Pea Ridge campaign discussed at museum
The Pea Ridge Campaign, a series of civil war actions that led to the Battle of Pea Ridge, was the topic of a talk presented by Troy Banzhaf, National Park Service Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at the Pea Ridge National Military Park, at the Bella Vista Historical Museum Thursday, Feb. 8. Banzhaf led the discussion about the movements that led to the battle at Pea Ridge, which saw an estimated 22,000 soldiers fighting over Missouri.
It started with the battle of Wilson Creek, he said, in 1861 near Springfield, Mo., where Major General Sterling Price — a former Missouri governor who led a pro-confederacy militia — scored a victory. His militia, the Missouri State Guard, gained members and headed for Lexington, Ky.,
only to be pushed back toward Springfield and further south near Neosho, Mo.
“He’s successful, he actually gets thousands of young men to join his cause,” Banzhaf said.
But while the general was able to get troops, weapons and uniforms were more scarce, causing his forces to dwindle.
The Union general John Freemont was unpopular with the federal government, he explained, and was soon replaced by Henry Halleck in November 1861. Halleck focused on logistics and organization.
“His nickname was ‘Old Brains,’ he was a very, very smart man,” Banzhaf said.
Halleck was interested in getting rid of Price, Banzhaf said, because he was harassing troops who could be useful in other parts of the war.
A competent, methodical general, Samuel Curtis, was sent in to deal with Price, he said. He gathered troops and set up a base of operations in Lebanon, Mo., with supplies rolling out of a rail station at Rolla, Mo.
Price, not expecting a winter campaign, tried to dig in in January 1862, only to be pushed south. By the time Confederates in Northwest Arkansas got word, it was too late.
Those in Arkansas were led by Benjamin McCulloch, a Confederate with a reputation as a more professional officer. He and Price did not get along.
“McCulloch was very much an introvert, he was not very outgoing,” Banzhaf said. “Felt that Sterling Price was actually a windbag of a politician.”
Earl Van Dorn, a young West Point graduate eager to prove his worth, was sent in to lead them both.
“Very good as a cavalry officer,” Banzhaf said, “but appointed well above his potential here at the Pea Ridge campaign.”
Van Dorn, he said, had a plan for a two-pronged attack once winter ended, but Union forces making an unexpected winter push put an end to that.
Communication — with couriers taking as long as five days to deliver messages from one portion of the campaign to another — proved to be the biggest issue.
Price’s fighting retreat against a massive force led by Curtis, which ultimately led to a series of missteps through Northwest Arkansas, eventually resulted in the Confederates’ loss at Pea Ridge March 7 and 8, 1862, Banzhaf explained.
“In the end, essentially, that was the largest and best chance the Confederates had to take the state of Missouri,” he said.
Banzhaf said he’s worked with the park service since 1991, and he’s been interested in history since he was a student on a field trip in the fifth grade. Now, he said, he’s glad to have a job that keeps him immersed in it.
The museum, he said, has been on his list of places to visit for some time, though this was his first time heading into it.
“I’ll be back as a member,” he said.
Bella Vista resident Mike Phillips stopped in to listen to the presentation. He’s been to the battlefield, he said, and he’s eager to learn more.
“When I heard that one of the park rangers was going to be here, I thought it’d be a good time to come out and listen,” he said.
He learned a lot, he said, about the buildup to the battle and he expects to come back for the next presentation.
Bella Vista Historical Society president Xyta Lucas said these meetings will continue. The meetings will be held at 7 p.m. the second Thursday of each month. The March meeting, she said, will be Thursday, March 8, with a presentation on World War II era Japanese internment camps in Arkansas.
Troy Banzhaf, National Park Service Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at the Pea Ridge National Military Park, discussed the military action in Missouri that would ultimately lead to the battle at Pea Ridge at a program at the Bella Vista Historical Museum recently.