October 29, 2018
The Visitor Center
This was yet another excellent National Park Visitor Center. The movie was very good and gave a nice overview of the battle. As battles go, this one was fairly straightforward. The exhibits were well done and informative. Two of the exhibits were electronic relief maps whose audio narrated the flow of the battle.
Other displays offered reasons why some Missourians chose to fight for the South and other to fight for the North.
One thing I did not know was that there was no standard arrangement of the stars on the United States flag. Here are two variations of a 33-star flag. (The Union did not recognize the secession of the southern states so no stars were removed.)
The battle of Pea Ridge, also known as Elkhorn Tavern, won by Union troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, played a pivotal role in keeping Missouri in the Union. But a Union victory was hardly assured.
Gen. Curtis knew the Confederates were heading his way, expecting them to arrive from the south. So he had his men prepare entrenchments along the north bank of Little Sugar Creek.
The Confederate commander, Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn became aware of this and decided to swing his entire army in a wide arc around the Union position. His plan was to move fast and gather his army behind the enemy. His plan was to gather his forces at Elkhorn Tavern and attack the Federals from the rear.
But three days of hard, grueling marches in miserably cold weather sapped the strength of his forces. Some had fallen so far behind that Gen. Van Dorn altered his plan. Elkhorn Mountain ran west to east just south of the route his army was supposed to take and several miles north of the Union’s Little Sugar Creek line. Gen. Van Dorn ordered Brig. Gen. McCulloch, whose troops lagged behind, to pass down the western end of Elkhorn Mountain and take an east-west road running just south of the mountain to Elkhorn Tavern. Gen. Van Dorn’s troops would continue their march and meet up with McCulloch’s forces at the tavern.
As luck or fate would have it, a small Federal cavalry detachment commanded by Col. Osterhaus detected Gen. McCulloch’s forces as they marched around the western end of Elkhorn Mountain. These troops plus a few artillery pieces shocked the Confederate troops. During this phase of the fight, both Gen. McCulloch and Gen. McIntosh were killed. Although the now leaderless Confederate troops pushed the Union troops back, they remained where they were.
This action alerted Gen. Curtis that the enemy was in his rear and his army was facing the wrong way! He sent some of his troops toward Elkhorn Tavern to protect his supply base. These forces held off Gen. Van Dorn’s troops long enough for the Union supply wagons to escape to safety.
The Confederates’ three day forced march was made without any supplies other than what could be carried by the men or in the artillery caissons. Had those supplies fallen into Gen. Van Dorn’s hands, the outcome may have been very different.
By nightfall, Gen. McCulloch’s men had rejoined Gen. Van Dorn’s at Elkhorn Tavern. Gen. Curtis had repositioned his men so they were now facing in the right direction.
Although outnumbered, Gen. Curtis ordered his entire army to attack immediately after a furious artillery barrage orchestrated by Brig. Gen. Franz Sigel. For over two hours twenty-one cannon fired thousands of shot and shell at the Confederate lines. The barrage had the desired effect, to demoralize the enemy. Afterward, 10,000 Federals, forming a line a mile wide, advanced toward the Confederate lines around Elkhorn Tavern. The Confederate lines broke and they retreated, leaving the field in Union hands.
The seven mile tour had 10 stops. Unlike the Wilson’s Creek tour, this one did not have an audio tour phone number to call.
Our first stop had nothing to do with the battle but related to the Trail of Tears. (We have encountered several portions of the Trail of Tears on our travels.) A vert short walk led us to a depression in the ground that was a very small part of the Trail of Tears.
Another stop led us on a short trek to an open field where a small town had been during the battle. Unfortunately I need more than a sign telling me that something had been here and didn’t really add to my understanding of what happened here.
The next two stops overlooked still active farm fields with large rolls of hay (I think) scattered about. These two stops marked the location of the first engagements between the Union cavalry and Gen. McCulloch’s men. It’s at places like this that I can visualize men moving forward in line of battle, hear the rattle of musketry, the boom of artillery, and feel the screams and shouts of the wounded and dying.
We stopped at two overlooks on Elkhorn Mountain. The West Overlook was completely blocked by trees so there really wasn’t anything to see. But the East Overlook on the east side of Elkhorn Mountain offered a spectacular view of most of the battlefield although Elkhorn Tavern was blocked by trees to our left.
One of the final stops was Elkhorn Tavern. We were disappointed that the tavern was surrounded by a chain link fence. Construction trailers were scattered about the site. The tavern was undergoing restoration. I took some pictures but… I can’t really complain because the park was doing what they need to do to maintain and improve the park.
Near the tavern are two monuments, one to commemorate the Confederates who fought and died here and one to commemorate soldiers from both sides.