The Battle of Pea Ridge:

Arkansas Was the Key to Keeping Missouri in Union Hands

The Two-Day Struggle in Northwest Arkansas Between 10,000 Federal Troops and 16,000 Confederates Became a Pivotal Battle in the West

Sunday, August 31 2008 10:17   Arkansas
Pea Ridge National Military Park, just east of the small northwestern Arkansas town of the same name, not only is one of the nation's most intact Civil War battlefields, it is the site of the most pivotal battle waged in the struggle for the West.

While the North-South clash took place in Arkansas, the real focus was on Missouri, critical to both sides. For one thing, Missouri controlled the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers, and was an easy invasion route for either the North or South. Also, the Saint Louis Arsenal, with more than 60,000 muskets (and plenty of gunpowder), was a tempting target for the Confederates.

Fought on March 7-8, 1862, the battle helped keep Missouri in the Union (last month we reported on Wilson's Creek National Battlefield just outside of Springfield, Missouri) and stunted future Confederate army attempts to take control of that state.

Commanding the Confederate forces was Major General Earl Van Dorn, an impulsive, romantic West Point graduate (Class of 1842) who at the start of the war had told his wife that his goal was taking St. Louis away from the Union. His short Confederate career proved to be less than glorious.

After his failure to defeat Union forces at Pea Ridge and other engagements, Van Dorn was accused of negligence. He was acquitted of charges, but never again given the command of an army. In 1863, history notes that he was murdered by an irate husband.

Leading federal troops was Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis, who also was a West Point graduate (Class of 1831), but unlike Van Dorn quickly left the army to pursue civilian work as a lawyer, a civil engineer, and even a railroad promoter. In 1856, he was elected to Congress as a Republican.

After war broke out, Curtis rallied to the Union cause, and was given command of the Army of the Southwest on Christmas Day, 1861. His orders were pretty clear: defeat the Missouri State Guard. He and the Army of the Southwest began the campaign on Feb. 10, 1862. Curtis proved to be one of the Union's most successful generals.

A Two-Day Battle

At Pea Ridge, more than 26,000 troops came together on those two days in March-10,250 Union soldiers against 16,000 Confederates. It was the coming together of two armies that had been crossing paths and testing each other ever since Gen. Curtis began his drive into Arkansas.

The bloody result of Pea Ridge was more than 400 men killed outright, and another 1,600 who succumbed to their wounds in the following weeks and months.

After the battle, Gen. Van Dorn took his forces south to Van Buren, Arkansas then into Mississippi. Gen. Curtis rested his forces, then marched south with hopes of taking Little Rock, Arkansas. His plan was cut short, however, when Union superiors sent half his force to join the federal Army of the Tennessee. Curtis then continued fighting, but with limited engagements.

Thwarting the Confederates

The Union efforts effectively stopped Confederate plans for Missouri for a long time.

"The Confederate Army didn't go back until 1864 when Confederate Gen. Sterling Price got together a few cavalry forces and did go into Missouri, but was again thumped a couple of times by Union forces," Pea Ridge Military Park Ranger Troy Banzhaf told OldWestNewWest.Com. "In retreating back south, Price had to burn everything of his along the way."

Defeating Price at the Battle of Westport near Kansas City was the hero of Pea Ridge, Gen. Samuel R. Curtis.

After the Civil War, the area around northwestern Arkansas was left pretty much untouched by development. The blood that was shed at Pea Ridge, and the importance of the battlefield, was not forgotten.

"The idea for saving the battlefield and preserving it for future generations started with local citizens before World War II," Ranger Banzhaf explained. "After the war, the state of Arkansas began buying battlefield property."

Later, the state transferred control of the property to the federal government after Congress approved creation of a military park in 1956. It was dedicated in 1963.

Today, Pea Ridge Military Park comprises more than 4,300 acres of historically important real estate including the entire battlefield and a section of original earthworks constructed by federal forces prior to the fighting. Major additional features include a recreation of the historic Elkhorn Tavern structure (scene of much of the fighting) and original parts of the Telegraph / Military Road that was a major thoroughfare prior to the Civil War.

The Pea Ridge Visitor Center is located 100 yards from the park's entrance and visitors must stop and pay the entrance fee or show a pass.

Inside the park's Visitor Center is a museum and small theater where a 28-minute orientation film, "Thunder in the Ozarks," gives a good overview of the fighting and its significance.

The museum includes temporary exhibits about the area's archeology, a focus on General Curtis and two Union officers who fought at the battle. During the summer, the park has a variety of living history programs.

Because the battlefield is preserved much in its original condition, there are few amenities. The only restroom facilities in the park are located in the visitor center.

The park includes a seven-mile self-guided tour road with 10 stops at key battlefield locations. The park property also includes nine miles of horse trails (you have to bring your own horse) and seven miles of hiking trails. Visitors are cautioned, however, to watch out for pigmy rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and timber rattlesnakes.

Pea Ridge Military Park, like its neighbor, Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, doesn't get a lot of visitors. Park statistics show that in 2005 around 60,000 persons visited the battlefield.

But Pea Ridge-also like its neighbor-was a crucial Civil War battle in the West, and for anyone interested in the Union-Confederate struggle for the West, should be visited.


Pea Ridge National Military Park

15930 Highway 62
Garfield, Arkansas 72732

(479) 451-8122

Operating Hours and Seasons:
The park is open year round 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The park is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day and in severe weather conditions. The park now has extended summers hours on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The park hours for those days through Labor Day weekend is 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The visitor center will still close at 5 p.m., but the rest of the park is open for all.


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