Monday, March 05, 2007

Northwest Arkansas (1862)

Dates: 7 March to 8 December, 1862


Union: Major General Samuel Curtis

Confederate: Major General Earl Van Dorn

In response to the Federal seizure of Springfield, MO on 23 February, 1862, Confederate forces under General Sterling Price were forced to withdraw into Arkansas. Within that state, Price was able to reform his troops under a new command headed by Van Dorn. There was an initial friction between Price and another confederate General, Ben McCullough, until Van Dorn assumed command on 2 March, 1862.

Van Dorn was a West Point graduate (1842) who distinguished himself in both the Mexican War and operations against Native-Americans in what is now Oklahoma. He resigned his commission as a cavalry major when Mississippi seceded, he initially served as a general officer in the Mississippi State Troops. He entered Confederate service as a Colonel and briefly commanded the Department of Texas. As a Brigadier General, he held divisional commands in the Army of the Potomac (Confederate) and the Department of Northern Virginia before being sent to the west as Commander, Department of the Trans-Mississippi. He leads a force of 16,500.

On the Union side, Curtis was ordered by the Federal commander in the West, Major General Henry Halleck to pursue the Confederates into Arkansas.

Curtis graduated from West Point in 1831 but resigned after one year to take up civil engineering. During the Mexican War, he served as Colonel of the 3rd Ohio Militia. Afterwards he lived in Iowa and worked as a lawyer and civil engineer. When the Civil War broke out, Curtis left his seat in Congress and helped raise troops for the Union. After a brief period as Colonel of the 2nd Iowa, he was made Brigadier General of Volunteers and held command in the Army of Southwest Missouri, and the Department of the Missouri. He leads 10,000 men south to Arkansas, having to detail 12,000 more to keep the supply lines secure.

4 March, 1862: Van Dorn decides to take the initiative as he receives reinforcements in the form on a division made up of Cherokees and Creeks. With a force of 20,000, and outnumbering the Federals, the Confederates march into Northern Arkansas as ice storms rage through the region.

5 March 1862: Van Dorn’s troops are spotted by pickets of Brigadier General Franz Sigel’s division. He orders a pull back to the north to avoid getting captures and to report this to Curtis. Sigel loses 200 wagons in the process.

With the conditions for favorable to marching, Van Dorn begins to lose troops as they fall out. Still, he does not want to bring about an engagement too soon. His troops are marched up the Bentonville & Keetsville Road to the north, then cut south and his the Federals from the rear.

6 March, 1864: Sigel manages to reach Curtis’ positions along Sugar Creek, south of Leetown. Curtis decides to shift his forces north and meet the threat from Van Dorn. There is some skirmishing as the two sides probe each other’s positions. By that evening, the confederates were along some high ground known as Pea Ridge.

7 March, 1862: Battle of Pea Ridge: Van Dorn launches a massive assault on the Union lines. He takes advantage of the close brush and that many of his troops are carrying shotguns, idea for close in fighting. Curtis continues to shift his forced in order to meet the evolving situation. The Federals fight a holding action on their left flank, northwest of Leetown. The Confederates manage to anchor their left flank on a crossroads known as Elkhorn Tavern. Sigel’s troops are sent to that area.

On the Federal left, the line is pushed back, but they soon reform and launch an assault of their own, during which McCullough is killed and his troops fall back. Any further attacks are halted by darkness.

8 March, 1862: Curtis concentrates his forces at Elkhorn Tavern and began the day with heavy cannon bombardment. After two hours this is followed by an assault that drives the Confederates from the field, sealing Union victory.

The battle cost Curtis 1270 causalities while Van Dorn lost nearly 2000.

The Battle of Pea Ridge was the latest in a series of Union victories that started with the twin victories at Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. The main effect of this was that while there will still be engagements in Missouri, any attempt to drive the Federals from that state would have to be put on hold.

As 1862 progressed, resources were being diverted on both sides to the ongoing campaigns along the Mississippi river. Van Dorn was ordered to march reinforcements to Mississippi. In his place, Major General Thomas Hindman was authorized to raise an army. He manages to call 11,000 to the colors. His target was to be a Federal force at Fayetteville led by Brigadier General James Blunt. Blunt’s 7000 soldiers was about to be reinforced by another 3000 under Brigadier General Francis Herron and Hindman wanted to prevent that from happening.

5 December, 1862: Hindman has gathered his force together and starts marching north from Van Buren to Fayetteville. He is reinforced by another small group under Brigadier General John Marmaduke, boosting his numbers to about 15,000. Marmaduke was just defeated at Cane Hill the week before. This battle had Blunt in one area and Herron in another. Hindman was stronger than either of the two groups and wanted to exploit that advantage.
7 December, 1862: Battle of Prairie Grove: Herron reached Fayetteville and begins to press on to Cane Hill in order to link up with Blunt. In the war are Hindman’s Confederates. Herron orders his artillery into action, hoping that the sound will alert Blunt. Herron then orders an assault on the Confederate right. By 2:00 p.m. Blunt arrives and immediately attacks Hindman’s left. Night fall stops the battle but the Federals ready themselves for another push.

Hindman decides he has had enough and orders a pull back to the south during the early morning hours the next day. The battle ends in a draw but the Federals had the advantage. Causalities for Hindman were 1350 while Blunt and Herron lost 1148.

The Battle of Prairie Grove cements the Union hold on Northern Arkansas and allows the Union to concentrate on securing the Mississippi River for the North.

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