Leadership Lesson from 150 years ago today: The Battle of Pea Ridge

On March 7, 1862, Federal and Confederate troops clashed, in one of the few major battles west of the Mississippi River, on the rolling ground of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. The battle itself lasted two days, resulting in both a tactical and strategic Federal victory.  Of the many stories from this battle, allow me to share one thread offering a timeless lesson in leadership.

I won’t bore you with the grand strategy and what brought conflict into the out-of-the-way northwest corner of Arkansas.  Lets just stick to the nickle tour here.  In the previous months, Federal Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis conducted a winter campaign that drove the Confederate forces out of southwest Missouri.  Divided due to a cumbersome chain of command, the Confederates fell back.  In the first days of March, the ever colorful Major General Earl Van Dorn arrived and assumed overall command of the southern forces.  Van Dorn did what any aggressive commander would – attack.  Not satisfied with some direct assault on a well entrenched enemy, Van Dorn opted for a wide-flanking, three-day march (in terrible weather) to catch the Federals from behind.  The complex maneuver might have worked but for a chain of events on the battlefield.

Like many good flank attacks, Van Dorn’s plan looked better on the map than it did on the ground.  On the morning of March 7, lead elements of Van Dorn’s army reached Curtis’ main supply route.  But his trailing divisions remained stuck in traffic.  So Van Dorn ordered Brigadier General Ben McCulloch onto a side road in order to regain the time-table.  However that route put McCulloch in contact with rear guards of the Federal force.  Around mid-morning, the Confederates stumbled into the Federals.   McCulloch managed to brush aside Federal cavalry but had to deploy his men.  And by the time McCulloch deployed, the Federals likewise shifted forces to confront him.  With the battle joined, he had little option but to continue.  Momentum and numbers were on McCulloch’s side, however.  If he played the cards right, McCulloch would trap the Federals.

McCulloch was one of those larger than life Texans.  He’d served with distinction in the Texas War for Independence and the Mexican-American War.  Although lacking any formal military education, he prided himself on having studied most every manual of the day.  Perhaps he was not a military professional, but nobody doubted his bravery and natural leadership.

Ben McCulloch

Having decided to launch a coordinated attack, McCulloch gave basic instructions to his subordinates but held off providing more details pending a personal reconnaissance of the field.  McCulloch, subordinates knew they were going to attack, but didn’t know much more about the situation or McCulloch’s full intent.  Around 1:30 that afternoon, McCulloch rode forward, alone, in front of his infantry coming to a break in the trees along a large field, named Oberson’s field for the farmer who worked it.  As he rode through the woods, Federals in the 36th Illinois Infantry noticed a lone rider in the woods and opened fire with a loose volley.  One of the bullets found McCulloch’s heart, killing him instantly.

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Tree line in which McCulloch was killed

With McCulloch dead, Brigadier General James McIntosh, a Floridian who’d graduated last in the USMA class of 1849, assumed command.  When he received word about McCulloch, McIntosh immediately rode to the front then ordered the planned attack carried forward – no coordination, no follow up planning …. just forward!

General James McIntosh

With that, McIntosh led his 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles forward into Oberson’s field.  As he and his men emerged from the wood line, companies of the 36th Illinois, which had fired on McCulloch, turned and fired on McIntosh’s men.  And just like McCulloch, one of the Federal bullets hit McIntosh in the heart.  He fell a few hundred yards east of where McCulloch died.

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Tree line along Oberson's Field - Vicinity were McIntosh fell

So who was next in command?  Well the other Confederate brigade commander was at that moment struggling through the woods on the east side of Oberson’s Field.  Colonel Louis Hebert (USMA 1845 for those of you counting these sort of things), lead his brigade against the Federal right flank in accordance with McCulloch’s plan and McIntosh’s orders into a dense patch of woods.

Colonel Louis Hebert

In spite of the dense woods and difficult terrain, Hebert’s Louisiana and Arkansas troops gained ground.  In fact, they almost broke the blue line.  Problem was Hebert was all alone in this attack.  Very soon the Federals started working his flanks, making his gains untenable.

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Morgan's Woods where Hebert's men attacked

In the midst of this struggle in Morgan’s Woods, Hebert never knew he was in command of the division. Didn’t matter much, as Hebert could barely control his brigade in the confusion, much less the rest of the division.  He was out of place and working from a busted script.  Worse yet, the Federals practically surrounded Hebert.  Later that afternoon the Louisiana colonel surrendered.

With McCulloch and McIntosh dead, and unable to contact Hebert, the Confederates fell into confusion.  Command should have fallen next to Colonel Elkanah Greer, commander of the 3rd Texas Cavalry.  But in the confusion, Greer was idle with his regiment waiting the next orders.  In the vacuum, Brigadier General Albert Pike gave orders.

General Albert Pike

Now I could easily spend thousands of words on Pike and his interesting life (He IS the only Confederate General with an open-air monument in Washington, D.C. by the way…).  But let me just say for brevity, Pike was not IN command but rather the leader of an attached brigade of allied Indians.  Upon learning of McCulloch and McIntosh, Pike concluded all was lost and began a unilateral withdrawal. Pike simply conceded any hope for turning the balance on the field.  Only after Pike had ordered a retreat did Greer realize his position in command.  At that point, the entire force, McCulloch’s former division, was in retreat.  This turn of events negated any opportunity McCulloch had seen around mid-day.

From the start that morning, a complex plan devolved when in contact with reality.  Four secessions in command, along with the distraction of someone outside the formal chain giving orders, further disoriented the Confederates.  Had McCulloch been clear on his intent, maybe McIntosh wouldn’t have been so hasty.  Had Hebert known of McCulloch’s death, perhaps he wouldn’t have gotten tangled in the woods.  And perhaps had of these leaders communicated a clear message to subordinates, Pike wouldn’t have “assumed” control of the situation. Confederate leaders, from Van Dorn to Greer, provided little more than the basic instructions to subordinates.  And as command devolved due to casualties, no man was prepared to assume command.

But for a few words of intent and direction, the battle unraveled.

6 thoughts on “Leadership Lesson from 150 years ago today: The Battle of Pea Ridge”

  1. Thanks for posting this. I recently discovered that my great-great-(great?) grandfather fought in this battle with the 3rd Iowa Battery (The Dubuque Battery). Nice to have some more info.

  2. Real history such as this is one of the fascinating aspects of Civil War leadership. While considered rather foolhardy today, these leaders led from the front, with their men. While dangerous, it is inspiring to see leaders willing to make that sacrifice for their cause and their troops!

  3. There’s a reason for the 5 point contingency plan before the leader’s recon!

    True story, I received an AAM for taking over my platoon once in training after the umpired “killed” the PL. Afterwards, the AAR was held with a contingent of Kuwaiti officers there to observe our training and evaluate the Bradley. They were stunned to see a junior NCO stand up and debrief.

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