Pea Ridge National Military Park is a 4,300 acre Civil War battlefield that preserves the site of the March 1862 battle and is one of the most intact battlefields in the United States. Even though located in Arkansas, the battle of Pea Ridge saved Missouri for the Union.
We visited Pea Ridge in the fall of 2020 during the pandemic so the visitor center was closed. As a result, we didn’t get to see the orientation film but the park brochure was helpful, the tour road was open and the explanatory signage was quite good.
The area around the battlefield was a major crossroads and several roads pass through the park. The road known as Telegraph Road passes just by the Elkhorn Tavern. In the winter of 1838-39, this road was one of the routes of the “Trail of Tears” followed by thousands of Cherokees and other Indian tribes during their forced relocation from their tribal lands in the East. The park includes a well-preserved 2 ½ mile segment of the Trail of Tears. This road was also the route of the Butterfield Overland Stage line from 1857-61.
On Christmas Day, 1861, Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis was appointed to command the Federal Southwestern District of Missouri with the main objective being to drive Confederate and pro-Confederate forces out of Missouri. By mid-February the Federals had chased their main opponents into Arkansas.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn took command of the 16.000-man Confederate army on March 4, 1862, intending to strike into Missouri and capture St. Louis. However, Curtis’ 10,500 Federals were dug in across his path expecting Van Dorn to attack from the south. Van Dorn surprised them by dividing his troops, with some swinging north to come in from behind the Federals and others coming from the west.
Much of the first day’s fighting (March 7) took place in the vicinity of the small village of Leetown. The wounded of both sides were brought to Leetown where buildings and tents served as hospitals. Two Confederate generals, McCulloch and McIntosh, were killed near there. Today the only physical evidence of Leetown is a burial plot.
Pea Ridge was the only major Civil War battle in which Indian troops participated. Two regiments of Cherokees, about 1,000 men, fought for the Confederate army. Some of these Cherokee soldiers had earlier traveled the Trail of Tears as part of the relocation. One of the men who signed the treaty allowing the government to force them west, Stand Watie, led the Confederate 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles at Pea Ridge. Afterwards he led the regiment to fight in other minor battles, skirmishes and raids. In 1864 he became the only Native American promoted to brigadier general in either Union or Confederate army. He was also the last Confederate general to surrender to Union soldiers.
The second day’s fighting was concentrated around the Elkhorn Tavern. The original Elkhorn Tavern was built in 1835 and named because of the elk horns that adorned the roof. During the fighting, the tavern changed hands several times and served as a field hospital for both Union and Confederate wounded. After the battle, the tavern was used as a Federal military telegraph station until Confederate guerrillas burned it in 1863. The present tavern in the park is a reconstruction.
By nightfall on the 7th the Confederates held Elkhorn Tavern and Telegraph and Huntsville roads. On the morning of the 8th Curtis’ Federal troops counter-attacked with an artillery barrage and infantry. With his defenses broken and ammunition running low, Van Dorn ordered his Confederate troops’ withdrawal. The Battle of Pea Ridge was over.
Despite being outnumbered and outgunned by the Confederates, Pea Ridge was a decisive victory for the Federal forces. The victory came down to one important factor – leadership. Curtis led skillfully and allowed his commanders enough flexibility to adapt as needed while still retaining control. Curtis and his second-in-command Sigel were both promoted as a result of their performance at Pea Ridge. Many of the Federal leaders at Pea Ridge went on to become some of the most successful in the U.S. Army. Sheridan rose to be only the 4th man (after Washington, Grant and Sherman) in U.S. history to wear the four stars of a full general.
Even though Confederate general Van Dorn had the element of surprise and greater numbers, 16,000 Confederates against 10,250 Union soldiers, there were delays and difficulties with command structure. Sending his troops two different directions, Van Dorn also made a major error by leaving his ammunition wagons behind. When the first day of fighting was over, they were unable to resupply themselves. Dissension among Confederate commanders also contributed to their downfall.
Pea Ridge was one of the few battlefields in which it was possible to see the mile-long “blue” and “grey” lines advancing toward each other. From the overlooks on Elkhorn Mountain the battlefield spread out below and it was easy to imagine that incredible and ghastly sight. At Pea Ridge the Army of the Southwest (Union) suffered 1384 casualties – 203 killed, 980 wounded of which 150 later died, and 201 missing. The Army of the West (Confederate) lost hundreds to stragglers and deserters during the retreat and the best estimate is that the total was approximately 2,000, including 500 taken prisoner.
After the Battle of Pea Ridge, Missouri remained in the Union and politically neutral throughout the war.
For more information: https://www.nps.gov/peri/index.htm