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The Battle of Pea Ridge

 Native American Nations | Participant in the Civil War                    


The Indian alliance, so assiduously sought by the Southern Confederacy and so laboriously built up, soon revealed itself to be most unstable. Direct and unmistakable signs of its instability appeared in connection with the first real military test to which it was subjected, the Battle of Pea Ridge or Elkhorn, as it is better known in the South, the battle that stands out in the history of the War of Secession as being the most decisive victory to date of the Union forces in the West and as marking the turning point in the political relationship of the State of Missouri with the Confederate government.

In the short time during which, following the removal of General Fremont, General David Hunter was in full command of the Department of the West—and it was practically not more than one week—he completely reversed the policy of vigorous offensive that had obtained under men, subordinate to his predecessor.1 In southwest Missouri, he abandoned the advanced position of the Federals and fell back upon Sedalia and Rolla, railway termini. That he did this at the suggestion of President Lincoln2 and with the tacit approval of General McClellan3 makes no difference now, as it made no difference then, in the consideration of the consequences; yet the consequences were, none the less, rather serious. They were such, in fact, as to increase very greatly the confusion on the border and to give the Confederates that chance of recovery which soon made it necessary for their foes to do the work of Nathaniel Lyon all over again.

It has been most truthfully said4 that never, throughout the period of the entire war, did the southern government fully realize the surpassingly great importance of its Trans-Mississippi District; notwithstanding that when that district was originally organized,5 in January, 1862, some faint idea of what it might, peradventure, accomplish did seem to penetrate,6 although ever so vaguely, the minds of those then in authority. It was organized under pressure from the West as was natural, and under circumstances to which meager and tentative reference has already been made in the first volume of this work.7 In the main, the circumstances were such as developed out of the persistent refusal of General McCulloch to cooperate with General Price.

There was much to be said in justification of McCulloch's obstinacy. To understand this it is well to recall that, under the plan, lying back of this first appointment to the Confederate command, was the expectation that he would secure the Indian Territory. Obviously, the best way to do that was to occupy it, provided the tribes, whose domicile it was, were willing. But, if the Cherokees can be taken to have voiced the opinion of all, they were not willing, notwithstanding that a sensationally reported8 Federal activity under Colonel James Montgomery,9 in the neighborhood of the frontier posts, Cobb, Arbuckle, and Washita, was designed to alarm them and had notably influenced, if it had not actually inspired, the selection and appointment of the Texan ranger.10

Unable, by reason of the Cherokee objection thereto, to enter the Indian country; because entrance in the face of that objection would inevitably force the Ross faction of the Cherokees and, possibly also, Indians of other tribes into the arms of the Union, McCulloch entrenched himself on its northeast border, in Arkansas, and there awaited a more favorable opportunity for accomplishing his main purpose. He seems to have desired the Confederate government to add the contiguous portion of Arkansas to his command, but in that he was disappointed.11 Nevertheless, Arkansas early interpreted his presence in the state to imply that he was there primarily for her defense and, by the middle of June, that idea had so far gained general acceptance that C.C. Danley, speaking for the Arkansas Military Board, urged President Davis "to meet the exigent necessities of the State" by sending a second general officer there, who should command in the northeastern part.12

McCulloch's relations with leading Confederates in Arkansas seem to have been, from the first, in the highest degree friendly, even cordial, and it is more than likely that, aside from his unwillingness to offend the neutrality-loving Cherokees, the best explanation for his eventual readiness to make the defense of Arkansas his chief concern, instead of merely a means to the accomplishment of his original task, may be found in that fact. On the twenty-second of May, the Arkansas State Convention instructed Brigadier-general N. Bart Pearce, then in command of the state troops, to cooperate with the Confederate commander "to the full extent of his ability"13 and, on the twenty-eighth of the same month, the Arkansas Military Board invited that same person, who, of course, was Ben McCulloch, to assume command himself of the Arkansas local forces.14 Sympathetic understanding of this variety, so early established, was bound to produce good results and McCulloch henceforth identified himself most thoroughly with Confederate interests in the state in which he was, by dint of untoward circumstances, obliged to bide his time.

It was far otherwise as respected relations between McCulloch and the Missouri leaders. McCulloch had little or no tolerance for the rough-and-ready methods of men like Claiborne Jackson and Sterling Price. He regarded their plans as impractical, chimerical, and their warfare as after the guerrilla order, too much like that to which Missourians and Kansans had accustomed themselves during the period of border conflict, following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. McCulloch himself was a man of system. He believed in organization that made for efficiency. Just prior to the Battle of Wilson's Creek, he put himself on record as strongly opposed to allowing unarmed men and camp followers to infest his ranks, demoralizing them.15 It was not to be expected, therefore, that there could ever be much in common between him and Sterling Price. For a brief period, it is true, the two men did apparently act in fullest harmony; but it was when the safety of Price's own state, Missouri, was the thing directly in hand. That was in early August of 1861. Price put himself and his command subject to McCulloch's orders.16 The result was the successful engagement, August 10 at Wilson's Creek, on Missouri soil. On the fourteenth of the same month, Price reassumed control of the Missouri State Guard17 and, from that time on, he and McCulloch drifted farther and farther apart; but, as their aims were so entirely different, it was not to be wondered at.

Undoubtedly, all would have been well had McCulloch been disposed to make the defense of Missouri his only aim. Magnanimity was asked of him such as the Missouri leaders never so much as contemplated showing in return. It seems never to have occurred to either Jackson or Price that cooperation might, perchance, involve such an exchange of courtesies as would require Price to lend a hand in some project that McCulloch might devise for the well-being of his own particular charge. The assistance was eventually asked for and refused, refused upon the ground, familiar in United States history, that it would be impossible to get the Missouri troops to cross the state line. Of course, Price's conduct was not without extenuation. His position was not identical with McCulloch's. His force was a state force, McCulloch's a Confederate, or a national. Besides, Missouri had yet to be gained, officially, for the Confederacy. She expected secession states and the Confederacy itself to force the situation for her. And, furthermore, she was in far greater danger of invasion than was Arkansas. The Kansans were her implacable and dreaded foes and Arkansas had none like them to fear.

In reality, the seat of all the trouble between McCulloch and Price lay in particularism, a phase of state rights, and, in its last analysis, provincialism. Now particularism was especially pronounced and especially pernicious in the middle southwest. Missouri had always more than her share of it. Her politicians were impregnated by it. They were interested in their own locality exclusively and seemed quite incapable of taking any broad survey of events that did not immediately affect themselves or their own limited concerns. In the issue between McCulloch and Price, this was all too apparent. The politicians complained unceasingly of McCulloch's neglect of Missouri and, finally, taking their case to headquarters, represented to President Davis that the best interests of the Confederate cause in their state were being glaringly sacrificed by McCulloch's too literal interpretation of his official instructions, in the strict observance of which he was keeping close to the Indian boundary.

President Davis had personally no great liking for Price and certainly none for his peculiar method of fighting. Some people thought him greatly prejudiced18 against Price and, in the first instance, perhaps, on nothing more substantial than the fact that Price was not a Westpointer.19 It would be nearer the truth to say that Davis gauged the western situation pretty accurately and knew where the source of trouble lay. That he did gauge the situation and that accurately is indicated by a suggestion of his, made in early December, for sending out Colonel Henry Heth of Virginia to command the Arkansas and Missouri divisions in combination.20 Heth had no local attachments in the region and "had not been connected with any of the troops on that line of operations."21 Unfortunately, for subsequent events his nomination22 was not confirmed.

Two days later, December 5, 1861, General McCulloch was granted23 permission to proceed to Richmond, there to explain in person, as he had long wanted to do, all matters in controversy between him and Price. On the third of January, 1862, the Confederate Congress called24 for information on the subject, doubtless under pressure of political importunity. The upshot of it all was, the organization of the Trans-Mississippi District of Department No. 2 and the appointment of Earl Van Dorn as major-general to command it. Whether or no, he was the choice25 of General A.S. Johnston, department commander, his appointment bid fair, at the time it was made, to put an end to all local disputes and to give Missouri the attention she craved. The ordnance department of the Confederacy had awakened to a sense of the value of the lead mines26 at Granby and Van Dorn was instructed especially to protect them.27 His appointment, moreover, anticipated an early encounter with the Federals in Missouri. In preparation for the struggle that all knew was impending, it was of transcendent importance that one mind and one interest should control, absolutely.

The Trans-Mississippi District would appear to have been constituted and its limits to have been defined without adequate reference to existing arrangements. The limits were, "That part of the State of Louisiana north of Red River, the Indian Territory west of Arkansas, and the States of Arkansas and Missouri, excepting there from the tract of country east of the Saint Francis, bordering on the Mississippi River, from the mouth of the Saint Francis to Scott County, Missouri...."28 Van Dorn, in assuming command of the district, January 29, 1862, issued orders in such form that Indian Territory was listed last among the limits29 and it was a previous arrangement affecting Indian Territory that was most ignored in the whole scheme of organization.

It will be remembered that, in November of the preceding year, the Department of Indian Territory had been created and Brigadier-general Albert Pike assigned to the same.30 His authority was not explicitly superseded by that which later clothed Van Dorn and yet his department was now to be absorbed by a military district, which was itself merely a section of another department. The name and organization of the Department of Indian Territory remained to breed confusion, disorder, and serious discontent at a slightly subsequent time. Of course, since the ratification of the treaties of alliance with the tribes, there was no question to be raised concerning the status of Indian Territory as definitely a possession of the Southern Confederacy. Indeed, it had, in a way, been counted as such, actual and prospective, ever since the enactment of the marquee and reprisal law of May 6, 1861.31

Albert Pike, having accepted the appointment of department commander in Indian Territory under somewhat the same kind of a protest—professed consciousness of unfitness for the post—as he had accepted the earlier one of commissioner, diplomatic, to the tribes, lost no time in getting into touch with his new duties. There was much to be attended to before he could proceed west. His appointment had come and had been accepted in November. Christmas was now near at hand and he had yet to render an account of his mission of treaty-making. In late December, he sent in his official report32 to President Davis and, that done, held himself in readiness to respond to any interpellating call that the Provincial Congress might see fit to make. The intervals of time, free from devotion to the completion of the older task, were spent by him in close attention to the preliminary details of the newer, in securing funds and in purchasing supplies and equipment generally, also in selecting a site for his headquarters. By command of Secretary of War, Judah P. Benjamin, Major N.B. Pearce33 was made chief commissary of subsistence for Indian Territory and Western Arkansas and Major G.W. Clarke,34 depot quartermaster. In the sequel of events, both appointments came to be of a significance rather unusual.

The site chosen for department headquarters was a place situated near the junction of the Verdigris and Arkansas Rivers and not far from Fort Gibson.35 The fortifications erected there received the name of Cantonment Davis and upon them, in spite of Pike's decidedly moderate estimate in the beginning, the Confederacy was said by a contemporary to have spent "upwards of a million dollars."36 In view of the ostensible object of the very formation of the department and of Pike's appointment to its command, the defense of Indian Territory, and, in view of the existing location of enemy troops, challenging that defense, the selection of the site was a reasonably wise one; but, as subsequent pages will reveal, the commander did not retain it long as his headquarters. Troubles came thick and fast upon him and he had barely reached Cantonment Davis before they began. His delay in reaching that place, which he did do, February 25,37 was caused by various occurrences that made it difficult for him to get his materials together, his funds and the like. The very difficulties presaged disaster.

1: The Century Company's War Book, vol. i, 314-315.
2: Official Records, first ser., vol. iii, 553-554. Hereafter, except where otherwise designated, the first series will always be understood.
3: Ibid., 568.
4: Official Records, vol. liii, supplement, 781-782; Edwards, Shelby and His Men, 105.
5: Ibid., vol. viii, 734.
6: It is doubtful if even this ought to be conceded in view of the fact that President Davis later admitted that Van Dorn entered upon the Pea Ridge campaign for the sole purpose of effecting "a diversion in behalf of General Johnston" [Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, vol. ii, 51]. Moreover, Van Dorn had scarcely been assigned to the command of the Trans-Mississippi District before Beauregard was devising plans for bringing him east again [Greene, The Mississippi, II; Roman, Military Operations of General Beauregard, vol. i, 240-244].
7: Abel, American Indian as Slaveholder and Secessionist, 225-226 and footnote 522.
8: Official Records, vol. liii, supplement, 679.
9: The name of Montgomery was not one for even Indians to conjure with. James Montgomery was the most notorious of bushwhackers. For an account of some of his earlier adventures, see Spring, Kansas, 241, 247-250, and for a characterization of the man himself, Robinson, Kansas Conflict, 435.
10: Official Records, vol. liii, supplement, 682.
11: Snead, Fight for Missouri, 229-230.
12: Official Records, vol. liii, supplement, 698-699.
13: Ibid., 687.
14: Ibid., 691.
15: Official Records, vol. liii, supplement, 721.
16: Ibid., 720.
17: Ibid., 727.
18: Official Records, vol. liii, supplement, 816-817.
19: Ibid., 762.
20: Ibid., vol. viii, 725.
21: Ibid., 701.
22: Wright, General Officers of the Confederate Army, 33, 67.
23: Official Records, vol. viii, 702.
24: Journal of the Congress of the Confederate States, vol. i, 637.
25: Formby, American Civil War, 129.
26: Official Records, vol. liii, supplement, 767, 774.
27: Van Dora's protection, if given, was given to little purpose; for the mines were soon abandoned [Britton, Memoirs of the Rebellion on the Border, 1863, 120].
28: Official Records, vol. viii, 734.
29: Ibid., 745.
30: Ibid., 690.
31: Richardson, Messages and Papers of the Confederacy, vol. i, 105.
32: The official report of Commissioner Pike, in manuscript, and bearing his signature, is to be found in the Adjutant-general's office of the U.S. War Department.
33: Official Records, vol. liii, supplement, 764.
34: Ibid, 770.
35: Ibid, 764.
36: Britton, Memoirs of the Rebellion on the Border, 72.
37: Official Records, vol. viii, 286.

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The American Indian as Participant in the Civil War, 1919

Participant in the Civil War


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