The Battle of Pea Ridge Begins: March 7, 1862

Battle of Pea Ridge illustration
Public Domain

The Battle of Pea Ridge began on this date in 1862. The conflict, also known as the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern, was a significant engagement during the American Civil War, taking place from March 7 to 8, 1862, in Benton County, Arkansas, just south of the Missouri border. This battle marked one of the largest conflicts fought west of the Mississippi River and played a crucial role in determining control of Missouri and the trans-Mississippi region.

In early 1862, Union forces under the command of Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis advanced into Arkansas, aiming to secure Missouri for the Union and disrupt Confederate efforts in the region. Curtis’s Army of the Southwest, numbering around 10,500 men, moved into Arkansas and established a position at Pea Ridge.

Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn, seeking to counter the Union advance and reclaim Missouri, took command of a combined force of about 16,000 troops, including regular Confederate soldiers, Missouri State Guard units, and Native American fighters from the Cherokee and other tribes. Van Dorn launched a surprise attack on March 7, aiming to cut off Curtis’s supply line and encircle the Union army.

The battle began with fierce fighting on the northern flank, where Union forces held off Confederate assaults near Elkhorn Tavern. Meanwhile, on the southern flank, Union troops managed to repulse Confederate attacks and maintain their positions. Despite initial Confederate gains, the Union forces successfully regrouped and counterattacked.

By March 8, the tide had turned in favor of the Union army. Curtis launched a coordinated assault, pushing back the Confederate forces. Van Dorn, faced with supply shortages and heavy casualties, ordered a retreat. The Union victory at Pea Ridge effectively secured Missouri for the North and bolstered Union control of the trans-Mississippi region.

The Battle of Pea Ridge was notable for its strategic significance and the diverse composition of the Confederate forces, which included a significant number of Native American troops. The famous gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok also fought at the battle on the Union side. The battle demonstrated the Union’s growing strength in the West and marked a key step in the campaign to control the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy. This was not the last that would be heard of the Missouri State Guard, however. Sterling Price would lead them on a doomed campaign back into the state in 1864.