Civil War Profiles — A Civil War trip of a lifetime: Part 5

Date Published: 
Feb. 9, 2018

As our Civil War adventure continued, after leaving Wilson Creek National Military Park near Republic, Mo., we drove southwest for 35 miles just over the state line to Benton County in the northwest corner of Arkansas. Here in the Ozark Mountains, another battle took place, on March 7 and 8, 1862, to determine whether Union or Confederate forces would control of the state of Missouri.


The battle the Northerners named Pea Ridge and the Southerners labeled Elkhorn Tavern occurred after a shakeup of the command structure of both sides. In the interim following the Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek, Brig. Gen. Samuel Curtis took control of Union troops in Missouri, and gradually pushed Confederate forces southward out of the state.

Command conflicts among the Confederates eventually led to Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn assuming control of about a 16,000-man force. When Van Dorn moved to retake control of Missouri, he found 10,500 troops dug in on the bluffs overlooking Sugar Creek near Pea Ridge.

Although the Rebels had the advantage in numbers, they lacked sufficient rations to feed their troops. In addition, they had a 55-mile march in a wet, driving snow in order to reach the Union position.

On the first day of the battle, March 7, fighting claimed the lives of two Confederate generals, Benjamin McCulloch and James McIntosh, and caused the Rebel troops to scatter. When Curtis attacked the next morning near Elkhorn Tavern, the Confederates were able to hold for a time before withdrawing when their ammunition began to run short.

In effect, this was the last notable battle fought west of the Mississippi during the Civil War, and it became known as one that saved Missouri for the Union. Like Wilson’s Creek, essentially the entire battlefield is enclosed within the park boundaries.

The visitor center featured a film describing the fighting and another that narrated a presentation about battlefield artifacts. The auto tour had 10 stops with one more (Little Sugar Creek trenches) nearby that had descriptive displays.

The battlefield at Pea Ridge, similar to Wilson’s Creek, is best described as pristine, with only two monuments competing for attention — as opposed to better-known battlefields with a multitude of memorials. Despite vegetation changes over the years, there is good visibility across the fields where the Confederates first launched an attack.

This force included three Cherokee Indian regiments that overwhelmed Union cavalry. They helped capture three cannons they termed “shooting wagons.”

Two overlooks on opposite sides provide commanding views that aid in understanding the battle as it unfolded. Certain terrain features are reminiscent of Gettysburg, including a hill named Round Top and a rocky area not unlike Devil’s Den.

A reconstructed Elkhorn Tavern is open to the public. A park ranger at the tavern displayed a soldier’s personal equipment and described the action that took place in the vicinity.

Close by runs the Old Stage Coach Road that was part of the first overland mail route from St. Louis to San Francisco. Also, the Huntsville Road was the route the Confederate rear guard retreated from the battle.

One of the monuments, topped by an angel figure, is dedicated to troops from the North and South who fought and died. At the base are two hands clasped, one labeled The Blue and the other The Gray, with an inscription that concludes:

Over the dead the living bend

And up to their God their voices send

That in Liberty’s crown or Eternity’s day

He may place as fair Jewels

The Blue and the Gray

Before leaving Pea Ridge National Military Park, I purchased a number of publications from the gift shop, including “Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West” by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess.

With the October 1995 weather remaining in the pleasant 70-degree range throughout the trip, we continued by heading out of the mountains of Arkansas and east back across the Mississippi River into Tennessee.

Next, we would visit the location of the first major battle of the Civil War fought around Shiloh Methodist Church near a place called Pittsburg Landing. It was here the forces of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant were pitted against those of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.