Colonel Peter J. Osterhaus’ Report on His Division’s Action at the Battle of Pea Ridge
German born Peter J. Osterhaus had a long and distinguished career for the Union Army in the Civil War. Living in Missouri at the beginning of the war, Osterhaus joined the army in April 1861 and saw action at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in August of that year as commander of two companies of the 2nd Missouri Infantry. At the Battle of Pea Ridge, or Elkhorn Tavern as it was also known, Arkansas on March 7th-8th, 1862, Osterhaus commanded a division under Brigadier General Franz Sigel (Brigadier General Samuel Curtis was the overall Union commander). Osterhaus’ command consisted of Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio troops that was heavily engaged in the fighting at the Leetown area of the battlefield on the 7th as well as at the Elkhorn tavern area on the 8th. His division fought well at Pea Ridge. Osterhaus submitted this detailed report on his command’s participation in this significant Union victory over a Confederate force under Major Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price.
HEADQUARTERS FIRST DIVISION,
Camp Welfley, Ark., March 14, 1862.
CAPTAIN: In compliance with special orders from headquarters of Southwest District I have the honor to report the part taken by the First Division in the three days’ battle of the 6th, 7th, and 8th of this month.
At 9 o’clock p.m. on the night of the 5th instant (I was then stationed at McKisick’s farm, 3 miles southwest of Bentonville, Ark.), I was officially informed of the approach of the enemy, receiving at the same time orders to march at 2 o’clock a.m. next morning, in order to join the other divisions of the army at Pea Ridge, on Fayetteville or Telegraph road. We left camp at the hour mentioned, and on arriving at Bentonville General Sigel ordered the Twelfth Missouri Volunteers, Major Wangelin commanding, to remain there and re-enforce the rear guard (composed of the Second Missouri Volunteers, Colonel Schaefer, the flying battery, and the Fremont and Benton Hussars). This force was to stay at Bentonville under the immediate command of General Sigel, while I myself proceeded to Sugar Creek with the other regiments and batteries of the First Division. On my arrival there I learned by rumor, afterwards confirmed officially, that General Sigel had been attacked at Bentonville, and that his egress from that town was disputed by a strong rebel force. I immediately, after giving notice to General Curtis, ordered all the regiments and Captain Hoffmann’s battery to return with the utmost speed to the support of our general. They, together with the Fifteenth Missouri Volunteers, of the Second Division, responded promptly to my sudden call, and though tired by a 16-mile march, hurried back in double-quick to the field of action.
I had almost arrived at the head of Sugar Creek Hollow with this force when I met General Sigel and his small force, who had broken through the enemy. The latter was still following them. On a bend in the narrow defile formed by Sugar Creek Hollow I planted two pieces of Hoffmann’s battery, while the Fifteenth Missouri Volunteers (Second Division) formed in line of battle in support of the battery, while the Seventeenth Missouri Volunteers were deployed as skirmishers over the whole breadth of the valley and the crests of the bordering hills.
The enemy advanced towards us with artillery in the valley and skirmishers on the hills, when a few rounds of spherical case and canister stopped him. His artillery played without success. I then ordered the two pieces back, as well as the infantry, with the exception of the Seventeenth Missouri Volunteers, which covered our retreat in most admirable style, exchanging an occasional shot with the enemy. Major Poten, commanding the Seventeenth Missouri Volunteers, deserves the highest credit for the determination and coolness exhibited on this occasion.
We arrived in camp without any further molestation, and prepared to bivouac on the northern ridges skirting Sugar Creek Hollow, near the camp of the other divisions, fortifying our position at once in anticipation of a night attack. The enemy did not molest us, however.
March 7– Early morning brought us in the intelligence that the united forces of the Confederate and Missouri rebels had passed our right flank and were deploying also on our line of retreat near Elkhorn Tavern. They advanced during the night by the direct road leading from Bentonville, Ark., to Cassville, Mo. This road joins the Telegraph road from Fayetteville to Cassville at a point a few miles north of the above-mentioned Elkhorn Tavern. To prevent the enemy from still more strengthening their position in our rear and to engage a part of his forces General Curtis ordered me to make a demonstration on their right flank towards Leetown, and, if necessary, on the Bentonville and Cassville road. The forces detailed for this purpose were mainly cavalry (battalions of Third Iowa Cavalry, First and Fifth Missouri Cavalry), and three pieces of the flying battery, all under the immediate command of Colonel Bussey, Third Iowa Cavalry; and; further, the Twelfth Missouri, Thirty-sixth Illinois, and Twenty-second Indiana Regiments, three pieces, 12-pounder howitzers, of Captain Welfley’s battery, and Captain Hoffmann’s battery. This command started after 10 o’clock a.m. I arrived at Leetown, having no knowledge whatever of the whereabouts of the enemy, and took position in the open fields north of Leetown, going forward myself with the cavalry and three pieces of the flying artillery. The field in which the infantry and artillery were posted is divided from another tract of cultivated land by a belt of timber with thick undergrowth. Debouching from this timber I came in sight of a large force of the enemy, mostly cavalry. All the open fields to my front and right were occupied, and the road from Bentonville was filled with new regiments arriving.
As appears from the accompanying sketch, this gathering of the enemy’s forces was accomplished in the immediate neighborhood of the headquarters of our army, being only 1 ½ miles distant, and it was patent that the enemy was preparing a most energetic attack on our right flank at the same time that they opened fire on our rear. Notwithstanding my command was entirely inadequate to the overwhelming masses opposed to me, which I learned afterwards were under the immediate command of Generals McCulloch and Mcintosh, and comprised some of the very best-drilled regiments in the Confederate service and Indian regiments, I could not hesitate in my course of action. The safety of our position was dependent upon the securing of our right flank and the keeping back of the enemy until I was re-enforced. I therefore ordered the three pieces of the flying battery to form, supporting them by companies from the First Missouri Cavalry, provided with revolvers and revolving carbines, forming the remainder of the cavalry in line of attack. The battery opened fire with the most disastrous effect on the enemy, and in order to cut off fresh supports two companies of cavalry were ordered to charge down the road. When I saw the effect of the artillery, creating a panic in the lines of our opponents, I ordered Colonel Bussey to charge from the right, attacking the left of the rebels. While these preparations were making, a wild, numerous, and irregular throng of cavalry, a great many Indians among them, rushed towards us, breaking through our lines. A general discharge of fire-arms on both sides created a scene of wild confusion from which our cavalry, abandoning the three pieces of artillery, retreated towards their old camping ground, while that of the enemy made their way across the fields towards the Bentonville road.
It being evident that the cavalry could not be formed again for the present, I had to rely solely on the infantry and artillery to achieve my purpose. Fearful of the impression which the above scene of confusion might have made. I went to meet them. They had stood without flinching, and in a few minutes they were in such shape that I could attack the enemy again.
The Twenty-second Indiana on my right, Captan Welfley’s two pieces (one piece had been disabled), the Twelfth Missouri, Captain Hoffman’s battery, and the Thirty-sixth Illinois on my left formed the line. For the reserve I had to rely on the re-enforcements for which I sent to General Curtis.
The enemy soon made his appearance with colors flying on the opposite side of the field which I occupied. Our batteries opened their fire on him, sweeping everything from our sight. I ordered skirmishers from the Twelfth Missouri Volunteers to advance and scour the woods on our right and front and sent one company of Benton’s Hussars (which had reassembled) to our left.
On approaching the wood they were received by the enemy with a heavy musketry fire to which the infantry replied so successfully, that they were able to bring back (from a very exposed position) the piece of Captain Welfley’s artillery which had been disabled. This piece afterwards did very good service. For several hours the enemy repeatedly attempted to advance, on each occasion bringing fresh troops into action. However, they invariably had to give way to the unflinching courage of my men. McCulloch and Mcintosh led their troops in person and both fell–the former by a ball from a soldier of the Thirty-sixth Illinois Volunteers, Peter Pelican. The enemy’s cannon played for a time pretty severely on our ranks, and it became necessary to silence them. My instructions to that effect were so well executed that the rebels were unable even to carry away the three pieces of the flying artillery abandoned by our cavalry in the early part of the day. They had to leave them on the field.
About 2 o’clock p.m. General Jefferson C. Davis arrived with some of his regiments and was joined by the Twenty-second Indiana, up to this time under my command. The gallant officer deployed his regiments at once on my right, advancing towards any foe who might still be in the timber. The report of musketry which followed told me that a lively fight was going on. To act in concert with him I ordered my tirailleurs forward in front, also some cavalry which had partly reassembled. I advanced with my whole line, when the enemy showed his colors again. Cavalry and infantry came around the left of General Davis and opened their fire on my now unsecured right. In double-quick I threw the Twelfth Missouri on this exposed flank, supported them by Captain Welfley’s battery, who had wheeled to the right, and forming the Thirty-sixth Illinois in close column on the extreme left of this new position, to be ready for any cavalry attack, protecting at the same time Captain Hoffmann’s battery. The enemy’s plan being defeated by a raging fire from the Twelfth Missouri Volunteers and Captain Welfley’s artillery, they made a feeble attempt to cut off our line of retreat, which was frustrated by skirmishers thrown out from the Thirty-sixth Illinois Volunteers. As my infantry force was not equal to the artillery (having only the Twelfth and Thirty-sixth with me), and also to counteract any further attempts of the enemy to outflank me, I thought it judicious to send four pieces of Captain Hoffmann’s battery back to Leetown, which affords a very commanding position. This, with some of General Davis infantry, formed my reserve. Cavalry flankers and infantry skirmishers having thoroughly scoured the ground in front of where the battle had raged for hours, reported the enemy gone, and his train could be seen in the distance moving towards Bentonville. Similar news was brought me from the right, when a brave Indiana regiment (Colonel Davis’) held aloft the Stars and Stripes, which emblem of our country was hailed with enthusiastic cheers by the brave men around me.
General Sigel now arrived with the rest of the First and Second Divisions, and as we passed on the ground the enemy’s dead and wounded, amounting to hundreds, gave evidence of the fearful execution done by our soldiers. On our extreme right, where Colonel Carr was engaged, the cannon were still thundering, although night was not far distant. We marched to the assistance of our friends, planted our battery, and brought the infantry into line, but it was too late to open fire. General Sigel was of opinion that it was best to wait until morning, and not to betray our position by a few shots, which could be of no avail, as it was already night. Our men laid down to rest in a wet corn field, having eaten nothing since morning, but not a murmur was heard; they waited in patience. So ended the second day of battle.
I cannot pass over the occurrences of this day without again paying a tribute to the indomitable courage and devotedness of the officers and men. They all deserve the highest encomiums for their bravery and endurance. To mention names is almost impossible when everybody has such noble claims.
Under my immediate observation were all the artillery officers present, Captain Welfley, the unterrified, and Lieutenant Bencke, both of Battery A, and Captain Hoffmann and Lieutenants Froehlich, Piderit, and Frank, of Battery B (Ohio); Major Wangelin, commanding Twelfth Missouri Volunteers, and Colonel Greusel, of the Thirty-sixth Illinois Volunteers; furthermore, two reliable officers who were detailed to me for the occasion as orderly officers, viz, Captain von Kielmansegge, Fremont Hussars, of General Sigel’s staff, and Captain Ahlfeldt, Twelfth Missouri Volunteers, of General Curtis’ staff, and also the gentlemen of my staff. I have also to mention Captain McKenny, assistant adjutant-general on General Curtis’ staff, who was with me part of the day, and rendered great assistance in bringing Hoffmann’s battery to Leetown, as well as the general arrangements for the disposition of my lines.
March 8.–The commencement of this day still found our troops on the corn field, without food or fire. Several messengers sent off for provisions returned, having been unable to procure them. It being indispensable that our men should eat something before entering on another day’s struggle General Sigel, at 2 a.m., gave the order to return to camp (about 1 mile distant), where we arrived at 3 o’clock a.m. The men slept till daybreak, and provisions having been brought up in the mean time, fell in, after a hasty breakfast, to deliver another and last blow on the enemy.
The ground selected for this last attack by Lieutenant Asmussen, of General Sigel’s staff, and myself was a field forward of and connecting with the one in which we had taken position during the forepart of the night. The Forty-fourth Illinois Regiment was first brought up and formed in line on the left of the right wing (Third and Fourth Divisions) of our army. General Sigel then arrived and took command in person, while I was engaged in bringing out the regiments and batteries of my division.
The first position on the field was as follows: The Twenty-fifth Illinois Volunteers on my extreme right, connecting with the left of our right wing of our army (Third and Fourth Divisions). On the left of and in advance of that regiment I had posted the Forty-fourth Illinois Volunteers, with Captain Welfley’s battery on the left. To the left of the battery the Twelfth Missouri Volunteers was brought into position, while the Thirty-sixth Illinois Volunteers formed the extreme left in column by division at half distance, Hoffmann’s battery occupying the interval between the Twelfth Missouri and the Thirty-sixth Illinois. The Third and Seventeenth Missouri Volunteers were formed as reserve in rear of my center.
The enemy fired from several batteries with the utmost vehemence, their shot and shell falling thickly around our lines and on our batteries, so much so, that the troops to our right were forced to fall back for a while. At this critical moment the batteries of the First Division opened on the enemy, bearing mainly on the extreme right of the rebels. The effect was proportionate to the skill, courage, and coolness of the officers and men. The enemy, seeing that his right was endangered, concentrated all his energies on that wing, the fire of their other batteries slackening off considerably. General Sigel ordered the batteries to advance, and at the same time dispatched me to General Curtis to report progress. By this maneuver, in which the right wing of our army co-operated, the enemy’s entire line of retreat was brought under the concentrated fire from our lines.
To execute this movement, on my return all our batteries wheeled to the leftt and I ordered the skirmishers of the Twelfth Missouri Volunteers forward towards a grove of timber, from which the heaviest battery of the enemy was firing against us. The men, under command of the gallant Captain Lightfoot, of Company F, advanced like veterans.
In connection and to the left the skirmishers of the Thirty-sixth and Forty-fourth Illinois Volunteers were also thrown out, and all the regiments of the First Division began their march forward in support of the skirmishers. They were received with an intense fire by the enemy.
The Twelfth Missouri, supported by the Twenty-fifth Illinois, Colonel Coler, entered the grove on our right, when the enemy’s infantry fired heavy volleys, disputing every inch of ground. Major Wangelin, commanding the Twelfth Missouri Volunteers, here had his horse shot under him, and the two regiments, going on in gallant style, soon obtained possession of the main road. Two brass pieces and the flag of the Dallas Artillery were taken by the Twelfth Missouri in this charge.
During these struggles the movements on our extreme left were just as fast, powerful, and successful. The Seventeenth and Third Missouri and the Thirty-sixth Illinois, supported by the gallant soldiers of the Second and Fifteenth Missouri and the artillery of Lieutenant Chapman (Second Division), advanced steadily, the cavalry on the left, towards the rocks over which the enemy was retreating. Soon we saw the noble regiments Seventeenth and Third Missouri and Thirty-sixth Illinois on the crest of the steep rocks, and with this position the field of the defeated rebel army was in our possession.
We had conquered. The rebels were retreating in all directions–one force by the Cassville road, which we followed in close pursuit and prevented every attempt of theirs to form again. A great many prisoners and munitions of war, muskets, caissons, baggage wagons, and one more cannon were taken by us in this pursuit. General Sigel ordered me to drive the rebel column as far as Keetsville, which I did, arriving in the neighborhood of that place at 5 o’clock p.m. Next morning (March 9) we entered the town of Keetsville, and dispatched a cavalry force a few miles beyond, but it being evident that the enemy’s forces in that direction had dispersed, General Sigel ordered us to return to the battle ground, where he encamped our command near the other divisions.
In conclusion I ought to mid the names of those who excelled. They all were brave, and I only could repeat the names mentioned before. First Lieutenant Jacoby, of Captain Welfley’s battery, who was not in the battle of Leetown, did great service and immense execution with his 12-pounder guns on the 8th. He is a worthy comrade of his brother officers. It also becomes my pleasant duty to acknowledge the very kind assistance I repeatedly received on the 8th from Colonel Schaefer, Second Missouri Volunteers, and his command.
Herewith you will find the reports of the different regiments and batteries composing my command. The list of casualties was previously sent in.
All of which is respectfully submitted.
P. J. OSTERHAUS,
Colonel, Commanding First Division, Army of the Southwest.
Capt. T. I. MCKENNY,
Actg. Asst. Adjt. Gen., S. W. Dist., Army of the Missouri.
From Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 8.
This Union victory at Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas helped the North maintain control of Missouri. Osterhaus was promoted to Brigadier General later in 1862, and eventually made it to Major General. He served until the end of the war, and fought at Vicksburg, Missionary Ridge, Atlanta, Sherman’s March to the Sea, and the Carolinas Campaign from division to corps levels. The battlefield has been preserved as Pea Ridge National Military Park.