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German Immigrants Triumphant at Pea Ridge

April 30, 2013   View Discussion

German Immigrants Triumphant at Pea Ridge

Patrick Young, Esq.

by Patrick Young, Esq. - Blogger

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Peter Osterhaus was the first Union division commander sent to counter the Confederates attacking in the rear of the Union army during the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas. Nearly the entire Confederate army had managed to get around the smaller Union army during the evening of March 6, 1862. The German immigrant colonel ordered his two subordinates, Cyrus Bussy and Bavarian immigrant Nicholas Greusel, to move their brigades north to establish the still-unknown size of the Confederate force and to block them at a farming area called Leetown until the rest of the Union army could respond. The Union commander, General Samuel Curtis, assumed that the Confederates bearing down from the north were only a small detachment. He had no idea that there were enough Confederates behind him to trap and destroy his army. 1

While Osterhaus was swiftly moving towards Leetown, Curtis learned that a large Confederate force was advancing from the north further east near a rural hostelry named Elkhorn Tavern. The Union general sent a small force to investigate this new threat several miles east of Leetown, but kept most of his army facing south. He still did not realize that the two Confederate forces to his north were the entire Confederate army.2



Union troops (Blue) were originally deployed at the area depicted on the southern part of this map. Confederates (Red) under General Van Dorn had swung around the Union line on the left side of the map, marched to a position in the rear of the Union army, and attacked in two columns at Leetown (McCulloch) and Elkhorn Tavern (Price).



When Osterhaus reached Leetown he was shocked to see thousands of Confederate soldiers moving south towards him, and that they were poised to capture Pea Ridge, a long high hill and the best defensive line if the Union army had a chance to save itself.  If the Confederates captured the ridge, the Union army could be cut off from help and crushed.  Osterhaus paused for just a moment to decide what to do. He would later report to his superiors, “Notwithstanding [that] my command was entirely inadequate to the overwhelming masses opposed to me, I could not hesitate.” He sent half his small force forward to disrupt the Confederate advance and formed the other half in a stronger defensive position.3

Osterhaus later reported that he decided then and there that his only option for saving the Union army was in “keeping back…the enemy until I was reinforced.” According to the leading history of the battle “Osterhaus’s decision…proved to be the turning point in the battle.” By noon, heavy fighting in the Leetown sector had begun.4

Osterhaus, aggressive despite his small numbers, took the Confederates under Texan General Ben McCulloch by surprise when the advanced element of the Union detachment appeared as if from out of nowhere to fire into the advancing Confederates. While this opening engagement was raging, Osterhaus, realizing that his forward position would soon be overrun, organized a line of resistance on the south side of a farmer’s field.  Commanded by the immigrant colonel Nicholas Greusel, this line would eventually hold up half of the Confederate army and keep it from uniting with the rest of the opposing army east at Elkhorn Tavern.5 



Greusel’s position at the south side of a farmer’s field. The map shows the disparity in forces.



As Greusel’s men formed into their defensive line, the Union men Osterhaus had set ahead of them were overrun. The routed soldiers ran through Greusel’s men calling for them to run away to save their lives. Greusel warned his men that if they ran it would be Bull Run all over again and that their army would disintegrate. In all, Osterhaus had fewer than half as many men as the Confederates moving against him, but, as the leading history of the battle declares, Osterhaus’s decision to establish Greusel’s line was a “stroke of genius” that would play a crucial role in Union victory.6



Nicholas Greusel warning his men that if they do not hold back the Confederates the Union troops will be routed as at Bull Run.



Worried that the small Union force was holding up his advance, General Ben McCulloch decided to scout the Union position himself. The men of Greusel’s old regiment, the 36th Illinois, saw the Texan and opened fire on him, killing him instantly. Soon after, the Confederate’s second-in command was also shot down by the 36th Illinois. The Confederates in front of Osterhaus would fight without a centralized command for the rest of the day.7

Osterhaus’s stand provided his commander General Samuel Curtis the time to shift his entire army, which had been facing south, to a position 180 degrees opposite facing north along Pea Ridge. By 2:00 PM reinforcements began arriving to bolster Osterhaus’s once brittle line.8



The killing of Confederate General Ben McCulloch by Peter Osterhaus’s men.



When Franz Sigel arrived at 5:00 PM with more men, he took charge of the Union left wing centered on Leetown.  Sigel set to work organizing the relief of the embattled Union force two miles to the east at Elkhorn Tavern.  The outnumbered United States force there had run low on ammunition and was in danger of being forced back when a small relief column commanded by the Hungarian immigrant Brigadier General Alexander Asboth arrived. The leading historians of the battle write that “now the chance of a Confederate breakthrough was gone” in the Elkhorn Tavern sector.9

With hindsight, we can see now that the Unionists clearly held the advantage by the end of the day. Half of the Confederate army was leaderless and would play almost no coherent role in the next day’s fighting. The other half, arrayed near Elkhorn Tavern, was exhausted and running low on ammunition. But this is not how the situation appeared to many of the Union soldiers. They believed that thousands more phantom Confederates lurked out of view and they feared that if they did not fight their way out soon, they would soon starve from a lack of supplies.  General Asboth, who had been wounded during the day, was one of those who feared that disaster lurked in the night.10 

Franz Sigel’s decisions that night show that he too had a distracted mind. He had brought his men very close to the Union force at Elkhorn Tavern by dusk, but when night fell he decided to take his men to camp miles away. His poor soldiers marched about lost in the blackness until nearly 2:00 AM when Curtis learned of what was going on and ordered the men to halt and get a few hours of sleep. 11

After a hasty breakfast in the morning, Sigel’s men moved quickly into position on the left of the United States soldiers at Elkhorn.  The Germans’ rapidity of movement impressed Curtis as they covered the ground at a trot with remarkable efficiency. As they took up position, Sigel’s artillery opened up on the Confederates beneath them. According to the standard history of the battle, the “result was devastating.” As Sigel’s guns blasted, the Confederate artillery was silenced and the rebels began to pull back with Sigel’s infantry methodically following behind.12



Sigel personally aimed the artillery at Leetown that began the Confederate retreat.



Seeing the damage done by Sigel’s barrage, Curtis ordered nearly his entire army to advance against the Confederates. Realizing that his men had exhausted almost all of their ammunition, Confederate Commander Earl Van Dorm ordered a general retreat.  The Confederates ceased to be a fighting force. As one Arkansas civilian who witnessed the retreat said later, the Confederate army had become “a confused mob…a rabble.” 13

Sigel gave perhaps his best performance of the war at Pea Ridge and the German-language press exaggerated his real valor to god-like proportions.  And, although Sigel had been acting as second-in-command to Curtis, the German community claimed that Sigel had in fact been the real genius of the battlefield. Unfortunately Sigel would come to believe his press clippings.14  .

For the endangered German community in Missouri, the battle meant that the threat of expulsion by the Confederates had ended. The rebels would try to raid into Missouri again at the end of 1862, but they would never again have a realistic chance of reconquest. Pea Ridge was the decisive battle in the struggle for Missouri and it had been won by a Union army in which nearly half the soldiers were foreign-born.15

Video: Author Mary Townsend discusses German Unionist Peter Osterhaus


Yankee Warhorse: Mary B. Townsend on her new… by tvnportal


Resources:

The National Park Service website for the Pea Ridge Battlefield offers maps, photos, and descriptions of the battle.

The Official Records of the War treats the Pea Ridge Campaign in Series 1 Vol. 8 Part 1

The standard modern book on the battle is Earl Hess and William Shea’s Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. University of North Carolina Press, 1992. This article relies substantially on this book.

The best map of the Leetown fight can be found at The Civil War Trust.

Sources:

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) Loc 1550-1661, ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII Curtis’s Second Report April 1, 1862 p. 197 and Sigel’s Report March 15, 1862 p. 211-212.
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) Loc 1661-1690, ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII Curtis’s Second Report April 1, 1862 p. 197
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) Loc. 1698-1706 ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII Osterhaus Report March 14, 1862 p. 217-219
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) Loc 1706-1718, ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII Osterhaus Report March 14, 1862 p. 217-219
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) Loc 1735, ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII Osterhaus Report March 14, 1862 p. 217-219
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) Loc 1869, Greusel’s Report March 12, 1862 p. 226, ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII
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) Loc 1963, ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII Osterhaus Report March 14, 1862 p. 217-219
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) Loc 2130, ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII Osterhaus Report March 14, 1862 p. 217-219, Sigel’s Report March 15, 1862 p. 211-212
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) Loc 3503, ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII Asboth Report March 16, 1862 p. 241-242, Sigel’s Report March 15, 1862 p. 211-212, Curtis’s Second Report April 1, 1862 p. 200-201
10. 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) Loc 1723-1735
11. 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) Loc. 3761
12. 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) Loc 3847-4070, ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII Sigel’s Report March 15, 1862 p. 212-215, Curtis’s Second report April 1, 1862 p. 201-203
13. Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel by Stephen D. Engle published by LouisianaState Univ Pr (1999) p. 115, ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII, Curtis’s Second Report April 1, 1862 p. 201-203
14. Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel by Stephen D. Engle published by Louisiana State Univ Pr (1999) p. 118. In his first telegraphic report on the battle, Curtis had high praise for his three most prominent immigrant commanders. Contained in Series 1 Vol. VIII of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, the report states that “the plan of attack was gallantly carried forward by Colonel Osterhaus” p. 192, it singles out Asboth “who was wounded in the arm, in his gallant effort to re-enforce the right.” p. 192, and it says that Sigel “gallantly carried the heights and drove back the left wing of the enemy.” p.192
15. 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). Dabney Maury, Confederate Assistant Adjutant General, alleged in a letter to Curtis on March 14, 1862 “that many of our men who surrendered themselves prisoners of war were reported to him [Confederate commander Van Dorn] as having been murdered in cold blood by their captors, who were alleged to be Germans.” ORR Series 1 Vol. VIII p. 195


The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that will examine the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear monthly between 2011 and 2015, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. 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.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. ...And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?- The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

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.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

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.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

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.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”- A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

Cultural

Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

Blog Posts

Why I’m Writing The Immigrants’ Civil War

The Five Meanings of “The Immigrants’ Civil War”

Free Yale Course with David Blight on the Civil War

Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War

New Immigrants Try to Come to Terms with America’s Civil War

Important Citizenship Site to be Preserved-Fortress Monroe

Should Lincoln Have Lost His Citizenship?

The First Casualties of the War Were Irish-Was that a Coincidence?

Civil War Anniversaries-History, Marketing, and Human Rights

Memorial Day’s Origins at the End of the Civil War

Germans Re-enact the Civil War-But Why Are They Dressed in Gray?

Leading Historians Discuss 1863 New York City Draft Riots

The Upstate New York Town that Joined the Confederacy

Civil War Blogs I Read Every Week

Book Reviews

The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861 to 1865 by Susannah Ural Bruce

Jews and the Civil War: A Reader Edited by Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn

Civil War Citizens edited by Susannah Ural Bruce

Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich

A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War By Amanda Foreman

Irish Green and Union Blue by Peter Welsh

Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites

Fort Schuyler- Picnic where the Irish Brigade trained

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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