Massed Artillery in the West: Pea Ridge

In his report of the Battle of Pea Ridge, Captain Louis Hoffmann, Forth Independent Battery, Ohio Light Artillery recounted his activities on March 8, 1862:

The battery was placed on the left wing of the First Division, on a high plateau, and has not changed its position, firing without interruption during nearly four hours. After having compelled the enemy to stop the firing of his batteries, Hoffmann’s battery turned its whole attention to a high rocky hill opposite our plateau, occupied by the strongest force of the enemy, for the support of our infantry, which that time commenced its marching up the said rocky hill…. The four 6-pounder rifled guns of the battery have thrown 460 shots and the two howitzers 106 shells and spherical case. [OR, Series I, Volume 8, Serial 8, page 238]

Hoffmann’s battery was one of six batteries, or surviving portions of, massed on the Federal left on the second day of battle at Pea Ridge.  All told, twenty-one cannons formed across Cox’s Field, spanning from the Ford Farm nearly to the Telegraph Road.

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Right End of Federal Gun Line in Cox’s Field

The massed guns was the largest concentration of field artillery seen thus far in the war (keep in mind Shiloh was a month in the future, and the great eastern battles of 1862 had yet to transpire).  In what was perhaps the greatest day in his military career, Brigadier General Franz Sigel, commanding the First and Second Divisions (in other words a “wing”) of the army, directed this concentrated firepower against the Confederate lines in preparation for an infantry assault.

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View of Confederate Lines Opposite Cox’s Field

Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding the Army of the Southwest, put events in motion the previous night by ordering Sigel to concentrate his command for a morning attack against Confederates.  Sigel sent his First Division commander, Colonel Peter J. Osterhaus, to examine the ground and begin placing the troops.  Osterhaus, exhibiting a keen eye for terrain, noted a rise on the western side of Cox’s Field.   Today the ground is known as Welfley’s Knoll, named for Captain Martin Welfley, whose Missouri Light Artillery deployed on that high ground.

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Looking West Down Federal Artillery Line at Welfley’s Knoll

On the Confederate side, Major General Earl Van Dorn did not prepare for this concentrated assault.  At no time during the morning were more than a dozen guns positioned to counter Sigel’s artillery.  In his official report, Van Dorn cited ammunition shortages.   To some degree this was true, but Van Dorn and his commanders did little to direct the guns in defense.

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Confederate Gunner’s View of Telegraph Road and Federal Guns

But other factors also worked against the rebel gunners.  The lay of the ground worked against the Confederates.  Big Mountain hemmed in the Confederate right flank.  And batteries deployed at the edge of Cox’s Field were enfiladed by Welfley’s Battery.  Ranges varied between 500 yards to 800 yards.  With many rifled guns and better fuze-shell combinations, the Federal gunners had a technical advantage also.

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Welfley’s Knoll from the Confederate Gun Line

The bombardment left a memorable impression upon those on the field that day.  Some witnesses estimated a cannon fired once every two seconds that morning.  Just based on Hoffmann’s report, that Ohio battery averaged a shot every two minutes over the span of four hours from each rifled gun; and one every four minutes from each howitzer.  And likely the average does not properly reflect the intense firing mid morning.   Still even a conservative estimate is a round every thirty seconds from Hoffmann’s gunners alone.

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View of Confederate Artillery from Welfley’s Knoll

Under cover of this bombardment, Sigel advanced his infantry in bounds to staging points.  Upon seeing several Confederate batteries withdraw, Curtis remarked to Sigel, “General, I think the infantry might advance now.”  With that order, the entire Army of the Southwest, four divisions, stood on line and advanced.  A sight not often seen during the war in the east, much less in the far west.   The infantry assault broke the Confederate line and triggered a general retreat, if not full route.

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View of Cox’s Field from East Overlook

On the second day of Pea Ridge artillery did pave the way for an infantry assault.  Some will point out the Confederate Army of the West was not widely equipped with rifled muskets.  That may be true, but the bombardment ranges at Pea Ridge were closer than at battles later in the war.  And those massed guns were mostly Mexican War vintage smoothbores and 6-pdr bronze rifles, with only a handful of 12-pdr Napoleons.  That said, perhaps, with the bombardment and the grand attack of the Army of the Southwest on line considered, Pea Ridge was among the last true “Napoleonic” battles.

The restored and well maintained battlefield at Pea Ridge offers the student of the war the opportunity to study the tactical use of massed batteries.  And that battlefield preservation is the subject of my next post on Pea Ridge.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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