The Battle of Elkhorn Tavern, Arkansas, March 7 - 8, 1862

James N.

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Part I - The Battle of Leetown

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Following the Confederate victory in the first battle of the war in the West, fought at Wilson's Creek, Missouri, dissention and indecision beset the victors. Brig. Gen. Ben McCullough took his Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana troops back to Arkansas and Indian Territory where they spent the winter of 1861 - 62 in snug encampments. Meanwhile Maj. Gen. Sterling Price led his Missouri State Guard on a raid through the western part of the state before also withdrawing into northern Arkansas before a revitalized Federal thrust from St. Louis. To rectify the divided command, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent former Regular Army officer of Dragoons Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn of Mississippi to take command.

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The Federals, now under the command of Iowa Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, moved south along what was known as the Telegraph or Wire Road, the old route of the Butterfield Overland Stage from Springfield, Mo., towards Fayetteville, Ark., halting in the vicinity of the stagecoach inn known locally as Elkhorn Tavern for the horns mounted on its roof. While his men went into camp in the area above, Curtis sent out scouting parties and began a series of defensive earthworks a short distance farther south along the northern bluff of Little Sugar Creek below.

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Van Dorn decided to sieze the initiative and "steal a march" around Curtis' army and cut him off from his base at Springfield by using a little-known country road to the west that passed near a hamlet called Leetown. Dividing his command, Van Dorn sent McCullough east to engage the Federals there while he continued with Price's State Guard around the Elkhorn Mountain spur of Pea Ridge to gain Curtis' rear. Leetown below was the Federal right flank held by troops led by Brig. Gen. Franz Sigel, who had done poorly at Wilson's Creek the year before. Sigel was a refugee from the failed revolutions wracking the German states during the 1840's and his command consisted largely but not entirely of German immigrants from St. Louis and other areas of the Midwest.

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Above, Confederate commander Major General Earl Van Dorn, flanked at right by Union commander Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis, and at left by Curtis' second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Franz Sigel.

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Sigel and his men reacted quickly however, and formed a line against the advancing Confederates. At this point a crisis occurred when Ben McCullough decided to investigate things for himself and rode forward, clad in a black velvet suit and top hat. He made a tempting target for a Union rifleman and soon this wing of the Confederate attack was without its leader. Command devolved upon Arkansas Brig. Gen. James McIntosh but he too was soon killed while leading a cavalry charge. The best uniformed, drilled, and led unit on this part of the field was the 3d Louisiana which went into line of battle in the thickets and became disorganized; a Union counterattack captured its Colonel Louis Hebert, leaving this entire wing leaderless and essentially out of the battle for the remainder of the day.

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Above, Confederate commanders at Leetown; center, Ben McCullough, said to have been killed by a Federal sharpshooter named Peter Pelican, flanked at right by James McIntosh who died leading his Arkansas cavalry in a charge, and at left by Col. Louis Hebert of the 3rd Louisiana, who was captured.

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Union artillery from their position above duelled with the 1st Texas Battery and other artillery in their position below during the remainder of the afternoon but essentially this part of the fight was over despite the presence of Brig. Gen. Albert Pike. Pike was a political appointee with no military experience commanding the Confederate Indian Brigade of Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee warriors who had charged and captured one Union battery but refused to do so again!

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Next, Victory on the Confederate Left!
 
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James N.

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Part II - Action at Elkhorn Tavern

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Six-pounder guns marking the Union artillery position at Elkhorn Tavern on the first day of the battle.

Curtis' little army of some 10,000 men was stretched out in its camps for two or three miles along the Wire Road all the way from the entrenchments at Little Sugar Creek back through his headquarters area around Parker's store to Elkhorn Tavern. When Van Dorn's column reached the Wire Road north of the tavern he had achieved complete surprise, attacking south toward the rear of the Union force. Unfortunately Van Dorn grew cautious, ordering Price to deploy all his men before attacking, giving Curtis time to send one of his four divisions from Little Sugar Creek back to the tavern.

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The 1st Iowa battery of four 6-pounders was able to turn and confront Price's attacking Missourians until they were overrun, but their stand allowed the rest of the division of Col. Eugene A. Carr to arrive to oppose the Confederate drive. Unlike many of the commanders on both sides at Pea Ridge, Carr was a professional soldier, a graduate of West Point, and a cavalryman who had served on the frontier - characteristics he also shared with Van Dorn. Although he was wounded three times in the battle he remained on the field directing his division and was promoted to brigadier general and later awarded the Medal of Honor for his service here.

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Left to right above, Brig. Gen. Eugene A. Carr who led the Union defense at Elkhorn Tavern against the Missouri State Guard forces of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, center; and Brig. Gen. Albert Pike who led Van Dorn's Indian contingent, arriving at the tavern only after the day's battle was over.

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Elkhorn Tavern, in addition to being the largest building in the area also had a number of outbuildings and stood at the junction of the Telegraph Road and the Huntsville Road above which led east toward the town of that name. It was along both these as well as other lesser tracks and even cross-country that Van Dorn's army would withdraw the following day making it uncertain in which direction his retreating army had actually gone.

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Price's victorious but exhausted troops settled down for the night in the road and fields surrounding the tavern, which like all structures on or near battlefields soon became a field hospital. The original tavern survived the battle but was burned later in 1864 during the guerilla activities which plagued Missouri and Arkansas through much of the war. It was replaced immediately afterwards but again rebuilt in the 1870's. When the NPS acquired the property in 1960 that structure was removed and replaced with the current replica. It's believed that all the structures that have stood on this site have utilized the original foundation and possibly the chimneys as well.

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Next, the Union Counterattack on March 8 turns the tide of battle.
 
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James N.

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Curtis Counterattacks and Turns the Tide of the Battle

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The view above looking west from the summit of Pea Ridge shows most of the battlefield crossed by the Union counterattack, a solid double rank of men in blue supported by over twenty pieces of artillery that everyone present who wittnessed it remembered as one of the pagents of the war.

The night of March 7 while in bivouac near Elkhorn Tavern Earl Van Dorn recieved two very unwelcome bits of news: half of his army had been made leaderless by the death of McCullough and lay inert near the opposite end of Pea Ridge; and much worse, his supply and ammunition train had misdirected away from the battlefield! It was easy enough to order McCullough's men to rejoin Price's force at Elkhorn though it meant another night march over unfamilliar terrain which would ensure they would arrive tired without sufficient time to rest; however nothing could remedy the lack of ammunition which was to doom the second day of the battle.

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Though outnumbered by the combined Confederate forces, Curtis determined to attack and regain the lost ground and reopen his supply line. Sigel's force at Leetown now included three of the four Federal divisions so it was imperative for Curtis no less than Van Dorn to reunite his divided force; fortunately they were closer together, and soon formed an unbroken line in the fields above facing northeast towards Pea Ridge.

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In the dark the tired Confederates made no attempt to actually occupy the rocky ridge which dominated the landscape but was unsuited to maneuver artillery. The Confederate batteries, already low on ammunition, were spaced out along the base of Pea Ridge like that of Capt. John J. Good's 1st Texas Light Artillery. The image on the interpretive sign was painted postwar for Good by his son-in-law Andrew Jackson Houston, son of Texas Governor Sam Houston, based on the description of the battle given by the captain. According to his report he maintained this position until he was almost out of ammunition, then withdrew and was replaced by Capt. Hart's Arkansas Battery.

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In addition to Eugene Carr, Curtis' other division commanders included from left to right above, Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis, Brig. Gen. Peter J. Osterhaus, and Hungarian-born Brig. Gen. Alexander Asboth.

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Franz Sigel was originally an artillery officer from the German Grand Duchy of Baden and at Pea Ridge he probably rendered the greatest service of his entire Civil War career, not as a general but as an instructor of artillery. Like many of the forces engaged here the Federal gunners had never been in a battle before and Sigel walked from gun to gun the length of the combined batteries giving encouragement and adjusting things as needed, even sighting some of the guns. Sigel ordered all his battries to concentrate on individual Confederate batteries in counter-battery fire; in addition to running out of ammunition this was what caused units like Good's to pull out of the defense line.

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Once Confederate batteries were mostly silenced or driven off the long lines of Federal infantry advanced, the division of Carr now joined by those of Peter J. Osterhaus, Alexander Asboth, and Jefferson C. Davis. The Union line went forward without stopping, overrunning Hart's Arkansas Battery capturing two cannon and a limber, and retreving Capt. Good's flag of the Dallas, Texas, Artillery that had inadvertantly been left behind when they pulled out earlier. Van Dorn's men, also low on ammunition, began to retreat as well, their final stand being made at the tavern as seen below from the vantage point of the attacking Federals. As noted, they retreated in different directions making pursuit difficult. For many who simply chose to go home it was the end of their war, for a time at least.

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Next, Pea Ridge NMP today.
 
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James N.

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Pea Ridge National Military Park

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The creation of Pea Ridge as a National Military Park is one of battlefield preservation's resounding success stories. Following the war's devastation to this part of the state there was little in the way of growth and development for the next century and it reverted to a bucolic nature with a low population. The tavern was rebuilt and became the focus for low-key visits by veterans and the placement of small monuments to what had happened here. By the time of the Civil War Centennial beginning in 1961 the State of Arkansas had quietly bought up virtually all the fought-over land and presented it to the National Park Service, earning a special award for doing so. This act made possible the creation of the park and insured that the key areas would remain protected and require little addition to in the future.

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Early monuments were placed in a field across the road from the rebuilt Elkhorn Tavern and include one above dedicated to the three Confederate generals killed or mortally wounded during the battle, Ben McCullough of Texas, James M. McIntosh of Arkansas, and William Y. Slack of Missouri. The one below is dedicated to the Confederates who fought in the battle.

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Originally the park Visitor Center above was a small fieldstone building typical of those erected fifty years ago during and for the Civil War Centennial but since then has been greatly expanded, almost doubling its size. Newly installed exhibits and film enhance the visiting experience. Below, a 12-pounder howitzer typical of those used by both armies at Elkhorn Tavern.

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Pea Ridge is probably the Civil War site I've personally visited the most, owing to its location right on U.S. 62, now a main route between the growing Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers "metroplex" and tourist destinations like Bull Shoals Lake and Eureka Springs, Ark. and Branson, Mo. The battlefield is easily traversed by a loop road, seen above near the park headquarters, and includes ample parking for two vistas atop Pea Ridge itself, below.

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Missouri 1st

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Excellent thread! It truly is a beautiful park and it was a beautiful day as well. Look at that blue sky!

The retreat from Elkhorn was a terrible ordeal for the Confederates made worse when the decision had to be made to leave the wounded behind with little or no medical supplies/treatment.

I was there years ago and it was still very much "out of the way".
 

James N.

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Excellent thread! It truly is a beautiful park and it was a beautiful day as well. Look at that blue sky!

Thank you Missouri 1st and everyone else for your kind comments! I wondered if anyone noticed the apparantly schizoid appearance of the landscape - these were actually taken over about three days in my two favorite but entirely different seasons: April, 2010 and October, 2013. The Spring day above was clear and beautiful but the latter occasion was partly cloudy; I'd visited specifically to get shots of "Fall color", which was minimal last year despite a few standouts like that below. I took many more photos than I normally do and found myself waiting for passing clouds and even returned briefly the next day or so to photograph subjects I'd missed previously. The weather on all these occasions was clear and beautiful with very comfortable temperaures; it was a far cry from the cold, damp, snowy misery the battle occurred in as seen in Andy Thomas' excellent paintings, the originals of which are displayed in the auditorium of the park Visitor Center.

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Corpbob

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Elm Springs, Arkansas
I live about 30 miles South of Pea Ridge and I've been there often. Most people don't know Union Veterans who returned to live here after the war helped pay for the Confederate Monument above. It's also one of oldest Civil War Monuments in the United States. There were several G.A.R. camps in the area. One was named the General Samuel R. Curtis Chapter after the Union commander at Pea Ridge.

The reenactment group I used to belong to was Company A, 37th Illinois. The 37th was the only Union Infantry regiment that fought at Pea Ridge and later at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas in December 1862. They later rejoined their brigade for the siege of Vicksburg. One of my old pards from the 37th gave up reenacting and started metal detecting. He found the 37th Illinois camp south of the park near Little Sugar Creek on private land. I have a dropped Colt Revolving rifle bullet, a 69 Minie and an Eagle button dug from the camp. The 37th was the only regiment west of the Mississippi with Colt Revolving rifles. The flank company had those and the other companies had Belgian made 69 caliber muskets.
 

Corpbob

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The reason the University of Arkansas is located in Fayetteville is that corner of the state was largely pro-Union.

Actually Washington County where Fayetteville is, outbid all the other counties in the state for the right to build the college. That plus there'd already been two schools here before the war, Arkansas College and the Fayetteville Female Seminary. Washington County, Arkansas was about 2/3 Confederate and 1/3 Union during the War from what I've read.

The First President of the University of Arkansas in 1877 was Daniel Harvey Hill, late Lt General, Army of Northern Virginia. His wife was Isabella Morrison Hill, the sister of Anna Morrison Jackson wife of Stonewall Jackson. There's little left in Fayetteville to remember D.H. Hill's time here, there's a street name after him. There was a Hill Hall on the UOA campus but it was torn down a around 20 years ago. D.H. Hill saved the UOA from going under in the early days and wrecked his health in the process. I really do wish Fayetteville would do more to honor him.
 

zambania

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Kerrville, Tx
Very amazing photos and great story. As I live in Texas now and have a classmate's sister living in Yellville, I must put this site on my list of fields to visit and enjoy.
 

James N.

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Very amazing photos and great story. As I live in Texas now and have a classmate's sister living in Yellville, I must put this site on my list of fields to visit and enjoy.

Glad to be of help - and welcome to the forums!
 
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