|View single post by David White|
|Posted: Wed Oct 15th, 2008 06:29 pm||
Started early that day, because it was a 20 minute drive back to the park and I decided I wanted to see Curtis’ Sugar Creek defenses before heading to the primary park. It was raining as I got out of my vehicle at the site located on a portion of the still 19th Century looking Wire Road, i.e. dirt and gravel.
As background, since I keep referring to the Wire Road, I thought I would explain its history. Most probably know why the road is called the Wire or Telegraph Road but for those who may not, the telegraph wires were strung along the road from Jefferson City to Ft. Smith, Arkansas. The road approximated a trail made by the Osage Indians before the white man’s arrival and ultimately parts of it were incorporated into the famous Route 66. The telegraph line evidently was never up on poles but the wire was wrapped around bushes, stakes and trees. The Butterfield Stage line used the Wire Road as the beginning of its transcontinental stage route. Just before the war from 1857 to 1861; a person, if they timed it right, could travel from Jefferson City, MO to Los Angeles or San Diego, California (approximately 2800 miles) in 25 days.
The Sugar Creek Defense line is part of the Pea Ridge Park but is not part of the official tour, it should be. Nothing explains better than this site the whys and hows that caused the Pea Ridge Campaign to develop. It is south of the park Visitor’s Center by about 4 miles and one must cross Highway 60 and head down the gravel Wire Road to get to it. The bleak day made it easy to think about the Federal troops who hastily dug a trench line on the crest of the embankment overlooking Sugar Creek, on several cold winter’s days in early March 1862. The site is quite picturesque with the beautiful creek flowing through a gorge with high embankments on either side of the creek. No one in their right mind would attack down that gorge and up the other side against dug in forces. If I had to compare this site to another one on another Civil War park, it would be like attacking at Stedman’s Approach at Vicksburg except the slope is a slippery rocky face. No wonder Van Dorn was planning such an audacious envelopment and why Curtis was contentedly facing south waiting for the Confederates arrival at his impregnable position. It is quite a climb to the top of the bluff overlooking Sugar Creek but there is ample evidence of the quickly dug entrenchments still there.
After twenty minutes here, the Visitor Center was opening up, so I drove up the original Wire Road to the park. The Visitor Center movie is like the Wilson’s Creek one, an updated and excellent film. The truly wonderful things they have in the Visitor’s Center are Andy Thomas’ paintings of the Trans-Mississippi battles including all of his Pea Ridge scenes. I’ve seen his paintings on the back of Civil War magazines and always thought they were pretty good but those pictures don’t do the full sized paintings justice, they really are very good. When I actually viewed the battlefield, the NPS has incorporated the paintings into their interpretive markers at the sites where the Thomas’ scenes took place, an excellent and attractive concept. The hour I was in the Visitor’s Center it poured rain outside, but as I left, the skies were merely overcast.
After my speedy trip through the tour road the day before, I had an idea of what was coming but I took it at the speed of my Harley friend from the day before and except for a local couple who were looking for sassafras and some fellow Texicans from Fort Worth, I had the place to myself. The first two stops are the supply and command centers for the Federal army. Pratt’s Store, Curtis’ headquarters is the first. My tour book indicated that the real site is unknown but that it was in the vicinity, probably off the park land and in the middle of Highway 60. There is a stone foundation at the site, implying it is Pratt’s Store, but nothing identifying it as that. I wondered why it was there, if it is not historic. The site interprets Curtis’ utter surprise that the Confederates were in his rear. History seems to give Curtis a pass on this surprise and I wondered why his cavalry was not engaged more properly to keep him from being surprised. But the mistakes of the victor seem to get overlooked for the most part. The second site, is the town of Leetown; it is half mile hike to the site. The NPS is clearing the site of trees and fencing off the area of the town but supposedly the only thing remaining is a gravestone of a child, I looked for it but it is off in the thick woods beyond the NPS fencing, so I was unable to find it. The town was the Federal supply depot and the site of most of the hospitals after the battle.
The tour then takes you in reverse chronological order to the sites of what the park refers to as the Leetown Battlefield. It was on these fields that it dawned on me what Van Dorn should have done. As terrain background, recall Van Dorn’s intention was to take his army all the way around the Federal Army and get on Curtis rear on the Wire Road in the vicinity of Elkhorn Tavern. But the army was famished, having difficulties moving on the rough roads that weren’t the Wire Road and the ammunition wagons were not keeping up. In fact, his army was stringing out due to all of the above conditions. Price’s MSG led the way and McCullough’s Division was behind. The head of Price’s men were approaching the jump off point, but McCullough’s Division was still miles behind. So Van Dorn modified the plan on the fly and had McCullough advance to the battlefield via the Ford Road. This split his forces and caused the imposing Elkhorn or Pea Ridge to separate his two divisions. The original plan was way too ambitious and the modification violated several principles of warfare including mass, unity of command and simplicity. All Van Dorn had going for him now was the principle of surprise and as the Civil War showed time and time again, that principle, while very effective, is fleeting. I came to the conclusion that what Van Dorn should have done was send his entire army in mass down the Ford Road. The march is shorter and eventually enfiladed the rear of Curtis’ Army, after rampaging through Curtis' command and supply area. A much more simple and effective attack, than coming down on Curtis’ rear from the Elkhorn Tavern.
So with that strategy interlude, back to the tour, the third stop takes you to the final battles of the so-called Leetown battlefield. The stop is at the Federal side of the final line. As you look toward the Confederate lines, on the left is Oberson’s Field and to the right is Morgan’s Woods. Beyond the Oberson’s Field is the wood lot where McCullough and McIntosh were killed by skirmishers within a few minutes of each other. My tour book indicated the exact sites are unknown, although at one time the site of McCullough’s death was known, until someone destroyed the marker on the site years ago. The tour book indicated McCullough was probably killed off the park land and across highway 72 that goes nearby. I noted with irony that McCullough had had a 26 year and one day reprieve from the death he almost had at the Alamo. The death of McCullough and McIntosh practically ended the fighting of the Leetown battle as the succeeding leadership apparently exerted none afterwards. For the most part, McCullough’s Division remained inert with the exception of Hebert’s Arkansans and Louisianans that ended the fighting on this part of the battlefield in the thick Morgan’s Woods. McCullough was less than half a mile from the Federal supply depot when his attack stalled. A trail takes you back into Morgan’s Woods and one may see how far Hebert got and it explains how he and his staff were almost captured in the melee in the woods that puts one easily in mind of the Wilderness in Virginia.
The next stop is where the Leetown Battle began, where the Ford Road crossed between a feature call Round Top (sort of looks like the famous one too) and Pea Ridge. Here on the other side of the woods, where McCullough was killed, sat the Foster Farm. It was across the fields of this farm that McCullough cut loose his Texas and Indian Cavalry forces to drive the Federals from their initial positions around farm. It was in this charge that my Great-Great Uncle probably saw the elephant for the first time and I had to wonder if he was a witness to what many call the first atrocity of the Civil War; the scalping of dead and wounded Federals lying near the Foster home. While at this stop, the sun came out and all hints of rain were gone for the rest of my Pea Ridge stay.
The next two stops are associated with Elkhorn Ridge or Mountain or Pea Ridge depending on which name you prefer. The first stop has an excellent view of the very rough Boston Mountains in the distance, through which Van Dorn advanced to the battlefield. Later that day I drove them and it is tough going in a 21st century vehicle through the winding mountain roads, let alone on foot or with mule drawn wagons. The stop on Pea Ridge itself is the east overlook and what a view it is. From a covered pavilion the wind just whipped up the Ridge and must have been blowing nearly 40 mph, it made it tough to read my tour book that described the Federal bombardment of the ridge on the second day of the battle. The only troops occupying this magnificent high ground were the men in Stand Waite’s Indian regiment. The Federal artillery played hell with them too. From this vantage point one could see the entire battlefield, McCullough’s positions near the Ford Road, Round Top and the Wire Road. You could not see Elkhorn Tavern and the Huntsville Road but on the second day of the battle the Federals were not there, but rather in full view of this splendid position. I’m sure Van Dorn and his men were exhausted after the first day but if he had gotten just a battery of artillery up here and more of his men, Curtis and his men would have been in for a rough March 8.
The next stop was Elkhorn Tavern which I had seen the previous day but since I ran the last 1.5 miles of the historic trail, I decided to walk back to the point where the trail met the Huntsville Road so I could read and see the things I ran past the night before. Where the trail meets the Huntsville Road is where Pap Price’s left pushed down the road on top of the plateau toward the tavern. Price’s men pushed the Federals back to the tavern through the Clemens’ Farm. It was in the fields of their farm that Pap Price was shot in the arm. The foundation of the farm is still there and the experiences of the family are described. Price outflanked the Federals in the woods on the edge of the Clemens’ Field by attacking their left, going around the farmhouse. This turned the Federal postion and forced them back to the tavern at the junction of the Wire and Huntsville Roads. Across the tour road from the tavern are the only three monuments on the battlefield. All three were placed by the respective side’s veterans organizations. The third and final monument was the most impressive and is a reconciliation monument put up jointly by the GAR and CVs.
The next stop is a half a mile down the Wire Road form the tavern and it is where the first day ended and the second day began for the Confederates. On the left side of the tour road is described how the MSG’s attack was stymied in the near dark by Federal artillery as they charged into the open field there. The loads of double canister ended the day's fighting. The Federal artillery withdrew in the dark and the MSG occupied the woodlot they vacated. The next day, an artillery barrage under the supervision of Franz Sigel pounded the Confederate line here until a general Federal advance followed two hours later and accompanied by a general Confederate retreat. If you go here, don’t just stay by the road, walk west to the end of the fence line as a minimum. As you reach the end of the fence, look hard right and you will see Pea Ridge and what a formidable position it would have been had Van Dorn occupied it in force. To the left front you will see a small knoll in the middle of the Cox Farm field called Welfley’s Knoll. It was from this knoll that most of the Federal artillery massed for the second day bombardment of the Confederate lines. I wish I had time to walk the quarter of a mile plus to the knoll, but I was running out of time.
The final stop is close to Wefley Knoll but still a ways from it and discusses the role of the Federal artillery and in particular the story of Franz Sigel that day. Turns out it was probably his most triumphant day of the war and also his most embarrassing. He oversaw the placement and firing of artillery but at some point in the attack toward Elkhorn Tavern on the second day, when victory was already won, he heard a rumor that the army was surrounded again and he galloped past the tavern north on the Wire Road to try and evade capture. Curtis finally had to send someone to stop him and bring him back to the victorious army near Elkhorn Tavern.
Next stop was Prairie Grove, as I drove through the Boston Mountains the rains really cut loose. It was still pouring rain as I pulled into the parking lot at the museum at Prairie Grove. Much of the battlefield is now taken over by the town of the same name, but much of the field on the Confederate right was preserved by the Confederate Veterans. not necessarily because of the battleground, but as a reunion ground. This park is operated by the state of Arkansas and I must say they have done a very good job. The museum is pretty simple with a dated but adequate introductory film. The lone lady running the museum is very friendly and helpful. Due to the now wet conditions and based on the fact my tour book told me I would not miss anything of historical significance, I reluctantly declined to do the one mile walking tour of the eastern battlefield.
Now I will take this opportunity to provide my critique of the audio tours offered by Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove. At the two National Parks, the CD is offered for sale in the gift shops for a standardly high price of $15. The Wilson’s Creek one is 45 minutes and is pretty good. It talks to you more than just at the tour stops but does tell you to shut it off at times. It has some first hand accounts of the battle too. The Pea Ridge audio is the same $15 but is only 30 minutes long and except for one of two places only speaks to events at the tour stops, so you shut it off until you get to the tour stop. About 10 minutes of that CD is talk of flora and fauna. Now I’m not opposed to flora and fauna but that is not why I got the tour audio. So in reality you only get 20 minute of Civil War talk and no first hand accounts. Now to describe the best $4 I spent on the trip. The Prairie Grove audio is nearly an hour long and will play continuously on your auto tour and syncs up nicely if you drive the speed limit, if they don’t have anything to say, they play nice homespun music in the style of Bobby Horton. It is chock full of eyewitness accounts too. During one large gap between two tour stops, they play the Prairie Grove song from Cathy Barton and Dave Para’s two CDs on the music of the trans-Mississippi Civil War (these two albums were also the soundtrack for my trip and are great CDs if you don’t have them). Since they talked over the intro of the song, they even had a final track of the entire song unblemished by talking. If you go to Prairie Grove, definitely get their audio, Wilson’ Creek you might get too, but skip Pea Ridge-- just my opinion.
The driving tour is a 14 stop tour, other than numbered signs, the park is not really interpreted with much signage, which makes the audio tour that much more important as the brochure is adequate and well-written but lacking in the details we Civil War aficionados crave. The first stop is across the street from the museum. This marks the center of the Confederate defensive positions on a very commanding ridge that overlooks, yet again, the Wire Road and the open fields it traversed. The position was selected by General Francis Shoup. To set the scene for the battle, Thomas Hindman the overall Confederate commander was trying to destroy the Federal forces in detail, starting with Herron’s Division coming from Fayetteville and then he planned to turn on Blunt’s Division to the west near Rhea’s Mill. So with those objectives, it’s a mystery why he took a defensive posture and waited for Herron, but Herron obliged.
The first stop includes several monuments put up by the veterans when this was a reunion grounds, so it is not so relative to the battle. Also at the stop are several Civil War buildings that were moved to the park to preserve them, including the Morrow House which had been moved from several miles south of the park but it was important to the Prairie Grove and Pea Ridge Campaigns. The left front room of the house served as Hindman’s and Price’s and Van Dorn’s headquarters just days before their respective campaigns. Later that evening I drove passed the original site for the home again located on an origianl part of the Wire Road. The walking tour of the east battlefield begins here also.
The primary landmark on the east battlefield is the Borden House and orchard, which are both well-preserved. The fighting here is depicted in yet another one of Andy Thomas’ great paintings and is easily the place where most of the casualties occurred, in Arkansas’ bloodiest battle. Herron made two separate assaults on the ridge, attacking into the yard of the Borden House and its bloody apple orchard. On the far Confederate right along the fence of the orchard, the cavalry of my personal hero, Jo Shelby, helped drive the Federals back, along with Quantrill’s band fighting, for probably there only time, as regular troops (although Quantrill was not with them at this battle). The tour moves down the ridge into the Borden cornfield where the Union attacks originated and where the first casualties fell. From there, it goes to the far right of Herron’s position. As Herron’s men lost the initiative and began preparing to face Confederate counterattacks at this place down the ridge from the museum, Blunt’s Division signaled its arrival on the battlefield, by firing artillery at the Confederate’s on the ridge.
The last four stops of the tour are in the town itself. They take you to an overlook where you may see the field where the Confederates attacked the arriving Blunt but were repulsed and where Blunt set up his artillery to bombard the Confederate defenses. It also goes to the Morton House site; the extreme left of the Confederate line, and the Prairie Grove Baptist Church, where Hindman had his HQ and that served as a hospital after the battle. The current church was built after the war and the original log structure is gone. The rain was still pouring down as I headed off to Ft. Smith, Arkansas. For the last two nights of my trip, I decided to live it up at a very nice Bed and Breakfast in Ft. Smith called Beland Manor.
To be Continued…
Last edited on Wed Oct 15th, 2008 07:00 pm by David White