At the beginning of 1862, Federal forces in Missouri still held the Missouri River Valley and the important city of St. Louis. Sterling Price and the Missouri State Guard defiantly maintained a presence in the state at Springfield. This was intolerable to the commander of the Department of the Missouri, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck. He placed Brig. Gen. Samuel Ryan Curtis in command of the Army of the Southwest and directed him to drive the Southern forces from the state. Meanwhile, the Confederate government appointed Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn commander of the Military District of the Trans-Mississippi, giving him authority over Price and the commander of the Arkansas army, Brig. Gen. Ben McCulloch.
Crane Creek and McDowell
On February 13, after an arduous advance across the Ozark Plateau in terrible weather, Curtis's small army was finally within striking distance of Springfield. Outnumbered and unwilling to risk battle, Price abandoned Springfield before the Federals arrived and retreated down the Telegraph Road 30 miles to the southwest before setting up a new camp at Crane Creek, Missouri.
At the time of Curtis's advance, Price's army was in the midst of a reorganization. On Nov. 28, 1861, the Confederate Congress had added a star to the national flag representing the state of Missouri. Price was made a Confederate general and he worked immediately to transfer as many State Guardsmen as possible to Confederate service. At Crane Creek, the army was provided with an excellent camp to continue the reorganization.
After detachments to guard the ever lengthening supply line back to Rolla from Springfield, the Federal army was down to around 12,000 men in four divisions. The 1st and 2nd Divisions were composed mostly of Germans and were commanded by Brig. Gen. Franz Sigel. Curtis placed the 3rd and 4th divisions under his direct command and moved to attack Price.
The Southerners at Crane Creek were in a vulnerable position. 15 miles south of Crane Creek lay the town of McDowell. A road from Springfield passed wide to the left of Price's position before uniting with the Telegraph Road at the hamlet of McDowell. Curtis directed Sigel to advance his two divisions on this route. Hopefully for the Federals, Sigel would arrive at McDowell before Price even realized he was in danger. This was not to be. Sigel did not move fast enough and Curtis's advance units tipped his hand by lobbing shells into the Southern camps. Thinking he was about to be attacked, Price immediately retreated, undoing Curtis's plan.
After McDowell, the Southern army made a rapid retreat through the towns of Cassville and Keetsville and entered Arkansas. The narrow, winding Telegraph Road was excellent for ambushing rash pursuers, necessitating a cautious Federal advance. On the morning of February 17, the last of the Southern army filed up out of the hollows at Elkhorn Tavern and passed over Little Sugar Creek in the direction of Fayetteville. At 1 pm, the leading Federal units climbed their way out of the Cross Timber Hollow and quickened the pace of the pursuit, hoping to catch Price's rear guard.
Just as the last of Price's units crossed Little Sugar Creek, a brigade of McCulloch's Confederate division arrived under the command of Louis Hebert. Hebert knew that pursuing Federal cavalry was not far behind so he deployed his men on the bluffs south of Little Sugar Creek as a show of force before falling back about a mile to Dunagin's Farm. There, Hebert's brigade was joined by the 1st Missouri Brigade from Price's army. The onrushing Federal cavalry blundered into the Southerners lined up fronting Dunagin's field and were repulsed with heavy loss. The infantry of Carr's 4th Division arrived soon after, however, and the Confederates withdrew.
After the fight at Dunagin's farm, the Southern army continued on to Fayetteville, Arkansas. On February 20, Price united forces with Ben McCulloch's Arkansas army. Soon after, Earl Van Dorn arrived to take overall command, renaming the combined force the Army of the West. At the same time up north, the Federal army reached the end of its logistics tether at Little Sugar Creek. Curtis was forced to pass over to the defensive and he proceeded to fortify the bluffs on the creek's north side. Initiative now passed over into the hands of Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn, who gladly grasped it.
The imposing wooded bluffs north of Little Sugar Creek formed an excellent defensive position. To avoid a bloody frontal assault, Van Dorn proposed a very aggressive and risky plan that would bypass the enemy strongpoints. From Fayetteville, the army would make a forced march northwest through Elm Springs and Bentonville before turning east and proceeding down the Little Sugar Creek Valley. Before reaching the extreme right flank of the Federal lines the army would turn left (north) onto the Bentonville Detour, which winds its way behind Pea Ridge to emerge at the Telegraph Road beyond Elkhorn Tavern in Cross Timber Hollow. With his army directly astride the Federal line of communications on the Telegraph Road, the Federals would be trapped and forced to fight their way through the hollow or surrender.
Unfortunately for his men, Van Dorn chose a night march at a killing pace with no food or rest. Straggling was heavy, disorganizing the infantry columns. By midnight, the head of the exhausted column approached the western face of Pea Ridge and the rear of the Federal army. To add to the marchers's misery, scouts discovered that the enemy had felled timber over the road ahead. It was not until 7 am on March 7 that the army finally emerged from the detour and spilled onto the Telegraph Road in Cross Timber Hollow. So far things were not going too badly.
Meanwhile, General Curtis was not idle. The small force at Elkhorn tavern was alerted and Sigel was directed to dispatch some cavalry and artillery in the direction of Leetown, a small town behind the army's right flank. In a sharp fight at Foster's farm, the Federal cavalry was routed by the mounted brigade of McCulloch's division. After capturing the Northern artillery, McCulloch deployed his division for an attack south toward Leetown. While the Confederates prepared their attack, infantry and artillery from Sigel's two divisions arrived and went in line on the southern edge of Oberson's Field. While scouting ahead, General McCulloch was killed by enemy skirmishers. Soon after, the second-in-command General McIntosh was shot dead, leaving the Confederate division leaderless and disorganized. In the ensuing battle in the heavily wooded area east of Oberson's field, the Southerners only got a portion of their forces into the fight and were completely defeated.
While the Federals enjoyed success at Leetown, things rapidly took a turn for the worse at Elkhorn Tavern. After a rather disorganized attack, Van Dorn and Price emerged from the hollow and pushed the Union defenders out of the tavern area and in amongst their supply trains. Fortunately for Curtis, night fell before complete disaster struck his army.
As March 8th dawned, Van Dorn prepared to face off with Curtis for a second day. During the night, the troops from the Leetown fight had crossed behind Pea Ridge and joined Price near Elkhorn Tavern. However, through a command mix-up, the army ordnance trains were still back at Camp Stephens in Little Sugar Creek valley. A brief morning bombardment exhausted most of the Southern artillery ammunition and much of the infantry was without cartridges.
Although the Federals were now completely cut off, General Curtis confidently assembled his army in the fields fronting the Confederate lines around Elkhorn Tavern. After a fierce artillery barrage the blue line moved forward. A crestfallen Van Dorn ordered a hasty retreat and the Confederate army, angry at having to retreat after the previous day's victory, rapidly fell apart and melted away before the Federal attack. Most escaped down the Huntsville Road and, after a grueling retreat, were ordered across the Mississippi to bolster the reeling Confederate cause in Tennessee.