther blowing wet snow in their faces.

The previous afternoon, some dozen miles away on a grassy knoll near Cross Hollows, Arkansas, where his headquarters tent was pitched, the commander of the army that had just cleared southwest Missouri of organized Confederates sat writing a letter home. At fifty-seven, having put on weight, he found that long hours in the saddle wearied him now a good deal more than they had done fifteen years before, when he had abandoned army life for civil engineering. A dish-faced man with a tall forehead and thinning, wavy hair, hazel eyes and a wide, slack-lipped mouth, he drew solace from such periods of relaxation as this, sitting in full uniform, polished boots, epaulets and spurs, enjoying the sounds of camp life in the background and the singing of the birds, while he inscribed to the wife of his bosom letters which he signed, rather ponderously, “yours Saml R. Curtis.” A West Pointer like the opponent he did not yet know he was facing, he had commanded an Ohio regiment in the Mexican War, had been chief engineer for the city of St Louis, and had served for the past three years as Republican congressman from Iowa. Of all his accomplishments, however, he was proudest of the current one, performed as a brigadier general of volunteers. Chasing the rebels out of Missouri might not sound like much, compared to Grant’s recent unconditional capture of two forts and one whole army in Tennessee, but Curtis felt that it was a substantial achievement. He was saying so in the letter when his writing was interrupted by the sudden far-off rumble of cannon. It came from the south, and he counted forty well-spaced booms: the salute for a major general.

This gave him pause, and with the pause came doubts. His four divisions were rather scattered, two of them twelve miles in his rear and two thrown forward under Franz Sigel, the immigrant mathematics instructor who had shown a talent for retreat at Wilson’s Creek. Curtis was a cautious or at any rate a highly methodical person; he liked to allow for contingencies, an engineer’s margin for stress and strain, and he could never feel comfortable until he knew he had done so. Back in the fall, inspecting Frémont’s pinwheel dispositions, he had reported that the Pathfinder “lacked the intelligence, the experience, and the sagacity necessary to his command.” Placing as he did the highest value on all three of these qualities—especially the last, which he himself personified—that was about the worst he could say of a man. Accordingly, when Frémont was removed and Curtis was given the task of driving the rebels out of Missouri—which Frémont had considered more or less incidental to the grand design—he went about it differently. He gave it his full attention, and it went well: too well, in fact, or anyhow too easy. Price fell back and the Federals followed through a deserted region, cabins empty though food was still bubbling in pots on ranges, laundry soaking in lukewarm sudsy water, clocks ticking ominously on mantels, and now this: forty booms from across the wintry landscape, signifying for all to hear that an over-all enemy chieftain had arrived. Curtis thought perhaps he had better consolidate to meet developments that threatened stress and strain.

Next day his fears were reinforced, and indeed confirmed, when scouts—including young Wild Bill Hickok, addicted to gaudy shirts and a mustache whose ends could be knotted behind his head—came riding in with reports that the Confederates were marching north in strength. Convinced and alarmed, Curtis sent word for Sigel to exercise his talent by falling back on Sugar Creek, up near the Missouri line, where he himself would be waiting with the other two divisions. There they would combine and, in turn, await the enemy. It was a good defensive position, with a boggy stream across the front and a high ridge to protect the rear, as both men knew from having come through it the week before, in pursuit of Price. Also, if they hurried, there would be time to fortify. Curtis fell back, as planned, and presently received word that Sigel was coming, skirmishing as he came. Near sundown, March 6, he got there with the grayback cavalry close behind him, hacking at his rear. He strode into the commander’s tent, a small, quick-gestured, red-haired man in gold-frame spectacles, each lens scarcely bigger around than a quarter, and announced in broken English that he was hungry. He had lost two regiments, pinched off in the chase as had been feared; otherwise he was whole and hearty, eager for more fighting. Just now, though, he was hungry.

Curtis hardly knew what to make of such a man, but he fed him and took him out for an inspection of the lines. Sigel’s two divisions were on the right, the other two having side-stepped to make room for them on the two-mile-long shelf of land overlooking the hollow of Sugar Creek. A mile to their rear was the hamlet of Leetown, a dozen cabins clustered around a store and blacksmith shop, which in turn lay about halfway between the line of battle and the sudden rise of Pea Ridge, rearing abruptly against the northern sky like a backdrop for a theatrical production. Outcropped with granite and feathered with trees along its crest, the ridge extended eastward for two miles, then gave down upon a narrow north-south valley. Through this defile ran the Springfield-Fayetteville road, known locally as the wire road because the telegraph had its southern terminus here in a two-story frame building where the telegrapher lived and took in lodgers overnight; Elkhorn Tavern, it was called, acquiring its name from the giant skull and antlers nailed to the rooftree. The tavern lay to the left rear of the position Curtis had chosen, and the road led down past it, through the intrenchments his troops had been digging all that day, and on across the creek to where the rebel army, filing in, was settling down and kindling campfires in the dusk.

They had brought their weather with them. It was snowing, and their fires twinkled in the gathering moonless darkness, more and more of them as more soldiers filed in from the south to extend the line. Down to 10,500 as a result of Sigel’s losses, the Federals were outnumbered and they knew it, watching the long, strung-out necklace of enemy campfires growing longer every hour. Still, they felt reasonably secure behind their new-turned mounds of dirt and logs, white-blanketed under the sift of snow falling softly out of the darkness. They built their own fires higher against the cold, then bedded down for a good night’s sleep before the dawn which they believed would light the way for an all-out Confederate lunge across the creek and against their works.

March 7 came in bleak and gray, overcast but somewhat warmer. The snow had stopped; the wind had fallen in the night. As Curtis’ men turned out of their bedrolls, peering south through the fog that rose out of the hollow, they saw something they had not expected to see. The plain was empty over there. Last night’s rebel campfires were cold ashes, and the men who had kindled and fed them were nowhere in sight.

In the past three days the Confederates had marched better than fifty miles, the wind driving wet snow in their faces all the way. Their rations were gone, consumed on the march, and they were tired and hungry. There had to be a battle now, if only for the sake of capturing enemy supplies.

However, Van Dorn had no intention of sending his weary men against breastworks prepared for their reception. Impetuous though he was, that was not his way. Conferring with his generals, who knew the country well, he decided to send half his troops on a night march, clean around the north side of Pea Ridge, then down the road past Elkhorn Tavern for a dawn attack on the Union left rear. Once this was launched, the other half of his army, having made a coincidental, shorter march to the west end of the ridge, would come down through Leetown to strike the enemy right rear, which by then should be in motion to support the hard-pressed left. In short, it was to be a double envelopment much like the one Nathaniel Lyon had attempted at Wilson’s Creek, except that this time the attackers would outnumber the defenders, 17,000 men with sixty guns opposing 10,500 with fifty.

Price’s Missourians drew the longer march, beyond the screening ridge. McCulloch and Pike, with their Texans, Arkansans, Louisianians, and Indians, would make the secondary attack. Van Dorn himself, still in his ambulance—the three-day ride through wind and snow had not reduced his fever—would go with the roundabout column, to be on hand for the charge that would open the conflict. Soon after dark the army filed off to the left, leaving its long line of campfires burning to deceive the Federals, and moved northward in column beyond the enemy right flank. In this hare-and-tortoise contest—the youthful, impetuous cavalryman Earl Van Dorn against the aging, methodical engineer Sam Curtis—the hare was off and running.


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