Victory by Shot and Shell at Pea Ridge; The CSS Virginia Takes Hampton Roads

March 8, 1862 (Saturday)

Following the victory of the previous day, the Confederate Army of the West, commanded by Earl Van Dorn, was hardly ready to rest lazily upon its laurels. The Rebel soldiers were exhausted and aching with hunger, but a victory over the Union Army of the Southwest would mean feasting upon the Federal provisions. This was enough to drive men up and to their posts.

Union General Samuel Curtis, feeling that he was still too strung out, concentrated his entire army upon the Telegraph Road, aiming it at nearby Elkhorn Tavern. As dawn became morning, the Confederate artillery opened a fury upon the gathering Union army.

Two Union batteries were quickly taken out of action before the Rebel artillery turned on the Yankee infantry. Soon, two of the Union divisions were pulling back to a safer location. Seeing them falling back, Van Dorn ordered some of his men to move slowly forward to create a demonstration on the Union front. No matter whatever reason he ordered this, the Rebel line was soon exposed to enfilade fire from the Union artillery. It soon slunk back into the woods from whence it came.

This little action caused Curtis to act quickly. He had ordered General Sigel’s two divisions to be ready to assault the Confederate lines at dawn. It was now time for such a charge. Sigel quickly deployed his men, informing them that they would have to break the Confederate line or surrender to the Rebels.

As Sigel was readying his divisions, the Rebel artillery put up as lackluster a display as the infantry. Though they had fifteen batteries, they used only three. Sigel had six and used them all, and upon higher ground. Sigel himself sighted some of the pieces and selected their locations, firing upon one specific target at a time with great accuracy.

Van Dorn ordered two more batteries forward, but they were quickly dealt with, probably before either fired a shot. With the Rebel artillery more or less dispatched, Sigel focused upon the Confederate infantry, maiming men and making widows of far-away wives.

For two hours, the Union guns refused to be silent, roaring and shrieking like harridans. They fired at a rate of one shot every other second. In those 120 minutes, one Ohio battery expended 566 rounds. All throughout the ferocious barrage, Sigel had been moving men and artillery forward as the Rebels fell back.

At 10am, Curtis ordered his entire army to advance, with Sigel’s divisions in the lead. Nearly 10,000 blue-clad soldiers arrayed themselves in the open, their lines stretching for a mile in either direction.

About this time, Van Dorn was informed that his ammunition stores were five or six hours away. His artillery wouldn’t last even half that long. He would have to retreat. But how?

Before the battle, Van Dorn had chose to sneak in behind the Union line, causing Curtis to about-face his entire army to fight them. With superior numbers, Van Dorn figured this would work. By 10am on this date, however, he was quickly realizing that his Army of the West was trapped. It they were to retreat the way they advanced, via roads to the west, Curtis could simply sidestep and cut them off. It was then clear, he would take the bulk of his army east and then south, returning to their camps in the Boston Mountains beyond Fayetteville.

To escape east, the Confederate left, the eastern flank, would have to move first. This was a boon, as the Union infantry were massing on the center and right.

Around 10:30, as the Rebel left began marching away, Sigel ordered his men forward. Soon another division joined the fray. They met with stiff resistance, but the Rebels eventually gave way. Due to how Curtis attacked, hitting the Rebel right and center, the retreating Confederates were funneled towards the east and their route of escape. Curtis had no idea that the Rebel army was slipping away.

Van Dorn had wanted a fighting retreat, but what he got was a confused rout. While the men on the left had retreated in good order (mostly because they didn’t know they were retreating), the rest of the army was scattered. Some high ranking officers and much of the artillery were not even told that the army was retiring from the field. Each battery fled on their own, in whichever direction seemed best.

Curtis sent Sigel’s two divisions after the Rebels, but, still thinking of escape, rather than victory, Sigel began to lead them north towards Missouri, though Curtis ordered them to return to the field.

By nightfall, most of the Rebel army was at Van Winkle’s Mill, nearly twenty miles from the battlefield. Sigel’s troops were camped just south of Keetsville [modern day Washburn], ten miles north. The rest of the Army of the Southwest remained at Pea Ridge.

Curtis’s Union Army of the Southwest, 10,500-strong before the battle, lost 203 killed, 980 wounded and 201 missing throughout the three days of fighting. The casualties of Van Dorn’s Confederate Army of the West, probably 16,000-strong, are harder to ascertain. They probably lost 2,000 in killed, wounded and captured.1


Setting the Scene at Hampton Roads

There had been rumors that after the Confederates raised the USS Merrimack, salvaged from the burning of Gosport Navy Yard, they had turned the vessel into an ironclad, the likes of which had never been seen before. On this date, the rumors proved all too true.

She had been rechristened the CSS Virginia, her sides rebuilt with armor one to three inches thick. She carried fourteen guns, two that were salvaged from the Merrimack. She was, however, slow, only able to reach six knots. It took her a mile and forty-five minutes to simply turn around. Her engines were unreliable and her draft was about twenty-two feet. Still, on this date, around 11am, she, along with her crew of 350, shoved off from the Navy Yard and steamed towards the Union blockading fleet in Hampton Roads, ten miles down the James River. She was accompanied by five other Confederate Navy vessels.

When she reached Hampton Roads, she first engaged the USS Cumberland, a wooden, wind-powered gunboat. Though the Cumberland could throw much more iron than the Virginia, the latter’s sides could not be pierced. It was clear that the heavily gunned Union vessel was no match for the heavily armored Confederate ironclad. She went down, but as she did, the Virginia rammed her, damaging her (the Virginia‘s) bow in the process, causing a leak.

Another Union ship, the Congress, similar in size to the Cumberland, but carrying much more artillery, tried to get away, but ran aground. The Virginia slowly chuffed up to her and poured round after round into the stranded ship. Before long, the Congress surrendered. But it was too late, the Congress had been set ablaze by hotshot fired from the Virginia.

The other ships in the Union fleet had scattered to shallower water, where the Virginia could not go. Though she could do no more damage, she controlled the harbor. No ship in the Union fleet could touch her.

However, steaming down from New York was the USS Monitor, a flat, odd-looking, almost submarine ironclad, bearing only two guns in a turret that could spin 360 degrees. She did not look like much; certainly not as imposing as the hulking Rebel ship. But she was made with one purpose in mind: to destroy the CSS Virginia.

Before nightfall, the nearly-completed Monitor steamed into the docks at Fortress Monroe, ready for action the next day.2

  1. Mostly Pea Ridge by William L. Shea & Earl J. Hess was used, though Civil War on the Western Border by Jay Monaghan was looked at as well. []
  2. Thunder at Hampton Roads by A.A. Hoehling, Da Capo Press, 1976. []
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Victory by Shot and Shell at Pea Ridge; The CSS Virginia Takes Hampton Roads by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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