While the bulk of the Civil War was taking place east of the Mississippi River, there was fighting occurring west of the river for control of the west. Both the Union and Confederacy knew that if they could control Missouri, it would give them a major advantage for the western part of the nation and the battle for Missouri was heating up.
On August 10, 1861, Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, commander of the Army of the West, attacked the forces of Confederate Gen. Ben McCulloch at Wilson’s Creek, located about 12 miles southwest of Springfield, Missouri. Lyon was killed and Major Samuel D. Sturgis took command of the Union forces. As the battle continued, Sturgis realized that ammunition was running low and his troops were exhausted, so he ordered a retreat to Springfield. The Confederate victory inspired southern sympathizers in Missouri, making many believe that the Show Me state would soon belong to the Confederacy.
In February, 1862, newly appointed commander of the Union Army of the Southwest, General Samuel Curtis led a 10,000 -12,000-man army south from Springfield with the intentions of driving the Confederates out of southern Missouri. By March 6, Gen. Curtis marched his forces into Arkansas and took up a position Little Sugar Creek in Benton County.
As Curtis advanced south, Confederate General Sterling Price ordered his 8,000 troops to retreat south to Arkansas. Curtis marched his Union troops south in pursuit of Price and the Confederate forces.
Arriving in northern Arkansas, Gen. Price meets up with Gen. McCulloch. In the meantime, Confederate General Earl Van Dorn assumed the command of the Military District of the Trans-Mississippi and the Army of the West, after two other generals had turned the position down. When Price and McCulloch joined forces, their combined armies of about 14,000 troops were placed under the command of Van Dorn, who made it known that he wanted to drive the Union back north into Missouri and take the city of St. Louis.
On March 7, Gen. Van Dorn, divided his forces. Gen. McCulloch took part of the forces to attack Gen. Curtis from the west in the area of Leetown. The Union forces, who were outnumbered and out gunned stood their ground. McCulloch and his second in command Gen. James McIntosh were killed early on. Col. Louis Hebert assumed command but his efforts soon failed and the Confederate force fractured and fell apart.
Gen. Sterling Price took the other part of Van Dorn’s forces and moved around to the north to attach Gen. Curtis’s troops on Pea Ridge from the rear. However, Curtis received word of the plan in time to position a sizeable portion of the Union troops to counter the attack.
The rest of March 7 saw fierce battling in the areas of Pea Ridge, Elkhorn Tavern and Ruddick’s Field. However, the fighting ceased as night came. Both sides were planning the strategies for the next day. Van Dorn was determined to use his larger forces to drive Curtis back into Missouri and Curtis was determined to stand his ground and prevent Van Dorn from ever reaching the state line.
Very early the next morning, some of the Union troops were sent to survey some farmland to the west. They found a hill from which they could position their cannons and fire down upon the Confederate troops. They hastily moved 21 cannons to the hill.
At 8:00am in the morning of March 8, the Union cannons opened fire on the Confederate troops, driving them back. Then they turned the cannons towards the Confederate artillery.
About an hour and half later, Curtis’s troops were poised to attack. As the attack began, Van Dorn found out that his supplies and ammunition was running low and that his reserves and supplies were still six hours to the south. The realization of his situation led Van Dorn to start retreating to the south. By noon on March 8, the Confederates had left the 4,000-acre battlefield, ending the day and a half of fighting.
Known as the Battle of Pea Ridge or the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern, it was a huge victory for the Union forces. It drove the Confederate forces out of Missouri and secured the state for the Union. It also paved the way for the Union to gain control of the northern Mississippi River.
Many historians believe that if Van Dorn had his supplies and reserves at hand that he would have easily defeated Curtis and marched straight north to St. Louis. Missouri would have been in Confederate control as would control of all shipping on the Mississippi river from Missouri to New Orleans. A Confederate victory at Pea Ridge could have drastically turned the Civil War in favor of the Confederacy and either prolonged the war of even led to a southern victory.
Gen. Curtis continued his campaign south, taking the city of Helena, Arkansas in July.
The casualties were high on both sides. The Union forces suffered 203, dead, 980 wounded and 201 missing. The Confederates suffered nearly 2,000 dead and wounded.
Sources for the above include: Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern), Arkansas; The Battle That Saved Missouri For The Union; The Battle of Pea Ridge; The Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern); American Civil War: Battle of Pea Ridge; The Battle of Pea Ridge – Pea Ridge, Arkansas; The Battle of Wilson’s Creek