Battle of Elkhorn Tavern
March 7-8, 1862
Benton County, Arkansas
At dusk, Confederate infantry charged the Federal army on this field, hoping to end the fight. Northern musket and artillery fire drove them back, and both armies retreated to the woods for the night.
By early 1862, Confederate forces had been pushed out of Missouri and were congregating in northwestern Arkansas. A simmering conflict between generals Sterling Price of Missouri and Benjamin McCulloch of Texas had led President Jefferson Davis to appoint Maj. General Earl Van Dorn commander of the Trans-Mississippi District, thus consolidating western forces in the Army of the West. Van Dorn's command totaled approximately 16,000 soldiers, including Price's Missouri State Guard, and McCulloch's collection of cavalry, infantry and artillery from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri. The army also included a brigade of 800 Native Americans under Brig. General Albert Pike.
As the Confederates reorganized their ranks, Union Brig. General Samuel Curtis led his Army of the Southwest from central Missouri into Arkansas, intending to defend the Missouri border. Expecting an assault from the south, Curtis positioned his approximately 10,250 Union soldiers and 50 artillery pieces near Pea Ridge, along a small stream in Benton County called Little Sugar Creek. Van Dorn was aware of Curtis' movements, but was determined to go on the offensive and open a route back into Missouri. Reluctant to attack Northern fortifications, Van Dorn proposed to march around the Union’s right flank, moving on the Federals from their rear. He believed this action would result in one of two scenarios; either the Union soldiers would be compelled to retreat into Missouri, or better yet, the Confederates would encircle and destroy Curtis' army.
Van Dorn split his own army into two divisions, under Price and McCulloch, and ordered the men to march north along the Bentonville Detour towards Pea Ridge. Though each division was moving separately, Van Dorn expected both Price and McCulloch to reach Cross Timber Hollow by dawn on March 7th. Only the head of Price's column made it on time. Van Dorn sent them on, towards a watering house and inn called the Elkhorn Tavern. When McCulloch's tardy soldiers arrived, Van Dorn ordered them to divert along the Ford Road and meet Price's men at the Elkhorn. Further compounding the Confederates’ troubles, Union scouts had detected their movements, and Federal troops were en route to meet the threat.
Arriving at the tavern, Price’s men were confronted by the Union's 24th Missouri Volunteer Infantry regiment, and the battle commenced. Reinforcements were rushed to the aid of the lone Federal regiment, but successive waves of Confederate infantry attacks on both flanks forced the still outmanned Union soldiers to fall back to the edge of Ruddick's Field. At dusk Curtis organized a counterattack, but musket and artillery fire drove them back into the woods where they remained for the night.
Meanwhile, McCullough's 8,000 men had been stalled on the Ford Road by Brig. General Cyrus Bussey's cavalry, allowing additional Federal infantry to arrive. The Southerners attempted to drive off the Union attack, but confusion reigned as both McCullough and his successor, Brig. General James McQueen McIntosh, were killed maneuvering their troops into position. Without the possibility of support from Price's men, the remnants of McCullough's division were forced to withdraw.
Curtis' army had been badly beaten, but they still held a strong position south of the Elkhorn Tavern at the end of the day. Early the next morning, Curtis ordered an artillery bombardment, weakening the Southern line, and then sent infantry to attack the Confederate right and center. Van Dorn's men were driven from the field. Lacking ammunition and sufficient artillery support, the Confederates retreated to \the Huntsville Road, where they were able to escape past Curtis' right flank. Though the Confederate army had retreated relatively intact, the Federal victory cemented Union control of Missouri and northern Arkansas for the remainder of the war.