When the Butterfield Company opened a stagecoach line between St. Louis and San Francisco in 1858, a shrewd Arkansas farmer who lived on the route converted his home into a tavern. His name was Jesse Cox, and his large two-story frame house stood just below the Missouri border at the east end of a swell of ground called Pea Ridge. To make certain that travelers would recognize and remember his tavern, Cox mounted the horns and skull of a huge elk at the center of the ridgepole. Elkhorn Tavern with its overhanging roof, wide porches, and big fireplaces soon became known as a place where "good cheer was most ample."
Three years later, war was raging northward in Missouri, and the transcontinental coaches were no longer running on that route. During 1861 the Confederates won some victories in Missouri, but after Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis took command of Union forces on Christmas Day, the tide began to turn. Jesse Cox watched anxiously as Confederate Brigadier General Ben McCulloch slowly withdrew fro Missouri with his Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas troops. In February 1862, Brigadier General Sterling Price's Missouri Confederates also began retreating into the Boston Mountains of Arkansas, with Curtis' pursuing Federals not far behind.
Cox sympathized with the South, but he was also concerned over the safety of his fine cattle herd. Thousands of soldiers foraging through the countryside could soon make short work of livestock without payment to the owner. Leaving his tavern in the care of his wife Polly and his young son Joseph, Cox set out for Kansas with the cattle herd. Before he returned, Elkhorn Tavern would become the vortex of one of the bloodiest battles fought west of the Mississippi River.
On March 3, Major General Earl Van Dorn, a handsome and flamboyant veteran of the Mexican War, arrived in the Boston Mountains to take command of the combined Confederate forces of Price and McCulloch. Responding to a forty-gun salute, Van Dorn promised his troops a victory after which they would sweep across Missouri to St Louis. They numbered 16,000 men, including a thousand Cherokees fresh from Indian Territory under command of Brigadier General Albert Pike.
Van Dorn immediately set this army in motion northward, confident that he could smash the 10,500 Federals strung out across seventy miles of northwest Arkansas. He overlooked the fact that thousands of his men were without battle experience. Many were recent Arkansas volunteers, incensed by the invasion of their state. "Very few of the officers," General Price's adjutant noted, "had any knowledge whatever of military principles or practices." As for the Cherokees, they knew nothing of discipline or firing by command.
For three days the Confederates marched through rain and melting snow, subsisting on scanty rations. On March 6, near Bentonville, Van Dorn's cavalry struck hard at one end of the Federals' extended line. General Curtis, however, had been alerted by his scouts, and had already begun concentrating his forces along Little Sugar Creek, two miles below Elkhorn Tavern. When the Confederates attacked at Bentonville, Brigadier General Franz Sigel's two divisions under Peter Osterhaus and Alexander Asboth were moving into their new positions. Sigel himself directed the rear guard withdrawal until nightfall of the 6th, fighting off slashing attacks from Joseph Shelby's Missouri cavalrymen, giving Osterhaus and Asboth were moving into their new positions. Sigel himself directed the rear guard withdrawal until nightfall of the 6th, fighting off slashing attacks from Joseph Shelby's Missouri cavalrymen, giving Osterhaus and Asboth time to prepare defenses.
In the extreme rear of Curtis' main line of defense was Elkhorn Tavern, still occupied by Polly Cox, her son Joseph, and his teenage wife, Lucinda. They were somewhat crowded by the addition of the Union army's provost marshal and his staff; the adjacent storehouses and barn were filled with army rations, and all about the grounds were wagons and tents containing ordnance and other supplies. Curtis' headquarters was a mile to the south. Nearby was Colonel Eugene Carr's division; several details from Colonel Grenville Dodge's 4th Iowa regiment were out along the roads felling trees to slow any Confederate night approach. On the bluffs above Sugar Creek, Colonel Jefferson C. Davis' division of Indiana and Illinois regiments was well dug in. West of Davis' position, Sigel's men were building fortifications and emplacing guns, facing southward.
All preparations anticipated an attack from the south. As darkness deepened, a light snow began falling. Four miles away to the southwest, the campfires of the Confederate bivouac began twinkling; by 8 o'clock they were burning in a wide arc.
About 3 o'clock the following morning (March 7) Private Thomas Welch of the 3d Illinois Cavalry was patrolling the road west of Elkhorn Tavern. Snow had stopped falling but the weather was bitter cold, and Private Welch was confident that he would meet neither friend nor foe in that extreme rear area. Then suddenly a party of Rebel cavalry loomed out of the night, and Private Welch was a prisoner. As he was hustled back down the road under guard he could scarcely believe what he saw--company after company of marching Confederate infantry, troops of cavalry, caissons, and numerous artillery pieces (Van Dorn had sixty-five guns against Curtis' fifty). To Welch it seemed that he was passing through the entire army of the C.S.A. Escape was uppermost in his mind, and at the first opportunity he turned into a side road and plunged into the icy undergrowth. As rapidly as he could, Welch made his way back through the woods to Elkhorn Tavern, awakened his commanding officer, and told him what he had seen.
Welch's story reached Curtis' headquarters at 5 o'clock in the morning, about the same time that reports were coming in from Sigel's camp that the enemy was moving in strength along the Bentonville road. By first daylight the entire Federal camp was alerted; the hundreds of Rebel campfires were still smoking but the Confederates had vanished.
The plan for bypassing the Union army during the night and attacking in the rear was General McCulloch's. Van Dorn approved it, and soon after nightfall of the 6th he started Price's Missourians moving north along the Bentonville detour, an eight-mile road which circled the Federal positions and then entered Telegraph Road, two miles north of Elkhorn Tavern. Ill with a cold, Van Dorn rode in an ambulance with the advance units. He left one division at the bivouac camp to guard the baggage train and keep campfires burning brightly for the benefit of the watchful Yankees.
Around midnight the Confederates werew delayed by trees which Colonel Dodge's Iowans had felled across the road. According to plan, Van Dorn should have been astride Telegraph Road, positioned for an attack by daylight, but he was three hours late getting there. Soon after dawn, advance cavalry units were already skirmishing along the Federal flank, and from Curtis' encampments came the sounds of blaring bugles, drums beating the long roll, and the rumble of artillery wheels.
As soon as Curtis realized that Van Dorn had tricked him, he began turning his army around. "I directed a change of front to the rear," Curtis wrote in his report of the battle, "so as to face the road upon which the enemy was still moving. At the same time I directed the organization of a detachment of cavalry and light artillery, supported by infantry, to open the battle."
It was Sigel's division under Osterhaus that moved out toward the Bentonville road to challenge McCulloch's army. At that time of the morning, McCulloch should have been five miles farther east, massed along Pea Ridge in close communication with Price's army which was beginning to cannonade the Federals near Elkhorn Tavern. This five-mile separation between Price and McCulloch would prove to be crucial before the day ended. Instead of attacking with two coordinated wings, Van Dorn was forced t fight two separate battles, one of them screened from his headquarters by hills and woods and too far away for any unity of direction.
Osterhaus' regiments marched northwestward across fields filled with withered cornstalks, passing around Leetown where yellow hospital flags were already fluttering from the scattered houses of the hamlet. The night's coating of snow was melting rapidly. Along the south edge of a field, Osterhaus deployed infantrymen of the 36th Illinois and 12th Missouri, supporting them with a battery of the 4th Ohio. With bugles blowing and pennons flying, a squadron of the 3d Iowa Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Henry Trimble then crossed the fields and advanced into a brushy wood. Confederate infantry waiting in concealment caught them in short musket range. During the next five minutes a large number of Iowans became casualties, including Trimble with a severe head wound. The survivors broke ranks and retreated.
For the next two hours McCulloch's 10,000 Confederates dominated the field. At one time early in the fighting, confused Union artillerymen shelled their own troops, and Sigel was so dismayed by the way the battle was going that he was on the verge of advising Curtis to retreat or surrender.
Around noon a charge by McCulloch's Texans, supported by Pike's Cherokees under Stand Watie, broke through the Federals' forward lines. The Indians attacked with rifles, shotguns, knives, and arrows, and their war whoops were more terrifying than the Texans' Rebel yells. Union cavalrymen went tearing back in retreat, some without hats or arms, riding through the infantrymen with shouts of "Turn back! Turn back!" Stand Watie's Cherokees swept over a battery, killing the gunners, but they were so excited by their success that instead of pressing the Federal retreat into a route, they milled around the guns. General Pike later described them as "all talking, riding this way and that, and listening to no orders from any one."
Taking advantage of this momentary lull, Sigel unlimbered his rear batteries, and at the first artillery fire the Indians scurried back into the woos as frightened as the Union cavalrymen had been of their scalping knives. At the same time, Osterhaus sent the 22d Indiana and 36th Illinois Infantry regiments charging across the field to retake the battery.
By 1:30 McCulloch's advance had been stalled. Pike and Stand Watie had finally restored order among the Cherokees but it was evident that the undisciplined Indians would be no use in a frontal charge; they wanted t fight individually behind trees and boulders. McCulloch brought up one of his crack infantry regiments, the 16th Arkansas, and sent skirmishers forward. Mounting, he rode out ahead of the Arkansans' advancing lines. When the skirmishers moved into a brushy area, McCulloch went in with them. His black velvet coat and white felt hat made a good target for a squad of infantrymen from the 36th Illinois waiting behind a rail fence. He was struck in the breast and soon expired. Peter Pelican of Aurora, Illinois, fired once, leaped over the fence, and secured the dead general's gold watch before the advancing Arkansans drove him back to cover.
The time was 2 o'clock, a decisive hour in the contest between Curtis and Van Dorn. Carr (at Elkhorn Tavern) and Osterhaus (at Leetown) had both been calling urgently for reinforcements. Curtis decided to send his reserve division under Colonel Jefferson C. Davis to aid Osterhaus. Davis led off with his two Illinois regiments and two batteries of artillery. At this same hour Sigel and Asboth, who had been guarding the Bentonville road flank, started moving toward the Leetown area.
General Price meanwhile had been giving Colonel Carr a severe mauling north of Elkhorn Tavern, and Van Dorn was confident that a coordinated attack by Price and McCulloch would bring a quick victory. He sent messengers racing to McCulloch with orders to attack in full force about 2 o'clock.
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