Pea Ridge, Ark.
At dawn on March 7, the head of the Confederate column had reached Telegraph Road, but the tail was still back at Little Sugar Creek. Van Dorn now made another snap decision: to save time, Price’s division would proceed south on Telegraph Road on the east side of a rocky hill called Big Mountain; McCulloch’s division would move south on Ford Road on the west side of Big Mountain. The two halves of the Army of the West would reunite around noon at Elkhorn Tavern atop the broad plateau of Pea Ridge. There the Confederates would deploy for battle and advance upon the unsuspecting Federals from the north. Van Dorn had no qualms about dividing his army in the presence of the enemy because he confidently assumed that the Federals were still in their fortifications at Little Sugar Creek, facing south.
Van Dorn’s confident assumption was wrong. Federal patrols detected the Confederate movement on the Bentonville Detour early on March 7, and Curtis acted immediately to seize the tactical initiative. He launched two spoiling attacks intended to intercept and delay the approaching enemy forces on either side of Big Mountain. While these operations were underway, he began the enormously complex task of turning his entire army around to meet the threat from the north. By the end of the day, the Federals atop Pea Ridge had successfully completed a 180-degree change of front.
The next morning, March 8, Curtis waited to see if Van Dorn would continue to press his attack. When nothing happened, Curtis concluded that the Confederates had shot their bolt and that he now held the initiative. He ordered his artillery to wheel forward. For two hours, twenty-seven Federal cannons hammered the Confederates at ever-closer ranges. The most intense artillery bombardment of the war up to that time, it made a great impression on the soldiers who were present. “It was a continual thunder, and a fellow might have believed that the day of judgment had come,” said an Iowa soldier. The tremendous noise could be heard fifty miles away. The devastation wrought on the Confederates was terrible.
Around ten o’clock Curtis ordered a general advance. Nearly ten thousand Federal soldiers swept across the fields and woods atop Pea Ridge, converging on Elkhorn Tavern from the west and south. “That beautiful charge I shall never forget,” wrote a Federal officer. “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 rebel yell was nowhere in comparison.” Van Dorn realized that his position was hopeless and ordered a general withdrawal. The retreat rapidly degenerated into a rout after Van Dorn rode away to the east on Huntsville Road, leaving behind not only most of his wounded, but also large numbers of his men who were still engaged. Leaderless, panicked Rebels fled in all directions as thousands of cheering Federal soldiers met at the tavern. Curtis rode among his men, waving his hat and shouting “Victory! Victory!” Despite being outnumbered and surprised by Van Dorn’s unorthodox and reckless tactics, Curtis had achieved one of the first major Federal victories in the Civil War.