GARFIELD - The Battle of Pea Ridge has been called “the Gettysburg of the West” by one Civil War historian.
There’s a dollop of hyperbole in that comparison. But the decisive Northern victory after two days of brutal fighting in the far northwest corner of Arkansas did play a key role in keeping neighboring Missouri in the Union. It also opened Arkansas to later occupation by the North.
The 152nd anniversary of the bloody encounter is scheduled to be marked from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Pea Ridge National Military Park with artillery and infantry demonstrations by re-enactors. That makes it a choice day to visit what is considered one of the nation’s most intact Civil War battlefields.
At Gettysburg, the sites of the July 1863 combat mingle with the present-day Pennsylvania town. Souvenir shops and other commercial clutter abound. By contrast, the 4,300 acres of Pea Ridge battlefield largely preserve the rolling fields and woods where the fighting took place on March7-8, 1862.
At the park’s visitor center, an informative 28-minute film maps out the battle and its significance. Displays put a human face on the seesaw combat, which came during the Civil War’s second year when strategy and tactics were still being formed.
One posted quotation from Confederate Pvt. Asa Payne sums up the feelings of bravado and fear: “I remember some of our boys would laugh and mock the shells, and others were as pale as death, while still others had great drops of sweat on their faces. Here was a place that tried men’s souls.”
Casualty figures testify to the intensity of the combat. Union dead and wounded totaled nearly 1,400, while Confederate losses were estimated at 2,000. That amounted to almost 15 percent of the23,000 men engaged in the fighting.
The battlefield itself can be toured on a seven-mile, one-way road with 11 stops marked by vivid and informative National Park Service signs.
Stop No. 4, Leetown Battlefield, is noteworthy because two Confederate generals, Ben McCulloch and James McIntosh, were killed here by enemy fire within minutes of each other. The loss of these commanders brought confusion that played a large role in the Southern defeat.
At Stop No. 5, a sign reports that Pea Ridge was the only major Civil War battle in which American Indian troops fought. About 1,000 Cherokees joined the Confederates and routed Union cavalry before Northern cannon fire forced them to take cover in the woods.
The best view of the battlefield comes at Stop No. 7, where a 150-yard path leads to a shelter overlooking the fields below. Stop No. 8 provides a photo opportunity at Elkhorn Tavern, captured by Confederate forces on March 7 and retaken by the Union side the next day. The present building is a reconstruction.
Several wheeled cannons at Stop No. 9 mark the battle lines on the decisive morning of March 8, after devastating Union musket and artillery fire the previous dusk had driven Southern troops back into the woods.
Another sign, labeled “That Beautiful Charge,” conveys the sense of triumph on the Union side, expressed by Capt. Eugene B. Payne, an Illinoisan:
“That beautiful charge I shall never forget; with banners streaming, with drums beating, and our long line of blue coats advancing upon the double quick, with their deadly bayonets gleaming in the sunlight and every man and officer yelling at the top of his lungs.”
The visitor center at Pea Ridge National Military Park, along U.S. 62 some 10 miles northeast of Rogers in Benton County, is open 8:30 a.m.-4:30p.m. daily. Park grounds are open 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $10 per motor vehicle, $5 per motorcycle or pedestrian. A yearly pass is $20. Call (479) 451-8122 or visit nps.gov/peri.
Weekend, Pages 40 on 03/13/2014
Print Headline: Battle of Pea Ridge to mark 152nd anniversary