The Hour Had Come: The 8th Indiana at Pea Ridge
After having been in service for nearly a year and yet to find a battle, the officers of the 8th Indiana finally got their chance March 7, 1862 at the Battle of Pea Ridge. The battle had been roaring for an hour when word finally came that it was time for the 8th Indiana to head for the line, but there was one catch. Orders only called for five companies of the regiment to go.
“Our boys now ceased to look for fun where they were and became clamorous to be led to the field,” recalled First Lieutenant Samuel H. Dunbar of Co. B. "Half our regiment and a section of our battery was ordered out. Colonel Benton proposed to Lieutenant Colonel Shunk that he would take the right wing and Shunk would take the left and they would draw cuts which should go. They did so and Colonel Shunk was successful, and the left wing hurried away. In a short time, it was in the hottest of the fight, being ordered to flank a force that was fighting with fearful effect the 4th Iowa.”
Dunbar and his comrades stayed behind, listening to the battle with increasing frustration and didn’t get called upon to fight the next day either. It would be more than a year before Lieutenant Dunbar finally got to experience his first battle at Port Gibson during the Vicksburg campaign. (see story here).
Lieutenant Dunbar’s account of Pea Ridge was originally published in the April 2, 1862 edition of the Hancock Democrat.
Sugar Creek Battleground, Benton Co., Arkansas
March 12, 1862
The occurrence of recent events would doubtless interest you and your readers. Since my last letter, written at Camp Halleck, we moved back to Sugar Creek where upon the morning of the 6th instant at 2 o’clock, Colonel William P. Benton in person woke us up and told the boys to cook two days’ rations; that Price was advancing upon us and he did not know when we would have time again to cook. We were then encamped in the hollow and at daylight we moved upon a large hill adjacent to the camp and began fortifying it. Captain Klauss’ battery [1st Indiana Light Artillery] also moved up with us. This hill, of three facing to the south, was in the center and was the post of honor since its range commanded the valley and the hills on the opposite side distant one-fourth or half a mile. Colonel Benton’s regiment was at first ordered upon another of these hills less exposed and of less importance; but by hard persuasion and perseverance Colonel Thomas Pattison gave way and allowed him the position he desired.
Farther down and to the right of the position of our brigade was Sigel’s position and to our left was Colonel Carr White’s brigade with the 37th Illinois and 59th Illinois which is part of General Jefferson C. Davis’ command. Colonel Carr and General Asboth were both back of us and to the north. Sigel, however, on the morning of the 6th was at Bentonville and was there attacked upon that day and fell back to his position on our right, fighting them in his “old way.”
On the morning of the 7th, our regiment was ordered to fall back in the woods about a mile for the purpose, I presume, of coaxing the enemy to assault the hills. We had just stacked arms when we were ordered to fall in which we did in great haste. By the excited movements and appearances of our officers, I knew that something was up though I had not heard a gun. We started back to our place but had gone but half way when the cannon opened in the direction of Colonel Carr’s position. The hour had come, and the battle for which we had been hunting had at last burst upon us. Our regiment went back into its rifle pits and lay listening to the roar of the conflict and anxiously expecting ourselves to be attacked.
|Colonel William P. Benton|
8th Indiana Infantry
Later Brigadier General and Brevet Major General
At noon, the 18th Indiana and 22nd Indiana were ordered to the battlefield along with Colonel White’s brigade. Our boys now ceased to look for fun where they were and became clamorous to be led to the field. Colonel Hendricks of the 22nd Indiana was killed and the 18th was fighting at the point of the bayonet, and half our regiment and a section of our battery was ordered out. Colonel Benton proposed to Lieutenant Colonel Shunk that he would take the right wing and Shunk would take the left and they would draw cuts which should go. They did so and Colonel Shunk was successful, and the left wing hurried away. [The left wing consisted of Cos. F, G, H, I, and K.]
In a short time, it was in the hottest of the fight, being ordered to flank a force that was fighting with fearful effect the 4th Iowa. To do this, they were compelled to endure a perfect rain of grape and canister. They arrived at their position when about 2,500 men, concealed in a hollow, rushed upon them and forced them to fall back, which they did in good order like old veteran soldiers. Steve Meek had his haversack carried away by a bullet which was a narrow escape. Billy Smith of our company was in the fight having slipped away from his company. This ended the fighting for the day, the enemy having gained ground and bivouacked on the battlefield. Had the truth been known to our forces, they would have been an easy capture in the morning.
Early on the 8th, Sigel opened on them, commencing fire from his batteries but received no reply for some time. But during this time, the enemy planted concealed guns upon us while the unseen infantry crawled upon us in close range. The battle then began in earnest, our troops fought desperately, and the enemy, elated by their former successes and the hope of dawning victory, pressed on our devoted columns in overwhelming numbers, pouring into them an awful fire. Colonel Shunk was ordered forward early in the morning to support Klauss’ battery and in doing so was brought between and in range of two Rebel batteries which threatened to annihilate his little band in a few moments. The Rebel infantry closed in upon him and the battery and would have taken the whole of them had they not by superhuman effort and the most incredulous courage cut their way out. The gunners drew their sabers and fighting thus got their guns out of immediate danger.
At this time, every point of our lines was giving way closely pressed by the victorious enemy. That was an awful hour of darkness and suspense. The wounded cut off and panic-stricken by hundreds were galling back upon our wagons and on our position on the hill. Every officer you saw told by his looks how desperate and almost hopeless was our situation. But there was one yet who remained undaunted and fearless. Buoyed by his courage, and a consciousness of his own powers, he was yet unwhipped. This was Sigel. God bless him, and the country that produced him!
|Lt. Col. David Shunk|
8th Indiana Infantry
Later Brigadier General
Shunk had just extricated himself from the perilous situation above described
when General Sigel met him and said “Where are you going?
Colonel Shunk explained to him the reason of his retreat, then Sigel said, “My tere fren, you hold de position here and I will show you some tings” and hastened forward. Klauss re-planted his guns with Shunk in support and in a few minutes after the appearance of Sigel, a heavy cannonading was opened by Klauss in their front and by Sigel’s guns on their flank. This was the moment of victory. Captain Klauss tumbled three of their guns and their gunners down the hill upon which they were planted while Sigel literally mowed their ranks with grape and canister. Their ranks soon began to tremble and give way.
Our infantry coming up poured volley after volley from their unerring rifles into them and the rout began. Soon they were in full retreat with Sigel and his infantry after them. General Sigel saved us, and the army is ringing with his praise. Every man you meet is a friend and admirer of him. In one quarter of an hour, had he not outflanked the enemy, our army would have been defeated and taken prisoners. Hope had fled from every breast but his own and the hour was the darkest many of us ever passed. At the moment Colonel Shunk fell back with his gallant left wing, the right was ordered up in great haste. We set out with enthusiasm and ardor and the distance was made in incredibly short time. We arrived just as the enemy fled, and to our chagrin and regret we did not get to kill any of them.
When we joined the left wing, they raised the shout. Cheer after cheer arose and I do not think I ever saw a happier set of men in my life. Thus, you can see the men of Co. B were not exactly in the fight and none regrets it more than they do themselves. Had you seen the actions and heard the expressions of eagerness uttered by them in common with the whole wing, you would have been convinced that a soldier can get mad and even furious not being led into danger. Colonel Benton’s perseverance to get the post of honor, had the enemy made the attack in front instead of rear, operated contrary to his wishes and kept him out of the fight. The post we held dared not be evacuated until all danger of its assault had passed or the last hope of defeating them upon other ground had been relinquished. John Anderson, George Dixon, and William H. Seeley escaped my vigilance and that of the guards and went into the fight.
The scene upon the battlefield after the battle was horrible and heart-sickening. The dead, pale and ghastly, lay upon every side. Friend and enemy lay in close proximity. I believe that I could go into battle and fight all day, forget fear and not blanch, but one glance at the work after its completion would almost terrify me. I may get used to such sights as I have enlisted for the war and make no mistake.
I have no idea of the extent of the enemy’s loss, but the truth is we don’t know. As an instance of their pluck and of the extent of their prejudice and infatuation, I offer this. The day after the fight, some of our men in looking over the ground went over to the position from which the enemy had just fled. One of them was leaning against a stump with both arms shot off and perceiving our men, he said to them in an angry tone “What the devil are you doing over here on our ground?”
The 8th Indiana lost 5 killed and 27 wounded at Pea Ridge.
Letter from First Lieutenant Samuel H. Dunbar, Co. B, 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Hancock Democrat (Indiana), April 2, 1862, pg. 1
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