Pea Ridge – Crisis in the West II

Puzzled by the disappearance of the rebels from across the creek next morning, Curtis was in the worse-than-tortoise position of not even knowing that a race was being run, let alone that the goal was his own rear. Through the early morning hours, while the sun climbed higher up the sky to melt away the fog and fallen snow, he was left wondering where and why Van Dorn had gone. Then suddenly he knew. Just as they had confirmed his fears about the forty-gun salute he had heard on Monday, so now on Friday his scouts came riding in to solve the mystery of the rebels’ disappearance. They were behind Pea Ridge, about to enter the north-south valley that gave down upon his unprotected rear. They had been delayed by obstructions along the road, the scouts reported, but they were coming fast now and in strength. Curtis would have to do one of two things. He could wheel about and meet them here, fighting with his back to his own intrenchments, or he could try to make a run for it. In the latter case, the choice lay between possible and probable destruction. If he tried to get away northward, up the wire road through the defile, the Confederate spearhead would be plunged into the flank of his moving column. If on the other hand he ran southward, through enemy country—retreating forward, so to speak—Van Dorn would be across his lines of supply and communication; the rebels would have him bottled in a wintry vacuum.

He chose to meet them. His four divisions were in line, facing south: Sigel’s two on the right, led by Peter Osterhaus and Alexander Asboth, the former a German, the latter a Hungarian: then his own two, under Eugene Carr, a vigorous, hard-mannered regular, and an Indiana-born colonel with the improbable name of Jefferson Davis. Curtis ordered them to about-face, the rear thus becoming the front, the left the right, the right the left. Carr was sent at once to meet the threat beyond Elkhorn Tavern. Osterhaus moved up past Leetown to protect the western flank, and presently on second thought Curtis sent Davis to support him, while Asboth remained under Sigel, in reserve. Curtis had confidence in his commanders. Colonels Osterhaus, Carr, and Davis had had considerable combat experience, the first two at Wilson’s Creek and the third from as far back as Fort Sumter, where he had been an artillery lieutenant; Asboth, a brigadier, had been Frémont’s chief of staff and a fighter under Kossuth back in Europe. How far beyond the claims of past performance they deserved their leader’s confidence was about to be determined. And this was especially true of Carr, who stood where the first blow was about to fall.

At 10.30 it fell, and it fell hard. Tired and hungry after their stumbling all-night march, but keyed up by the order to charge at last, Price’s men came crashing through the brush along both sides of the wire road, guns barking aggressively on the flanks and from the rear. Carr had prepared a defense in depth, batteries staggered along the road and a strong line of infantry posted to support the foremost while the other three fired over their heads. Presently, though, they had nothing to support. A well-directed salvo knocked out three of the four guns and blew up two caissons, killing all the cannoneers. Unnerved, the infantry fell back on the second battery, just north of the tavern, where they managed to repulse the first attack, then the second, both of which were piecemeal. Bearded like a Cossack, Carr rode among his soldiers, shouting encouragement. Out front, the brush was boiling with butternut veterans forming for a third assault. This one would come in strength, he knew, and he doubted if his thin line could resist it. He sent a courier galloping back to Curtis with an urgent request for reinforcements.

Curtis had his headquarters on a little knoll just south of a farm road leading from Elkhorn Tavern to Leetown; here the courier found him surrounded by his staff, mounted and resplendent, wearing their best clothes for battle. They were looking toward the left front, their attention drawn by a sudden rattle of musketry and a caterwaul of unearthly, high-pitched yelling. Carr’s message had scarcely been delivered when a horseman came riding fast from that direction. Osterhaus had been swamped by a horde of befeathered, screaming men who bore down on him brandishing scalping knives and hatchets. Taken aback—they had bargained for nothing in all the world like this—his troops had broken, abandoning guns and equipment. Davis had moved up; he was holding as best he could, but he needed reinforcements. Appealed to thus by the commanders of both wings at once, Curtis chose to wait before committing his reserve. He sent word for both to hold with what they had. At this point the battle racket swelled to new and separate climaxes, right and left.

In contrast to the gloom that had descended on him—first as a result of his failure to gobble up the scattered Federal units on the march, and then because of the delay of his flanking column as it moved around Pea Ridge in the night, which had thrown him three hours behind schedule and cost him the rich fruits of full surprise—Van Dorn was exultant. Price’s men were surging ahead, knocking back whatever stood in their way, and off to the west the rolling crackle of McCulloch’s attack told him of success in that quarter as well. The fighting still raged furiously at the near end of the ridge; Carr’s second line was thrown back by the all-out third assault, so that presently the Missourians were whooping around the tavern itself and drinking from the horse trough in the yard.

All this took time, however. As the sun slid down the sky, Van Dorn’s exultation began to be tempered by concern. His men had had no sleep all night and nothing to eat since the day before, whereas the Federals had had a good night’s rest and a hot breakfast. The Confederates still fought grimly, battering now at Carr’s third line, drawn south and west of the tavern, but weariness and hunger were sapping their strength; much of the steam had gone out of their attacks. Worse still, there was no longer any sound of serious fighting on the far side of the field, where McCulloch’s earlier gains had been announced by the clatter moving south and east to mark his progress. Van Dorn was left wondering until near sundown, when a messenger arrived to explain the silence across the way.

There, as here, the battle had opened on a note of victory. Pike’s Indians, delighted at having frightened Osterhaus into hurried retreat, pranced around the cannon the white men had abandoned; “wagon guns,” they called them, and took the horse collars from the slaughtered animals to wear about their own necks; “me big Injun, big as horse!” they chanted, dancing so that the trace-chains jingled against the frozen ground. It was a different matter, though, when Pike tried to get them back into line to help McCulloch, who had run into stiffer resistance on the left. They had had enough of that. They wanted to fight from behind rocks or up in trees, not lined up like tenpins, white-man-style, to be struck by the iron bowling balls the wagon guns threw with a terrifying boom and a sudden, choking cloud of smoke. Some stood firm—a dismounted cavalry battalion of mixbloods, for example, under Colonel Stand Watie, a Georgia-born Cherokee—but, in the main, whatever was to be accomplished from now on would have to be done without the help of anything more than a scattering of red men.

Not that McCulloch particularly minded. He was not given to calling on others for help, either back in his Texas Ranger days or now. When his advance was held up by an Illinois outfit which had rallied behind a snake-rail fence at the far end of a field, he brought up an Arkansas regiment, shook out a skirmish line, and took them forward, sunlight glinting on the sharpshooter’s rifle he carried for emergencies and sport. The Illinois troops delivered a volley that sent the butternuts scampering back across the field. They re-formed and charged again. Sixty yards short of the tree-lined fence, they came upon a body in sky-blue trousers and a dove-gray corduroy jacket, sprawled in the grass: McCulloch. His rifle was gone, along with a gold pocket watch he had prized, but he still wore the expensive boots he had died in when the bullet found his heart.

Quickly then word spread among the men who had sworn that they would storm hell itself at his command: “McCulloch’s dead. They killed McCulloch!” Their reaction to the news was much the same, in effect, as the Indians’ reaction to artillery. Whatever they had sworn they would do with McCulloch to lead them, it soon became clear that they would do little without him. To complete the confusion, his successor was killed within the hour, and the third commander was captured while attempting to rally some soldiers who, as it turned out, were Federals. By the time Pike was found and notified—he had been trying vainly, all the while, to reorganize his frightened or jubilant Indians—the sun was near the landline and there were considerably fewer troops for him to head. Dazed with grief for their lost leader, many had simply wandered off the field, following him in death as they had in life; Osterhaus and Davis, having themselves had enough fighting for one day, had been content to watch them go, unmolested. At sundown Pike assembled what men he could find and set out on a march around the north side of Pea Ridge to join Van Dorn and Price, whose battle still raged near Elkhorn Tavern.

News of his right wing’s disintegration reached Van Dorn as one more in a series of disappointments and vexations. Repeated checks and delays, here on the left where Price’s men were being held up by less than half their number, had brought him to the verge of desperation. There was another problem, no less grave and quite as vexing. Having left his wagon train on the far side of the battleground, the diminutive commander had discovered an unwelcome military axiom: namely, that when you gain the enemy’s rear you also place him in your own, unless you bring it with you. Consequently, in addition to a numbing lack of sleep and food, just as he was doing all he could to launch a final charge that would crush Carr at last and sweep the field before nightfall ended the fighting and gave the Federals a chance to realign their now superior forces, his men were experiencing an ammunition shortage. Desperately he ordered them forward, putting all he had into what he knew would use up the last of daylight, as well as the last of their strength and ammunition. Price was there to help him. Nicked by a bullet, but refusing to retire for medical treatment, he wore his wounded arm in a sling as he rode from point to point to bolster his men’s spirits for an all-out climax to the night-long march and day-long battle. At last, between the two of them, they got the Missourians into assault formation and sent them forward, streaming around the tavern and down both sides of the wire road, across which Carr had drawn his third stubborn line of resistance.

The red ball of the sun had come to rest on the horizon; Carr’s men could see it over their left shoulders—the direction in which they had been watching all these hours for reinforcements that did not come. Now as before, their batteries were distributed in depth along the road, and now as then the Confederates wrecked them, gun by gun, with a preliminary bombardment. After an ominous lull they saw the rebels coming, yelling and firing as they came, hundreds of them bearing down to complete the wreckage their artillery had begun. As the Federals fell back from their shattered pieces an Iowa cannoneer paused to toss a smoldering quilt across a caisson, then ran hard to catch up with his friends. Still running, he heard a tremendous explosion and looked back in time to see a column of fire and smoke standing tall above the place where he had fuzed the vanished caisson. Stark against the twilight sky, it silhouetted the lazy-seeming rise and fall of blown-off arms and legs and heads and mangled trunks of men who just now had been whooping victoriously around the captured battery position.

Over on his headquarters knoll, Curtis heard and saw it too, and finally—as if that violent column of smoke and flame standing lurid against the twilight on the right, followed after an interval by the boom and rumble as the sound of the explosion echoed off the ridge to the north, had at last brought home to him, like the ultimate shout of despair from a drowning man, at least some measure of the desperation Carr had been trying to communicate ever since Price first struck him, eight hours back—responded. By then the sporadic firing on the left had died away; Osterhaus and Davis reported the rebels gone or going. Van Dorn was tricky, but Curtis felt the danger from that direction had been removed; he could look to the right, where by now the column of fire had turned into a mushrooming pillar of smoke. Asboth, who had remained all this time in reserve to meet disaster in either direction, was sent up the wire road in relief of Carr.

Arriving at 7 he found the firing reduced to a sputter here as well. Torn and weary, Carr’s regiments moved back from their fourth position of the day, retiring through the ranks of the division that relieved them. Forward of there, extending right and left of the tavern, half a mile each way, the Confederates were bedding down for the rest they sorely needed, their campfires in the tavern yard illuminating the building up to the bleached skull and antlers on the rooftree. The long day’s fight was over.

Curtis rode out for a night inspection of his lines, which at some points were so near the enemy’s that the opposing soldiers could overhear each other’s groans and laughter. Despite their bone-deep weariness, the men were still too keyed up for sleep. They amused themselves by taunting the rebs across the way, hooting at the replies provoked, and recounting, for mutual admiration, exploits they had performed on the field today. Several could even substantiate their claims. One, for example—an Illinois private, Peter Pelican by name—displayed a gold watch he had taken as a trophy off a rebel he had shot: an officer, he said, in “sky-blue britches” and a dove-colored jacket. Some other quick-thinking scavenger had got the Maynard rifle, much to Pelican’s regret, and the Johnnies had come swarming back too soon for him to have time to strip the dead man of his fancy boots.

The Federal commander might have heard this as he made the rounds, along with much else like it; but the truth was, he took little pleasure in small talk, and especially not now. He had too much on his mind. For one thing, he was irked at Sigel, who he considered had undertaken considerably less than his share of the work today, sparing Osterhaus and Asboth while Davis and Carr were doing most of the bleeding. Consequently, when he discovered that the German planned a temporary withdrawal to feed his troops, his temper snapped. “Let Sigel’s men hold their lines. Send supper out, not the men in,” he said gruffly. And having thus relieved his spleen he returned to his headquarters tent. It was time to decide what to do about tomorrow. Still fully dressed, he lay down on some blankets spread on a pile of straw and sent for his division commanders to join him for a council of war.

It was midnight when they assembled. Sigel spoke first, and he spoke from desperation, proposing his specialty: slashing retreat. The army, he said, must select an escape route and cut its way out in the morning. Osterhaus agreed, and so did Carr, whose command had been fought to a frazzle. He was nursing a wound, as was Asboth, who had been winged by a stray bullet in the dark and also saw no answer but retreat. Davis was silent, but that was his manner—a gloomy man with a long nose and lonesome-looking eyes. Reclined on the blanketed pile of straw, Curtis weighed their counsel. No less deliberate in conference than he had been in combat, he was not going to be stampeded by his own commanders, any more than he had been stampeded by Van Dorn. In his opinion the Confederates had most likely shot their bolt. The threat to his left having been abolished, he could reinforce his right. Thus bolstered, the army could hold its own, he believed, and even perhaps go forward. On this note the council adjourned, and its members, their advice declined, went out into the darkness to consolidate their commands and await the dawn.

The night was cold and windless, so that when dawn came through at last, smoke from yesterday’s battle still hung in long folds and tendrils about the fields, draping the hillsides and filling the hollows level-full. The sun rose red, then shone wanly through the haze, like tarnished brass; Van Dorn’s dispositions were at once apparent across the way. South and west of Elkhorn Tavern, between the Federals and the sunrise, Price’s Missourians held the ground they had won when nightfall closed the fighting. Pike having arrived in the night with his and McCulloch’s remnants, the Confederate commander had stationed the Indians along the crest of Pea Ridge, supporting several batteries—stark up there against the sky they looked like stick-men guarding toy guns—while the Texans and Arkansans occupied the fields along its base.

It was a long, concave line, obviously drawn with defense in mind: Curtis had been right. Also right, as it turned out, were the dispositions he had made to meet what dawn revealed. Davis was posted opposite the tavern, with Carr’s division in support, still binding up its wounds. The left belonged to Sigel, who had strung out Osterhaus and Asboth to overlap the enemy in the shadow of the ridge. After a drawn-out silence, during which the Unionists enjoyed a hot breakfast and the rebels ate what they could find in the knapsacks of the fallen, Van Dorn opened with his batteries, stirring the smoke that wreathed the Federal line.

The cannonade was perfunctory and had no real aggressive drive behind it. Low as he was on ammunition—his unprotected train had gone off southward, fearing capture—Van Dorn fired his guns, not as a prelude to attack, nor even to signify his readiness to receive one, but merely to see what the Yankees would do. In fact, that was why he had remained in position overnight. It had seemed wrong to retreat after the gains he had made, and for all he knew the dawn might show the Federals gone or ready to surrender. Dawn had shown no such thing. It showed them, rather, in what seemed greater strength than ever: a long, compact line, with batteries glinting dangerously through the coppery haze. Hungry, weary, down to their last rounds of ammunition, Van Dorn’s men had done their worst and he knew it. Yet, for all he knew, after yesterday’s hard knocks Curtis too might be reduced to his last ounce of powder and resistance, needing no more than a prod to send him scampering. At any rate the Mississippian thought it worth a try.

It soon became apparent that the Federals could take a good deal more prodding than the Southerners could exert. Sensing the weakness behind the cannonade, Curtis sent word to Sigel on the left. Yesterday the German had held back: now let him seize the initiative and go forward if he could. Sigel could and did. With a precision befitting a mathematician, he ordered his infantry to lie down in the muddy fields while he advanced his batteries 250 yards out front and opened fire. He rode among the roaring guns, erect as on parade except when he dismounted to sight an occasional piece himself, then patted the breech and stepped back, as if for applause, to observe the effects of his gunnery. It was accurate. Battery after Confederate battery was shattered along the ridge and on the flat, and when others came up to take their places, they were shattered, too. Sigel’s soldiers, many of them German like himself, cheered him wildly as they watched the rebel cannoneers fan backward from the wreckage of their guns. Over on the right, the men of Carr and Davis, watching too, began to understand the pride that lay behind the boast: “I fights mit Sigel.”

Van Dorn’s artillerymen were not the only ones disconcerted by the deadliness of the Yankee gunnery. His infantry showed signs of wavering, too. Sigel rode back to where his cheering soldiers lay obedient in the mud. Gesturing with his saber, he ordered them to stand up and go forward. They did so, still cheering, in a long, undulating line, like a huge snake moving sideways, the head coiling over the lower slope of the ridge, the center thrusting forward with a lunging, sidewinder motion, the tail following in turn. On it moved, with a series of curious sidewise thrusts, preceded by a scattering of graybacks as it slithered over whatever stood in its broad path. The reserve Union regiments, waiting in ranks, tossed their hats and contorted their faces with screams of pride and pleasure at the sight. Exhilarated, Sigel stood in his stirrups, saber lifted, eyes aglow. “Oh—dot was lofely!” he exclaimed.

Over near the tavern, watching the great snake glide sideways up the ridge, the men with Davis began shouting for a charge on this front too, lest Sigel’s troops get all the loot and glory. Curtis was with them. Indeed, he was everywhere this morning; already two of his orderlies had been killed riding with him as he galloped amid shellbursts to inspect his line and strengthen weak spots. All the same, active as he was, he had not put aside his meticulous insistence on precision. Sending for reinforcements, he remained to check their prompt arrival by the second hand on his watch, then was off again through the smoke and whistling fragments of exploding shells. When the men in front of the tavern began yelling for a chance to match the tableau Sigel was staging on the left, Curtis nodded quick assent and rode forward onto a low knoll—he had a fondness for such little elevations, in battle or bivouac—to watch as they advanced.

Close-ranked and determined, they surged past him, cheering. Abruptly then, beyond their charging front, he saw the Confederates give way, retreating before contact, and heard his soldiers whooping as they swarmed around and past Elkhorn Tavern, where the telegrapher’s family huddled in the cellar and rebel dead were stacked like cordwood on the porch. The Union right and left wings came together with a shout, driving the gray confusion of scampering men, careening guns, and wild-eyed horses pell-mell up the wire road through the defile, past the position Carr’s men had abandoned under pressure from the opening guns, twenty-four hours back.

As quickly as that, almost too sudden for realization, the battle was over—won. Curtis rode down off the knoll, then cantered back and forth along his lines. His aging engineer’s brown eyes were shining; all his former stiff restraint was gone. Boyishly he swung his hat and shouted, performing a little horseback dance of triumph as he rode up and down the lines of cheering men. “Victory!” he cried. He kept swinging his hat and shouting. “Victory! Victory!” he cried.

Thus Curtis. But Van Dorn was somewhat in the predicament of having prodded a shot bear, thinking it dead, only to have the creature rear up and come charging at him, snarling. Consequently, his main and in fact his exclusive concern, in the face of this sudden show of teeth and claws, was how to get away unmangled. Horrendous as it was, however, the problem was not with him long. His soldiers solved it for him. Emerging from the north end of the defile, they scattered in every direction except due south, where the prodded bear still roared. All through what was left of the day and into the night (while, a thousand miles to the east, the Merrimac-Virginia steamed back from her first sortie, leaving the burning Congress to light the scene of wreckage she had left in Hampton Roads) various fragments of his army retreated north and east and west, swinging wide to avoid their late opponents when they turned back south to reach the Boston Mountains. Though unpursued, they took a week to reassemble near Van Buren.

Back at his starting point in the foothills of the Ozarks, Van Dorn counted noses and reported his losses as 1000 killed and wounded, 300 captured. He was by no means willing to admit that the battle had been anything more than a temporary setback. Least of all could it be considered a defeat; “I was not defeated, but only foiled in my intentions,” he told Richmond. Still with his main goal in mind, he was ready to try again, this time by marching “boldly and rapidly toward St Louis, between Ironton and the enemy’s grand depot at Rolla.”

Within another week, March 23, he was heading north with 16,000 effectives when he received a peremptory order to turn east, crossing the river by “the best and most expeditious route,” and join the concentration being effected in North Mississippi by Johnston and Beauregard after their long retreat from Kentucky. “Your order received,” Van Dorn replied, pleased no doubt at the prospect of exchanging the wilds of Arkansas for the comparative comforts of his native state.

Unlike his opponent, who was as dashing, or as slapdash, on a retreat as in an advance, Curtis had not been satisfied to report his casualties in round figures. That would have been neither respectful to the dead nor indicative of sound administration. Consolidating subordinate reports, which showed that Carr’s division had suffered more than the other three combined, he prepared a careful table—killed, 203; wounded, 980; captured or otherwise missing, 201; total, 1384—and forwarded it to Halleck, declaring that he had “completely routed the whole rebel force, which retired in great confusion, but rather safely, through the deep, impassable defiles.”

He did not speculate, as others would surely have done in his place—especially Van Dorn—on what the future might reveal as to the importance of the victory he had won at Elkhorn Tavern, in the shadow of Pea Ridge. That was not his way. Besides, he had no means of knowing that Van Dorn would be called east, beyond the Mississippi, and would not be coming back. He did not claim, as in truth he could have done, that he had secured Missouri to the Union for all time; that guerilla bands might rip and tear her, that raider columns of various strengths might cut swaths of destruction up and down her, but that her star in the Confederate flag, placed there like Kentucky’s by a fleeing secessionist legislature, represented nothing more from now on than the exiles who bore arms beneath that banner.


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