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The March to the River – Robert G. Schultz

From the Battle of Pea Ridge to Helena, Spring 1862

In early 1862, General Samuel Curtis’ Army of the Southwest defeated Earl Van Dorn at the Battle of Pea Ridge in the northwest corner of Arkansas.  This victory assured that the South could no longer hope to contend for the state of Missouri.  Aside from cavalry raids and endemic violence from guerrillas, Missouri was a northern state for good.

After the battle, Van Dorn collected as much of his demoralized and scattered army as he could locate – he had attacked from the north to be more decisive and the retreat was a matter of scattering in every direction and meeting up later on the other side of the Union Army.  At this point, the point of crisis moved across the Mississippi – the South was looking for any troops to try and drive back Grant’s army at Shiloh.  Van Dorn was called, and took not only his entire army, but every stick and stitch of military equipment with him across the river to defend Mississippi.

Meanwhile the Union forces were in a quandary of their own.  There were not the roads, rails or rivers available to support an advance of the army further into Arkansas towards the capital, Little Rock. A shorter and better way was needed.   A look at the map suggested that perhaps a move to southeast Missouri and over the border would be a better way.  The route was shorter to the nearest railhead, Rolla.  The country was more settled, so the roads might be better and support the army more.  And as you advanced south, the major rivers might allow the Union river navy to add supply and combat power.

But changing the direction of the advance was no easy task, as the rugged Ozark hills needed to be crossed.  And the counterattack at Shiloh led to the recall of much of Curtis’ troops to Tennessee.  While this did ease the supply situation, it can’t have been comforting to General Curtis to have his force lessened just as he began a march deep into enemy territory.

Down the White River

Curtis moved down the White River towards the town of Batesville, AK.  He got there in early May after a difficult 250 mile march.  There he was joined by some additional troops from Missouri under Gen Frederick Steele.  He then sent forward a probe halfway towards Little Rock – reaching less than 50 miles off.

Then things started to go wrong.  The weather continued to be rainy, making roads difficult and river crossings impassible. The South had collected some irregular cavalry from Texas, who were actively raiding the supply trains and foraging parties needed to supply the army.  And the descent of a large army on a small settlement soon exhausted nearby supplies.

But the flooded rivers did allow steamboats to reach the army.  If the navy could set up an alternate supply line the occupation might continue and be used as a base for a move to Little Rock.  And during the march the Navy did manage to drive down past Memphis and thus could reach the mouth of the White River.

Relief Expedition

The Navy was willing, but circumstances began to change at once.  While the South struggled to put together a defense of the White River, the river levels began to rapidly fall. Soon steamboats wouldn’t be able to reach the army.  And at St. Charles, the batteries managed to score a critical hit on the boiler of the ship “Mound City” and most of the crew was killed or scalded by the steam.  And in addition, the Texas Cavalrymen fired on swimmers in the water, raising the ire of the Union forces.  The expedition had to fall back ahead of the falling river levels.

Advance on Helena

This defeat made the occupation of Batesville untenable.  Rather than retire, though, Curtis decided to advance south and east towards the town of Helena, on the Mississippi. This still ceded the middle of the state to the Confederates, but advancing rather than retiring salved the pride of the army somewhat.

The advance was well conducted, and the conditions in the boggy riverlands were difficult. Supplies were short, and if the Confederates managed to block the advance things might have been difficult.  However, the Union troops were veterans and the South had no serious blocking force, so eventually the army reached its destination and obtained much needed supplies.

The mission given this force was just more than a small army could tackle at this time in the war.  Still, the ability to march over 600 miles through enemy country, defeating any attempt to bring it to bay, was a foreshadowing of the later long marches by Grant and Sherman through the hollow core of the Confederacy.  It would take another year before Little Rock fell to the Union, from forces advancing from near the Pea Ridge battlefield.

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