Pea Ridge Campaign 1862

by James W. Durney

 

 

On the Missouri Arkansans border, January 1862 dawns on divided and embittered Confederate supporters. The summer victories of 1861 are lost when McCullough’s Army of the West and Price’s Missouri State Guard fail to mount a unified campaign in the fall. After the victory at Wilson’s Creek, Sterling Price advances the State Guard into central Missouri but Ben McCullough stays in the Southwest corner of the state. McCullough’s refusal to send a supply train north forced Price’s retreat from the capitol at Lexington back to the southwest corner of Missouri. Here, Missouri Governor Jackson convenes a “state assembly”, claims to be the state government and joins the Confederacy. Missouri has two state governments, one Union and one Confederate.

Price established winter quarters in reoccupied Springfield, as McCullough withdraws about 100 miles south to the Ozark Plateau. The infantry winters in the Bentonville and Fayetteville area. About 60 miles south, the cavalry and artillery winter in the Arkansans River Valley, where the forage is better. Winter on the Ozark Plateau is a very hard on the men, the temperature plunges and the wind never seems to stop.

General Ben McCullough is a product of the western frontier. He fought in the Texas War of Independence and enforced the law on the frontier. A hard man, he is fearless and not given to social niceties. At Wilson’s Creek, his attack destroyed Franz Sigel’s command and his men love him. He holds a commission from the Confederate States of America as a Brigadier General.

General Sterling Price is a member of Missouri’s elite, with service in the state legislature, in Washington and as governor. He led Missourians into battle in the War with Mexico. He commanded the Missouri Militia prior to the war, staying with them when they become the Confederate Missouri State Guard. He was in command when they stopped Lyon’s attack on “Bloody Hill” at Wilson’s Creek and the men love him. He holds a commission from the State of Missouri and is dedicated to driving the “usurping Lincolnites” from his home state.

These different backgrounds, responsibilities and viewpoints are the cause of a major command problem; McCullough and Price hate each other. This started in 1861, with McCullough’s remarks about Price’s “half starved infantry” and “huckleberry cavalry”. An incident called “Rain’s Scare” where some of Price’s units fled a minor skirmish added fuel to the fire. McCullough’s refusal to support and supply Price’s attempt to retake Missouri after Wilson’s Creek made things worse.

With his army in winter quarters, McCullough travels to Richmond trying to get rid of Price. He and his supporters lobby Jefferson Davis, while Price’s supporters lobby to get rid of McCullough. Both sides ignore the fact that Jefferson Davis has little interest in the Trans-Mississippi, does not like people telling him what to do and distrusts Generals who had not been to West Point. Very quickly, Davis comes to dislike both McCullough and Price. He tries to solve this problem by placing a fully trained West Pointer over both of them. Objections to Davis’ first choice, Henry Heth, are based on of his youth, inexperience and unfamiliarity with the area. These objections allow Heth to decline the appointment without risking Davis’ ire. Second choice, is an unenthusiastic Braxton Bragg, who declines after getting a negative assessment of the position from Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin.

Major General Earl Van Dorn, West Point class of 1842, twice brevetted for gallantry in Mexico, a Major in the celebrated second United States Cavalry and a Mississippi neighbor of Jefferson Davis is the next choice. A good-looking man, in spite of a short slight frame, Van Dorn is a romantic warrior thirsting for glory. While an excellent choice to lead a charge or defend a position to the last man, he is not a military intellectual interested in the details of running an army. Most of all, this is not the man to take what Judah P. Benjamin calls a “mere gathering of brave but undisciplined troops”, turn them into an army and retake Missouri. Never one to have doubts, Van Dorn accepts the position on January 10, 1862, assuming command of the Military District of the Trans-Mississippi on the 29th in Little Rock. To solve the McCullough/Price problem, Van Dorn put them into one army with him in command.

The Confederate forces of the Trans-Mississippi are a varied lot; Ben McCulloch has just under 9,000 men and 18 guns in an oversize infantry brigade, an oversized cavalry brigade and 4 batteries of artillery. The 3rd Louisiana, veterans of Wilson’s Creek, is the best regiment in the army and may have been the best Confederate unit to serve west of the Mississippi River. The balance of the infantry is five green Arkansas regiments whose ranks include veterans of Wilson’s Creek that stay with the army when their enlistments are up. The Cavalry is from Texas and Arkansas, many of these men saw action at Wilson’s Creek and/or in the Indian Territory.

Price’s Missouri State Guard, in Springfield, bears little resemblance to McCullough’s army. Where McCullough represents the western Confederacy, Price is Missouri. Where McCullough is organized into regiments and brigades, Price is a mix of regiments and “temporary battalions”. Gone from this command is the large unarmed mob of 1861 that consumed supplies and watched battles. The 8,000 men in the ranks are better than the armies unmilitary organization suggests. Many of them have fought in the 1861 Campaign to Control Missouri seeing three battles and many small actions. They are used to doing without. Campaigning holds few surprises for them. They knew how to win and they knew what it feels like to lose. Their 47 guns looked good on paper but many of them are either cast-iron or obsolete.

The last part of Van Dorn’s army is Brigadier General Albert Pike’s Indians. The Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory are caught in the middle of the White Man’s Civil War. Isolated from the United States when Arkansas joins the Confederacy, they are bound by treaties to the United States. If they join the Confederacy, could the United States refuse to honor the treaties? If yes, that would mean a loss of five million dollars in treaty payments for land vacated in the East. On the other hand, many Indians own slaves and many more have no real love for the United States. Chief John Ross, head of the Five Civilized Tribes, tries to stop the war from intruding into their way of life. That is not to be, Stand Watie, working with Pike recruits about 2,500 Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek Indians to fight for the Confederacy. Pike describes his force as “entirely undisciplined, mounted chiefly on ponies and armed very indifferently with common rifles and shotguns.”

The Union forces in Missouri have not been idle while the Confederacy is organizing. First, John C. Fremont is gone from command. A combination of Price’s 1861 campaign, the opposition of the Blair family and his emancipation proclamation cause Lincoln transfer him East. General David Hunter’s inability to control some of the Arkansas Jayhawkers forces Lincoln to quickly replace him with Henry M. Halleck. Jarred awake by Price retaking Springfield, Halleck realized that if something is not done soon, he will be replaced too. “Something” is General Samuel Ryan Curtis, commander of the 2nd Ohio Volunteers in the Mexican War and a three term Republican Congressman from Iowa, who resigned his seat to accept a commission.

Curtis’ Army of the Southwest consisted of eighteen regiments of infantry, four regiments of cavalry and thirty guns. About fourteen thousand men, organized into four under size divisions and support units. The principle commanders are Franz Sigel, Peter Osterhaus, Alexander Asboth, Jefferson Davis and Eugene Carr. Curtis, Sigel and Osterhaus are Brigadier Generals the others Colonels. The Army of the Southwest has two largely German divisions from Missouri and two divisions of westerners from Indiana, Illinois and Iowa.

Sigel, a major factor in rallying German immigrates to the Union cause, having a German military education, with experience at the battles of Carthage and Wilson’s Creek, expected to command this army. His resignation when Curtis took command causes an uproar. Halleck is able to talk Sigel into revoking his resignation and serving as second in command. Sigel’s Germans and Curtis’ Westerners break into two camps starting a dialog that will to continue long after the war. Neither man seems to have tried to reconcile the two groups. Sigel actively encouraged the idea that he has been passed over by nativist prejudice. Curtis, while always very courteous to Sigel, builds a headquarters’ staff that is largely fellow Iowans with no Germans.

From St. Louis, the railroad runs southwest to Rolla. From Rolla, the Telegraph or Wire Road continues southwest to Lebanon on to Springfield down the through the valley of Wilson’s Creek to McDowell. Crosses the Arkansas state line east of Elkhorn Tavern and continues south to Fayetteville, Prairie Grove, Crane Hill and ends at Van Buren on the Arkansas River not far from Indian Territory. Using the Telegraph Road, the trip from Rolla to Van Buren is almost 300 miles. Today, the term road assumes a paved highway of two or more lanes in 1862 nothing of the kind is true. The Telegraph Road varied from a good surfaced road to little more than ruts in the dirt connecting fords. Missouri weather in February and March is unstable, the temperature can quickly drop to well below freezing or climb into the high forties. An unexpected blizzard or wind driven rain could produce a landscape of ice or mud within hours, either of which would stop an army in its tracks for days.

Halleck is not the type to issue detailed orders and take responsibility; his instructions to Curtis reflect his character. Campaign season is when spring comes, the roads dry, the grass grows and armies can march. Halleck understands this but feels a winter campaign is required. Curtis understands what Halleck wants but is not told how to accomplish this. One of Curtis’ first orders makes Captain Philip Sheridan responsible for supplies.

By late January, the Union army has assembled in Rolla and is moving down the Telegraph Road to Lebanon, only fifty miles from Springfield. Price is caught off guard by this unexpected advance. His messages to Van Dorn and McIntosh, filling in until McCullough returns from Richmond, take on an urgent and then desperate tone.

Curtis refuses to give Van Dorn and company time to make up their minds and take action. The St. Louis staff officer, this reserved and formal gentleman, this political general who will not publicly or privately promote himself is a fighter! On February 10, Curtis starts down a dry Telegraph Road for Springfield. Two days later, his army is camping at Pierson’s Creek about eight miles from Springfield. Price gives up; expecting no help from Arkansas and convinced the Union force is much larger than his own the Missouri State Guard abandoned Springfield.

 

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