Battle of Pea Ridge: The Battle from an Iowan’s Perspective

For almost a year now, events marking the sesquicentennial of the Civil War (which began on April 12, 1861 with the Battle of Fort Sumter) have taken place.  Today marks the 150th anniversary of the pivotal Battle of Pea Ridge (also known as Elkhorn Tavern), which took place in northwest Arkansas on March 7 and 8 and decided the fate of the West during the beginning of the Civil War.  The Union won the battle on March 8, when General Van Dorn and his army retreated. The Battle of Pea Ridge was the largest battle in the West, and the battlefield today is the most intact battlefield in the United States.

The Special Collections Department is lucky to have a detailed letter describing the battle from an Iowan’s perspective (the letter is located in the Van Zandt Family Papers).  William Vanzant wrote to Henry and Nancy, his brother and sister-in-law, on March 14th from Arkansas’ Sugar Creek Camp.  William, who had lived in Kossuth, Iowa, had volunteered for the Union Army on August 11, 1861 and fought with the First Iowa Battery.  In the letter describing the Battle of Pea Ridge, William mentions that the last he heard of the confederate General Sterling Price was that “…he was on the other side of the Boston Mountins 20 miles from hear making his way toward Fort Smith as fast as his men could make their legs carry them…”  William describes his own exciting experience, including a bullet which “…pass my side through my canteen but not tetching the flesh…”

Towards the end of the letter, William asks his brother and sister to write often, and to send as many newspapers as possible.  In this day of smartphones and online news, it is hard to imagine what life must have been like for many Civil War soldiers.  They were making history, while at the same time having little to no idea of what was going on in the rest of the country!

The collection contains an ambrotype of William Vanzant (MS 213, box 4, folder 46).  It can be quite startling to view the rather clear image of a Civil War soldier who spoke so vividly in his letters one hundred and fifty years ago, and who you know died only a few years after the photograph was taken.

The cover of William Vanzant’s ambrotype has an image of the United States flag.

Interested in reading more about William’s experience during the Battle of Pea Ridge?  The letter and a transcription are now available online.  Additional stories of other soldiers (including another Iowan) who fought in the Battle of Pea Ridge can be found on the National Park Service’s website.

The Van Zandt Family Papers contains additional letters and a diary by William Vanzant describing his experiences during the Civil War. File 1/67 covers General William T. Sherman’s attempt and subsequent retreat at Vicksburg, December 29, 1862-January 1, 1863 and the Battle of Arkansas Post.  Files 1/68 through 1/73 all concern the Vicksburg campaign and more can be found in William’s diaries.  William died of an unspecified disease in the hospital in St. Louis on February 12, 1864.  His brother Henry collected his body, and apparently his effects, for there are letters to William in the collection also, from friends in Agency and Kossuth, as well as his colleagues in the First Iowa Battery.

More on the Civil War sesquicentennial can be found on many sites, including The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Iowa State’s Digital Collections has made a selection of our Civil War diaries, also written by Iowans, available online.  A blog posting by our department about this Digital Collection can be found here, and a blog posting from the Preservation Department describing preservation work done on the Civil War diaries during the digitization project can be found here.  And, finally, a subject guide listing our Civil War related collections can be found here.

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