Pea Ridge Union fortifications

"Digging In"


Andy Thomas

March 6, 1862. A Union army commanded by General Samuel Curtis has advanced through Missouri and across the Arkansas border. His mission is to wrest control of the region from Confederate forces, who have owned it since the Union debacle at Wilson's Creek near Springfield, Missouri the previous August. Needing supplies and reinforcements to continue, he halts about 10 miles northeast of present-day Rogers, AR and establishes a strong defensive position on a bluff overlooking Little Sugar Creek. This sets the stage for the Battle of Pea Ridge, fought in bitter cold weather on March 7-8, 1862. It was one of the few battles of the Civil War where the Confederates outnumbered the Union. Despite that advantage, the hard fought battle was a decisive Union win and gave the North control of Missouri and northwestern Arkansas. This important strategic victory received little attention, overshadowed by the duel between the Monitor and the Merrimack in the harbor at Norfolk, VA on March 9. Even today, it is largely unknown. Designated a National Military Park in 1956, Pea Ridge is one of the best preserved battlefields in the country and also one of the least visited.

Finding the Civil War

The Civil War is a cornerstone of our American identity and always will be. More than a century and a half after ending, it continues to fascinate people, not just here but around the world. Stories and images are told and re-told, analyzed and written about even today. Battlefield preservation efforts by all levels of government and the private sector have never been stronger. Despite all that, there is a huge segment of the Civil War which is almost unknown.

For many, if not most, the Civil War was the one in the Eastern Theater - Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Gettysburg, Manassas, Antietam, Grant, Lee, Stonewall. Many books, movies and documentaries could lead one to conclude that that's where all the action was. How many people know that there were pitched battles in New Mexico and Arizona before Grant and Lee ever took command in the East? Or that one of the few Union victories in the first year of the war was Pensacola, FL? Or that in Minnesota the biggest Indian war in our history was raging while 2nd Manassas and Antietam were fought? There are many battles, campaigns and entire theaters of the war which are overshadowed by events in the East but were just as hard fought and strategically important. Of those, none labor more in obscurity than the Trans-Mississippi Theater.

So What's the Plan?

On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States. He inherited a real mess with open rebellion and secession. Seven states had already left the United States and formed their own country - the Confederate States of America (CSA), with Richmond, VA as their capital. Four more states would join them shortly along with territories in the west. Two states - Missouri and Kentucky - were sitting on the fence. On April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter, a Union harbor fortification in Charleston, SC. The fort surrendered after a 34 hour bombardment. That was the opening salvo of the Civil War. Two days later, President Lincoln addressed the grave situation. He didn't mince words. He declared the new CSA an insurrection against the laws of the United States that could not be resolved in the courts. He gave the seceding states 20 days to "retire peacefully" or he would do it by force. It has to be the toughest decision ever made by a President. In addition to calling for an army of almost 100,000 men, he ordered plans developed to put down the rebellion and restore the Republic.

Nobody in the North thought the war would last very long. Military and civilians alike were convinced that it would be settled in one big battle followed by the capture of Richmond. That course of action was set into motion on July 21, 1861 at the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run). In this horrific battle in front of hundreds of spectators who came to watch the show, thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded, with the Confederate forces winning the day. That ended the hopes for a short war.

The Federals and the Confederates were confronted by two completely opposite strategic scenarios. To quell the rebellion, Union forces had to conquer and occupy the entire Confederacy along with defeating their armies in detail. Then they had to govern that area until such time as it transitioned back into the United States - whenever that might be. The Confederates had a much simpler situation. All they had to do was not lose. Pick your fights. No need to occupy northern territory. Draw blood at every chance. Get foreign recognition at some point. Stay in the fight. Drag it out as long as necessary. Eventually, the American government will come to the negotiating table. It's a template for rebellion that has worked for centuries and might have worked here had it not been for the courage and tenacity of Abraham Lincoln.

Map of Confederacy

The Confederacy was enormous - fully 1/2 of the territory of the future continental United States. It stretched from the east coast to Yuma, AZ. Early in the war, they made a play for southern California but lost. The states of Missouri and Kentucky, while in the Union, had strong support for the south among its citizens. Right down the middle was the Mississippi River. Both sides recognized the strategic importance of the "Big Muddy" and fought hard to control it.

The public, the press, the Union Generals and President Lincoln himself wanted a clear and convincing victory over the South and they wanted it quickly. Their solution was total war carried across the Confederacy. Lesser options, such as the Anaconda Plan or a quick thrust to Richmond, were rejected. Total war included complete control of the Mississippi River. In April 1862, the Union Navy under Captain David Farragut captured New Orleans at the mouth of the MIssissippi and the busiest commercial port in the Confederacy. Farragut tried to push his gunboats upriver multiple times but was blocked by the fortress city of Vicksburg, MS. It would have to be taken with landside attacks. That would be the job of Ulyssess Grant and his Army of the Tennessee. Before taking on Vicksburg, he won major victories at Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Corinth. Lincoln's stubborn fighting General finally arrived at Vicksburg in May of 1863 and lay seige to it.

The Trans-Mississippi Theater

To control a river, you have to own both sides of it and control access from major tributaries. New Orleans was shut down and Grant had the east side of the river covered. The requirement to take control of the west bank of the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans was the genesis of the Trans-Mississippi Theater. It encompassed the states of Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Later in the war Texas and western Louisiana became Trans-Mississippi battlegrounds. Three major tributaries of the Mississippi River flowed west to east through the area - the Missouri, Arkansas and Red Rivers. In addition to the waterways, the states of the Trans-Mississippi had an abundance of materials needed to sustain a war - crops, minerals, hundreds of thousands of horses, mules and cattle and manpower. Logistics and war materiel were identified early as Confederate weak spots, which the Union planned to fully disrupt. The South was equally determined to keep them.

The Union Trans-Mississippi Theater was unique in a couple of ways. It had no overall commander or units assigned to it. For instance, the Western Theater had the Army of the Tennessee assigned to it with U.S. Grant in overall command. There were no such assignments or relationships in the Trans-Mississippi. It was a pick up team of various units commanded by whatever unknown General happened to be in the area. The biggest difference though was in the type of warfare that was waged here. Tensions and hostilities over slavery had been mounting for almost a decade. Since 1854, Kansas (a free state) and Missouri (a slave state) had waged a vicious guerrilla war against each other. Kansas had their "jayhawkers" and Missouri had their "bushwhackers". Murder, torture, arson, robbery, lynching and more were routine. This cauldron of violence became known as "Bleeding Kansas". When real war broke out here, it was more of the same. The level of violence and brutality in the Trans-Mississippi Theater was unmatched anywhere else in the Civil War.


Map of Missouri Civil War battles

Missouri was a battleground for the entire Civil War. Its resources (coal, iron ore and lead), location and access to waterways along with the passionate beliefs of both sides kept the North and the South fighting over it again and again until the bitter end. There was also major fighting in neighboring states Kansas and Arkansas, down in Louisiana and even over in Oklahoma (then the Indian Territories). The entire Trans-Mississippi Theater was a cauldron of violence, hate and death before, during and after the Civil War. For at least two decades - the 1850's and 1860's - there was no more dangerous place in America than Missouri, especially along its border with Kansas. Despite all that, the Trans-Mississippi Theater was always a sideshow to the big war back east. Historically, it has been almost ignored. The National Park Service and the Trans-Mississippi states have devoted significant resources to the preservation of these Civil War sites. They are some of the best to be found anywhere. Some of them look like they did a century and a half ago. The Battle of Pea Ridge National Military Park in Arkansas is the best preserved Civil War battlefield in the country. All of it is prime real estate for cruising back roads and exploring away from the crowds.

Action in the Trans-Mississippi started early. One of the Union priorities in the first days of the war was to secure the state of Missouri in the Union camp. Missouri was a deeply divided border slave state with a secessionist governor. Positioned in the center of the country along the Mississippi River, it was on the edge of both Union and Confederate territory and could be a jumping off point for an attack on either. But the biggest prize in Missouri was St. Louis. A busy inland port, it stood at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. It also housed a lightly guarded federal arsenal with 40,000 rifles ready to go. Fortunately, the city had a large population of German immigrants and was staunchly pro-Union. Lincoln's War Department dispatched several companies of Army regulars under Captain Nathaniel Lyon to bolster its defenses. Lyon recruited another four regiments of Missourians and armed them with the latest weapons from the arsenal. St. Louis remained firmly in Union hands for the entire war. However, the status of Missouri was still a question that had to be resolved - by force, if necessary - and it was.

The amount of fighting that took place in Missouri is staggering. It was consistently one of the hottest spots throughout the war. The official U.S. Army Register for 1861 lists 157 battles fought. Sixty-six of them were in Missouri. During the course of the war, there were over 1,000 separate engagements in Missouri. Only Virginia and Tennessee had more. Those numbers don't reflect the ambushes, raids, vendettas and other mayhem that had been ongoing since 1854. General Joe Shelby, "Bloody Bill" Anderson, William Quantrill, Jesse and Frank James, the Younger Brothers and many more carried out a reign of terror against anything or anybody connected to the Union. Federal guerrilla hunters and "red legs" scoured the countryside looking for southern sympathizers. In the 1860 census, Missouri was the 8th most populous state, with a little over a million people. By the end of the Civil War, 1/3 of them had been killed or displaced. ** Historical footnote: The town of Carthage in southwest Missouri is a prime example of this. In 1860, it was a bustling town of almost 7,000 people. By the end of the war, there were less than 100 and the entire town had been burned to the ground. Although many were killed, most of the people fled the violence and waited out the war somewhere else. Southern supporters went to Arkansas and Texas. Union supporters went to Fort Scott, Kansas. **

As the Union consolidated their position at St Louis, Confederate supporters across Missouri recruited forces to fight for control of the state. Their secessionist Governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, formed a state militia he called the Missouri State Guard. Although Southern supporters, they were not part of the Confederate Army. However, they did fight side-by-side with Confederate regulars and were often led by Confederate officers. The Governor assigned Major General Sterling Price as the commander of the State Guard. The fight for Missouri was on.

Battle of Booneville - June 17, 1861

Nathaniel Lyon was a man on a mission. An 1841 West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War, his previous posting was at Fort Riley, KS. From there, he got a first hand look at "Bleeding Kansas" and the ongoing guerrilla war on the KS/MO border. He was a staunch abolitionist and took it personally that anyone would bear arms against the United States. After securing the St. Louis Arsenal and beefing up his forces, he entered into negotiations with the current secessionist government. Eventually, an agreement was reached that the state would remain neutral but would fight on the Union side if the Confederates moved on Missouri. Shortly after, Lyon discovered that during the negotiations, the Missouri State Guard had encamped just a few miles from the arsenal and been reinforced with seige artillery. He interpreted this as a sign they were going to attack the arsenal and secede from the Union. To him, that was tantamount to a declaration of war. He moved quickly to quell the uprising by force. He surrounded and captured the entire force and confiscated their equipment. For his actions, he was promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of the Union Missouri forces.

On June 12, 1861, Lyon loaded two regiments and an artillery battery on to three steamboats and headed up the Missouri River to Jefferson City, the state capital. He intended to scatter the State Guard, disband the secessionist government and install one that supported the Union. He succeeded in all three.

Battles of the Trans-Mississippi

This map gives a great visual summary of the actions in Missouri in the first year of the war. It closely follows the page narrative. There were many more smaller ones - too numerous to show on a simple map. During the course of the war, over 1,000 engagements were recorded in Missouri. Only Virginia and Tennessee had more. Regular Confederate forces - the Army of the West, based in Arkansas - fought in only two of the mapped engagements - Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge. Everything else was Missouri State Guard under Major General Sterling Price. These were some of the only battles in the Civil War where the South outnumbered the North. That advantage didn't last long. After Pea Ridge, the Union heavily reinforced their presence in the theater with regular troops and frontline equipment like repeating rifles. Price's force had no answer for it. After Pea Ridge, it would be over two years before the State Guard took to the field again and they would be just as poorly trained and equipped. They had no chance against the Union war machine.

Arriving in Jefferson City on June 15, Lyon learned that Governor Jackson, Major General Price and the State Guard intended to fight. They had moved 50 miles upriver to more defensible terrain at Booneville. Leaving behind 200 troops at Jefferson City, he went after them. On June 17, 1861, the first infantry fight of the Civil War took place at Booneville, MO. It was only about a 30 minute skirmish with light casualties on both sides. The State Guard quit the fight and bugged out heading for the relative safety of the southwest corner of the state. Governor Jackson and Major General Price were on their way too.

Although it didn't amount to much tactically, the Battle of Booneville was a major strategic victory. With the Governor gone and the State Guard dispersed, the Missouri State Convention convened in Jefferson City in July. They installed pro-Union State Supreme Court Justice Hamilton Gamble as the new Governor. This ended secessionist government in Missouri and placed it firmly in the Union camp. It also secured the northern 1/3 of the state and the Missouri River for the Union. As a Union state, they began recruiting troops to support the war effort. By the end of the war, Missouri had mustered in over 400 regiments.

Both Sides Get OJT (On the Job Training)

While Lyon was moving to Booneville, another Union column was moving from St. Louis towards the southwest part of the state. Lyon envisioned a giant pincer movement crushing the Missouri militia and ending the ground war in the state in one bold strike. Led by Colonel Franz Sigel, their mission was to cut off the retreating state guard making their way south from Booneville. There was no way of knowing when, where or even if they would show up but Lyon wanted to be ready. Sigel headed for Springfield, a pro-union city right in the middle of the southwest portion of the state and a little over 200 miles from St. Louis. The first half of the movement was by rail. The line ended at Rolla and from there, it was 100 miles to Springfield. Marching in searing heat and humidity, along lousy roads under constant torrential rains, they covered the distance in eight days, arriving on June 23.

The next two weeks were utter chaos across the state. Lyon was stuck in Booneville and Jefferson City, a victim of his own failure to plan for campaign logistics and the foul weather. Multiple streams of State Guardsmen made their way southwest. Along the way, they recruited heavily and gathered in larger groups as officers tried to organize and train them on the run. Reconnaissance was non-existent for both sides. Almost all information came from local citizens, rumors and the occasional dispatch. The State Guard forces were trading precious space for time all the while expecting the aggressive Lyon to swoop down on them at any moment. While worrying about that, they were completely unaware that a well-armed federal force was already to their south and aggressively looking for them.

The federals also had big problems. Nobody knew where Lyon was or what he was doing. His vision of crushing the Missouri Guard in a hammer and anvil pincer movement was fading fast. Colonel Sigel, who was supposed to be the anvil, left Springfield on July 1 to seek out the enemy on his own. He had no cavalry, so scouting was done by marching his force from place to place. For three days and nights, they marched and counter-marched through heat, rain, swollen streams and muddy roads to Mount Vernon, Nevada, Neosho and other dots on the map where the enemy was "supposed to be". Finally, on July 4, they marched into the town of Carthage and collapsed in a field next to Carter Springs on the outskirts of town.

Battle of Carthage - July 5, 1861

Battle of Carthage

"Crossing Buck Branch"


Andy Thomas

One of the toughest tasks in ground combat is to disengage while in close contact with the enemy. Even tougher is breaking out of an encirclement. Sigel's force had to do both at Buck's Branch, while crossing a water obstacle no less. Contemporary artist Andy Thomas vividly depicts Sigel's retreating force at the most critical moment of the battle. At Buck's Branch, Confederate cavalry managed to get around Sigel's flanks and surround him as he approached the water. Fighting dismounted, the cavalry troopers formed a line on the far side of the water. One of Sigel's battalion commanders led a bayonet charge across the stream. The inexperienced and poorly led Confederate troops quickly gave way and rode off, opening Sigel's escape route. You can see a wagon being pushed up the muddy bank. Sigel had 32 of them. Beyond the wagon, a cannon is being loaded. This could have easily turned into an every-man-for-himself bug out, leaving all their weapons, equipment, supplies and wounded behind. Instead, the outnumbered Union force fought their way out in tight groups with artillery shooting in all directions. Sigel didn't get his game changing victory, but his fighting retrograde was masterful.

Enemy contact was made accidentally later that night. Union pickets traded fire with a State Guard foraging party that had entered the town looking for supplies. Governor Jackson, who was still commanding the Guard, was stunned at the development - federal forces of unknown disposition firmly astride their route of retreat and another force bearing down on them from the north (or so they thought). This was not where or how he hoped to fight but he had no choice. They would attack the Union force at first light.

The Union troops were up moving at daybreak also. Both sides were convinced that this would be the battle that decided the fate of Missouri. The two forces had 18 miles between them and were moving forward in a classic meeting engagement, not quite knowing where the other was. Nine miles north of the town, the Guard stopped and formed a line on a defensible ridgeline overlooking open fields through which the Union would have to pass. At 0900 Sigel's force broke out of the thickly wooded and flooded lowlands into the fields and got their first good look at the force they had been chasing. The enemy line facing them stretched for a mile across their front.

Sigel was vastly outnumberd, facing over 5,000 guardsmen with his force of 1,200. However, the state militia were poorly trained and poorly armed. Many of them acted liked spectators, breaking ranks to get a view of the enemy. Jackson's men were armed with a mixed bag of old flintlocks, shotguns and pitchforks. Two thousand of the five thousand weren't armed at all and constituted an "unarmed reserve". Sigel's men were well trained and well armed with rifles that could hit targets almost 1,000 yards away. Likewise he had better artillery and better gun crews. Besides, Jackson's men had shown no fighting ability thus far. Sigel, eager for that game-changing victory, didn't hesitate. At 0930 he halted his line 800 yards from the enemy and opened fire with artillery and rifles. The State Guard battle line responded in kind.

Sigel soon realized his mistake. Peering through breaks in the black powder smoke that blanketed the fields, he saw the ends of the Confederate line begin to wrap around his, threatening an encirclement. Jackson's State Guard may have been poorly armed, trained and organized, but they had sheer numbers on their side and were highly motivated. They also had cavalry that constantly threatened Sigel's retreating force from the flanks and rear. Sigel spent the rest of the day fighting out of one near encirclement after another. He kept the cavalry at bay by leapfrogging his artillery back and firing volleys from temporary holding positions. It wasn't until late in the battle that Sigel realized that many of the "cavalry" had no sabres and few guns. Much of it was the unarmed reserve riding pell mell around the battlefield. It's hard to say if that was intentional or not, but it turned out to be an effective ruse.

Fighting in Carthage

"Battle of Carthage"


Andy Thomas

It took 10 hours of continuous fighting to cover the nine miles back to Carthage, where Sigel figured he'd be safe. He wasn't. The State Guard came into the town after him, first with artillery then with infantry. Cavalry units went around the town to cut off his escape routes. At the end, Sigel's rear guard was fighting at point blank range in downtown Carthage, shooting volleys across the town square at twilight. This covered Sigel as he conducted yet another fighting retrograde east out of town with the enemy snapping at his rear and flanks. As he had been doing all day, Sigel once again outfought and eluded his pursuers. Artist Andy Thomas tells that story magnificently in his painting of that fight. It's seriously one of the coolest Civil War prints I've ever seen. The full-size original is spectacular. It's mounted on the wall at the Carthage Civil War Museum. You feel like you could almost jump right into the action.

The battle lasted all day and beyond. The State Guard didn't let up but they couldn't muster enough concentrated combat power to move in for the kill. Sigel was on the run until darkness fell. It was a disciplined, fighting retreat, bringing out everybody and everything including the entire pack train of 30 wagons and all of his artillery. Exhaustion on both sides and darkness finally ended the battle. Sigel's effective use of terrain and artillery combined with the Guard's inability to mount a finishing blow saved the Union from a disastrous defeat.

Now What?

After finally breaking contact well after dark, Sigel's force headed for Springfield. When they got there, the Union logistics train had gathered and reinforcements had arrived. General Lyon showed up with his troops on July 17. The Union now had over 5,000 men in Springfield with more on the way from Kansas, Iowa and Illinois. The plan was to reorganize and refit in Springfield, then move out from there to clean out secessionists and sympathizers in southwestern Missouri once and for all.

Conspicuously absent from all this was Major General Sterling Price, the commander of the Missouri State Guard. He hadn't been seen since Booneville. After that skirmish, he and a small force headed for Fort Smith, Arkansas. They went to meet with Confederate General Ben McCulloch and convince him to bring his 5,000 man army to the assistance of the southern cause in Missouri. He agreed and soon, the combined state and Confederate force numbered over 12,000 men. The plan was to fight their way to St. Louis, capture it and return Missouri to the CSA.

The Battle of Carthage was sharply fought but it was not a game changer. Considering all the fighting that went on, casualties were relatively light - less than 50 for the Union and around 200 for the militia. However, it was a Southern victory because they forced the Union from the field of battle. It was a huge morale boost and a terrific recruiting tool when they needed them the most. The South was on a roll. Two weeks later on July 21, the Confederate Army defeated the Union at the Battle of First Manassas in Virginia. Suddenly it was a different war. The next clash in the Trans-Mississippi was five weeks away. It would dwarf Carthage and rival Manassas for its shock effect on the Union. It would happen in the rolling hills just southwest of Springfield at Wilson's Creek.

Battle of Wilson's Creek - August 10, 1861

General Price at Wilson's Creek

"Don't Give an Inch"


Andy Thomas

Major General Sterling Price of the Missouri State Guard, in the center of the picture, turned out to be a much better leader and fighter than people gave him credit for. For the first few crucial hours at Wilson's Creek, it was his battle to win or lose. His counterpart, Confederate Brigadier General Ben McCulloch was fully engaged elsewhere on the battlefield. Neither commander wore a traditional uniform. Price wore civilian clothes with a white linen duster and white hat. McCulloch, the former Texas Ranger, wore frontier style clothing with a black coat and black felt hat. In the painting, we see Price and McCulloch conferring after their link up at around 1000. The third officer on horseback is probably McCulloch's second-in-command, Colonel James McIntosh, who had just smashed Franz Sigel's position less than an hour earlier. Rising gently in the background is Bloody Hill, known as Oak Hill before the battle. Two assaults have already failed. Reinforced by McCulloch's men, the motley looking Southern troops threw themselves up the slope a third time and came within a few yards of taking it before running out of ammo and physical endurance. Both sides simply quit fighting around 1100, unable to sustain the action any longer.

All eyes and efforts now fell on the small town of Springfield. Located in the center of the southwest corner of Missouri, Springfield was a pro-Union island in a sea of Southern sympathizers. It changed hands five times during the war and was a key staging area for both sides as they struggled for control of the state. Now a major battle was shaping up here.

By mid-july, three Union columns had converged on Springfield. Col Sigel's force came in from the southwest after the Battle of Carthage. Lyon's force came in from the north after their Booneville/Jefferson City foray. Captain Thomas Sweeney arrived from St. Louis with a reinforcing column. Sweeney was supposed to be in the area weeks earlier to support Sigel on his operations. Bad logistics, bad luck, bad weather, weak leadership and bureaucratic bungling had held up Sweeney better than the enemy could.

General Lyon now had over 5,000 troops in Springfield, outnumbering the 2,000 residents by over 2 to 1. Unfortunately, Sweeney's logistics train hadn't caught up with them yet. Lyon's force was fast running out of everything needed to support an army in the field. Manpower was also dropping, as troops left when their 90 day enlistments were up or just deserted. Dozens were disappearing every day.

About 150 miles away, across the Arkansas border, the Confederate Army of the West was building up near Fayetteville. Major General Sterling Price had convinced Brigadier General Ben McCulloch to join forces and re-take Missouri for the Confederates. McCulloch wasn't crazy about the idea and at first declined. He had no use for soft, pretty-boy Price and his band of unorganized rabble he called an army. Eventually, with the urging of the Confederate government, he joined in. This gave the Confederates a force of over 12,000 men. Over 3,000 of them were cavalry, outnumbering the Union cavalry by 10:1. The numbers continued to grow as militia recruits poured in. ** Historical footnote: Ben McCulloch had a rough and tumble life that would rival any fictional frontier hero. Raised in Tennessee, he was good friends with Davy Crockett and went with Crockett to fight at the Alamo. Along the way, he got sick and was bedridden for several weeks, missing the legendary last stand. He recovered n time to join Sam Houston's army at the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive engagement of the Texas War of Independence. After that, he fought in the Mexican War and the Commanche Wars. He spoke Spanish and Commanche. His specialty was solo scouting missions and his exploits were Texas legends. Along the way, he served as a Texas Ranger and a U.S. Marshal. Ben McCulloch knew how to take care of business. **

McCulloch's force was 5,000 Confederate regulars. The State Guard was a militia of farm boy volunteers. Although 7,000 strong and highly motivated, they were poorly trained and equipped. Many of them were barefoot and had no weapons at all. The weapons they did have were mostly squirrel guns and shotguns. Uniforms were non-existent. It was a rabble all right, but it would have to do. They would train and drill on the march and get weapons from the dead.** Historical footnote: A squirrel gun was generally a long barreled muzzle loader shooting a smaller caliber round, such as .30 or .32 caliber, so it wouldn't destroy all the meat on small game. The Kentucky Long Rifle was such a gun. **

By early August, McCulloch's army was on the move towards Springfield. It was slow going. The heat was searing. Men could only be pushed so far and still function. They drilled and trained along the way. McCulloch and Price were constantly at odds. Price was a Major General (2 stars) in the State Guard while McCulloch was a Brigadier General (1 star) in the Confederate Army. Price figured he outranked McCulloch and should be in overall command. He subordinated himself to McCulloch as a condition of joining forces but the two bickered constantly.

In Springfield, Brigadier General Lyon knew that a large Confederate force was coming right at him. He considered his options. None of them were very good. He could stay in Springfield and defend it but he didn't have the resources to wait out a seige. He could withdraw to Rolla almost 100 miles to the northeast. That option risked being chased, run down and cut to pieces. The other option was to attack McCulloch's force before they got to Springfield. That didn't hold much promise either. Lyon knew he was heavily outnumbered. Some reports put the enemy force as high as 30,000. Nevertheless, Lyon decided to attack. They might not be able to defeat them in detail, but maybe they could hurt them badly enough to make them reconsider their plans. The only question was when and where. The aggressive Lyon decided not to wait to find out.

On August 1, Lyon marched most of his army out of Springfield and towards McCulloch. At first, things went their way. They won skirmishes at Dug Springs on August 2 and Curran Post Office on August 3. Both of these victories came against troops of the State Guard. The Union troops were exhausted almost to the point of collapse. They marched all day in their approach to the enemy and stayed awake at arms all night in the event of an attack. Of bigger concern was that their lifeline to Springfield grew more tenuous by the hour. It became apparent to Lyon that the Confederate force was much larger than his. He could find himself surrounded and cut off with no hope of relief. He turned his army around and speed marched back to Springfield. The townspeople were evacuating and Lyon planned to do the same. Then he caught a break.

The Confederate attack force reached the Wilson Creek valley, just 10 miles from Springfield, on August 6 - and promptly stopped. To a hungry, tired, thirsty army, it was the Garden of Eden. Clean fresh water flowed down the length of it. Crops and orchards flourished. Livestock grazed contentedly. Best of all, the major farm families in the valley - the Edwards, Gibson, Ray and Sharp families - were pro-Union. The Confederates set up their camps and helped themselves to everything. ** Historical footnote: The correct name for the stream running through the valley is Wilson Creek. Somewhere along the way, it morphed into Wilson's Creek. In most narratives, "Wilson Creek" refers to the stream and "Wilson's Creek" refers to the battle fought there. **

They remained there for three days. Price wanted to attack immediately but McCulloch kept putting him off with a litany of reasons why right now wasn't a good time. The old scout went forward to Springfield on several occasions to check out the Federal situation personally. What he didn't say was he didn't trust the militia to fight. After their bug outs at Dug Springs and Curran, he had no confidence in them at all. Price was relentless and threatened to attack on his own with his 7,000 militiamen. McCulloch finally gave in. On the morning of August 9, they got into their approach march formations and prepared to move on Springfield. Then it started to rain. The State Guard had no oil-treated leather pouches to protect their paper cartidges nor did a lot of Confederate soldiers. Wet cartridges were useless and they were low on ammo as it was. The army stopped and prepared to spend another night to keep their powder dry by wrapping it up and sleeping with it. This was the break that Lyon had been hoping for.

Lyon switched over to offense and hastily put a plan together. He decided to split his already outnumbered force in two. Lyon would take 3,500 troops with 10 cannons and attack the Confederate force from the north. They would take Oak Hill (soon to be called Bloody Hill) and sweep down the other side, pushing the enemy south in front of them. They were the hammer. The anvil was Colonel Sigel and 1,500 men with six artillery pieces attacking from the south. Sigel was an expert artilleryman. The ultimate success of the plan depended on him blasting away with non-stop withering fire upon the enemy. His signal to begin the bombardment was when he heard the start of Lyon's attack. It was risky and foolhardy but if they could achieve surprise and hit hard enough, they just might pull it off. Both forces were on the move at dusk and spent the entire night getting into position. It was a pitch black rainy night and movement was difficult, but for what they were trying to do, it was perfect. As they got closer, they wrapped artillery wheels in blankets and horse hooves in burlap to cut down the noise.

Wilson's Creek battle map

The National Park Service tour map. The battle area was a mix of rolling hills covered with chest high prairie grass, ravines full of dense underbrush and fields close to harvest. The valley offered lots of good water, forage for the horses and some shade and relief from the blazing August heat. The Confederates camped along a two mile strecth of the creek on both sides of it. General McCulloch planned to attack Springfield the next morning. General Lyon hit him first at daybreak and the battle of Wilson's Creek was on. It was over by 11:00 A.M. Almost everything in the valley was destroyed. Even the creek itself was fouled for weeks because it was filled with dead horses and probably some dead people.

Sigel was in position first. As the first streaks of dawn lightened the landscape, they saw they were looking down on several thousand troops and horses in the cornfields of the farm of Joseph Sharp. They had done done it. They had moved into a firing position completely undetected with a fat juicy target right under their muzzles. Unbeknownst to Sigel, he had McCulloch's main cavalry encampment in his sights. Expecting to be discovered at any moment, he waited impatiently for Lyon to launch his assault to the north and begin the turkey shoot. It was 0430. ** Historical footnote: This was one of the very few times in the Civil War where an undetected surprise attack worked the way it was supposed to. Sigel's surprise was total and his initial attack devastating. **

At about that same time, Lyon's force was running into a militia foraging party less than a mile from Bloody Hill. They had made it all this way only to be discovered at the last second. After an exchange of shots, the foragers rode off and sounded the alarm. Lyon advanced quickly and was soon on the hill, where they met a line of 300 cavalrymen. His cannons and musket fire drove them off and they took possession of the summit. Most of the Missouri State Guard was encamped on and around Bloody Hill and were essentially defenseless. Two things stopped a wholesale slaughter. First was the bravery and initiative of the rebel commanders, who threw cavalry, artillery and infantry into the fray to buy some time to prepare a counterattack. Second was the geography of Bloody Hill. Its top was broad and flat. There was no way to see down the other side unless you went to the military crest. ** Historical footnote: The military crest is the line on a slope that allows maximum observation and direct fire to the base of the hill or ridge. ** Lyon never quite got there. He soon realized that if he pushed too far forward too quickly, he would get outflanked. He almost did anyway. As a result, the Guard could rally and organize at the base of the hill without being seen or fired upon.

As soon as the sounds of battle reached Colonel Sigel around 0530, he opened up with his guns. Shot and shell swept the unsuspecting encampment below him and pandemonium was immediate. People and horses scattered in every direction. Soon, there were no more targets in range, so Sigel moved forward once, then again. His last position was in the far corner of the field he had just been shelling just a short time ago. He was close enough to Wilson's Creek to throw stones in it and was well within range of the main southern force at the base of Bloody Hill, which he vigorously engaged. He established a blocking position across Telegraph Road and scooped up dozens of prisoners. He was confident that the smashng victory he had been pursuing these last months was finally at hand.

General Lyon was thinking the same thing. His blood was up. They had swept the hilltop clean of the enemy and were headed across the top to attack downhill. Sigel was blasting away to the south, his rounds now pounding the main southern encampment area. The anvil was in place and the hammer was on the move. Despite their good fortunes so far, the weight of numbers began to affect the action. Resistance was stiffening quickly. Confederate artillery was firing at him from the south and east, so his artillery had to engage with counter-battery fire. Confederate cavalry tried to turn his left flank. He had to dispatch a battalion of his reserves to deal with that. Now a line of soldiers was making its way up the south side of Bloody Hill. Lyon found himself on defense and in the reactive mode as he countered these multiple threats. By 0800, the battle was starting to go sideways for the Union. ** Historical footnote: The one unit that did more to disrupt the Union attack than any other was a four gun battery of obsolete artillery manned by the Arkansas militia. Dubbed the Pulaski Light Battery, they came from Pulaski County (Little Rock) and had been training together since before the war. Positioned high on the east wall of the valley, they were pointed north up the road to Springfield covering the Confederate front door. When Lyon's force topped Bloody Hill on the west side of the valley, the battery had clear views and fields of fire. Without waiting for orders, they wheeled the gun line 90 degrees and opened up. Their fire was so effective that Lyon had to stop, seek cover and engage with counter-battery fire. He lost his momentum and never got it back. The Arkansas battery pounded him from beginning to end. The Union artillery officer who took on the Pulaski Battery was Captain Joseph Totten. Before the war, he had been the commander of the Federal Arsenal in Little Rock and had trained the Pulaski Battery. **

There was intense fighting along the length and breadth of the valley. A pall of white smoke blanketed the landscape. In the windless, hot and humid morning, it stayed. Battle flags hung limp on their guidons making unit identification difficult. Uniforms were of little use in distinguishing friend and foe. Men were collapsing from the heat and both sides were low on ammo. The infantry fighting at Wilson's Creek was not like most other Civil War battles. There were no grand lines and formations marching inexorably forward with drums beating and flags flying. The ravines, swales and chest high prairie grass broke up lines and hid men. There would be a violent clash, then everything subsided for a while, as if both sides had to catch their breath. Then it would start up again. The artillery was a different story. Cannons fired non-stop throughout the battle. Much of it was long range fire between valley ridges, arcing its way overhead of the ground fight.

General Price turned out to be a better fighter than McCulloch had given him credit for. Mounted on horseback wearing a white linen coat and white felt hat, he led from the front. Within an hour, the first counterattack was headed up Bloody Hill. Any doubts about the courage and fighting ability of the militia troops were soon dispelled. Just days earlier, some of these good ol' boys had been milking cows and feeding the chickens. Now they were advancing against concentrated rifle fire and cannons firing canister rounds. Price was throwing units into the line and they immediately disappeared into the ravines and the prairie grass. The Union met them head on and drove them back, finally resorting to a bayonet charge to break the attack. Price immediately started a second counterattack.

Confederate and Guard troops were coming in from their camps and were formed up into a second attack, which was much larger than the first. This attack had waves of men advancing up the hill as one unit after another was thrown into it. Lyon's force started an attack of their own down the hill but were soon driven back to the top by sheer numbers. As the Federals pulled back, their line became broken in the center. It was ripe for a penetration by Confederate troops. Seeing the danger developing, General Lyon went forward to shore up the line. On horseback at the very edge of the fighting, he took a Kansas regiment from the right side of his line and led them in column formation to the gap, which they successfully closed. As they were moving in, a large volley of fire greeted them. General Lyon was killed. It was 0930.

Colonel Sigel knew nothing about any of this. He couldn't see anything through all the smoke and he made no attempt to contact Lyon with a courier. He put a single line of skirmishers in the treeline on the bank in front of him with orders to be on the lookout for Lyon's troops. He kept the rest of his infantry behind him in a long column. For a while, he fired at the base of Bloody Hill into the enemy staging area. As southern soldiers were scooped up at his blocking position by the dozens, he assumed Lyon was pressing the attack successfully. He quit the bombardment and had his crews stand easy on their guns because he was afraid of hitting friendlies. Still believing he was on the cusp of a great victory, he waited for friendly troops to appear.If he noticed that the steep slope in front of his guns down to the creek had a big dead zone in it, he didn't pay any attention.

Colonel McIntosh overruns Sigel's battery

"First to the Guns"


Mort Kunstler

Colonel James McIntosh was McCulloch's second-in-command while leading a cavalry brigade in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Aggressive and personally courageous almost to the point of recklessness, he had little time for the routine banalities of brigade command. He liked to be out front fighting and was in the thick of it at Wilson's Creek. And so it was that he led the final assault on Colonel Sigel's battery of six cannon. Sigel had moved into position undetected at daybreak, catching the enemy in camp completely flat-footed. For three hours, he poured it into the Confederates, who were unable to mount any sort of counter. Then he got careless and over-confident. He closed the distance to the enemy and ceased fire, afraid he would hit friendlies. McIntosh seized the moment, taking out Sigel in a matter of seconds, capturing five cannon and causing an Union every-man-for-himself bug out. Sigel had conducted a textbook retrograde at Carthage a month earlier, but it would not be repeated today.

Most of Ben McCulloch's regulars hadn't been to Bloody Hill yet. They were fighting in the cornfields on the eastern side of the valley protecting their artillery and trying to turn the Union flank. When that action subsided, he turned his attention to Colonel Sigel's position. Sigel's guns had wreaked havoc on his army earlier and it was still a clear and present danger to the force. McCulloch gathered up his units that were scattered about and led them south down the Telegraph Road towards Sigel's blocking position. He was soon joined by Colonel James McIntosh and a brigade of regulars from Louisiana ** Historical footnote: Colonel McIntosh was an 1849 West Point graduate, finishing last in his class. A Captain in the U.S. Army, he resigned immediately after his native Florida seceded in January of 1861 ** . They crossed Wilson's Creek and deployed online in the trees on the west bank. There, they ran into Sigel's skirmishers, who immediately fled up the hill to tell Sigel that Union troops were approaching. A line of several hundred men came out of the trees and advanced up the hill. Their uniforms looked remarkably like the ones worn by the Iowa regiments, so he did nothing. He finally sent a soldier down the hill to see who they were. The attackers shot him dead, leveled their rifles and fired a massive volley into Sigel's gunline. Then, led by Colonel McIntosh on horseback, they sprinted the remaining 100 feet and overran the battery, capturing five guns. It was over in seconds. Sigel was in no position to fight back or counterattack. He had executed his attack plan brilliantly, but his overconfidence left him vulnerable and he literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of a smashing win, he was now completely out of the fight and running for his life by 0930. He didn't stop until he got back to Springfield, arriving before most of his men. Confederate cavalry pursued them for a short time but broke it off. They had more important business to attend to on Bloody Hill.

Major Samuel Sturgis was stunned. Lyon's adjutant has just informed him that the General was killed 20 minutes earlier. Sturgis was now in command of the doomed Union attack. ** Historical footnote: Sturgis was an 1831 graduate of West Point but not a career soldier. This was his first combat action. ** There was no time to mourn or ruminate. Below him, the third Confederate counterattack was getting started. With Sigel gone, Price and McCulloch combined forces for the first time that morning and mounted a huge attack up Bloody Hill. This time, they had 5,000 troops covering a frontage of 1,000 yards. With a large enemy force closing in, retreat wasn't really an option for the Union. They had to stand and fight.

Sturgis extended his line to meet the threat and prevent being flanked. It left him razor thin and with no reserves. The attackers were creeping up through the grass, trying to get close before they started expending their rapidly dwindling ammunition. The Union troops were also down in the weeds. All up and down the line, groups of men would pop up, fire a volley and disappear again. The Confederates had put their freshest troops in the center of the line and concentrated on the Union center. By 1030, the fighting there was very close and intense. Sturgis' men held fast, anchored by four cannons in the center of the line that fired a non-stop barrage of double canister into the prairie grass hiding the attackers. The farm boys of the Missouri State Guard got within 20 feet of the muzzles before they broke and headed back down.

At 1100, the fighting subsided, almost as if it was mutually agreed on. Both sides were out of ammo and the heat had felled almost as many soldiers as the combat. Price recalled the attack. When it became apparent that a fourth assault was not imminent, Sturgis began an orderly retreat. By 1230, the Union was completely gone. The Confederates were too exhausted to pursue. The Battle of Wilson's Creek was over, with 600 dead from both sides left on the battlefield.

The Union got back to Springfield that afternoon and evacuated to Rolla the next day, August 11. Later that same day, the Confederate Army of the West occupied Springfield. Price wanted to move on to St. Louis, but McCulloch wasn't having any part of it. He took his army back to Arkansas.

Price was determined to recapture Missouri no matter what. After heavily recruiting for the Guard, he moved north to Lexington, MO with 20,000 troops and captured the 3,000 man Union garrison there on September 20. Union response was immediate as 40,000 troops from Kansas and St. Louis moved towards Lexington. Price withdrew and kept going all the way to Arkansas. Along the way, 2/3 of his troops deserted.

Wilson's Creek goes into the books as a Confederate victory since they forced the Union off the field. The battle hardly rates a mention in most Civil War narratives and the ones that do just wave it off as no big deal. It was a big deal. Although it paled in size to future Civil War battles, Wilson's Creek was a ferocious fight. It was a very fluid battle, with action occurring at several locations simultaneously in a relatively small area. Untested, poorly armed soldiers performed far beyond expectations, especially for the South. The casualty figures, as a percentage of the men who fought there, were some of the highest in the war. The Union had a 25% casualty rate. The U.S. government was stunned that they had lost another major battle so soon after First Manassas. The death of General Lyon, West Point class of 1841, was also a blow. He was the first Union General killed in the war. His force, aggressiveness and knowledge of the theater would be missed. ** Historical footnote: 18 West Point graduates fought at Wilson's Creek - 14 for the Union and 4 with the Confederacy. McCulloch and Price were not among them. **

With hindsight, it was not a clear, convincing victory. One could make the argument that strategically, it was a Union victory, since they stopped the advance on St. Louis and kept Missouri in the Union - for now. Wilson's Creek was the last major Civil War battle fought in Missouri, but it did not decide the fate of Missouri. That would happen seven months later in Arkansas in a peaceful but bitter cold glen nestled in the Ozarks called Pea Ridge.

From Wilson's Creek to Elkhorn Tavern - August 1861 to March 1862


The armies that fought in that first year of the Trans-Mississippi were a motley crew. Farm clothes, slouch hats and old weapons were the norm, especially for the Confederates. By the last year of the war, uniformed Union regulars were everywhere, along with the latest weaponry like repeating carbines. The Missouri State Guard were motley until the end. This photo by Mathew Brady gives us a candid look at Civil War fashion.

The Battle of Wilson's Creek was a wake up call for the Union. If First Manassas portended a long war against a motivated enemy, Wilson's Creek confirmed it. Faced with the prospect of a multi-year trans-national conflict, the Union put in motion a grand strategy to defeat the Confederacy. A cornerstone of this strategy was to take control of the entire Mississippi River Valley and cut the Confederacy in half. The Union owned the river from its source in Minnesota to the confluence with the Missouri River at St. Louis. New Orleans had already been taken, bottling up the river. Blocking it is not the same as owning it.

The Union and the Confederacy each had big plans for the Mississippi River, both as a commerce route and an attack avenue into the enemy's flank. Those plans depended on control of Missouri and eliminating enemy presence and freedom of action in the state. Then Arkansas and Louisiana would have to be dealt with in a similar fashion.

The brutal fighting at Wilson's Creek didn't do much for either side in their quest for control of Missouri. The lack of a clear cut victory intensified the ongoing conflict between North and South in the state and unleashed a rampant and furious guerrilla war. The Union held the upper hand in Missouri. They controlled the state government, the key cities and the Missouri River. But the countryside was a violent, uncontrolled No Man's Land. The Confederate forces and their guerilla sympathizers were still a threat to Union military operations and control of the state. Shortly after Wilson's Creek, both sides began to prepare for further campaigns in the Trans-Mississippi Theater and renew the fight for Missouri. First up was getting their respective command structure in order.

The death of Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon at Wilson's Creek left a large pair of shoes to be filled. The man chosen to do it was Brigadier General Samuel Curtis. An 1831 graduate of West Point, he was not a career soldier. At the outbreak of the war, he was a Congressman from Iowa. He left the Congress and raised a regiment of volunteers, commanding them with a rank of Colonel. By May of 1861, he was a Brigadier General. On Christmas Day, 1861, he took command of the Union Army of the Southwest. His second-in-command was Colonel Franz Sigel. Their mission was to drive the Confederates out of Missouri for good. ** Historical footnote: History has largely forgotten Samuel Curtis. Despite his relative inexperience in the field with an army, he proved to be a very capable commander. In the first year of the war, he was one of the few Union Generals who was winning battles. **

The revamp of the Confederate command was a bit more disorderly. Price and McCulloch were at odds to the point where they weren't even speaking. Price and his Missouri State Guard were still in Springfield. McCulloch was back at Fort Smith. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, aware of the bickering and lack of communication, appointed Major General Earl Van Dorn to take over the new Trans-Nississippi District. Van Dorn was fighter and had seen extensive combat in the Mexican War and the Indian Wars. So far in this war, he had seen heavy fighting at Manassas and Corinth, all of it on horseback. However, he was not strong in areas important to army-level leadership such as organization and logistics. His first job was to get Price and McCulloch under control and united into a combined force. ** Historical footnote: Van Dorn was also a womanizer. He was murdered at his headquarters in 1863 by an angry husband. After years of fighting without a scratch, his luck had run out.**

As 1861 rolled over into 1862, neither side had any inkling of the battle that lay ahead. In fact, the Confederates were bedded down for the winter. Major General Price was still in Springfield with his State Guard force of 8,000 men. Brigadier General McCulloch was in Fort Smith with his Confederate army of 5,000. The Union army, however, was not bedding down.

Winter camp photo

Winter campaigns were not the norm in the Civil War. There were exceptions, of course but for the most part, everybody laid low and tried to stay warm and healthy. Disease killed far more people in the war than battles did and these winter encampments were breeding grounds for it. There was ample time for training and drilling but how much got done is anybody's guess. Boredom, hunger and cold were the norm for both sides. This photo by Matthew Brady gives us a glimpse of Club Fed.

The new Union commander, Brigadier General Curtis, decided this would be a good opportunity to catch the Confederates with their feet planted. It was a risky plan. The winter had been harsh so far and his supply lines would be long and tenuous. On the other hand, he had the opportunity to attack two widely separated enemy forces and defeat one at a time. By mid-January, Curtis was on the move with 10,000 men.

The first leg was a train ride from St.Louis to the end of the line at Rolla. Then it was overland 100 miles to Springfield. It was slow going. It took them almost a month to move the 100 miles. Extreme cold and blizzards alternated with thaws and rain made for some of the muddiest and most miserable conditions an army can endure. ** Historical footnote: The route used by both sides in the Missouri / Arkansas theater was the Telegraph Road, so named because the telegraph wire followed it. It ran from St. Louis to Fort Smith, passing through Rolla, Springfield, Fayetteville and other key spots. It was never more than an unimproved dirt road and was never intended to support the large forces that used it. When the telegraph went away, it was called the Old Wire Road. Decades later, part of it became Route 66 and still later, part of the Interstate highway system. Small sections of the original Old Wire Road can still be explored today. **

Nevertheless, they perservered and almost pulled it off. Price had been sitting in Springfield since the victory at Wilson's Creek the previous August and had done nothing to fortify his positions. His guardsmen were as poorly equipped and trained now as they were then. He was genuinely shocked when he found out in the first week of February that a Union army was bearing down on him. He abandoned Springfield on February 12 and headed for the safety of Arkansas. That same day, winter returned with a vengance. Bitter cold and heavy snow proved as dangerous as the enemy - for both sides - for the rest of the campaign.

He was shocked again when the Union didn't stop in Springfield. They came after him. Moving in two parallel columns, they hoped to get around Price and prevent his army from heading south to join McCulloch. The cut off never happened. The Confederate rear guard and Union lead elements engaged in a four day running fight from February 14-17. Price's force wasn't hard to follow. All along the Telegraph Road, the Union found equipment, clothing, furniture and dozens of enemy soldiers who had simply collapsed. ** Historical footnote: The column making the end run around Price was led by Col. Franz Sigel. He had been assigned as second-in-command to Curtis, a command Sigel thought should be his. Curtis increasingly viewed Sigel as weak, but he was stuck with him. His way of dealing with the situation was to give Sigel orders and missions, then hope for the best. Sigel showed flashes of brilliance at times, but was just as likely to do something stupid or inexplicable. A successful encirclement of Price's force would have been a war changer in the Trans-Mississippi. When Sigel finally completed his end run, he came out behind his own army. How did that happen? Why did it fail? Would Custer or Jeb Stuart have gotten it done? You be the judge. **

Price had yet another shock when the Union crossed the Arkansas border in pursuit. At this point, he sent word to the main Confederate winter camp at Cross Hollow, 20 miles south of the border astride Telegraph Road. He informed them that he was on his way to join up with McCulloch and "Oh, by the way, the Union army is right behind me". That got everybody's attention.

The Confederate forces in Arkansas had been sitting idle for six months. They were bored, rusty and out of shape. Their winter encampments stretched for over 50 miles, dictated by the need for water, space and forage for livestock. McCulloch had just returned from an extended visit to Richmond. The new theater commander, Major General Van Dorn, hadn't arrived yet. He was 200 miles away in Pocahantas, AR. Thinking they were safely tucked away in friendly territory for the winter, the Confederate Army of the West had basically gone into hibernation.

Elkhorn Tavern

From the National Archives, the Elkhorn Tavern around 1886. The original one was built in 1838 and somehow survived its namesake battle, which swirled all around it. Afterwards, it was used as a hospital, way station and telegraph station until guerillas burned it down in 1863. It was re-built like the original on the same foundation after the war and remained in the Cox family for almost a century. The surviving daughter - Frances Cox Scott - was born in the house in 1865. She lived in it and ran a small museum until her passing in 1959, when it was purchased by the National Military Park.

The rude awakening quickly gave way to frantic activity and desperate measures. McCulloch threw a strong roadblock across Telegraph Road to stop or delay Curtis. It worked. Curtis held up and went on defense to re-group and evaluate. The rest of the combined rebel force headed south towards the Boston Mountains. They needed to put some distance between them and Curtis to re-organize. Fayetteville was the main Confederate supply depot and they had no way to take it all with them. McCulloch told his troops to take whatever they wanted - and they did. The entire town was looted. Soldiers headed south with hams on their bayonets and Grandma's silver under their arms. When they couldn't carry anymore, McCulloch burned half of Fayetteville to leave nothing for the Union. It was scorched earth all the way to their mountain stronghold. Along the way, they passed a tavern on the Telegraph Road that had a set of giant elk antlers on the roof. Curtis arrived there a short time later.

The Federal pursuit ended the night of February 17. Curtis had some major problems. His troops were exhausted. His supply lines were 200 miles long. ** Historical footnote: Curtis' supply lines were very ably managed by his quartermaster Captain Philip Sheridan, West Point class of 1853. A year later, he was a Brigadier General commanding a Union division in the east. A year after that, he was a Major General in command of all the cavalry of Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac. Sheridan was an efficient, aggressive and ruthless officer who practiced scorched earth warfare against the Confederates and later, the Native Americans. His performance keeping Curtis supplied was a major factor in the Union victory. ** There was no hope of reinforcements. He was facing an enemy force that outnumbered him by at least 7,000. They also had more artillery (60 vs 21 guns) and a lot more cavalry (3,000 vs 300) than he did. Technically, he had already accomplished his mission. There were no more Confederate forces in Missouri. But if he pulled out now, the enemy could come back into the state in force any time they wanted. What needed to happen was the Confederate Army of the West needed to be thoroughly whipped and never able to fight in Missouri again. Curtis held his ground and went on defense, blocking Telegraph Road and practically daring the Confederates to come after him. They took up Curtis' challenge but they didn't take the bait.

Meanwhile Van Dorn and McCulloch were thinking "attack". For the next two weeks, the Ozark Plateau became a chessboard as both sides patrolled and probed for information and weakness. Curtis set up a series of strong points on both sides of Telegraph Road and was patrolling heavily. He built a strong defensive position atop a bluff near the Elkhorn Tavern overlooking Little Sugar Creek and the flat plain that Van Dorn would have to cross if moving north. Attacking it frontally would have been suicidal but that's what Curtis was counting on.

The Confederates had no intention of attacking across that plain and up the bluff. Scouts told them that the Union force was divided into strongpoints that could be separated and defeated. On March 4, the Confederates started moving. Union scouts reported the movement to Curtis, who ordered everybody into the bluff-top redoubt to meet the attack.

So the stage was set for the Battle of Pea Ridge, the local name for the geographic area that would become the battleground. The Elkhorn Tavern stood on the eastern approaches to the battle area at the junction of all the major roads. Much of the fighting would take place here. Unlike Wilson's Creek, this battle would be fought in the cold, in the open with armies lined up shoulder to shoulder and attacking with flags flying. The fate of Missouri would be decided in Arkansas.

National Park Service tour map

This is a condensed version of the National Park Service map of the Pea Ridge National Military Park with a few annotations by this writer. The driving tour is nine miles long. This is one of the few Civil War battlefields which is preserved fully intact. It looks like it did the day of the battle. The nine tour stops cover most of the major actions of the two day clash. The highlight is Stop #7 - the East Overlook. From here, you can look down across the fields where the entire Union Army formed in a line of battle to attack Elkhorn Tavern on the morning of Day 2.

The red arrow points to the original Union stronghold where Curtis prepared for an attack that never came. It's about a mile below the arrow and you can still visit. There's not much to see except for the shallow outlines of weathered trenches.

The blue star is where Confederate Generals McCulloch and McIntosh were killed on Day 1. They were mortally wounded by Union skirmishers 200 yards and 15 minutes apart.

The blue arrow is the attack route of the Confederate Sunset, a twilight bloodbath that ended Day 1.

The best kept secret on the battlefield is marked by the bomb icon. Here, Col. Eugene Carr's brigade ambushed the main Confederate Army along the Telegraph Road on their way to Elkhorn Tavern. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, Carr traded space for time in a four hour fighting withdrawal back to the tavern, where reinforcements soon arrived. This stop is a 1/4 mile walk up the trail, which is the route of the original Telegraph Road. Not many people venture up this way.

Battle of Pea Ridge - Day 1 - March 7, 1862

March 7, 1862 dawned clear and bitter cold on the Ozark Plateau. Thawing out while manning their blufftop stronghold, the Union waited for the Confederates to appear before them and attack. Then scouts rode in from the west with terrifying news. "The enemy is behind us."

The dominant terrain feature on Pea Ridge is Elkhorn Mountain (also called Big Mountain), a granite and limestone escarpment that rises several hundred feet above the plain. There are three routes that go over or around it, even today. They form a rough triangle around the mountain. One was Telegraph Road. It runs southwest to northeast and passes through the hilly eastern face of Big Mountain. Another is a side route called the Bentonville Detour. It goes around Big Mountain to the north and joins Telegraph Road above and behind Elkhorn Tavern. A third route, Ford Road, runs east-west along the southern slopes of Big Mountain. It joins the other two roads and forms the base of the triangle. The Elkhorn Tavern sits at the bottom right hand corner. Most of the fighting took place along the bottom and right hand sides of it. The tavern was right in the middle.

Scouts arrive with the bad news

"The Enemy is Behind Us"


Andy Thomas

Couriers arrived at Curtis' headquarters with unwelcome news - the enemy had worked its way around the Union right flank overnight. Two forces were on the move. One, led by McCulloch, was at Twelve Corner Church. The other, led by Van Dorn and Price, was on the Bentonville Detour headed for Elkhorn Tavern, where the Union supply trains were parked. Not convinced that this was the Confederate main effort, he sent a brigade to make contact with each force. The brigades made contact alright and were soon fighting desperately against overwhelming numbers. Curtis kept most of his force back at their bluff top stronghold to defend against the anticipated attack there. It was mid-afternoon before he finally realized that the fight going on behind him was the real thing.

Van Dorn never had any intentions of doing what the Union expected him to do. He put together an attack plan that was bold, audacious and not well thought out. He planned to march his army past the Union stronghold, up and around Big Mountain on the Bentonville Detour and come out above and behind the tavern area. Since he planned on this being a quick strike, he left behind his pack trains. He started to march his men over 50 miles on a glorified goat path during a bitter cold night and fight on arrival. To complicate matters, General Curtis had ordered the construction of an obstacle belt on the Bentonville Detour to impede just such a movement. The Union felled dozens of trees across the road. ** Tactical footnote: To maximize the effectiveness of obstacles, they need to be covered by observation and/or fire. Unattended obstacles in a defensive plan are nothing more than a nuisance for a prepared enemy. If Curtis had posted just a couple of pickets at the felled trees, he would have known about the Confederate movement hours earlier. Even better would have been some artillery to tune them up while picking their way through the obstacle. **

As the first streaks of day lightened the eastern horizon, Van Dorn was still on the march and miles from his objective. At a road junction called the Twelve Corner Church, which is the western terminus of Ford Road, he split his force in two. McCulloch would take his army and move southeast along the Ford Road and head for the tavern, blocking any Union retreat. Van Dorn would continue with the original plan, continuing north around Big Mountain. The two forces would meet at Elkhorn Tavern, then mass to attack the Union, who they believed was still waiting for them on the bluffs several miles away.

The Union reacted quickly to the potentially dire circumstances. They turned around and started moving north while moving the pack trains south. The Union army literally turned itself inside out with the enemy closing on them, a tactical feat that has rarely been accomplished successfully. Most importantly, the pack trains had to be protected at all costs. Keeping the bulk of his force at the bluffs, Curtis sent out brigade-sized units to conduct spoiling attacks and delaying actions. McCulloch's force heading for Leetown would met by Colonel Peter Osterhaus. Van Dorn's force on its way over Big Mountain would be met by Colonel Eugene Carr. ** Historical footnote: Both Carr and Osterhaus survived the battle and won the Medal of Honor for their actions on March 7. **

Map of the battle on Day 1

The fighting on Day 1 turned into a free-for-all with two separate battles being waged several miles and several hours apart. In both of them, outnumbered and out-gunned Union brigades fought like demons to hold the line while sending repeated desperate requests to Curtis for reinforcements. He finally got the rest of his army moving in mid-afternoon.

Day 1 now became a Tale of Two Fights. Osterhaus and McCulloch went at it first. The Confederates were heading east towards the tavern when Osterhaus first saw them arouond 1300. They were advancing on line with regiments in column. Osterhaus was stunned when he saw how many there were, but didn't hesitate. He slammed into their right flank with everything he had. Now it was McCulloch's turn to be stunned. He had no idea there were any Union troops around. Artillery salvos announced their presence and the Confederate line fell apart. Then Union cavalry swooped in and infantry lines prepared for assault. McCulloch's grand march on Elkhorn Tavern become a free-for-all

After some confusion, the Confederates - who had overwhelming numbers - counter-attacked the Union force. Led by Colonel James McIntosh, 3,000 cavalrymen raced across an untilled cornfield, running down and chasing Union soldiers into the adjoining forest and capturing three cannons. It was one of the classic cavalry charges of the entire war. ** Historical footnote: McIntosh's force included two regiments (800 men) of Cherokee braves from the Indian Territory, which is now Oklahoma. Led by an incompetent Confederate General named Albert Pike, the Cherokee regiments were poorly trained, poorly armed, lacked discipline and weren't crazy about being there. They rode and fought well enough in McIntosh's charge, but it is what happened afterwards that is most remembered. The Cherokee began scalping and mutilating Union casualties on the field. Several of the wounded were killed. When McCulloch found out, he banished Pike's force off the battlefield. They stayed in reserve and saw no more action. Pike resigned in disgrace three months later and was out of the war. ** The makings of a Union bug out were lining up but the officers and NCO's stabilized the lines and began pressing forward again. Union artillery led the way. It was long range indirect fire, which wasn't used much in the Civil War, but Osterhaus hoped it might confuse or scatter the enemy.

McCulloch's army was doing just fine confusing and scattering themselves. Jubilant at their apparent victory, they began celebrating with the Civil War equivalent of trash talk and high fives. Their leaders struggled to rein them in. Then the artillery started impacting, resulting in bedlam out of sight of the Union.

As the Confederate officers struggled to restore order, Ben McCulloch, the old scout, went forward to personally recon the situation. Riding on the edge of a treeline, he was spotted by a line of Union advanced skirmishers behind a rail fence. They fired a volley, killing him. An hour later, Colonel James McIntosh was killed 200 yards away doing the same thing. The Confederate troops waited for two precious hours for orders that never came.

Leaderless, hungry, exhausted and in shock at the sudden death of their two top commanders, the Confederate force milled about listlessly. Many deserted. As darkness rolled in, individual officers rounded up units and moved them back to Twelve Corner Church. At midnight, a courier arrived with orders to move along the Bentonville Detour and join Van Dorn at the Elkhorn Tavern. A greatly reduced, hungry and exhausted army arrived at the tavern during the wee hours. There, they simply dropped, bedding down where ever they could find a place. McCulloch's army would have almost no part in the battles of Day 2.

Meanwhile, three miles to the east and north of Elkhorn Tavern along Telegraph Road, Colonel Eugene Carr was beating up Sterling Price's Missouri State Guard. Led by Major General Van Dorn, Price's men were the main effort of the Confederate attack plan. At midday, they were moving along the road towards their objective and were down in a deep hollow when artillery fire started raining on them from the ridge above.

Map of the battle on Day 1

"Confederate Sunset"


Andy Thomas

Day 1 ended very badly for the Confederates. At sunset, they had managed to force the Union off of Elkhorn Tavern. As twilight deepened, the Federals, now reinforced, prepared to counter-attack and re-take it. Before they stepped off, 3,000 Missouri State Guard troops emerged from a distant treeline to the south (the Union right) in a vain attempt to cut off and encircle the Union army. Thinking they were approaching a defeated enemy in retreat, they marched across the open field while the Union got six cannons and hundreds of riflemen on line. Taking cover behind large piles of recently cleared brush, branches and trees, they poured fire into the Confederate human wave. The attackers pressed on. The impending darkness showed every muzzle flash and cannon blast, lighting up the guardsmen as they closed in. The attackers were less than 50 yards away from the Union line when they finally gave up and retreated. The whole thing lasted only 15 minutes and was the last offensive action the Confederates would launch at Pea Ridge.

Now it was Van Dorn's turn to be shocked. There weren't supposed to be Yankee troops within miles of here. The normally aggressive Van Dorn did something uncharacteristic. Thinking that McCulloch would be reaching the tavern at any moment, he had his men hunker down and wait for McCulloch to end the threat. They wasted a precious hour. Hearing the sounds of major fighting to the west, he finally figured out that McCulloch had a fight on his hands and now, so did he. They would have to fight their way out of the hollow. He ordered Price to deploy his men in a line of battle and prepare to assault up the steep slopes.

Carr was positioned with his artillery and had a bird's eye view as the Confederate assault formed. He watched as thousands of men came up the road and prepared to attack. He had no choice but to stand and fight. He launched spoiling attacks down the slope to break up enemy formations and engaged in a ferocious artillery duel. It was his four cannon against 21 Confederate guns, but they held on and delayed long enough for Union reinforcements to arrive.

Van Dorn's overwhelming numbers finally started to carry the day. His artillery had destroyed the Union guns and his extended battle lines were threatening to double envelope Carr's position. It was time to get back to the tavern and make a stand.

At 1600, Van Dorn's force finally broke out of the trees and rocks and moved toward Elkhorn Tavern less than 100 yards away. The sun was in their eyes and low on the horizon, leaving only about an hour of daylight. Still hoping that McCulloch might be there, he found the Union waiting for them instead and the hardest fighting of this long day ensued.

The fighting lasted 30 minutes and was as ferocious as it got in the Civil War. Concentrated in a relatively small area, the Union blasted away with batteries of canister rounds and poured regimental sized volleys of rifle fire into the attackers. They fell in waves but more took their place. Finally, the long Confederate battle line began turning and threatening both Union flanks. Pressed on three sides and in danger of encirclement if they stayed much longer, Curtis' army fell back along Telegraph Road towards Leetown. With his men out of almost everything, Van Dorn did not pursue him. His decision to leave his pack trains behind now haunted him, but there was nothing to be done. The battle would continue in the morning, minus his two best battle leaders and a large portion of his army. Nevertheless, he was confident that the Union was licked and that Day 2 would be a mop-up with a quick Confederate victory. He was right about one thing. It would be quick.

Battle of Pea Ridge - Day 2 - March 8, 1862

Day 2 of the battle started much the same as Day 1 - clear and cold with a big surprise for one of the combatants. This time it would be the Confederates who got the nasty wake up call.

Map of the fighting on Day 2

Day 2 was all Union. Van Dorn's force was never really in it. Things got started around 0800. By noon, it was over and Curtis had the decisive victory he was looking for. It would be two years before an organized Confederate army took to the field in the Trans-Mississippi theater.

Major General Van Dorn had done nothing to prepare his force or the battlefield for the coming battle, opting instead to let his men rest in the confined area immediately around the tavern. The only activity of note during the night was the arrival of the remainder of McCulloch's beaten and dispirited army. They arrived just as the eastern sky started to lighten, went up in the rocks above the tavern on the south slope of Big Mountain and collapsed.

Brigadier General Curtis, on the other hand, had been busy all night. He secured his pack trains, gathered up his scattered forces, fed them, issued a full load of ammo and got them ready to attack the Confederate army.

Most signifigantly, he massed all his artillery - 21 guns - wheel to wheel on and around a small knoll only 400 yards from the Elkhorn Tavern. Directing those guns was Brigadier General Franz Sigel, who for once was in his element. Trained in Germany and on the battlefields of Europe, Sigel was an expert artillery man. As the dawn approached, Sigel went from gun to gun sighting in, encouraging and instructing. They had plenty of ammo and fresh horses for the cassions and limber. The Union was about to unleash one of the deadliest and most effective artillery barrages of the entire war.

When there was enough daylight to see out to the west, the Confederates had a view they would never forget. Union guns lined up wheel to wheel. Behind them, an army of 10,000 men forming a line of battle that stretched for a mile across the western horizon. Curtis was ready to go at daybreak but he delayed until he was sure the Confederates hadn't set a trap or vanished. They hadn't. In fact, Van Dorn accelerated the Union timetable by putting three of his own artillery batteries (12 guns) on the line and firing the first shots. The Union guns responded, firing as one. The first salvos took out several Confederate guns and it was all downhill from there for Van Dorn's Army of the West.

Franz Sigel on the gun line

"Sigel Takes Aim"


Andy Thomas

In military circles, artillery is called the "King of Battle" because of its ability to influence and shape the fighting it is involved in. That was never more true than at Pea Ridge. Union artillery, properly massed and employed by Brigadier General Franz Sigel (in the center), scattered and decimated the Confederate Army of the West before the infantry attack started. At first, Sigel focused all his guns on individual Confederate cannons, taking them out one at a time. With rebel artillery out of action, Sigel's guns pounded the now defenseless Southerners. In the Civil War, artillery was employed as a direct fire weapon just like a rifle. The closer, the better. Sigel's batteries were about 400 yards away from the enemy when they opened up. The history of warfare is full of examples of enormous artillery barrages having little effect on the enemy and leaving it to the ground troops to dig them out. That was not the case at Pea Ridge, where the Union artillery was used to perfection.

Van Dorn threw his artillery batteries piecemeal into the battle. Despite having 60 cannons, he never had more than 9 or 10 on the gun line at once. Sigel's gunners took them out almost as fast as they unlimbered. Soon, the Southerners were out of cannons and artillery rounds and the turkey shoot began.

For two hours, Union artillery pounded Van Dorn's helpless force without mercy, firing over 3,000 rounds into an area about the size of a football field. The barrage could be heard 50 miles away in Springfield. The area around the Elkhorn Tavern became a hurricane of shot, shell, shrapnel, splintered wood, flying boulders and uprooted trees. There was no place to hide and no where to run. The worst of it fell on McCulloch's army bedded down in the rocks above the tavern. No doubt thinking they were in a safe place, the sandstone rocks and columns all around them were turned into razor sharp shards by the artillery and cut men to pieces.

At 1030, Curtis told Sigel to cease fire and the infantry assault began. The Union force fired thousands of rounds from their rifles as they advanced with flags flying and drums beating. It was one of the few occasions in the Civil War where an entire army could be viewed advancing in a line of battle.

It was over by noon. With Union troops closing in from the west and south, Van Dorn and Price headed southeast down the Huntsville Road toward the Boston Mountains leaving thousands of their troops in contact. Soon, it became an every-man-for-himself bugout in multiple directions.

General Curtis had won a decisive victory. He wanted to pursue the vanquished rebel army and defeat them in detail but nobody knew what direction to pursue in. The Union consolidated their forces around the tavern and allowed themselves some time celebrate. After Pea Ridge, never again would a Confederate army threaten Missouri. It was now firmly in the Union camp and another section of the Mississippi River Valley had been secured. ** Historical footnote: After the battle, Curtis submitted requisitions to his superiors in St. Louis to re-constitute his force. Among the items requested were 5,000 artillery rounds and over a quarter of a million rifle and pistol cartridges to replenish the stocks used in the Battle of Pea Ridge.**

After Pea Ridge

Every battle is full of "what if's" and Pea Ridge is no exception. The main inescapable conclusion one can draw from this battle is that Major General Earl Van Dorn blew it big time. He had everything going for him. He was fighting in familiar terrain with short supply lines. He went into this battle with half again as many troops as Curtis, along with three times the artillery and 10 times the cavalry. He managed to get his whole army to the rear of the Union force undetected. He was on the cusp of a war changing "coup de main" . Yet he lost.

One of the key elements of winning a battle is mass - being able to muster and focus combat power at the right place and the right time. The Union on Day 2 had mass, which they didn't have on Day 1. Van Dorn never had it at all. He had more troops, more cavalry and more cannons, but he could never get sufficient numbers of them concentrated enough to swing the battle. If he had turned his entire army south at Twelve Corner Church on the morning of March 7, he would have rolled up the Union line from right to left. The battle would have been over by lunchtime. Instead, he stubbornly kept to the original plan and split his force, putting a huge mountain between them. He lost not only the battle, but also Missouri, Arkansas and his two best field Generals along with numerous regimental and battalion commanders. After Pea Ridge, Van Dorn was ordered east across the river to reinforce the Army of Tennessee at Corinth, Mississippi. That left Price's Missouri State Guard as the only remaining Confederate military force in the Trans-Mississippi. It would be over two years before they fought again.

Despite its strategic importance, the Union victory at Pea Ridge didn't get much attention. There were no photographers present, so battle depictions were all drawings, many of which were wildly inaccurate. The very next day - March 9, 1862 - the Monitor and the Merrimack fought to a draw in the waters of Hampton Roads near Norfolk, VA. Naval warfare changed forever and Pea Ridge quickly faded.

Three weeks after Pea Ridge, another Confederate General - Henry Hopkins Sibley - snatched defeat from certain victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe, NM. In the space of one month - March 1862 - the entire Civil War theater west of the Mississippi River came under Union control and would not be seriously contested again. However, the frontier would remain a dangerous and hostile place and lots of fighting lay ahead.

One month after Pea Ridge came the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. Everybody soon forgot all about the war in the West.

General Chaos and Major Malfunction Take Over

Guerrilla fighters



Andy Thomas

There was no more disruptive or unpredictable force in the Trans-Mississippi than the guerrilla bands that terrorized the countryside before, during and after the Civil War. They went by many names such as jayhawkers, bushwhackers, border ruffians and redlegs. Many of them were teenagers, including the leaders, and some were women. Guerrillas were hard cases, ruthless and well-armed. Mounted on horseback, their slashing hit-and-run attacks could happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere. For both civilians and military, every town, farm, field, ravine, stream crossing, rail line or bend in the road was a potential kill zone. They fought on both sides but respected neither laws nor borders. Instead, they roamed the theater dispensing their own brand of violent justice and taking whatever they wanted. Part of their dark code, however, did not sanction the rape and murder of women and it rarely happened. This painting by Andy Thomas depicts a guerrilla band on the move, revolvers in hand and bad intent on their faces. You would not want to see these good ol' boys riding up to your homestead or into your town. The eastern theater of the war - the one that everybody knows about - had nothing comparable menacing them.

After Pea Ridge, there were no North vs. South battles for over two years. However the fighting and bloodletting were non-stop. Any discussion of the Trans-Mississippi Theater has to include the guerilla war that raged there.

When the Civil War blew up at Fort Sumter in April, 1861, the people of Kansas and Missouri shrugged it off. They had been fighting their own civil war for most of a decade. Guerillas, partisans, mercenaries and other miscreants in both states had been butchering each other over the issue of slavery since 1854.

Missouri became a state in August 1821. By 1861, it was a slave state firmly in the southern camp. Kansas was still a territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 empowered the people of Kansas to vote whether to be a slave or free state. This led to the period known as "Bleeding Kansas" as slavery supporters from Missouri used violence, intimidation and vote rigging to get the people of Kansas to vote for admission as a slave state. It failed. Kansas became a staunchly pro-Union free state in January 1861. The slavery question had been settled but bitterness and hard feelings persisted. It was now payback time for both sides and the backdrop of the Civil War was the perfect storm to set it all in motion.

Following Wilson's Creek, Confederate sympathizing guerillas - Bushwhackers - unleashed a reign of terror on the people in southwest Missouri and eastern Kansas. Indiscriminate murder, arson, torture, lynching and scalping were their tools of the trade. Also hit hard were railroads and telegraph lines. The Union had to dedicate enormous resources to keep their communications and supply routes open.

The Union responded with their own guerilla hunting units, commonly called Redlegs. Missouri recruited thousands of Union-supporting residents for the Missouri State Militia - cavalry battalions whose mission was to hunt down and kill guerillas. Kansas also fought back with their Jayhawkers. Entire towns were looted and torched by both sides in both states. Farms were pillaged while families looked on helplessly. To resist or notify the authorities was a death sentence, so ordinary folks with scores to settle joined up or formed their own marauding bands. It was the most savage form of warfare that man is capable of. This went on for over three years from mid-1861 to late 1864. When it was over, much of western Missouri and eastern Kansas were barren, lifeless and de-populated.

The list of people who fought in this guerilla war reads like a Who's Who of the American West. Frank and Jesse James along with Cole and Jim Younger were Bushwhackers. "Buffalo Bill" Cody and "Wild Bill" Hickock rode with a Jayhawker unit. Bushwhacker leader "Bloody Bill" Anderson carried six revolvers - four on his person and two across his saddle - and wore a necklace of human scalps. But the most feared and the most hunted of them all was a former school teacher from Ohio named William Clarke Quantrill.

Quantrill had a hard scrabble upbringing in Ohio and left home at age 19, having already killed his first man. He drifted for a few years, ending up in Missouri. When the war started, he joined the Missouri State Guard and fought at Wilson's Creek. He left shortly after to form his own unit.

During his drifting years, he learned hit-and-run tactics from the Cherokee. Now, his unit of Bushwhackers - Quantrill's Raiders - put them to use with a vengeance. Starting with only a dozen men, they were the scourge of the border region, attacking Union patrols, seizing mail, robbing stagecoaches and interdicting supplies with speed, precision and violence. However, their primary targets were Union-supporting civilians, who he was determined to clear out of Missouri. They used disguises, attacked from multiple directions and had pre-planned escape routes with fresh horses waiting at rally points. Their favorite weapon became the .36 caliber 1851 Colt Navy revolver. They were lighter, smaller and more reliable than the Colt Dragoon .44's also in use at the time. Quantrill's men typically carried several Navy Colts on them while Dragoons were carried in saddle holsters. Together, they gave marauders overwhelming short range firepower. Backing them up were sabers and Bowie knives, which they freely used in their depredations.

A depiction of Quantrill's raid on Lawrence, KS. Artist and date unknown. Lawrence was a prosperous town of 3,000 people about 50 miles west of the Missouri border and the center of anti-slavery activity in Kansas before and during the war. It was also a major staging area for partisan Jayhawkers and "redlegs" - Union guerilla hunters who were no better then the men they hunted. In a supreme irony, Quantrill lived in Lawrence and taught school there in 1859 but this was not a homecoming. It was a revenge mission all the way. After blocking the roads in/out of town, Quantrill's force entered from multiple directions around 5:00 AM with lists of men to be killed. That soon went by the wayside as Quantrill ordered them to kill any man old enough to fire a gun. When they left four hours later, most of the town was in flames, stores and banks were looted and almost 200 men and boys had been executed, many in front of their families. Some were burned alive. There was nothing anybody could do. Quantrill's men owned the town.

Raid on Lawrence, KS

Men joined up by the 100's. Quantrill had 450 men when he led them in one of the most wanton acts of destruction in the American history - the raid on Lawrence, Kansas on August 21, 1863. ** Historical footnote: This was the second time that Lawrence had been a target for a vendetta. On May 21, 1856 it was looted and partially destroyed by a force of 800 pro-slavery citizens empowered as a posse by a pro-slavery county sheriff. **

The backlash from the Lawrence Raid soon forced Quantrill out of the state. He was hunted and hounded everywhere by Union troops, redlegs, bounty hunters and other cream of society. He went to Texas for a while and did some marauding for the Confederates. His once sizable force split up and went their separate ways. He and a couple of dozen die-hards ended up in Kentucky in the waning days of the war. Quantrill was ambushed by the Union Army at a farm in Wakefield, Kentucky on May 10, 1865 - a month after Lee's surrender to Grant. A bullet severed his spine, paralyzing him from the chest down. He was thrown in a prison cell and left to rot until he died on June 6. He was 27. Many would call that a fitting end.

There's no denying that Quantrill was a major player and influence in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. The effects of the Lawrence Raid still resonate in Kansas today. Conversely, in Missouri, as the years passed and memories faded, he achieved almost folk hero status. The raiders actually held reunions in the decades following the Civil War and his name recognition far exceeds that of Curtis, Price and Van Dorn.

In the summer of 1864, over two years had passed since the Confederate debacle at Pea Ridge. With the guerilla war still raging throughout the region, Major General Sterling Price and the Missouri State Guard started ramping up for one last Hurrah! for the south.

** Historical footnote: At the top of Quantrill's kill list in Lawrence was James Henry Lane. Lane was an ardent abolitionist and had been a partisan Jayhawker leader before the war. When Kansas became a state in 1861, Lane was elected one of its first two U.S. Senators. He returned to Kansas shortly after being sworn in - still a Senator - and raised three regiments of volunteers dubbed the "Kansas Brigade" but usually called "Lane's Brigade". Ostensibly operating with the Union, they were Jayhawkers in everything but name and conducted themselves accordingly. Their slashing attacks culminated with their raid on Osceola, Missouri on September 23, 1861. The town of 3,000 southern sympathizers was looted and burned to the ground. Over 200 slaves were freed and at least nine townspeople were executed. The town never recovered. The Union immediately disavowed any connection with the Kansas Brigade and it soon broke up. Lane was in Lawrence the day of Quantrill's attack, but eluded him and survived. The story of Lane's Brigade and the sacking of Osceola was the background for a relatively unknown 1973 novel by Forrest Carter called "Gone to Texas". One of the main characters in that book is a fictional bushwhacker bent on revenge named Josey Wales. You probably know where this is going. Carter's book was the storyline behind the 1976 Clint Eastwood movie "The Outlaw Josey Wales". Senator Lane, played by actor Frank Schofield, is in the first 20 minutes of the movie. He introduces Fletcher to Captain "Red legs" Terrell, telling them to "hound Wales to kingdom come".**

The Beginning of the End - Fall 1864

Early summer - 1864. The Civil War is in its fourth year with no end in sight. The Union Army is a war machine - tough, aggressive, experienced and, for the most part, well led. Yet, despite all that along with insurmountable advantages in manpower, firepower and logistics, President Lincoln's army can't seem to put this thing away. In fact, the spring and early summer of 1864 were the worst days of the war for the Union.

General William Sherman was stalled in his campaign to take Atlanta. In Louisiana, the Union's ill-advised Red River Campaign in May was a complete failure. The worst of all was Grant's Overland Campaign in Virginia which turned into a meat grinder. Trying to land a killing blow on Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, the Union lost tens of thousands of soldiers at places like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse and Cold Harbor with nothing to show for it. Lee's army was corraled at Petersburg, surrounded and pounded 24 x 7 but still fighting. In the first week of July, one of his Generals, Jubal Early, managed to sneak an army out of the encirclement, march down the Shenandoah Valley and show up at the northern outskirts of Washington D.C. (present-day Silver Spring, MD). He would have dined at the White House had it not been for a ferocious holding action by a pick up team of Union troops at an obscure place called Monocacy Junction in Maryland. The two day delay gave Grant time to rush reinforcements to the Union capital and save it from direct assault. ** Historical footnote: The leader of the Union force at Monocacy Junction was General Lew Wallace, who had been cashiered by Grant after Shiloh for alleged incompetence. He was in command of wounded and recovering soldiers in Baltimore when he learned about the Confederate force marching towards Washington, which was essentially undefended at this point in the war. Recognizing the extreme threat, he acted without orders, put together a plan on the fly and prevented a Union disaster. Years later, he wrote Ben-Hur, a novel of redemption and forgiveness. **

To top it all off, this was a Presidential election year. Politically, Abraham Lincoln was in big trouble. People were tired of the war. The opposition candidate was General George McClellan, who Lincoln had relieved in 1862 for failing to take Richmond and letting Lee off the hook at Antietam. McClellan was a popular and charismatic figure and ran on a platform of a negotiated peace with the Confederacy. The war strategy the South had envisioned from the beginning - make the Union bleed until they looked for a way out - could happen if Lincoln was defeated. His approach of total war with unconditional surrender was in real jeopardy as was his presidency.

Then in August, the Union starting winning dramatic victories that would eventually end the war. It began in Mobile Bay. A U.S. Navy squadron commanded by Admiral David Farragut seized the bay in three hours. Along the way, they neutralized fearsome Fort Morgan at the entrance and destroyed or captured most of the remaining Confederate Navy. Sherman took Atlanta in early September and began his infamous "March to the Sea" to Savannah, GA. In the Shenandoah Valley, General Philip Sheridan opened a new front and was carrying out his orders to break, burn and kill everything in the valley. Jubal Early's army, which just weeks before had threatened Washington, was torn to pieces.

Total, scorched earth warfare was turning the tide of the war and also Lincoln's re-election propects. It pays to be a winner. As the summer turned into fall, recent battlefield victories boosted his chances of a second term. That was bad news for the South.

Meanwhile, the Trans-Mississippi Theater was all but forgotten. There hadn't been a major battle there in over two years and even the guerilla war was starting to wane. There was simply nothing left to plunder. The Union had not been idle there, though. The theater was manned by thousands of Union regulars with modern weaponry and decent logistics. They were heavily concentrated in St. Louis and Kansas City. The 250 miles in between was outposted by thousands of Union Missouri State Militia with fortified positions across the region, mostly in the small towns along the Missouri River or the railroads. Overall command of the region passed to Major General William Rosecrans based in St. Louis. Brigadier General Samuel Curtis was still at the helm in Kansas City and was in the process of forming as new Union army - the Army of the Border.

There were few regular Confederate troops in their Department of the Trans-Mississippi and most of them were in Louisiana and Texas. The Missouri State Guard, still commanded by Major General Sterling Price, was the only force facing the Union in Missouri. They hadn't changed much. They were still a rag tag militia with poor training and poor equipment. The notion that they could challenge the mighty Union Army, open a new front, regain control of Missouri and get the South back in the war while helping to defeat Lincoln was laughable. But they tried anyway. History calls it Price's Raid.

Price's Raid - September/October 1864

Destroying a railroad

"Price's Raid"


Don Gray

This painting is one of five Civil War murals painted by Oregon artist Don Gray for the town of Cuba, Missouri. The Trans-Mississippi Theater was criss-crossed with railroads and they were constantly under attack by Confederates and guerrillas. In this mural painting, one of Price's units is destroying a depot station. They're doing it right. Haul up the rails, heat up the center and then bend them in the middle. They can never be used again. Other tactics included tearing down water towers, torching fuel stores and destroying bridges. Just shooting at trains as they as they went by was common and made window seats very unpopular. Attacking railroads was high value and low risk. Rebuilding bridges and replacing water towers took weeks or months. The distances involved and the constant threat of guerilla attacks made it even tougher. The Union used rivers for transportation as much as possible and selected a few important rail lines to keep running. ( No idea who the officer in the center is supposed to be. It's definitely not Price. It looks like Stonewall Jackson but obviously couldn't be. Maybe the artist figures all Confederate Generals look alike.)

The idea of a war-changing incursion into Missouri came from Confederate General Kirby Smith, the commander of the Department of the Trans-Mississippi. By this point in the war, the western Confederate states were virtually cut off from Richmond. General Smith was essentially in charge of his own section of the Confederacy and free to do whatever he wanted. They even had a name for it - "Kirby Smithdom".

They did get news from back east and it was all bad. So Smith came up with a scheme to reverse the fortunes of the South and he put Sterling Price in charge of it. Hence was born "Price's Expedition".

As originally envisioned, Price's force would capture St. Louis and plunder the federal arsenal there. They would arm all the people in the countryside who were going to join with him in a huge uprising against the federals. Together they would sweep the Union out of Missouri and open up a second front to the federal rear and flanks across the Mississippi River.

On August 28, 1864, Price's 12,000 man force headed north from Camden, AR heading towards St. Louis over 400 miles away. They crossed into southeast Missouri on September 18 about 170 miles from St. Louis. Half of his force was trained and experienced militia cavalry organized in three divisions. The division commanders were Generals John Marmaduke, James Fagan and Joseph Shelby. Shelby's brigade was one of the best fighting units of the war on either side. They were the spearhead and would perform heroically in the coming battles.

The other half of the 12,000 were a mixed bag of local militia, deserters who had been apprehended, bushwhackers and other assorted types. Even though this was supposed to be a cavalry operation, 3,000 men lacked horses. Many soldiers were barefoot. Several thousand had antiquated weapons or no weapons at all.** Historical footnote: Ever heard of a Model 1819 Hall rifle? Or a Savage-North .36 caliber revolver? Neither had I. The weapons carried by Price's force were as motley as they were. ** Other things in short supply included canteens, bed rolls, cartridge boxes, discipline and training. So even though the history books tell us that Price had a 12,000 man army, a little perspective changes things. On a good day, he could probably muster 7,000 to 8,000 fighters. It's impossible to pin down how many men he had at any given time.

The Union, for their part, improved Price's chances by dropping their guard. Thousands of Union regulars had been shipped across the Mississippi to reinforce Sherman and Grant. The security of the frontier fell mostly to the Missouri State Militia, who concentrated on their local areas. The Federals were firmly in control of St. Louis, Kansas City and Little Rock, but by mid-1864, offensive operations and reconnaissance in the Missouri-Arkansas region came to a virtual halt. Not so with the Confederates and the Bushwhackers, who remained active throughout. In addition to foraging raids, bank holdups and train robberies, critical railroad and telegraph lines were under constant attack. Shelby, in particular, roamed Missouri at will scouting and raiding for over a year. He knew much more about the area than the Union leadership did.

Moving in two columns, Price advanced towards St. Louis for eight days. The robust recruitment and uprising that he was expecting didn't materialize. On September 26, he found himself facing Fort Davidson. The natural route into St. Louis from the south goes through the hilly and heavily wooded Arcadia Valley. Fort Davidson sat astride that route in the bottom of the valley near the town of Pilot Knob about 70 miles southwest from St. Louis. It was a six-sided earthen fort with walls nine feet high and ten feet thick at the base. Gun emplacements ringed the perimeter. A dry moat nine feet wide and nine feet deep surrounded the fort, essentially giving it 18 foot walls. Manning it were 1,000 Missouri militiamen and 200 soldiers from an Iowa regiment, all commanded by Colonel Thomas Ewing.

Destroying a railroad

"Battle of Pilot Knob"


Don Gray

Fighting at Fort Davidson on September 27, 1864. Price outnumbered the defenders 10 to 1 and had twice the number of cannons. But his attacks were uncoordinated and the artillery support was ineffective. It basically turned into classic Civil War human wave frontal assaults on one wall at a time, giving the Union the time and opportunity to adjust their defenses. Most notable in the painting is the Union defenders using grenades, which they rained down on the attackers at the base of the walls. This mural is also in Cuba, MO and appears to be the only artistic depiction available of the Fort Davidson fight.

It was a strong position. Shelby advised bypassing it but Price wanted to flex his muscle and draw first blood. The next day, he attacked it from four directions but not all at once. Union defenders were able to concentrate their fire on one at a time. Their cannons ripped up the attacking waves. Late in the fight, Price's infantry got to the base of the walls. The defenders hurled hand grenades down on them and broke up the assault.

That night, while Price prepared for follow on attacks the next day, Colonel Ewing's force slipped away into the night to St. Louis. They left behind a surprise. Explosives on long fuses blew up the powder magazine well after they were gone. The huge hole in the ground is still there today at the Fort Davidson State Historic Site.

** Historical footnote: That same day - September 27, 1864 - "Bloody Bill" Anderson and 80 Bushwhackers rode into Centralia, MO. They were dressed in Union army uniforms. Centralia was a major railroad hub 50 miles north of Jefferson City and the Missouri River. The region north of the river had not seen nearly as much guerrilla activity and was ripe for the plundering. That's what they were there for.

Anderson's men took over the town. Among them were Frank and Jesse James. Jesse was 17. Amidst the looting, killing and burning they became dangerously drunk and lost whatever little reason and inhibition might have remained. After a time, they spotted a train heading into the depot and prepared to board it. The engineer opened up the throttle and tried to ram his way through, but he was overtaken and killed after the throttle was shut down. Everybody on the train - about 100 in all - was herded on to the platform and robbed of everything. Anyone who hesitated was killed or beaten within an inch of their life. Among the 100 were 24 unarmed Union soldiers in uniform, all coming home on leave or recently discharged. They were ordered to strip, then executed and scalped in front of everybody. The looting continued until the drunken bushwhackers gave it up and headed for the hills. This day of savage mayhem is known as the Centralia Massacre. It would be repeated along both banks of the river by bushwhackers who aligned themselves with Price's Raid. Places like New Florence, High Hill, Danville and Glasgow all suffered similar fates, with Price's blessing.**

Price drew first blood alright, but most of it was his. To coin a phrase used in the modern military, he "screwed the pooch" - big time. He lost 1,000 men, used up half his artillery rounds and wasted three precious days. The Union lost 100 men, got away clean and sounded the alarm. With the benefit of historical hindsight, the Battle of Pilot Knob doomed the entire expedition. It never recovered from the shellacking it took there. If Price had been smart, he'd have called off the whole thing and lived to fight another day. But he was obsessed with the idea of a Confederate Missouri, so he pressed on. He abandoned his plan to attack St. Louis and started thinking about other ways to win back the hearts and minds of Missouri. He headed for Jefferson City, the state capital 150 miles to the northwest on the south bank of the Missouri River. Meanwhile, the sleeping Union giant began to awaken.

The Union had an efficient system to move supplies, equipment and manpower throughout the central U.S. They used river routes. The Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Cumberland and Ohio Rivers (and others) could get things and people close to the action throughout most of the Confederacy - and the Union controlled all of them. That's what much of the fighting in the first half of the war was about. Using steamboat paddle wheelers, with ironclad gunboat escort if needed, the federal forces could manuever quickly, securely and efficiently - as Sterling Price was about to find out.

Ketchum grenade

Grenades in the Civil War? Oh, yes. Many different kinds. The one shown here and used at Fort Davidson is called a Ketchum grenade, named after the inventor, William Ketchum. It had a percussion fuse as opposed to a timed fuse. The plunger on the tip would set off a percussion cap and detonate the grenade. To do so, it had to hit on the tapered end. That was the purpose of the hard paper fins - to stabilize it and keep it nose down. This grenade was used almost exclusively by the Union and usually in the defense or siege operations. They weren't great for a moving offensive action. They came in one, three and five pound sizes. The Confederates developed a unique defense against them. They would string up blankets to soften the landing, preventing it from exploding. Then they could throw them back at their leisure. You might say the Confederates called them "catch 'em grenades".

Price got to Jefferson City at the end of the first week of October and found it reinforced with several thousand Union troops. They had come up the Missouri River from St. Louis. Also on the way was the cavalry division of Major General Alfred Pleasonton, who had commanded cavalry units at Gettysburg and fought Jeb Stuart to a draw at Brandy Station.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General Samuel Curtis was finishing up the formation of a new Union army at Kansas City - the Army of the Border. Price was on the verge of being sandwiched between two Union armies and outnumbered three to one. The escape route south was still wide open, but he soldiered on. He bypassed Jefferson City and continued moving along the south bank of the Missouri River.

At this point, liberation, hearts and minds and all that went out the window. Price's Expedition became Price's Raid with the objective of grabbing as much stuff as they could and getting it back home. They started plundering with reckless abandon the very people they had planned on liberating.

After they bypassed Jefferson City, the cavalry of the Missouri State Militia started to pursue them aggressively and were soon joined by Pleasonton's troopers. Now the real action began. The Union lead and Confederate rear elements were in contact almost continuously. Those little skirmishes don't have names or records, but went on all the way to the Kansas border. According to army records, Price's force fought in around 50 separate engagements, most of them between late September and late October. That doesn't include other unrecorded or unknown clashes or the intense guerilla raiding activity.

The battles of Price's Raid would fill a book - and in fact, they have. There are many out there. If you skim any of the them, you'll find out about unheard of battles at Glasgow, Lexington, Little Blue River, Big Blue River, Independence, Byram's Ford, Marmiton River, Marais des Cygnes and others. If you travel down that way, they all have museums, web sites and various states of battlefield preservation. As Civil War battles go, they were small in scale but hard fought. Price forced the Union off the battlefield in several of them but there were few really decisive victories on either side. Much of it was just - fighting. Not enough to qualify as a battle or even a skirmish but enough to get someone killed. The Battle at Fort Davidson was an exception to that. Another was the Battle of Westport, the largest battle of the entire war in the Trans-Mississippi Theater and the end of Price's Raid.

Westport today is a suburb of Kansas City, MO. It's completely urbanized and not much of the battlefield remains, although restoration and preservation efforts are ongoing. But on October 21, 1864, almost 40,000 troops from three armies collided here and fought back and forth for three days over 25 square miles.

When Price got to the battle area, his force had been reduced to no more than 8,000. Disease and desertions had taken more troops than battles did, but that was a common trend in the war. His raiding and plundering had been fruitful. His force was now herding along 600 wagons and 5,000 head of livestock in a supply train 15 miles long. It was slow and ponderous, allowing Pleasonton's 10,000 cavalrymen to finally catch up with him in force.

The huge supply train caused a major dilemma for Price. He was determined to get all that stuff home. To do so, he had to find a ford across the Big Blue River and hold it long enough to get everything across. That's what the fight at Westport was all about. Blocking his way forward was Curtis' 20,000 man Army of the Border. By the 23rd, Union cavalry was in his rear and turning his right flank from the north. General John Marmaduke's division was smashed and the entire force was in danger of encirclement. Price's force salvaged what they could, burned what they couldn't and headed in the only direction left - south. They wouldn't have made it at all if it hadn't been for a near suicidal rear guard action by General Shelby on "Bloody Hill".

The Battle of Westport was the end of Price's Raid. Price's force had slipped away to the south with a still sizeable supply train and lived to fight another day. And that's all it would be - another day. For one of the few times in the entire war, a Union army pursued a defeated enemy intending to finish them off. That would happen less than 48 hours later at Mine Creek, one of the few Civil War battles fought in Kansas.

Battle of Mine Creek - October 25, 1864

Map of border rivers

A map of the battle area from October 23-28, 1864. The blue X marks the site of the Battle of Westport. The three red X's show the fighting on October 25 at Mine Creek, Little Osage River and Marmiton River. The green X marks the Second Battle of Newtonia (the first was fought in 1861). All told, it was Price's worst imaginable tactical scenario - multiple water crossings with a miles long wagon train while being hounded by Union cavalry. His army was effectively destroyed at Mine Creek. The follow on engagements were about how many would survive the trip home. The main reasons any of them made it back were Shelby's heroics and Union caution as the pursuit progressed. If they had been serious about the chase, they would have paralleled Price's ponderous column, blocked his way forward and hit him from the flanks, never giving him a moment's rest. In the world of battle planning, that's known as the Exploitation Phase. It's violent, messy and merciless. Remember the "Highway of Death" in Desert Storm? Stonewall Jackson or George Armstrong Custer (or Patton or Rommel) would have annihilated Price's dazed and confused force. Instead, the Union just followed them nipping at their heels and backing off from Shelby's rear guard. They had the right idea. They just didn't have the stomach to finish the job.

Price's Raid was finished but someone forgot to tell Price. He headed south with hundreds of wagons full of plunder and supplies and he was going for more. He wanted to get them at Fort Scott, Kansas about 100 miles south of Westport. The biggest Union post in the region, it had thousands of tons of war supplies which Price planned to seize. It was also guarded by thousands of Union soldiers, so one has to wonder what Price was thinking.

In addition to the dire circumstances his force was in, he also had time and geography working against him. Between Westport and the supposed safety of Arkansas, there were a number of rivers and streams running east-west that had to be crossed. They were all part of the Mississippi River watershed. It had been raining heavily in recent days. The waters were high and fast. The banks were steep and slippery. Most of them could only be crossed at certain places - fords known to everyone and also found on maps. That's where everybody headed.

Trying to cross swift waters with a 10 mile long wagon train while being chased by cavalry is not a good place to be. The Confederates' worst case scenario came together at Mine Creek, 70 miles south of Westport and 25 miles north of Fort Scott.

Price had already crossed it and with General Shelby's division was headed for Fort Scott. He left his other two divisions behind to guard the wagon train and delay any Union pursuit. The two armies fought a 20 mile running battle across the Kansas prairie. Price had no idea that two brigades of Union cavalry caught up to the wagon train on the north bank. Likewise he didn't know that both of his divisions were also caught on the north bank and had turned to fight. That was the setting for the battle. No more running fight trading space for time. Over 7,000 Confederates and eight cannons lined up to make a stand against 2,500 Federal horse soldiers. The Union was heavily outnumbered but they brought vastly superior firepower with them and that was the difference in this battle.

The Union learned a few tricks from the guerillas. Their cavalry units favored the revolver and each trooper carried several of them. They also has repeating rifles, like the 7-shot Spencer carbine. Some were equipped with Spencer or Springfield single shot breech loading rifles. There wasn't a muzzle loader among them. All these weapons could be reloaded on horseback. But before they had to reload, a 2500 man salvo could put over 30,000 rounds downrange.

The Confederates were armed primarily with muzzle loading rifles. Some of them weren't armed at all. They would have to dismount to reload which would have been suicide. So they stayed on horseback, fired their one round then used their rifles as clubs when the Union closed in among them.

Battle of Mine Creek

"Mine Creek"


Andy Thomas

In the first two years of the Civil War, Union cavalry was almost a bad joke. Rebel cavalrymen were practically born in the saddle and were led by dashing larger-than-life figures like Jeb Stuart, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Joseph Shelby. Time and again, Union cavalry struggled on the battlefields of every theater. By Mid-1864, that had all changed. Led by their own legends like Phil Sheridan, John Buford and George Custer (yes, THAT Custer), Union cavalry became a formidable force on the battlefield. It all came together for them at Mine Creek, the second largest cavalry battle of the entire war. Over two thousand Yankees slammed into 7,000 Confederate cavalry who had their backs to the water, no room to manuever and a fraction of the firepower. After an all-out downhill charge, the Union made short work of their enemy - just like the cavalry is supposed to do.

And close they did. In two parallel columns with regiments online, they advanced down the slope to Mine Creek at a full gallop. It was a classic cavalry charge with speed, momentum and firepower and the second largest all-cavalry battle of the entire war. Price's divisions never had a chance. They lost a large part of the wagon train and suffered 1,200 casualties. About half of those were taken prisoner, including General Marmaduke. Others tried to escape in the brush or the water but were hunted down and killed. Any Confederate soldier wearing anything resembling part of a Union uniform was executed. The charge started at 1100. It was over by 1130. The Union won decisively but had not completed the destruction of Price's army. The pursuit continued. ** Historical footnote: The largest all-cavalry battle of the war was Brandy Station on June 9, 1863 near Culpepper, VA. Union cavalry under General Alfred Pleasonton attacked Confederate cavalry commanded by Jeb Stuart. Most historians call the battle a draw, since the Union didn't get clobbered as usual by Stuart. If Pleasonton had been able to advance further, he might have stumbled upon Lee's army that was camped nearby. They were on their way Gettysburg.**

The End Game

Less than two hours later, the Union jumped them again as they crossed the Little Osage River less than 10 miles south of Mine Creek. By now, Shelby had turned around and rejoined Price's force. His was the only intact division left. The other two divisions were in complete disarray and panic.

Shelby deployed dismounted into multiple lines of skirmishers and fired volleys at the Union cavalry. By now, confusion and tired horses were hampering the Union pursuit and they got cautious. Shelby bought the time needed for Price to continue but not before the Union had pushed Shelby back and taken another chunk out of Price's dwindling army.

Aroound 1530, they did it all over again. Union lead elements caught the Confederates at another crossing on the Marmiton River. The Union commander, Brigadier General John McNeil, was again facing fierce resistance from Shelby. His first instinct was to attack, but the Union horses were so exhausted they couldn't be goaded into another full charge. Stopping 300 yards from Shelby's line, the Union opened fire with small arms and artillery. Both sides slugged it out but Union firepower was winning the day. Union cavalry advanced and was on the verge of cracking the left of Shelby's line when his reserves arrived and shored up the resistance. McNeil broke off the attack and Price continued south with still fewer wagons and men.

Three days later, on October 28, a newly reorganized Union force caught up with the retreating wagon train in a wooded area Newtonia, MO. Price's demolished and demoralized force had been resting there for two days and were caught flat footed by 1,000 Yankee cavalry led by General James Blunt. Despite still being heavily outnumbered, Blunt attacked. As the Union moved in for the kill, Shelby dismounted his troops and made another heroic stand. Union firepower was again carrying the day and reinforcements streamed in. However, the Union pursuit was running out of gas. Shelby finally broke contact at nightfall but he had accomplished his mission. The federal pursuit ended and the remnants of Price's Raid force moved west into the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

Price's army marched almost 1,500 miles and fought 50 battles in less than three months. They operated in Union territory for six weeks while being hounded most of the time. They wreaked havoc on railroad and telegraph lines and plundered hundreds of tons of supplies. However, in the final analysis, they accomplished nothing except to lose most of their wagon train, all the key battles and 6,000 men - half of his original force. Had it not been for General Jo Shelby, hardly anybody would have made it back.

1898 Quantrill reunion

In the decades after the Civil War, guerillas were glamorized and morphed into folk heroes - honorable defenders of states' rights, the "lost cause" and all that. No group benefited more from this re-branding than Quantrill's men. In September 1898, they held their first reunion at Blue Springs, MO. It was organized by Frank James, older brother of Jesse James. For 32 years, they held annual reunions until they were all gone. The name Quantrill's Raiders didn't come about until the reunions started with the press in attendance. During and after the war, they were known as Quantrill's guerrillas. This image from the National Archives is a group photo of that first reunion in 1898. The last one was in 1929. It had less than 10 attendees.

The Price Raid/Expedition debacle effectively ended Confederate operations in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Union control was tightened and the South had no more assets to fight with.

Lincoln was re-elected easily in November 1864 with 55% of the popular vote and 213 out of 233 electoral votes. His second term inauguration was on March 4, 1865. His pursuit of total war and unconditional surrender became even more intense after that. The Union was scoring victory after victory, leading to Lee's surrender at Appomattox on April 9. Lincoln was assassinated five days later on April 14. His second term lasted only 41 days and he didn't live to see the end of the war. The Confederacy cheered his death, but they were treated much more harshly by President Andrew Johnson than they would have been by Lincoln.

General Kirby Smith held out in Texas hoping that an active resistance movement might compel better terms from a Union tired of war. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was on his way to "Kirby Smithdom" to establish a government-in-exile when he was captured at Irwinville, GA on May 10, 1865.

The last ground battle of the Civil War was fought in Smith's domain. The battle of Palmito Ranch took place near Brownsville, TX on the banks of the Rio Grande on May 12-13. It was a small battle but there were casualties on both sides. It was a southern victory and is significant as the only battle in the war where most of the combatants were Hispanic, Indian or black. ** Historical footnote: Pvt John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana infantry regiment was killed at Palmito Ranch. He is recorded as the last man to die in combat in the Civil War. **

Kirby Smith's gambit to obtain better terms from the U.S. government failed. Out of options and everything else, he surrendered all the Confederate forces in the Department of the Trans-Mississippi on June 2, 1865. This closed the last active theater of the war and brought an end to the fighting.

The Trans-Mississippi Theater is often overlooked and underplayed in studies of the Civil War. Ken Burns' classic 18 hour 1986 series "The Civil War" mentions it once in the opening minutes of the first episode. The Union would have had a much tougher time winning without aggressive action here. A Mississippi River controlled, blocked or contested by the Confederates would have changed the war and necessitated an entirely different strategy by the Union. It may have even lengthened the war and resulted in a negotiated peace.

Emotional feelings about the war persist to this day. The region is still carrying baggage over the Lawrence Raid, the James-Younger Gang, the Centralia Massacre and other savageries. The guns are silent, the guerillas ride no more and the battlefields are now parks and museums. Nevertheless, if one explores the area, as we have, there is a very strong sense that the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi Theater has never really ended.

Whatever Happened to...

Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon

Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon was killed in action at Wilson's Creek - August 10, 1861 (age 43).

Brigadier General Ben McCulloch

Confederate Brigadier General Ben McCulloch was killed in action at Pea Ridge - March 7, 1862 (age 50).

Brigadier General Samuel Curtis

Union Major General Samuel Curtis was not a career soldier but was a capable and competent commander. Largely forgotten by history, he was the only Union general who was consistently winning battles in the first two years of the war. After the war, he went to work for the Union Pacific Railroad. While on an inspection trip to Council Bluffs, Iowa, he suffered a stroke and died on December 26, 1866 (age 61). He is buried in Keokuk, Iowa, where he was once the mayor and a congressman.

Major General Sterling Price
A native Virginian, Confederate Major General Sterling Price moved to Missouri in his early 20's and became one of the state's most prominent citizens. He served as a congressman and the state governor. In between, he fought in the Mexican War and returned a hero. Price recruited and commanded the Missouri State Guard for the entire Civil War. He refused to surrender at the end and took what was left of his army to Mexico. He returned to the U.S. in mid-1866 with cholera, from which he never recovered. Emaciated and penniless, he died on September 29, 1867 (age 58). He's buried in St. Louis.

General Joseph Shelby, CSA
Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Shelby was a wealthy 29 year old gentleman farmer with no military background when the war broke out. He recruited a company of cavalry, outfitted them at his own expense and offered their services to the Governor of Missouri. Shelby was a natural. He spent the entire war in the thick of the fighting in the Trans-Mississippi and performed brilliantly. After the war, he went to Mexico with Sterling Price. He returned to the U.S. in 1867 and resumed farming near Adrian, MO. He remained there until his death from pneumonia on February 13, 1897 (age 66). He's buried in Kansas City, MO.

General Kirby Smith, CSA
Confederate General Kirby Smith surrendered his Trans-Mississippi command on June 2, 1865 and fled to Cuba to avoid charges of treason. His wife negotiated for his return and he did so in November 1865. He spent the rest of his life as a college professor at the College of the South, an Episcopal college and seminary in Sewanee, TN. He died of pneumonia on March 28, 1893 (age 68) and is buried in the campus cemetery.

Major General Franz Sigel Union Major General Franz Sigel was a German immigrant with formal Prussian military training but as a combat leader, he was a disaster. His highlight reel came on the second day of Pea Ridge, where his artillery demolished the Confederates. Re-assigned back east, he had a series of commands and lost every battle he was involved in. Then came his loss at the Battle of New Market in May 1864, where he was attacked by cadets from the Virginia Military Institute. He was fired and sat out the rest of the war. Afterwards, he worked in various private and government jobs until his death in New York on August 21, 1902 (age 77). Despite his command failings, he was a popular and influential person in the huge German-American community. His real service to the Union was recruiting and motivating thousands of pro-Union German immigrants. He's buried in The Bronx.

Major General Earl Van Dorn, CSA
Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn was a West Point graduate and career officer. He fought well in the Mexican War and the Commanche Wars. He joined the Confederacy in January 1861. After losing the battle of Pea Ridge to a smaller Union force, he was reassigned to the east and given new commands. He was relieved after two major losses with thousands of casualties. On May 16, 1863, he was murdered in Spring Hill, TN. by the husband of a woman he was having an affair with. He was 42. The husband was never charged.


William Clarke Quantrill was shot and captured by Union troops in Wakefield, KY on May 10, 1865. He died of his wounds in prison on June 6, 1865 (age 27) and is buried in Louisville, KY.

Bloody Bill Anderson

William "Bloody Bill" Anderson was killed in a gunfight on October 26, 1864 near Albany, MO. (age 24). He was charging a unit of Union troops specifically assigned to hunt him down after the Centralia Massacre a month earlier. He's buried in Richmond, MO.

Outlaw Josey Wales

The outlaw Josey Wales was last seen riding off into the sunset while the closing credits rolled.

Exploring the Trans-Mississippi Theater

Overhead view of Mine Creek battlefield

This is an overhead, annotated view of the Mine Creek battlefield. It's actually one of the placards on the field. The star is the visitor center. The legend outlines the array of forces and the creek itself. This was a very interesting and informative visit. The museum is small but complete and the staff are very enthusiastic about their site. If you can't get there, the History Channel produced a documentary about it called "The Lost Battle of the Civil War". It's all about Mine Creek and how nobody has heard of the second largest cavalry battle of the entire war. You can stream it over Netflix or Amazon or buy it for $3. It's worth seeing. You'll also see a question mark on the photo. We put that there. It looks like a UFO landing site with a crop circle, but we won't go there. However, there is a learning point to be made here. If you go out into the world exploring and you do it long enough, there's a good chance that eventually you'll experience something that you don't quite understand. Civil War battlefields are famous for that kind of thing. We had our own experience at Shiloh in early 2009. Read about our Shiloh Ghost Story. It's our own personal X-File.

If you like parks, trails, back roads, riverfronts, history, forts, battles, tactics, heroes, last stands and geocaches, you've come to the right place. The Trans-Mississippi battleground has them all and hardly anyone knows about them.

We are fanatical National Park Service Passport Stamp collectors. There a number of NPS places to visit. Pea Ridge and Wilson's Creek are must-sees, but there are many others. Here is a list of all passport stations in the National Park Service.

Much of the history of the area has been preserved by city, county and state entities. The entire region is one big museum. Markers, monuments, placards, interpretive trails, ruins, preserved buildings and memorial parks can be found everywhere. They all have a story to tell. If you just drive down the road, you'll find stuff. Seems like every town has a museum and every battle area is now a park. We liked the Bushwhacker Museum in Nevada, MO. The Carthage area is also very good. They have a very active historical society and a nice little museum. Also check out the Lone Jack Museum. The round stone building has dioramas of the Battle of Westport and Quantrill's raid on Lawrence.

The battles of Westport and Mine Creek both have their own visitor centers. Westport is urban now but they have a 32 mile self-guided driving tour available and some of the battleground has been preserved. Mine Creek has a very good museum and the battle ground looks the same as it did during the war.

Festivals and reenactments abound. Touring the area is easy and the people are friendly. Every place we went, they were very happy to talk about the historical events of the time and guide us to further adventures.

In addition to the NPS Passport Stamps, Natasha and I like to hunt down geocaches, munzees, letterboxes, benchmarks and whatever else is out there. The area has lots of them. Cell phone coverage is good so you can do it on the fly. Download an app and go for it. It's a great way to travel, get outside and keep the kids busy. One thing you can be certain of. If you hunt down some of these things, it will take you places and show you things you never would have known about otherwise. If you don't know how or where to start, try our blog. It's got lots of How-To stuff.

Historical markers for all these places and more can be found in the Historical Marker Data Base. You can scout an area, do different types of searches and even make maps. It's a great way to do some advance work before heading out to explore.

Once a violent battleground, the Trans-Mississippi offers a host of adventures. There's something for everyone. Families, Sunday drivers, history buffs, outdoor lovers, weekend warriors and more will find something up their alley. And you don't have to worry about getting scalped unless you're trying to get tickets to a St. Louis ballgame in the parking lot on game day.

We hope you enjoyed learning about the Trans-Mississippi Theater of the Civil War. Feed back is always welcome.

Semper Fi and da svidanya.

Boris and Natasha