March 6, 1862 (Thursday)
Through the swirling March snow of the previous day, an Arkansas Unionist fell in with a regiment of Texas cavalry moving north on Telegraph Road. He asked them what they were doing so far north of their camps. The Confederate Army of the West, 16,000-strong, commanded by General Earl Van Dorn and composed of Missourians under Sterling Price, and (mostly) Texans under Ben McCulloch, was making good time in its advance upon what was believed to be a divided Union army.
The Texas cavalier told as much to the Arkansas Unionist, who, upon the first chance he got, high-tailed it to the tent of Union General Samuel Curtis, commanding the divided Army of the Southwest, totalling 10,500. Curtis wanted to fall back upon Little Sugar Creek, where he found a splendid defensive position. On the 5th, however, the two wings of Curtis’s army were at Cross Hollow, ten miles south, and McKissick’s Creek, five miles southwest. Upon the word of this Unionist, as well as an additional spy, Curtis ordered his army to make their stand at Little Sugar Creek.1
On the morning of this date, General Curtis arrived and ordered the bluffs above the creek to be fortified. He figured that the Rebels would be coming up Telegraph Road, and paid specific attention to the crossing. West of the Union position along the creek was Elm Springs Road, which led through Bentonville. General Franz Sigel, commanding the other wing of the army, sent most of his wing towards the main Union line, but tarried with his rear guard in town.
To the south, he could see Confederates marching on Bentonville along the Elm Springs Road. What he saw was the brigade of General James McIntosh, who believed he could bag Sigel’s command by surrounding them north of town. This plan nearly worked. Though Sigel had poked around much of the previous day and in the morning of this date, he had just slipped out of Bentonville in time. McIntosh’s men had nearly surrounded the Union rear guard, but Sigel was determined to break through and make it to General Curtis.
While most of Sigel’s troops marched back towards the main line, he deployed a heavy skirmish line and artillery to delay the Rebels. The artillery did the trick, causing the Confederates to melt away. Sigel and his rear guard rejoined his main force on the road to Little Sugar Creek.
The road, however, grew narrow, with steep bluffs on either side. As Sigel’s force, which was unable to keep its skirmishers and flankers deployed due to the terrain, picked its way through the gorge, Rebel artillery began to fire down upon it. Sigel sent a small force up the bluff, which was outlandish enough to distract and confuse the Rebels long enough for Sigel to make his escape.
Once out of the gorge, Sigel turned his artillery around and fired back on the advancing Rebels. This dispersed them and, again, Sigel was on his way. Not too long later, a separate wing of McIntosh’s Cavalry made an appearance. Sigel quickly found a solid defensive position and sent forward some cavalry to lure McIntosh towards it. The trap worked, as the Rebels stumbled blindly into the Union artillery, which sent cannister into the gray ranks. Sigel made it back to Little Sugar Creek with no further botheration from McIntosh. Though he displayed a bit of genius (or luck) upon the battlefield, it was Sigel’s own fault that he was caught in the first place.
When General Van Dorn made his appearance near dusk, he met with Generals Price and McCulloch. Both of the typically feuding officers agreed – the Union position was too solid to be broken by a frontal assault. Also, the men needed rest. McCulloch proposed to move the next morning along the Bentonville Detour Road, which would get around the right flank of the Union army. This would compel Curtis to abandon his position and probably fall back into Missouri. Price agreed, but Van Dorn did not.
He loved the idea of getting around the Union right flank, but disagreed on two parts. First, the men should move now, no matter how worn out and hungry they were. Second, since the Bentonville Detour Road connected to Telegraph Road behind the Union line, why not follow it to its terminus and cut off the Union retreat? He would bag the whole lot of them!
Van Dorn mistakenly believed that Curtis was planning to retreat anyway. In reality, Curtis was there, with his 10,500 men, to fight. Curtis, however, had no idea what Van Dorn was up to. He anticipated McCulloch’s flanking idea, but never suspected Van Dorn would move to his rear. The Confederate Army of the West would make it to Telegraph Road, behind the Union position, by dawn. The men of that army, however, were completely exhausted. In addition, when they arrived, Van Dorn decided to divide his force, sending Price down Telegraph Road, and McCulloch down a smaller road to the west. Van Dorn assured them that they would be reunited before the fighting began.2