The Battle of Pea Ridge ended the threat of a major Confederate invasion of Missouri was was fought across thousands of acres of Northwest Arkansas countryside. One of the most dramatic and significant battles of the Civil War, it took place on March 7-8, 1862.
The site is now the Pea Ridge National Military Park, one of the best preserved battlefields in the nation. As can be said of several other significant battles, Pea Ridge was one of the places where the Confederacy could have won the Civil War.
The battle developed when Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn accepted the command of the Confederate army in the west from President Jefferson Davis. Two other generals, Henry Heth and Braxton Bragg, had already declined the command.
Ambitious to a fault, however, Van Dorn headed west where badly mauled Southern forces had withdrawn south into the Boston Mountains ahead of an advance by Union Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis and his Army of the Southwest. His plan was to the point. He
would fight his way into Missouri and keep going north. As he told his wife, “I must have St. Louis.”
The situation in Arkansas presented Van Dorn with one of the great opportunities of the war. Gen. Curtis had taken up positions at Little Sugar Creek in Benton County, Arkansas. He was 250 miles from his base of supplies and had fewer men and fewer cannon than Van Dorn.
Storming north from the mountains in brutally cold weather, the Confederates swept around the right flank of Curtis’ entrenched army and launched a devastating two-pronged attack on the Union right and rear. It was a remarkable opportunity to completely crush a major Union army, but Van Dorn handled it badly.
Pushing his men too hard during the hours leading up to the battle and advancing with insufficient supplies for a major fight, he led a numerically larger army into the field but allowed his command and control structure to completely deteriorate.
The first prong of the Confederate attack swept in from the west near the Leetown community. Gen. Ben McCulloch, who led the assault, was killed almost immediately and his second-in-command, Gen. James McIntosh, fell just 15 minutes later. Despite heavy fighting and the personal courage of Col. Louis Hebert, the Confederate attack disintegrated in the face of stiff Federal resistance.
It was during fighting at Foster’s Farm near Leetown that Confederate Gen. Albert Pike’s Indian Brigade ambushed two companies of Iowa cavalry. After the battle, Union soldiers found that eight of their comrades had been scalped and another 17 mutilated.
Meanwhile, the second Confederate column, led by Gen. Sterling Price, attacked from the hills and ravines just north of Elkhorn Tavern on the northern end of the battlefield. Despite his superiority in men and artillery, however, Price was unable to drive Union Col. Eugene Carr from the field. It took six hours of heavy fighting to dislodge the colonel and his men, giving the Federals time to completely reverse their field of battle.
The day ended with Van Dorn holding ground at the northern end of the battlefield, but Curtis bringing more and more men and guns into position opposite him. The next morning, March 8th, the Federals opened a massive artillery barrage. The Confederates were exhausted and running short on supplies. When Curtis ordered his lines forward, there was little the Southern troops could do to stop them.
The Confederate right gave way first, Van Dorn and Price going with it, leaving the Southern left to fend for itself. These men evacuated the battlefield as best they could, leaving the field in the hands of the victorious Union army. Curtis had won a classic battle and Missouri was saved for the Union.
The site of the battle, where 26,000 men fought and more than 3,000 were killed, wounded or captured, is now preserved at Pea Ridge National Military Park. The address is 15930 East Highway 62, Garfield, Arkansas. See the map below for directions.
The battlefield is open to the public 6 a.m. until sunset 365 days per year. The visitor center is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 362 days per year (closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day). The cost to visit is $20 per vehicle ($15 for a motorcycle) or $10 per person.