Pea Ridge Campaign 1862 (Page 2)

General Curtis understands the objective is Price’s army not the liberation of Springfield. That night, over dinner, Curtis and his commanders hold a council of war agreeing to pursue Price’s army. Sigel talks Curtis into splitting the army to pursue on the Telegraph Road and over a series of parallel roads further west. The command is split on ethnic lines, the two German divisions being commanded by Sigel. No one seems to have noticed that Sigel’s route, west to Little York, and south through Marionville to rejoin the Telegraph Road at McDowell is the longer one. No one seems to have noticed the parallel to the Wilson’s Creek plan and Curtis has not yet learned of Sigel’s tendency to forget orders and do as he pleases. On the surface, this plan offers the best chance of dealing Price a serve blow.

Pursuit starts on the morning of February 14 over a prairie covered in ice and snow. Sigel’s column captures a large foraging party with fifteen wagons, in spite of slow progress due to the bitter cold. Curtis has the shorter route but is following Price. Each defendable point is approached with caution; all they find are broken-down wagons, discarded equipment and stragglers wanting to get warm.

Price’s army makes eight miles on the Fourteenth, going into camp in Crane Creek valley expecting to watch Springfield while waiting for reinforcements. The men are laying out a camp and starting to cook food when shells burst among them. Prices’ rear guard commander, Col. Henry Little forms the 1st Missouri Brigade to ward off the attack of Curtis’ advanced guard comprised of Col. Calvin Ellis, the 1st Missouri Cavalry with four guns.

This minor action convinces Price that his command is in great danger and must move south as fast as possible. Camp is out of the question, everything focuses on linking up with McCullough in Arkansas. Having no supply base, Price’s army carries everything with them in a collection of wheeled vehicles from ox carts to stagecoaches. The road south is cleared and the train started in advance of the army. For the entire night, Price and his men watch this seemly endless supply train roll by. Price is reputed to have asked, “Is there end to this train?”

Curtis knows Price will move quickly. A dispatch to Sigel, directs him to move to McDowell without stopping. At dawn, Curtis is advancing to Crain Creek with all possible speed encountering only abandoned equipment and those staying behind. Curtis sends Ellis toward McDowell, hoping to bring on a battle delaying Price until Sigel cuts the Telegraph Road. Late that afternoon, Curtis’ column reaches McDowell, finding neither the rebels nor Sigel and continues south.

On February 16, Sigel reaches McDowell finding himself at the tail of the Union army. No one knows if the dispatch from Curtis failed to arrive or if it was disregarded. We do know that while a frenzy of activity is taking place on the Telegraph Road, Sigel takes a full day to march an extra 10 miles.

From Prices’ Crain Creek camp to the safety of Little Sugar Creek in Arkansas is a fifty-mile march. Encumbered by a supply train, battered by the weather and demoralized by defeat this march takes thirty-six hours. The last good night’s sleep was in Springfield on February 11th, men fell asleep every time the line of march stops, men fell asleep as they marched. With the supplies at the head of the column, the men suffered from lack of food. In the bitter cold, clothing freezes to their bodies, frostbitten feet became swollen, and those that fall out either surrender or die.

While the Federals are enjoying a sense of victory, the march is a hard one for them too. They outpace the slower supply wagons and forage along the road. The pickings are very slim; this poor section of the state has already been picked over several times. Sheridan orders supply wagons to throw out a box of hardtack every 30 yards when passing troops. The men break open the boxes, filled their pockets and eat as they marched. Curtis orders guards posted over the supply of corn and oats needed for the animals. His march is slowed as each defendable point must be check for rebels. When found, the cavalry and guns deploy, infantry comes up at the double-quick, the rebels retreat and the march resumes. The men hear constant rumors of “Price’s pedestrians” making a stand up ahead.

South of Keetsville, just north of the Arkansas state line, the Telegraph Road enters a narrow eight-mile long gorge. In 1861, McCullough’s men blocked about four miles of the gorge with felled trees. Later, they opened a passage through the barrier just wide enough for a wagon. The locals call this area Cross Timber Hollow. Price’s rear guard takes maximum advantage of this area to delay Curtis. The Union break through and the 1st Missouri Cavalry, Union & Confederate, fight a sharp little battle. Price sends back some of his exhausted infantry. Each side breaks off the battle with the rebels getting the worst of it. At Cross Timber Hollow, Curtis clears the last major obstacle between Springfield and the Arkansas state line. On February 17, with bands playing and flags flying the Union Army of the Southwest entered Arkansas, the invasion is under way.

About 1:00 PM on the 17th, at Little Sugar Creek, Arkansas, the advance elements of Curtis’ army find rebel infantry and artillery blocking the Telegraph Road. Curtis leads the reinforcements forward to confront what he thinks is Price’s exhausted army. They had encountered Col. Hebert’s brigade from McCullough’s army, the 3rd Louisiana, the 4th and 15th Arkansas and a battery from Price. After allowing the enemy to see his strong position, he turns to followed Price. This is standard operating procedure for the theater and the time. Curtis’ determined advance catches Hebert by surprise. In place of an excellent defensive position, the best available position and a quickly set up a defensive line will have to do. Little’s 1st Missouri Brigade is quickly recalled from Price's command to strengthen the line. Hebert is on the east of the road, Little on the west, with the battery pointing straight down the road. Curtis realizing an army commander has no business commanding the advanced guard and orders Ellis to clear the valley.

Used to rebels that flee at a hard push, Ellis advances at a gallop; out distancing his infantry support and runs into Hebert’s position. The battery fires up the road into the advancing cavalry, which vacates the road for the woods and fields. The lead battalion of the 1st Missouri, not hearing the order, charges. Intermingling with rebel skirmishers, they charged almost to the rebel lines. In a desperate attempt to disengage, they lose about 17 men and 25 horses. With the Confederate attention focused on the charge, the balance of the Ellis’ command drives in the rebel skirmishers advancing to where they got a good look at the main battle line and withdraw. Curtis is rushing forward reinforcements, many who had never been in battle and want to “see the elephant” before the war is over. By 3:00PM, the battle settles down to an artillery duel. An hour later, Hebert has enough and withdraws. Curtis elects not to follow ending the battle. Union casualties are about 35 men and 50 horses, Confederate casualties are unreported. While this actions has all but disappeared from history being dismissed as an over grown skirmish, it has the distinction of being the first time the Confederate Stars & Bars go into battle in the Trans-Mississippi. At the time, no one noticed the 3rd Louisiana carries a different flag.

Curtis’ Army of the Southwest camps on the bluffs south of Little Sugar Creek, Arkansas. Marching south, the next defendable site is the valley of Cross Hollow running east to west. Intelligence says the valley is heavily fortified. Curtis controls the road west from Little Sugar Creek to Bentonville, where a parallel road runs south to Osage Spring on to Elm Spring and rejoins the Telegraph Road at Fayetteville. The town of Fayetteville about thirty miles south of the camp is the objective. The problem is the fortified rebels at Cross Hollow. General Asboth, commander of the Second Division had shown an ability to handle cavalry operations, Curtis orders him to conduct a reconnaissance in force toward Bentonville. Asboth takes the town capturing thirty members of the 17th Arkansas and the regiment’s flag flying over the courthouse. When they find the body of a Union cavalryman stuffed in an outhouse, Asboth’s troopers burn Bentonville. Upon learning that the road from Bentonville is open, Curtis issues the orders to flank Cross Hollow.

At Cross Hollow, Price and McCulloch are at war, again. The perceived insults, slights and genuine dislike quickly boil to the surface. Price wants to make a stand, fortify and fight a defensive battle. This will put the loss of Missouri, the long retreat, desertions, and stragglers behind him. McCulloch know Cross Hollow is not well fortified and is easy to flank. He is sure the addition of Price's command will create supply problems. Faced with an aggressive foe, his solution is to fall back to his supply center at Fayetteville where no road allows a flanking movement. Once there they will decide to stand and fight or to continue south into the Boston Mountains. Each step south shortens McCulloch’s supply lines and lengthens Curtis’ supply line.

At an impasse, they poll the senior officers, who vote to continue south. Price still will not agree and insist the armies make a stand. When a citizen from Bentonville reaches the camp at Cross Hollow, his story shows McCulloch is right. Price accepts retreat and the army starts south again. On the night of February 18 /19, another winter storm falls on the area as both sides struggle to move south.

On February 20, the tired ice coated rebel army reaches the forward supply base at Fayetteville. McCulloch's decision to weather his cavalry and artillery further south is hurting him. He has no animals to carry his supplies as he retreats south. They open the doors and tell the men told to take what they can carry. The distinction between army supplies and private property is lost. Officers try to restore order but the looting continues until the army abandons the town on the 21st. The burning supplies set the town on fire. The Female Institute, used as an arsenal, blows up and several city blocks burn to the ground.

The Missouri State Guard is ending. Price did everything in his power to force enlistments in the Confederate Army. In spite the pressure brought to bear, about 1,200 men leave the ranks and start the long walk home to Missouri. Fewer than 6,800 men stay to form the Missouri Brigade of the Confederate Army.

The Union Army had been active. The Confederate camp at Cross Hollow is a smoking ruin of burned buildings in a landscape of mud. However, some mills and storehouses survived, using them as a base, the Union army establishes a camp. Curtis needs to rest his men and animals while taking time to assess what happened. No one expected the extent of the rebel retreat, the men are tired and almost a thousand animals have broken down.

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