The Union Army of the Southwest began its march towards its Confederate foe in the dead of winter in 1862. The army’s First Division, led by German immigrant Peter Osterhaus and its Second Division led by Hungarian revolutionary Alexander Asboth, were placed under the command of Franz Sigel. This mostly German “corps” was the largest force primarily made up of immigrants organized by either army up until that time.1
When the Army of the Southwest advanced, it pushed the Confederates out of Missouri. The Union army only had 10,250 men, while its Confederate rival was nearly 50% larger. However the Confederates were poorly led and disunited. General Earle Van Dorn had only recently been appointed to command what had formerly been two armies, one under Texan Ben McCulloch and the other under Missourian Sterling Price. Van Dorn’s subordinates spent almost as much time battling each other as they did fighting the Unionists.2
Van Dorn himself was inexperienced, rash, and headstrong. When his advanced forces were thrown out of Missouri, Van Dorn decided to move as quickly as possible against the Union army. He ordered his soldiers to march without rest and with only three days worth of rations over a difficult frontier countryside. This ensured that when the fighting began his troops would be both hungry and exhausted. Van Dorn’s order that his men leave their tents behind forced them to sleep exposed on the ground in subfreezing temperatures and meant that they battled hypothermia as well as Unionists.3
Van Dorn’s men were distinctly aware of the composition of the Union army they were about to face. When an Arkansan Confederate wrote to his fiancé to brag that she would soon “hear of the Dutch and Yankees being run to St. Louis” by the Confederates, he was acknowledging the sizable German contingent (called “the Dutch” by 19th Century Americans) in the Union army as well as warning her that Southern whites were facing a foreign invasion and conquest.4
Van Dorn’s force numbered 16,000 men with hundreds of Cherokee soldiers joining him from what is now known as Oklahoma. The Cherokee had originated in Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas, where some of them had owned slaves. When gold was discovered on their lands, President Andrew Jackson forced them to follow the Trail of Tears, which ran through Pea Ridge, to relocation sites in Oklahoma. Black slaves followed their Cherokee “owners” west. When the Civil War broke out, the Cherokee Nation began its own internal civil war with some allying with the Confederates and others fighting for the Union.5
As Van Dorn moved north on March 4, 1862, a howling snowstorm blew across the borderlands. Only a day later, Union General Samuel Curtis learned that the Confederates were on the move. The Union army was scattered along the Missouri-Arkansas border trying to gather food for its animals. Curtis ordered all forces to gather together by a small river called Little Sugar Creek. He sent orders to Sigel to bring his two divisions to the creek as soon as possible. More reports of the approach of the Confederates reached Curtis and he sent Sigel a second order assuring him that the Confederates “are coming sure.” Curtis urged him to make a night march if necessary.6
Sigel was slow to act after he received the first warning from Curtis, but the second order arrived as Sigel was receiving news from his cavalry that the Confederates had been spotted moving towards him. Early on March 6 the “German Divisions” were on the march and by the middle of the morning most of Sigel’s men had safely advanced away from danger, with the exception of Sigel himself and a small rearguard. Sigel and six hundred of his men stayed miles behind his retreating divisions and turned to face the Confederates at the Arkansas town of Bentonville.7
Up the road towards Bentonville came a powerful Confederate cavalry brigade commanded by West Pointer James McIntosh. A large contingent of Missouri Confederates was also pushing against Sigel. The Confederates greatly outnumbered Sigel and they were using their superior mobility to try and cut the Germans off from their main army. Seeing the Confederates moving around his small force, Sigel told one of his officers “We are surrounded, the enemy is on all sides of us”, but he told the office “we must cut our way through, we will go through.”8
Union living historians recreating the Bentonville phase of the Pea Ridge Campaign.
In a masterful display of personal courage and decisive action, Sigel managed to cut through the Confederates and reach Asboth and Osterhaus, but his decision to stay behind with such a small rear guard and fight has been questioned by his critics for 150 years. Was he merely grandstanding, endangering himself and his command in a vain search for glory? His men would hail his bravery and his skillful management of meager resources. They would not disparage his decision to try to slow the Confederates in the opening phase of the Battle of Pea Ridge, but beyond the German community his motives would be doubted. 9
Sigel’s rash act may have had roots in his experience the year before. The last time Sigel had commanded during a significant battle was at Wilson’s Creek, some seven months earlier. There he had also been outnumbered when a Confederate attack disrupted his line and he lost control of his men. They broke and his line collapsed. Perhaps Sigel wanted to test his men, and himself, in this preliminary fight before the main battle was joined.
Video: Living Historians Reenact the Bentonville Phase of the Pea Ridge Campaign
1. Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel by Stephen D. Engle published by Louisiana State Univ Pr (1999), Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the German Radical Press, 1857-1862 by Steven Rowan, University of Missouri Press (1983); Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West Kindle Edition by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (1997).
2.Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West Kindle Edition by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (1997) Kindle Loc. 366.
3.Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West Kindle Edition by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (1997) Kindle Loc. 1985.
4.Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West Kindle Edition by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (1997) Kindle Loc. 1085.
5.Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West Kindle Edition by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (1997) Kindle Loc. 1108.
6.Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West Kindle Edition by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (1997) Kindle Loc. 1238.
7.Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West Kindle Edition by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (1997) Kindle Loc. 1303.
8.Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West Kindle Edition by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (1997) Kindle Loc. 1363.
9.Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West Kindle Edition by William L. Shea and Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (1997).
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites