Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Battle of Pea Ridge by James R. Knight


The Battle of Pea Ridge
The Battle of Pea Ridge is James Knight’s latest addition to The History Press’ Civil War Sesquicentennial Series.  Knight’s narrative traces the war in the Ozarks from 1861 to the battle at Pea Ridge on March 7-8, 1862. 

The book presents the battle in north western Arkansas between the Confederate Army of the West commanded by General Earl Van Dorn and the Union Army of the Southwest led by General Samuel R. Curtis.  “The Pea Ridge Campaign pitted a young, dashing and aggressive cavalryman and Indian fighter against an older engineer and administrator --- both of them fighting their first major engagement.”

Union forces had driven General Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard out of Missouri and into camps in Fayetteville and Strickler’s station.  In spring of 1862 Curtis moved his approximately 10,250 Union soldiers and 50 artillery pieces into Benton County, Arkansas, along a small stream called Sugar Creek. Curtis found an excellent defensive position on the north side of the creek and proceeded to fortify it and for an expected Confederate assault from the south.

Earl Van Dorn
Major General Van Dorn had been appointed overall commander of the Trans-Mississippi District to moderate a conflict between competing generals Sterling Price of Missouri and Benjamin McCulloch of Texas.  Van Dorn’s force was approximately 16,000 men, including 800 Cherokee Indian troops, Price's Missouri State Guard, Texas Rangers, and Confederate infantry from Arkansas and Louisiana.  Van Dorn was aware of the Union movements into Arkansas and was intent on destroying Curtis's Army and reopening the gateway into Missouri.

On the night of March 6, Van Dorn divided his army into columns and advanced north with plans to outflank the Union position near Pea Ridge.  When Curtis learned that the Confederates were approaching, he moved his army north on March 7 to meet the attack.

Aided by Hal Jespersen’s excellent maps, Knight guides us effortlessly around the battlefield.  We begin with the first contact at 3:00 am on March 7 on Telegraph Road.  Van Dorn decides to divide his army with Van Dorn and Price on the Bentonville Detour and McCullough moving along Ford Road.  Then, as Knight explains, the battle “becomes two separate battles, fought about two miles apart --- one around Elkhorn Tavern and the other just north of the 3 follow small hamlet of Leetown.”  At Elkhorn Tavern, Colonel Asa Carr manages to hold off the superior Confederate forces. 

Ben McCulloch
Meanwhile at Leetown Colonel Peter Osterhaus faces Ben McCulloch’s entire division on Oberson’s Field.  The odds were in the Confederate’s favor with 7,000 troops to 1,000 Union soldiers. These odds would soon be changed when McCulloch and Brig. Gen. James McQueen McIntosh were killed and Col. Hebert, the next in command was captured.  The leaderless Rebel forces stopped their attack.

At Elkhorn Tavern, Van Dorn was having success and by nightfall, the Confederates controlled the Tavern and Telegraph Road.
Samuel Curtis
On March 8, Curtis’s regrouped and consolidated army, counterattacked near the tavern and, by successfully employing his artillery, slowly forced the Rebels back. Running short of ammunition, Van Dorn abandoned the battlefield and retreated to Van Buren, Arkansas.

Knight concludes that “Samuel Curtis’s victory at Pea Ridge ensured Federal control of Arkansas, north of river, and the entire state of Missouri for the rest of the war --- more than eighty-five thousand square miles.
This is a fine overview of the Battle of Pea Ridge.  The book flows smoothly from one portion of the battlefield to another.  Jespersen’s maps support Knight’s narrative and greatly add to understanding the events of March 7-8, 1862.  No one should visit Pea Ridge without reading Knight’s guide to the battle.

James R. Knight is a graduate of Harding University.  He spent five years as a pilot in the United States Air Force and thirty-one years as a pilot for Federal Express.  Knight lives in Franklin, TN and works part-time as a historical interpreter for the Battle of Franklin Trust.  He is the author of The Battle of Franklin and TheBattle of Fort Donelson.
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