As winter drew to a close, the fighting picked up on several fronts. The Union Armies continued the success they enjoyed in February with several victories in March. And at sea, a new era in naval warfare began with the first battle between iron ships.
Battle of Pea Ridge or Elkhorn Tavern, Arkansas
In February, the Union Army of the Southwest under the command of Brigadier General Samuel Curtis moved from its base at Lebanon, Missouri and chased the Confederate forces of Major General Sterling Price out of Springfield without a fight. Price retreated south along the Wire Road (also known as the Telegraph Road), a major transportation route that ran from Springfield to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Curtis pursued Price into northwest Arkansas, where the latter’s army was joined by Confederates under the command of Brigadier General Ben McCulloch. This larger Confederate force continued on to the Boston Mountains before stopping to rest.
Meanwhile, Curtis had gone as far as he felt he could go, given the length of his supply lines. He set up a defensive position along Little Sugar Creek to prevent the Confederates from returning to Missouri on the Wire Road.
Major General Earl Van Dorn, the new commander of the Confederate Trans Mississippi armies, arrived to personally take command. He decided to attack and destroy the Army of the Southwest, and then invade Missouri. Van Dorn put his army in motion on March 4th. A late winter storm hampered the movement, and Union scouts spotted and reported it to Curtis. The Union general ordered his outlying units to concentrate at his Little Sugar Creek line, which they did by March 6th.
Van Dorn decided not to attack the fortified Union line and opted to attempt a flanking movement and get behind the Federals. He divided his forces into two wings; he led one wing and McCulloch was in charge of the other. The battle would be fought in two separate parts about two miles apart, with neither wing able to support the other. Curtis was made aware of this flanking movement and redeployed his army to meet both threats
On March 7th, Van Dorn attacked near Elkhorn Tavern, an inn on the Wire Road so named because of the set of elk horns the owner had placed on the structure’s roof. The Confederates managed to push the Federal forces back at great cost, but by the end of the day, Van Dorn held the area around Elkhorn Tavern. McCulloch attacked at a settlement called Leetown. Union forces successfully stopped this attack, and in the process, killed McCulloch and his second in command, Brigadier General James McIntosh. Two Cherokee Confederate regiments participated in this phase of the battle. Several Native American Confederate regiments were organized in the Indian Territory, modern day Oklahoma, for the defense of Confederate interests there. They rarely saw action elsewhere, but Van Dorn wanted all the troops he could get, so they were ordered to Arkansas. McCulloch’s attack was stopped, and the survivors withdrew.
The next day, Curtis reformed and launched an attack on the Confederate positions near Elkhorn Tavern. His attack was preceded by huge artillery barrage, and successfully forced Van Dorn to withdraw. The Battle of Pea Ridge, or Elkhorn Tavern was a major union victory that kept significant Confederate forces out of Missouri until 1864.
USS Monitor vs. CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads
While the Union Army was securing victory at Pea Ridge on March 8th, the Union Navy suffered its worst defeat of the war. On that day, the CSS Virginia steamed out of Virginia’s Norfolk Harbor and headed towards the five Federal war ships enforcing the blockade at Hampton Roads. The Virginia is often referred to by its former name, the Merrimack. The Merrimack was a U.S. Navy frigate that had been abandoned and burned when the Navy abandoned the Gosport Navy Yard in 1861. The hulk was salvaged and rebuilt with an armor plated casemate extending to three feet below the waterline. Renamed the CSS Virginia, the ship was armed with 10 guns and an iron ram, and while it was slow and hard to maneuver, it was a dangerous threat to the wooden ships patrolling Hampton Roads.
Virginia closed in on the the sloop of war USS Cumberland, a sailing ship, and opened fire. Cumberland returned fire, but the shots bounced off the armor plating of Virginia. Virginia rammed Cumberland, sending her to the bottom. Next, Virginia went after the frigate USS Congress, another sailing ship. After enduring heavy damage and casualties from Virginia’s guns, Congress surrendered. The burning ship eventually blew up. As evening approached, Virginia set her sights on the steam frigate USS Minnesota which had run aground. But Minnesota was aground in an area too shallow for Virginia’s 24 foot draft, so the ironclad retired to port.
The U.S. Navy lost two ships in one day for the first time ever, and the 240 dead were the most the navy lost in a single day of the war. Despite the fact that the shells bounced off the Virginia’s armor, she was not without damage–two men were killed on board–but she was in good enough shape to take on the Federal fleet again the next day.
When Virginia steamed out on March 9th, she faced a new threat from the U.S. Navy. Overnight, the Union’s own ironclad, the USS Monitor, had arrived. A much different design than Virginia, the Monitor had been designed and built as an ironclad and not a retrofitted older ship. It sat low in the water and had a revolutionary revolving turret for its two 11 inch guns. For two hours, the two ships blasted away at each other from close range but neither could gain the upper hand. The first battle between ironclad ships was a draw, but it marked the beginning of the end of wooden navies worldwide.
McClellan Finally Moves; Jackson at Kernstown
Elsewhere in Virginia, Major General George McClellan finally began to move the Army of the Potomac on March 17th. Rather than advance south from Washington, McClellan began moving his army via water from Alexandria, Virginia to the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers.
At Kernstown, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s 3400 men attacked a Union force of around 9000 on March 23rd. This marked the beginning of Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Though Jackson was defeated and forced to retreat this time, he would not lose again during the campaign.
Farther south, General Ambrose Burnside continued his success along the North Carolina coast, capturing the city of New Bern on March 14th. That same day, Federal forces captured New Madrid, Missouri.
Confederate Invasion of New Mexico Territory Stopped
Far to the west in New Mexico Territory, the Confederate expedition under Brigadier General Henry Sibley continued to advance northward along the Rio Grande River and drove Federal troops out of Albuquerque on March 2nd and Santa Fe on March 4th. If the Confederates could reduce the Union garrison at Fort Union, northeast of Santa Fe, they would neutralize the remaining Federal threat to the conquest of the territory.
On March 26th, the two sides clashed at La Glorietta Pass, a location near Santa Fe on the Santa Fe trail. Union forces gained the upper hand that day, but the Confederates had not left the field and the battle could still turn either way. Both sides were reinforced on March 27th, and on the 28th, fighting resumed. This time, the Confederates drove back the Federals. But while the fighting was going on, 400 men of the 1st Colorado Infantry under Major John C. Chivington had swung around behind the Rebels and destroyed their wagon train, supplies, ammunition, and horses. With their supplies gone, the Confederates were forced to abandon the invasion and begin a retreat back to Texas.
March had been a successful month for the north, and with McClellan finally beginning offensive operations, April looked promising too. As March drew to a close, Major General Ulysses S. Grant was assembling his army at a place called Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. From there, he intended to take the war into northern Mississippi and attack the railroad center at Corinth. But Confederate forces were assembling to stop Grant, and the resulting battle would be one of the bloodiest of the war, and the bloodiest in U.S. history up to that point. The battle would be named after a Methodist church on the battlefield–Shiloh.