In the fall of 1861, Confederates controlled southwest Missouri and Unionists had fled the area. Missouri was an important state to both sides. With the victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, claiming Missouri for the Union would aid in Grant’s effort to head south. If she had joined the Confederacy, Missouri would have been the second most populated state, behind Virginia, and Missouri’s industrial areas would have benefitted the South.
In addition, if Missouri befriended the south, it would hamper efforts of other mid-west states to turn Union. Most importantly, though, Missouri controlled a lengthy stretch of the Mississippi River. General Henry Halleck, the Union commander in Missouri, was determined to take back the state.
In mid-February, Union Major General Samuel R. Curtis, from Iowa, arrived in Springfield, Missouri, only to discover that the Rebels had already left town, seeking refuge in far northwestern Arkansas. The Federal troops followed, harassing the Rebels by engaging in skirmishes with the rear-guard. Curtis stopped short of a battle with the Rebels, as he wanted to choose the time and place. The two forces were not far apart as they waited.
“On the night of March 6, Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn set out to outflank the Union position near Pea Ridge, dividing his army into two columns. Learning of Van Dorn’s approach, the Federals marched north to meet his advance on March 7. This movement—compounded by the killing of two generals, Brig. Gen. Ben McCulloch and Brig. Gen. James McQueen McIntosh, and the capture of their ranking colonel—halted the Rebel attack.
Van Dorn led a second column to meet the Federals in the Elkhorn Tavern and Tanyard area. By nightfall, the Confederates controlled Elkhorn Tavern and Telegraph Road. The next day, Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, having regrouped and consolidated his army, counterattacked near the tavern and, by successfully employing his artillery, slowly forced the Rebels back. Running short of ammunition, Van Dorn abandoned the battlefield,” according to National Park Service information. The Confederates had suffered yet another defeat.
The Battle of Pea Ridge, also known as Elkhorn Tavern, was costly. Casualties were high, with the Union killed, wounded or captured at 1,349 of their 10,000 soldiers, and an estimated 2,000 of 14,000 troops for the Confederacy. With this win, the Union gained formal control of Missouri for the next two years, although Rebels continued their raids and guerilla warfare. This decisive win also assisted the Union in their effort to gain control of the Mississippi River.