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Civil War Series

The Campaign for Pea Ridge

   

While McCulloch's division unraveled during the afternoon of March 7 at Leetown, a larger engagement raged two miles to the east in the vicinity of Elkhorn Tavern. Earlier that morning, as noted above, Curtis had learned that two Confederate forces of undetermined size were in his rear. He had launched two spoiling attacks, one of which was commanded by Osterhaus. The other was led by Colonel Eugene A. Carr, 31, a West Point graduate and a regular army officer. During a decade of frontier service against the Comanches in Texas, Carr had earned a reputation as an argumentative subordinate and a pugnacious fighter who did not know when to quit.

Curtis instructed Carr to intercept the enemy force on Telegraph Road in Cross Timber Hollow. He sent Carr on his way with the optimistic prediction that he would "clean out that hollow in a very short time." Carr hurried north on Telegraph Road along the east side of Big Mountain with half of his division. Around noon he reached Elkhorn Tavern and deployed Colonel Grenville M. Dodge's brigade to the right of the road along the northern escarpment of Pea Ridge. The brigade consisted of the 4th Iowa, 35th Illinois, 3rd Illinois Cavalry, and the 1st Iowa Battery, a total of about 1,400 men. At the tavern Carr found the battalion-sized 24th Missouri, which had been guarding the army's rear, and incorporated it into his command. The thin Union line looked down into Cross Timber Hollow, a deep gorge just north of the tavern. It was an immensely strong position and Carr decided that instead of attempting to "clean out" the hollow, he would wait for the Rebels to come to him.

He did not have long to wait. Price's division, personally led by Van Dorn, approached from the north on Telegraph Road. The division had been reduced by straggling and numbered only about 5,000 men, but it included ten artillery batteries. Shortly before noon the weary Confederates reached the steep slope that leads from the floor of Cross Timber Hollow to the top of Pea Ridge. Fighting erupted unexpectedly when the leading Rebels ran into a Union skirmish line near a tanyard at the foot of the slope. Van Dorn, like McCulloch two miles to the west on Foster's farm, was surprised to encounter enemy troops so far north of Little Sugar Creek. Up to that moment he believed that his night march on Bentonville Detour had gone undetected and that the Yankees were still in their fortifications facing south.

The Confederate position deep in Cross Timber Hollow was like being at the bottom of a well. Van Dorn could not see what was happening atop Pea Ridge, three hundred feet above his head. At this critical moment Van Dorn apparently became unnerved by his blindness and the unexpected presence of Yankee skirmishers. He made a fateful decision. Instead of continuing to hurry toward Elkhorn Tavern and the rendezvous with McCulloch's division Van Dorn directed Price to halt, deploy his division in line of battle at the foot of the slope, and "move forward carefully." It probably was the most uncharacteristic order Van Dorn ever issued.


(click on image for a PDF version)
UNION FORCES HOLD ELKHORN TAVERN, LATE MORNING TO MIDAFTERNOON, MARCH 7, 1862
For most of March 7, the fighting around Elkhorn Tavern remained fairly static. As reinforcements arrived from the Little Sugar Creek fortifications, Carr strengthened and lengthened his line and launched spoiling attacks down the slope. Van Dorn waited for McCulloch to arrive on Ford Road and drive Carr away. He did not know that McCulloch was engaged at Leetown.

For three days Van Dorn had been obsessed with speed at the expense of all other considerations. Now, at the very moment when speed was of vital importance, he emphasized caution in his directive to Price. The only plausible explanation for this shift in mental gears is Van Dorn's physical and mental condition. He was still unwell and, like all the senior Confederate officers, he was worn out. McCulloch and McIntosh were guilty of fatal lapses in judgment at about the same time, and Hebért wandered away from his men in a daze. Perhaps the Confederate high command at Pea Ridge on March 7 was too tired to think straight.

The Missourians slowly formed a long, irregular line of battle across a series of steep ridges and narrow valleys, Confederate soldiers on the right, Missouri State Guard troops on the left. When all was ready, Price sent his men up the slope. The woebegone Missourians had not encountered so steep an incline since leaving the Boston Mountains three days earlier, and they trudged uphill at a snail's pace, steadily pushing back the screen of Union skirmishers.

COLONEL EUGENE A. CARR (BL)

While the Confederates deployed near the tanyard at the bottom of the slope, Carr completed the arrangement of his forces at the top around Elkhorn Tavern. Unlike Van Dorn, Carr had a fairly good view of what his opponent was up to. Carr became alarmed as he watched the Confederate line of battle unfold, for he had not expected to meet such a powerful enemy force. It was apparent that he was badly outnumbered. Nevertheless, Carr saw the situation in much the same way as did Osterhaus at Leetown. The Union army's vast assemblage of supply wagons was parked only a few hundred yards south of the tavern. Despite the formidable odds, his only option was to stand and fight. To gain as much time as possible, Carr decided to pitch into the Rebels and attempt to throw them into confusion. He sent a plea for reinforcements to Curtis, then got down to business.

Just as the Missourians began to move uphill, Carr personally led the 1st Iowa Battery about three hundred yards down Telegraph Road into Cross Timber Hollow. When the Union guns opened fire, the astonished Confederates stopped in their tracks. Missouri gunner Hunt P. Wilson was impressed by the Union gunners, whom he described as "pouring in a well-directed fire, knocking off limbs of trees and tearing up the ground in fine style." But as more and more Confederate batteries joined the fight, the tide turned. Carr reported that a "perfect storm" of solid shot, case shot, grape shot, shell, splinters, and rocks rained down on the outnumbered and outgunned Iowans. Men and horses were struck down, caissons exploded, and guns were disabled, but the Iowans grimly held their ground. "Give them hell boys," Carr shouted above the din of battle. "Don't let them have it all their own way, give them hell."

CAPTAIN JOSEPH SHELBY LED A COMPANY OF MISSOURI CAVALRY AT PEA RIDGE. (STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MISSOURI)

LEFT TO RIGHT, FRANCIS J. HERRON, WILLIAM VANDEVER, AND WILLIAM H. COYLE (STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF IOWA)

For much of the fight to come, Carr remained near his advanced artillery position, cheering his men on and trying to get a sense of what the Confederates were doing. It was, of course, a completely inappropriate place for a division commander to be in the midst of a battle, but Carr's heroic performance in Cross Timber Hollow earned him three wounds, a promotion to brigadier general, the Medal of Honor, and the undying respect of his men. More important, his efforts and those of his Iowa artillerymen immobilized Price's division for two critical hours.

Van Dorn was puzzled by Carr's aggressive tactics and directed Price to halt his forward movement and assume a defensive position near the bottom of Cross Timber Hollow. Possibly Van Dorn expected McCulloch's division to arrive at any moment on Ford Road and drive the Union force away from Elkhorn Tavern. In the meantime he was uncharacteristically content to allow Price to exchange artillery fire with the Yankees. In so doing, Van Dorn played directly into Carr's hands. Van Dorn's decision to wait in Cross Timber Hollow was understandable, but it proved to be a critical error, for it gave Curtis time to rush the rest of Carr's division to Elkhorn Tavern.

During the afternoon Carr's thin ranks were bolstered by the arrival of urgently needed reinforcements. After receiving Carr's plea for help, Curtis ordered Colonel William Vandever at Little Sugar Creek to take his brigade and hurry north. Vandever brought the 9th Iowa and 25th Missouri—another 1,000 soldiers—and the 3rd Iowa Battery into the growing fight around two o'clock. Shortly afterward two more guns rumbled up to the tavern, escorted by a Missouri cavalry company commanded by Captain Frederick W. Benteen of later Little Big Horn fame. An hour later a battalion of the 8th Indiana and a section of the 1st Indiana Battery arrived from Little Sugar Creek.

Now outnumbered only about two to one, Carr became even more aggressive. He called the 3rd Iowa Battery down the slope to join what was left of the 1st Iowa Battery, then he directed Dodge and Vandever to launch spoiling attacks. The Union infantry and cavalry made repeated lunges into Cross Timber Hollow, Dodge's regiments on the east side of Telegraph Road, Vandever's on the west. They drove in Confederate skirmishers, exchanged volleys with Price's main line of battle, then retired to their original positions at the top of the slope. Every downhill Union thrust, no matter how light, seemed to fix the Confederates ever more firmly in place at the bottom of the slope.

COLONEL WILLIAM Y. SLACK (BL)

The artillery duel filled Cross Timber Hollow with smoke, and soldiers of both sides blundered about in the haze. "The smoke from the guns settled like a cloud upon the field," wrote an observer. "As the day advanced this cloud grew more and more dense, and long before nightfall the contending masses of infantry were unable to discern each other, except at very short range." During one murky clash west of Telegraph Road, Colonel William Y. Slack, commanding the 2nd Missouri Brigade, joined his skirmishers to see what was happening and was mortally wounded. Command of the brigade passed to Colonel Thomas H. Rosser. A short time later Price was struck in the arm by a bullet. He stayed on the field, but his effectiveness was much reduced.

Around midafternoon Van Dorn finally learned that McCulloch's division was bogged down in an unexpected encounter at Leetown. He now realized that he would have to fight his way out of Cross Timber Hollow on his own. Shaking off his lethargy, Van Dorn directed Price to extend his flanks as far as possible and envelop the shorter Union line. This was no easy task given the difficult terrain and limited visibility in the hollow, but around four o'clock Missouri State Guard troops reached the top of Pea Ridge a mile east of Elkhorn Tavern, well beyond Carr's right flank. Meanwhile, Rosser's 2nd Missouri Brigade and Colonel Colton Greene's 3rd Missouri Brigade worked their way past Carr's left flank, though they did not succeed in getting out of the hollow. Carr inadvertently made things easier for the Rebels by drawing in his extended flanks and forming a more compact line centered on Telegraph Road.

Van Dorn could wait no longer. He ordered a general assault. The Confederate left wing would roll up the Union right flank atop Pea Ridge, while the Confederate center and right wing would push directly up the slope and overpower the Yankees near the tavern. Because of the length of the extended Confederate formation, a temporary change in command arrangements was instituted. Price would personally command the left wing despite his wound, Colonel Henry Little, the highly capable commander of the 1st Missouri Brigade, would oversee the right wing. Van Dorn would stay near Telegraph Road and provide Little with whatever direction he might require.

There was barely an hour of daylight remaining when the Confederate attack finally got under way. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Missouri Brigades, supported by a variety of State Guard units, surged forward on either side of Telegraph Road. They started off well enough, but fatigue, foliage, and terrain quickly played havoc with military precision. The formations gradually broke into smaller and smaller parts, with each regiment, battalion, or even company advancing uphill at its own pace and on its own course. The opposing forces were barely one hundred yards apart when the Rebels emerged from the haze in the hollow and came into full view of the Yankees clustered around Elkhorn Tavern.

COLONEL LEWIS HENRY LITTLE (CHICAGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

Volleys rippled along the edge of the Pea Ridge plateau as one Union regiment after another opened fire. A Confederate officer declared that the musketry "was extremely heavy and surpassed in severity anything our men had as yet experienced."

Volleys rippled along the edge of the Pea Ridge plateau as one Union regiment after another opened fire. A Confederate officer declared that the musketry "was extremely heavy and surpassed in severity anything our men had as yet experienced." Asa Payne of the 3rd Missouri recalled these few minutes in vivid detail. "The Federal line was in full view and I could hear something going zip, zip all around and could see the dust flying out of the trees and the limbs and twigs seemed to be in a commotion from the concussion of the guns." Fighting raged at extremely close range for thirty minutes, and hundreds of men went down on both sides, many with multiple wounds.

The Union defenders around Elkhorn Tavern fought from behind whatever cover was available. "Each man sought a tree, a stump or a rock, loaded and fired as rapidly as he could," recalled Nathan Harwood of the 9th Iowa. Alonzo Abernethy of the same regiment felt that the battle for possession of the tavern "raged with a fury which exceeded our worst apprehensions." After an initial surge that carried them several hundred yards uphill, the Confederate attackers faltered just short of the crest. Staggered by the hail of bullets and canister, some Missouri regiments even lost ground. For a few moments it appeared that Carr's troops, despite their inferiority in numbers, might hold their position.

Then, a quarter-mile west of Elkhorn Tavern, the Union left flank crumpled under the pressure of Rosser's 2nd Missouri Brigade. Vandever attempted to shift troops to meet this new threat, but his brigade, already hard pressed by the host of Confederates to the north in Cross Timber Hollow, was overwhelmed, "It seemed to me that the whole world over there was full of rebels," said an unnerved Union officer of the level ground behind Elkhorn Tavern. Carr's position on the west side of Telegraph Road began to give way.

Down in Cross Timber Hollow, Little sensed that the Yankees around the tavern were breaking. He called upon the soldiers of his own 1st Missouri Brigade and Greene's 3rd Missouri Brigade to reform their ranks and make one last charge. Some of the Rebels barely had the strength to plod up the slope in slow motion; others somehow managed both a trot and a blood-curdling cheer. Nathan S. Harwood of the 9th Iowa watched the Rebels approach "with a yell and a fury that had a tendency to make each hair on one's head to stand on its particular end."

Threatened in front and flank, the Union regiments clustered around Elkhorn Tavern fell back through a maze of fences and outbuildings. The thin blue line that had held the high ground for so many hours was broken beyond repair. Now the only Union presence north of the tavern was a hodgepodge of guns from different batteries arrayed in a semicircle on Telegraph Road. After their supporting infantry streamed to the rear, the guns were vulnerable.

THE 2ND MISSOURI FINALLY OVERRUNS UNION ARTILLERY NEAR ELKHORN TAVERN LATE ON THE AFTERNOON OF MARCH 7. THE SOLDIERS WORE WHITISH UNIFORMS OF UNDYED WOOL RECENTLY ISSUED TO THEM IN THE BOSTON MOUNTAINS. (PAINTING BY ANDY THOMAS COURTESY OF MAZE CREEK STUDIO)

Colonel John Q. Burbridge of the 2nd Missouri saw his chance. "On to the battery!" he shouted, and led his men directly up Telegraph Road toward the Union guns. Some artillerymen fled, but most worked frantically to limber up their weapons and escape. A few carried out a final act of defiance and fired a ragged salvo of canister into the faces of the oncoming Rebels. Dozens of Missourians were mowed down by the hurricane of metal, and dozens more were knocked senseless by the concussion. The surviving Rebels stumbled forward and captured two of the smoking guns, but it was a hollow victory. The Union artillerymen took advantage of the chaos and rolled down Telegraph Road to safety with most of their guns and caissons.

In the midst of this chaotic scene, Lieutenant Colonel Francis J. Herron of the 9th Iowa, described by a fellow officer as "too brave for his own good," reformed his regiment in a field just south of Elkhorn Tavern. For a few critical minutes the Iowans put up a desperate rear guard defense that allowed other Union regiments to get away in reasonably good order and threw the Confederates swarming around the tavern into an even greater state of confusion. Then two guns of Captain Henry Guibor's Missouri Battery emerged from the depths of Cross Timber Hollow and went into action in front of the tavern. The gunners sprayed the 9th Iowa with grapeshot. Herron was wounded and captured when his stricken horse fell on him, and the Iowans were forced to resume their retreat. Herron's exploits earned him a promotion to brigadier general and a Medal of Honor.

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