Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Battle of Pea Ridge, 150 years ago

Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch,
McCulloch's Division, Army of the West

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Pea Ridge, or Elkhorn Tavern, I am reposting an updated blog entry originally published here about one year ago. Pea Ridge is one of my favorite battlefields to visit -- there is very little little in the way of monuments or memorials, and the field is compact and pristine. When the Civil War Forum visited there on one of our annual outings, we were fortunate to be led around the park by William Shea who, along with Earl Hess, wrote the definitive campaign study.

Pea Ridge is notable for a number of reasons, foremost among them the fact that it effectively secured the border state of Missouri for the Union. Another fascinating aspect derives from the Confederate use of Native Americans from the Indian Territory, including the 1st and 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles

Union skirmishers took a toll on Confederate leadership at Pea Ridge. First, Ben McCulloch, a division commander in Van Dorn’s army, was shot from his horse by a volley from skirmishers of the 36
th Illinois Infantry. No one in the Confederate ranks saw him go down, or didn’t realize it was him. For over an hour, McCulloch’s troops sat idle, awaiting orders. When, in time, Brig. Gen. James McIntosh took command of McCulloch’s column, he too was shot dead from his horse – by another volley from the 36th Illinois – after riding forward to scout the land. Reading about the death of McCulloch invariably causes me to start humming a little ditty from Steve Earle's Train a Comin' album.
This song is my favorite of Earle's numerous Civil War-themed tunes. I love that he takes the perspective of a southern soldier in the Trans-Mississippi, not really knowing what he's gotten himself into. And I like the references to Wilson's Creek and the Boston Mountains, a part of the country for which I have a fondness
. I also appreciate that Earle chooses not to glorify the war in some cliched manner, or to present a sentimental declaration about the rightness of one side's cause. And though Earle's rebel foot soldier "ain’t never owned a slave" – most rank and file Confederates did not – Earle is no Lost Cause apologist, and is under no illusions about the centrality of slavery in the secession crisis, a topic he sometimes muses about when introducing certain songs in concert. 

We signed up in San Antone my brother Paul and me
To fight with Ben McCulloch and the Texas infantry
Well the poster said we'd get a uniform and seven bucks a week
The best rations in the army and a rifle we could keep
When I first laid eyes on the general I knew he was a fightin' man
He was every inch a soldier every word was his command
Well his eyes were cold as the lead and steel forged into tools of war
He took the lives of many and the souls of many more

Well they marched us to Missouri and we hardly stopped for rest
Then he made this speech and said we're comin' to the test
Well we've got to take Saint Louie boys before the yankees do
If we control the Mississippi then the Federals are through

Well they told us that our enemy would all be dressed in blue
They forgot about the winter's cold and the cursed fever too
My brother died at Wilson's creek and Lord I seen him fall
We fell back to the Boston Mountains in the North of Arkansas

Goddamn you Ben McCulloch
I hate you more than any other man alive
And when you die you'll be a foot soldier just like me
In the devil's infantry

And on the way to Fayetteville we cursed McCulloch`s name
And mourned the dead that we'd left behind and we was carrying the lame
I killed a boy the other night who'd never even shaved
I don't even know what I'm fightin' for I ain't never owned a slave

So I snuck out of camp and then I heard the news next night
The Yankees won the battle and McCulloch lost his life
Steve Earle

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