At Battle of Pea Ridge, Past Interpretations and Present Impacts

Mar 23, 2016

“You’re looking at about two-thirds of the battlefield from up on top of this vantage point up here,” says Troy Banzhaf.  

Chief of Interpretation Troy Banzhaf from atop the East Overlook at Pea Ridge.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

Atop the East Overlook at Pea Ridge National Military Park in northwestern Arkansas, you get a sense of the scope of this battlefield, where roughly 2,000 Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives in March 1862. I’m standing alongside Troy Banzhaf, chief of interpretation at the park, as he describes the capabilities of the cannons scattered across the grass below.

“The ones that we’ve got right out here in marking the Federal position of March 8, most of those are six-point guns. Those are smooth bore guns and they have a range of about 1,500 yards,” says Banzhaf.

This 4,300 acre battlefield is less fragmented than that of many other Civil War sites, he notes, offering visitors a visual of most of the fighting areas within the park’s boundary.

Pea Ridge, located about 20 miles northeast of Bentonville, held its 154th anniversary earlier this month. Visitors can drive the 5-mile loop around the park, which features 10 stops, including Leetown Battlefield.

Cannons at Leetown Battlefield, where fighting ended on day one of the two-day battle.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

“The Arkansas/Louisiana [Confederate] troops poured over these; outa the woods, crossed the fence here, smashing into this artillery battery,” Banzhaf explaind.

Telegraph Road, essentially the interstate of the 19th Century, brought the soldiers to this land. Over 26,000 of them fought here. They volunteered to leave their professions back home of farmer, merchant, and teacher, among others, to fight for the Union or Confederate Army. 

Fighting started shortly before noon on March 7, 1862 near Elkhorn Tavern and pushed west toward Leetown, lasting until dusk. The next day began with a two-hour artillery barrage, says Banzhaf.

“And then a sweeping charge of the Federals across the open field pushed the Confederates off the battlefield. Maybe three hours, three hours total.”

In a fight that took roughly nine total hours over two days, the Union victory helped solidify Federal control over neighboring Missouri.

You're fighting basically for each other, not for some government policy - John Self

It was a battle in which the Union was slightly outnumbered. But poor leadership may have led to the Confederate’s defeat here.

“Had [Gen] Earl Van Dorn, who was in charge of the Confederate forces here, had he actually rested his troops a little bit – and not pushed them as hard – who knows this could have been a completely different outcome here. But he wore them out before they even got here,” Banzhaf said. 

“The troops called him Damn Born after this battle.” 

That’s John Self, a retired Marine from Fort Worth, Texas and Civil War history buff who I came across on Stop 6, the West Overlook.

This was Self’s first visit to Pea Ridge, with the goal of visiting all Civil War battle sites. Having served 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, Self seemed confounded by the 19th Century battle tactics as he looked out over the field.

John Self, who served 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, aims to visit all Civil War battle sites.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

“You don’t march in a straight line over open ground at cannons. Why that didn’t resonate stronger than it did and why they couldn’t adapt to the situation they faced on the battlefields – not just in this battle but in all the battles; they did it for four years straight - blows my mind,” he said.

Yet he marveled at the bravery of the men that fought, noting the power of comradery Self likely shared with his fellow soldiers overseas. 

“The reason why they did it was the guys standing to the left and right of them were people they grew up with. I can tell you when you’re in a fight courage isn’t really what’s on your mind…you’re fighting basically for each other, not for some government policy. That stuff goes out the window when the bullets start flying,” said Self.

The battlefield as seen from this overlook puts into perspective for visitors like Self the scope of the site and condition of the grounds.

Park Superintendent Kevin Eads notes that preservation of the battle grounds is key in educating the public of what took place here and how it looked at that time.

Eads said, “We manage our natural resources within the cultural context to give more of that texture on the battlefield. So that whenever our visitors come, they get the same idea and the same picture of much of what the Civil War soldiers would have seen at the time of the battle.”

That means removing cedar trees, opening up viewsheds, planting native grasses and removing exotic species. It includes restoring facilities, such as the Elkhorn Tavern, to its 1860s appearance. Additional split-rail fencing reveals pasture boundaries before they were damaged during battle or burned for firewood by soldiers.  Even the dozens of cannons on display are from the Civil War era to support the park’s authenticity.

“This barrel was cast in 1861,” says Banzhaf, pointing to one of the cannons at Leetown Battlefield. “So this barrel’s 155 years old.”

We manage our natural resources within the cultural context - Kevin Eads.

Artillery demonstrations by soldiers dressed in period uniforms is one of the more widely attended events at the park. For John Self, he can’t help but think of the carnage the weaponry brought to the battlefield.  

“That grape from the canister is... I don’t know how many grains it weighs; it’s well past the weight of a shotgun slug, going at 3,000 feet per second. It hits you it rips you apart. It just doesn’t make a clean hole and go through. There’s nothing left to put back together. That field was full of it,” says Self.

Many of the soldiers injured at the battle of Pea Ridge received treatment at Elkhorn Tavern. Dave Lewis is a Korean War veteran and park volunteer. Wearing homespun pants and a heavy coat, he explains the various tools used in this makeshift emergency room.

At Elkhorn Tavern, artificial limbs and fake blood-soaked cloth sit atop a table full of medical tools used on injured Civil War soldiers.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

“Retractors, scissors of the various types, and a bone file which always makes people grit their teeth,” says Lewis.

Many of the tools are still used in procedures today. As for the medicines available in those times…

“This is sulfur; quinine sulfate - which is used to treat malaria - and this is tannic acid. They didn’t know anything about disinfectants and so on but tannic acid is a very good one.”

Last year, Pea Ridge National Military Park welcomed over 110,000 visitors. That includes school groups and military personnel, who can still glean knowledge of logistical complications and successes at the battle.

During this centennial year of the National Park Service – which has also collaborated with Storycorps to capture interviews and oral histories - the battlefield in northwest Arkansas is showing films on various parks every third Saturday of the month. Pea Ridge will celebrate National Park week beginning April 16 through caravan tours and junior ranger day training. And beginning in late May, artillery demonstrations will resume.

Just this week, a four-year project was to begin that using ground penetrating radar and metal detection in a 40 acre section of the park as part of an agreement with the Arkansas Archeological Survey. Chief of Interpretation Troy Banzhaf says it’s not so much the artifacts they may uncover, but where they’re located.

“We’ll GPS it so that we can put it on a map...We can determine lines, we can determine where soldiers were at, we can determine where artillery was at, we can determine where soldiers went. And so it’s kind of exciting to be a part of that.”

So amid current preservation efforts, interpretative accounts, and visitors ranging from grade-school field trips to past and present U.S. war veterans, there may still be more to learn about Pea Ridge National Military Park, 154 years and counting.