A Buckeye at Pea Ridge

Over the past 18 years, I have read through thousands of issues of Ohio's Civil War era newspapers searching out soldiers' correspondence, but recently I came across an unusual account that I thought would merit a blog post. In the first year of the war, most of Ohio's soldiers served either in the Shenandoah Valley or in Kentucky and Tennessee, but a few served in the far west, some serving in units from out of state. This extraordinary letter is from one of those few: Sergeant Moses T. Anderson of Holmes County, who was serving in Company B of the 59th Illinois Infantry. Letters from soldiers serving from out of state are not unusual, but battle accounts from engagements fought west of the Mississippi River have proven few and far between, at least in Ohio's newspapers, and that's what makes Anderson's letter special.

Anderson's letter, published in the April 10, 1862 issue of the Holmes County Farmer, recounts his regiment's experience at the important Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas which was fought March 7-8, 1862. The 59th Illinois, originally known as the 9th Missouri, fought as part of Colonel Julius White's Second Brigade composed of just two regiments and an artillery battery: the 37th Illinois, 59th Illinois, and Battery B, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery under Captain Peter Davidson. White's brigade formed a part of Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis' division- Davis had already gained some notoriety for being part of the Fort Sumter garrison that took part in the war's opening moments in April 1861. But it was on the field of Pea Ridge, that Davis cemented his reputation for hard fighting with his conduct of the engagement on the first day of the battle at Leetown.

Kurz & Allison print depicting the Battle of Pea Ridge

Camp Halleck, Benton Co., Arkansas

March 22, 1862

                The telegraph has informed you long ere this of the great battle that has recently been fought in this vicinity. I propose to give you a few particulars of that hard contested and memorable engagement and the part a “humble soger boy” of gallant “little Holmes” here in said contest. From the time our gallant boys first trod the sacred soil of this state (February 17th) to the 5th inst., nothing worthy of note occurred to disturb the usual quietness of camp life. That evening we retired, everything as quiet as usual. About midnight we were awakened and ordered to cook three days’ rations as the enemy was advancing upon us with a very large force. As we had frequently been before, as we thought, just on the eve of a battle and were deceived, we naturally supposed that this would also prove a delusion, but notwithstanding this, obeyed the order strictly. During the night a part of General Curtis’ division returned (we were then camped on Little Sugar Creek) from Cross Hollows, where they had been encamped about ten miles south of us. They had to leave in such haste that they were compelled to destroy part of their tents, provisions, etc. to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy.

Major General Franz Sigel
General Sigel’s division was left near Bentonville to offer them fight, and if possible, to draw them on to attack the main force. To accomplish the latter they had an easy task, as it seems they had not only previously determined to attack us, but were perfectly confident of an easy victory.  General Sigel fought against fearful odds that day. At times, they had him surrounded and whole companies of his men taken prisoners. Thus the battle raged most of the day. In the evening, he retreated to the main body. That day and night large details of men from each company were being engaged in felling trees, and building fortifications on the hillside to the north of Sugar Creek.

The second day (March 7), cannonading commenced about 10 o’clock to the northeast of us distant two or three miles. It kept advancing and was soon heard north and northwest of us. It was then evident that they had us surrounded, but the beauty of it was that we whipped them after they had obtained their desired advantage. Our division (General Davis’) took position behind our fortifications. We did not remain there long, as it was evident they were not going to attack us there. We then moved in a northwesterly direction. As we passed along we could hear them fighting off to our right.
Map of the battle near Leestown- the 59th Illinois fought in the woods to the right of the Federal batteries on this map.

At Leetown, a small village about a half mile south of our battleground where our hospitals were, we threw off our knapsacks and pushed on at the double quick. We passed our battery (Captain Davidson’s Illinois Battery) on our left in the northeast corner of a cornfield. We marched on west a few rods further and then filed right into the woods where the brush was so thick we could scarcely make our way through it. We marched in that direction a short distance and then formed a line of battle facing to the west.
Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis' fine combat record during
the Civil War is marred by his murderous altercation with
General William Nelson in Louisville in September 1862.

We immediately advanced upon the enemy. We had not proceeded many steps when the butternuts (that is what the boys call the enemy, as they are all dressed in clothes colored with the walnut) were seen in the brush. Immediately a desperate volley was sent into the Rebel ranks and nobly did we continue the same advancing upon them, and they returning the same upon us. Thus the battle raged with great destruction and fury for some time, causing immense slaughter (as we have since learned) on their side and considerable on ours. Our officers, seeing that we could gain some advantage by falling back a few rods, ordered us to do so which we did, and advanced upon them again. After fighting with great gallantry for some time, we again fell back and rallied a third time, and continued to let fly our messengers of death at them for some time and then retired again. (This is an account of what our regiment the 59th Illinois did.) This was a desperate engagement. The air seemed literally filled with leaden hail. The bullets flew around us, cutting of the branches of bushes, whizzing by our ears and cutting or clothes. It reminded me of a hailstorm. My only astonishment is that so many escaped. The loss of our regiment is as follows: Major Philip S. Post, Second Lieutenant James A. Beach (Co. I), and Sergeant Major John Ford Smith wounded. The entire loss is 11 killed and 53 wounded. Our company had one killed, one mortally wounded, two severely and one slightly wounded. The second mentioned stood in front of me and as we retired I assisted him off the battlefield. He has since died.
Colonel Julius White would garner a promotion to brigadier
for his role at Pea Ridge and would transfer east, where he gained
 a court martial for his role in the surrender of Harper's Ferry.
Acquitted of any wrong doing, he served as a divisional commander with
Burnside's 9th Corps in Knoxville and at Petersburg.

The Indiana brigade took position in rear of our battery, concealed from the enemy by the timber. They thinking the battery unprotected, charged upon it and took it, planting their contemptible rag of a flag upon it and gave three hearty cheers over their seeming victory. Their joy was of short duration, for just as they were ready to haul away their rich prize, the gallant Hoosiers poured a deadly fire into their ranks, causing many of their men to bite the dust and the rest to retreat in great dismay and confusion, closely pursued by the brave Hoosiers “remembering Buena  Vista.” Thus they were routed. We searched in vain for them, but they had fled and were perfectly satisfied with Suckers and Hoosiers.

General Davis says our division composed of five regiments greatly cut down by disease, discharges, etc., fought against 10,000 of their “picked men” being Ben McCulloch’s crack regiments from Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Indians, and that we killed the proud, chivalric, and ubiquitous Ben McCulloch, McIntosh (leader of the Indians), and a General Reeves. This opinion is corroborated by Rebel officers we have captured. They also admit that General Slack was killed and Generals Price and Reines wounded. As a matter of fact, we know nothing certain about these reports, but as it is the admissions of their officers and from other evidence we believe them to be true.

General Curtis’ division was on the right, ours in the center, and General Sigel’s on the left. The third day our brigade was in the battlefield before sunrise and took position along a cornfield fence in a meadow. Our battery was in our rear and to our right. They opened upon the enemy and continued firing for some time without receiving a reply. Presently the enemy opened fire and paid them a few visits in the shapes of balls and shells, then forsook them and paid the remainder of their compliments (if such they might be called) to us. At first they shot far beyond us, but kept getting closer until finally their balls came ploughing up the ground just a few feet in the rear of us, and came near killed our brigadier and colonel (White and Fredericks). In fact, the latter (Lieutenant Colonel Calvin H. Fredericks) was so stunned by a ball that he had to be taken off the field. Our officers perceiving the imminent danger and that we were powerless in that situation, ordered us to retreat across the meadow and form a line in the edge of the woods along the meadow fence. While making that memorable retreat, the enemy was firing upon us with two or three batteries but it seems a miracle that none were hurt.

In the meantime, our battery had changed its position and was now planted on our right. For a time it had to contend with a number of the enemy’s batteries. After our other batteries came to her assistance, I presume such desperate cannonading is seldom seen in a field fight. It was kept up about 1 1/2 hours. I presume it got to be too hot work for the enemy as they stopped. When in our second position the enemy was firing over us all the time. I suppose no proof is needed to convince the reader that I have heard more melodious sounds than the sharp whistling sound of the bullet and deep growling sound of the cannon ball and that I should prefer lounging on a sofa to that of lying in such close proximity to where cannon balls alight.

We had one more skirmish that morning which ended one of the greatest, if not the greatest, battles ever fought west of the Mississippi. Their loss in killed and wounded in upwards of 3,000, ours is about 1,000. We have taken from 500-1,000 prisoners and from 1,000-2,000 stand of arms. Considering that they outnumbered us two to one and that they had us surrounded and then we had to fight them on ground of their choosing (as we had to make the attack) and in their favorite method (bushwhacking), and also considering the relative losses in both men and officers, it is truly a great victory. But as my letter is already too long, I shall close for the present.


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