The Battle of Pea Ridge was one of the last major battles west of the Mississippi, and the Union victory there ensured that Missouri would remain part of the Union. The battlefield itself is well maintained, and has a number of nice features that visitors can appreciate.
Less than a year after the Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek, Union forces under General Samuel Curtis marched southwest out of St. Louis for a re-match. Awaiting them were many of the same men who had beaten them the year before. However, the victorious commanders of Wilson’s Creek, Sterling Price and Benjamin McCulloch, had quarreled amongst themselves, and in doing so had ended up squandering the fruits of their victory. To resolve the problem, a new commander had been appointed by the authorities in Richmond, General Earl Van Dorn.
Curtis led an army 10,000 strong but soon discovered that Van Dorn had been reinforced to around 16,000 men. Unlike his slain predecessor Nathaniel Lyon, Curtis chose not to attack with a smaller force, and instead setup an entrenched line along Little Sugar Creek. Van Dorn declined to attack Curtis’ fortifications, and instead tried to get around behind him and pin the Union army against the creek. Hoping that speed and surprise would be more important than food, ammunition, and medicine, Van Dorn left behind his slow supply wagons and force marched his men rapidly to get behind Curtis in the dark . In order to minimize the friction between the feuding McCulloch and Price, Van Dorn split his force in half, leaving McCulloch behind to attack Curtis from the northwest, while he travelled with Price and the other half of his army to cut off the Union escape on the road past Elkhorn Tavern.
Curtis was warned by McCulloch’s premature attack, however, and was able to concentrate three quarters of his army against McCulloch while leaving the remainder to fight a holding action against Van Dorn and Price. The death of McCulloch broke his half of the army, allowing Curtis to reinforce the men at Elkhorn Tavern. The fighting ended at nightfall, and during that time Curtis brought all of his army together just south of Elkhorn Tavern. When dawn broke, his whole army fell upon the half of Van Dorn’s that remained. The Union troops had been resupplied with ammunition and had fed well over night, while the Confederate troops found themselves low on ammo and with only what ever food they carried with them to feed them. Outnumbered, hungry, and then subjected to a furious artillery barrage that the empty Confederate cannons couldn’t replay to, Van Dorn’s army shattered when the Union troops charged them. The battle of Pea Ridge came to an end as the demoralized Confederates fled in every direction, leaving Missouri firmly in Union hands, where it would remain for the rest of the war. The battle was a bloody one in absolute terms, though by the standards of the Civil War it was quite modest, as there were ‘only’ three to four thousand casualties on both sides combined.
Today, the Pea Ridge National Battlefield is known as one of the better preserved of the Civil War battlefields. It recently underwent an upgrade in the visitor’s center facilities, giving it one of the video rooms with accompanying movie about the battle that has become standard in most Civil War battlefields. Though the original Elkhorn Tavern was burned to the ground less than a year after the battle, a new building was built on its foundations in 1865, and that building has been renovated since to resemble the original building.
As with most Civil War battlefields, the park has a road that winds around the major highlights, with large signboards that detail what happened at each stop. Highlights include the view from the Overlook that gives you a view of most of the battlefield. Food and accommodations are available in nearby Bentonville, Arkansas.
While the Visitor’s center may be visited for free, the rest of the park costs $5.00 per person to enter. $10 will get an entire carload of visitors in, and of course the usual $20 Pea Ridge Annual Pass and $80 National Park Pass are available as well. Finally, we remind you that the $10 Lifetime Senior Pass which gives an American citizen aged 62 and over and those accompanying him or her entry to all National Parks is the best deal available.
Map to Pea Ridge National Battlefield.