March 7, 1862 (Friday)
All through the cold and snowy night, Confederate campfires, orange and flickering, dotted the hillside across from Little Sugar Creek, near Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Though they burned to their front, the Rebel Army of the West was actually moving around the right flank to the rear of the Union Army of the Southwest. General Earl Van Dorn, commanding the Confederates, had marched his army fifty-five miles in three days. They were out of rations and exhausted. Though they outnumbered their Union counterparts 16,000 to 10,500, they were in no condition to fight.
They were also in no condition to be divided, but that is what Van Dorn did. He sent one wing, under General Sterling Price, down the Telegraph Road to the Union left wing near Elkhorn Tavern, and Ben McCulloch down another road to hit the Union right near Leetown. McCulloch’s men had to backtrack, but Van Dorn assured them that the army would be reunited as they fought.
When dawn drew, cold and cloudless, Union commander, General Samuel Curtis, saw that the campfires had been a starry decoy. Van Dorn’s Rebel army was gone. Curtis was quick to take in the situation and ordered his army to about-face and take new positions to the north. Van Dorn wished for his army to move quick, like cavalry, but this was not possible. The delay (or more accurately, the actual time it took for an army of 16,000 to be properly maneuvered into position) gave Curtis the time he needed to ready his men.
On the Union right, which was now the Union left, General Sigel’s men were probing around Leetown for the Rebels under McCulloch. What they found were Indians under General Pike, decked out in battle dress. When they spotted the Union troops, they burst forward firing guns, shooting bow and arrows and brandishing tomahawks. The Union left crumbled.
To the east, General Price launched his attack, first skirmishing with Union pickets north of Elk Tavern. The Federals led the Rebels south, falling back along Telegraph Road to a defensive position in a hollow. The Union right was strong, but not strong enough to withstand the horde of screaming Rebel Missourians Price was throwing at them.
The commanders on both the Union right and left sent pleas to Curtis for reinforcements. Seeing the Union left reeling and utterly confused by the Indians, McCulloch wanted to launch another attack aimed at the center of the line, from where reinforcement would be drawn. For this to work, he would need to secure his right, held by Pike’s Indians. But, being flushed with victory and not fully appreciating Napoleonic warfare, they were as uncontrollable in victory as they would have been in defeat.
His attack became more of a strong advance. The brash and tough Rebel, who had proved his mettle on many battlefields, moved forward with his skirmishers. They moved, clad in butternut, through the gray brush. Their commander, McCulloch, rode on horseback, dressed in an unusually garish black velvet suit with sky-blue trousers. He was an easy mark for the hidden Union pickets, who fired a volley as crisp and cold as the air. He died instantly, a bullet through his heart. His skirmishers, ducking for cover, did not even realize their leader had fallen.
Though the excitement and color was on the Confederate right, Van Dorn’s real objective lay east, along the Telegraph Road, with General Price and the Confederate left at Elk Tavern. Curtis had pulled men from the center to reinforce his left, leaving his right vulnerable to Price’s attack, which came with vigor, but had been beaten back.
Momentarily victorious, it was clear that the Union right could not hold against another Rebel attack. A lull fell and then Price’s artillery exploded along the Union right, destroying batteries and rattling the worn out Yankees. When Price deployed his men in the growing twilight, the Union left fell back.
As night fell, the Union Army of the Southwest had been compacted and was barely holding on. The Rebels to the north were, in places, so close that the Federals could hear their muttered conversations. At a council of war, General Curtis realized he was in trouble. The Rebels held Pea Ridge and Elkhorn Tavern. With the Confederates to the north cutting off his supply line, there was no way out but to slash their way out. Curtis knew that McCulloch was dead and that the Indians were probably disorganized. In truth, many of the Indians, under Colonel Drew, had already started back for Indian Territory [modern day Oklahoma] and would soon be defecting to the Union cause.
Van Dorn and his Rebels were victorious, but at such a dear cost. Generals McCulloch and McIntosh were both dead. The Indians not directly under Stand Watie, were leaving, and the other key officers were wounded or taken prisoner. Van Dorn ordered the remaining Indians to hold Pea Ridge and await the dawn.1
The Confederate Army of the Potomac, commanded by General Joe Johnston, had occupied the old battlefield at Manassas since the battle, and had crept northward, occupying Centreville, since then. More recently, however, Johnston began to believe that he was too close to Washington and too close to General George McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac.
Johnston had met with President Jefferson Davis and, though they both understood different time lines for a withdraw, they both knew that it was inevitable. While Davis wanted to hold off on the pullback until the Union army was ready to assault, Johnston wanted to do it almost immediately.
Two days prior, on the 5th, Rebel cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, had noticed the Union army, 120,000-strong, stirring across the Potomac. After reporting to Johnston, it was concluded that McClellan was moving into position to launch his spring campaign. Sending no word to President Davis, he ordered his entire army to abandon their positions at Centreville for new defenses across the Rappahannock River. By March 9th, Centreville and Manassas would be completely behind them. By the 11th, Johnston’s Army would all have crossed the Rappahannock. Two days later, he would finally tell President Davis.2
On this day, the Union Army of the Potomac was not moving. There were no definite plans for it to move. McClellan was still working on his Peninsula plan, and while President Lincoln wished for a push towards Manassas, it wasn’t looking like he was going to get one.
General Philip Kearny, however, was moving. He had received word from his scouts that Johnston was pulling back. Without orders, he ordered his entire brigade forward, giving them six days rations and seventy rounds of ammunition. Following the railroad towards Manassas, they marched fourteen miles to Burke’s Station, roughly six miles east of Centreville. They would reach the former Rebel town on the 10th, only to find it empty.3
- I used three sources here. Mostly, I was compelled to use Civil War on the Western Border by Jay Monaghan. It’s a good book, but states that Wild Bill Hickcock was Curtis’ messenger and scout. That’s simply not true. Also, Pea Ridge by William L. Shea & Earl J. Hess was used for finer detail. For information about the Indians (which I wish I could cover in greater detail), I used The American Indian as Slaveholder and Secessionist by Annie Heloise Abel, as well as General Stand Watie’s Confederate Indians by Frank Cunningham. [↩]
- Joseph E. Johnston; A Civil War Biography by Craig. L. Symonds. This is also scantly told in Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p524-536; 1092-1095. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p537-549. Also, Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. I really wish that I could give this the time it deserves. There is a lot going on this week in the Civil War and a lot of it affects a wide variety of other things. I’ll do my best to cover it all. [↩]