Pea Ridge — A Pen of Fire

Bloody fighting was hand-to-hand here at Elkhorn Tavern on March 7, 1862. The Pea Ridge National Military Park is located in Garfield, Arkansas, not far from the campus of University of Arkansas. Photo by Chris Heisey

Long after many other national military parks were established in the country to preserve hallowed grounds where great battles occurred in the Civil War, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill establishing Pea Ridge National Military Park on July 20, 1956. Some 4,000 acres of pristine battlefield located in remote northwestern Arkansas now were protected after nearly 45 years of efforts to save this core battlefield where on March 6-8, 1862, the largest battle west of the Mississippi River occurred.

The battle was fought in unseasonably cold conditions with snow patches and frozen ground hampering army movements on both sides. The battle was a decisive Union victory occurring just a month after the Confederate disasters at Fort Henry and Donaldson in Tennessee and a month prior to the routing defeat at Shiloh, Tennessee. This string of decisive defeats left large swaths of Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas in Union control for the entire war.

The battle also was the only major engagement of the war in which Native Americans fought. Most of those fighters were Cherokees who sided with the Confederates since their native lands were just miles west in the Oklahoma Territories. That a small number of Cherokees scalped Union wounded during the battle soon after becoming sensationalized news in Northern papers is also an enduring legacy of this battle.

Some of the fiercest fighting took place around Elkhorn Tavern, which was burned after the battle and was rebuilt in 1885 and stands today as a witness to some of the Civil War’s bloodiest combat.

Jacob Platt, an officer in the 9th Iowa penned in his memoir that “I charged the battlements of Vicksburg… and assisted in driving the Confederates from their almost impregnable position on Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, but in all my army experience I did not see any fighting compared with the open field conflict that occurred in and around the Elkhorn Tavern on March 7, 1862.” In a visit to the battlefield in 1904, the aging veteran said, “Those terrible scenes and incidents are written on the pages of my memory as though graven with the pen of fire.”

William Shea and Earl Hess’s Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West published in 1992 remains the most thorough battle study of this oft overlooked campaign in the Trans-Mississippi Theater.

3 Responses to Pea Ridge — A Pen of Fire

  1. In trying to keep history alive, I have two novels that are involved in this intense battle. Highly accurate in many details of the battle and precursor, it is still a novel. Splintered is award-winning.

  2. Had the good fortune to visit Pea Ridge NMP a few years ago and found it to be one of the most complete and pristine battlefields in America. And further research confirmed that “driving the Rebels out of Southwest Missouri” is the reason why Pea Ridge was fought… in Arkansas. And there is more to the Pea Ridge story…
    Following on Union victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, the Rebels abandoned the Gibraltar of the West (Columbus Kentucky). Major General Henry Halleck, commander of the Department of Missouri who authorized the operations against Henry and Donelson, and benefited from Fort Columbus falling into his lap, was elevated to command of the Department of the Mississippi, effective 11 March 1862. News of the victory at Pea Ridge back East only acted to justify Halleck’s promotion.
    Upon his arrival in the Western Theatre, Henry Halleck established four goals: 1) secure his base; 2) drive the Rebels out of Missouri; 3) open the Mississippi River from the north; and 4) defeat the Rebels in the West in one crushing blow in southern Tennessee/ northern Mississippi. Halleck’s predecessor, John Fremont, went a long way towards “securing the base at St. Louis.” Halleck completed the job. Next, finding Fort Columbus too strong to be attacked directly, Halleck authorized operations to the east, up the Tennessee River, that “turned” Fort Columbus. With Samuel Curtis’s operation to drive the Rebels out of southwest Missouri underway, Halleck sent John Pope and his Army of the Mississippi southeast, through a 40-mile swamp, to threaten New Madrid from the rear. Flag-Officer Foote and his gunboats, mortars and observation balloon attacked Island No.10 from the north. Meanwhile, U.S. Grant was amassing an Army at Pittsburg Landing that would be put to use AFTER the capitulation of Island No.10; and Henry Halleck would personally lead that rebellion-ending Army. Major General Grant benefited from the Victory at Pea Ridge: troops no longer needed by Samuel Curtis to help drive Rebels out of Missouri were sent to Grant, instead.
    Such was the plan, with three out of four goals accomplished.

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