Dodge CNX 0904

Print shows an attack by Confederate cavalry and infantry, with Native American troops, against a line of Union cannon and infantry at Pea Ridge in Arkansas.

Most of us have never heard of the Battle of Pea Ridge. That said, it’s one of the most important Civil War engagements you may have never heard of.

Our own General Grenville Dodge (then a colonel) played a decisive role in the outcome of this battle and contributed to ultimate Union victory. As long as the Confederates held fast to Vicksburg and the Mississippi, victory would have been long delayed. Before Vicksburg could be decidedly dealt with, the western armies of the Confederacy had to be defeated.

If you’ve visited our cherished Historic General Dodge House, then you’ve walked in the footsteps of a man who earned great accolades, respect and a promotion due to his leadership at Pea Ridge. However, this victory seemed far from likely.

Col. Dodge and the entire Union army, under the command of fellow Iowan Brig. Gen. Samuel Curtis, were greatly outnumbered as they engaged Confederate forces in Northwest Arkansas.

The Rebels outmatched Union forces three to one. A total of 50,000 souls converged on the field near Fayetteville. It was March of 1862.

We must pause to consider the absolute and abject hell of war in this day and age. Retrieval of the wounded was an afterthought. No antibiotics. Infection, disease, dysentery, malnutrition and exhaustion were as dangerous as the enemy. Hot summers and cold (and wet) winters were oppressive. Hygiene was a problem. The facts at hand forbid nostalgia.

The Confederate general, Earl Van Dorn, had force-marched his troops for three days straight in the midst of a freezing storm. His army arrived exhausted. As the battle began, Dodge’s trained corps effectively blocked the roads before Van Dorn’s troops.

Between their exhaustion, poor leadership and lack of resources, the Rebels made poor progress. Many officers played important roles during the savage battle, but Col. Dodge’s contribution was exceptional. His bravery, courage and boldness was remembered by an early biographer, JT Granger, who wrote that General Dodge “saved Curtis’s army from disaster.

Three horses were killed and a fourth wounded under him, but when the order came to retreat Colonel Dodge bravely fought on, and simply sent back word that to retreat was ruin.” A high price in blood was paid for this victory. The fighting was so intense that one-third of his troops were killed or wounded and every field officer was likewise killed or wounded.

The Rebels suffered terribly as well. One Confederate Commander said, “Dodge fought more like a devil than a human being.” As for himself, Dodge wrote that he had suffered “three slight hits” along with a bout of diarrhea.

The Victory at Pea Ridge effectively cut off most of Arkansas and all of Missouri from the rest of the Southern states. It began the process of splitting the Confederacy in two which would be completed at Vicksburg just over a year later.

— Tom Emmett is the executive director of the Historic General Dodge House.

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