Generally, battles are fought over some geographic thing someone wants: a river crossing, a city, a peninsula, a mountain pass. Few battles are fought literally in the middle of nowhere. But in early 1862, the United States had this problem called the Confederacy. The Confederate States believed that they could just leave the Union at any time. Most of the people in the United States objected to this idea, so there was this war….
In a nutshell, that’s pretty much how folks west of the Mississippi addressed their Civil War. In Missouri, where slavery was technically legal but deeply unpopular in some parts, the conflict had taken on a life of its own, and had even before the Secession. Missouri sent regiments to fight under both the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars, and whole families were at war with others. Neighboring Arkansas, however, wasn’t quite so divisive. Admitted to the Union in 1836 as a slave state, she left the Union in May of 1861, after Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion. A quarter of Arkansas’ population was slaves: she could hardly do any other.
The war in the west (generally referred to as anything west of the Appalachians) began at a place called Wilson’s Creek near Springfield on 10 August 1862, a bloody affair between a 5,400 man Union force and a 12,000 strong Confederate force primarily of the Missouri State Guard. In a morning-long slaughter-fest the Confederates and Federals were both exhausted, but the casualties were about equal. The barely-trained armies both withdrew. At Lexington in September, the Confederates also fought the Federals to a standstill, but once again withdrew because their ammunition was critically low.
The pattern of major western battles was set: the Confederates may have outnumbered the Federals, but there was no way to defeat the Federals decisively without reliable logistics. The most reliable supply lines were the rivers. The Federals dominated the major waterways. A plus B equals…it didn’t matter who won on land, because the Federals would be resupplied, ranks refilled, and back on the battlefield before the Confederates could.
By early 1862, a 10,500 man Union army under Samuel R. Curtis was in Benton County, Arkansas in the northwest corner of the state. The Confederates under Earl Van Dorn commanding the 16,000 man Army of the West, decided to outflank Curtis. But Curtis was a better general than that (at least, he had better intelligence) and on 6 March 1862 turned to meet Van Dorn at Pea Ridge near a small village called Elkhorn Tavern. On 7 March, a firefight ensued (technically a meeting engagement since both sides were on the move and neither expected contact). Even though outnumbered, the Federals logistics ensured that they had more ammunition. Bone-chilling weather hampered the fighting on 8 March but Price counterattacked and managed to capture Van Dorn’s supply train. On 9 March, the long retreat began for the Confederates as the army disintegrated. Another backhanded attempt to distract the Federals from their Mississippi Valley campaign was over.
The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War discusses Pea Ridge and other lonely and long-forgotten fights in the West during the spring of 1862. Available in paper back and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.