Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Battle of Elkhorn Tavern

150 years ago today in Arkansas a 16,000 man Southern army under under General Earl Van Dorn attacked the flank of a 10,000 man Federal army under Samuel Curtis. Van Dorn's night march had placed them directly in the rear of the Northerners. Van Dorn decided to divide his army, sending McCulloch to attack by a different road. However, the Federals were not where he expected them to be. Curtis did not think Van Dorn would be rash enough to march into his rear, but he still sent one third of his army north to Elkhorn Tavern to protect his supply wagons from the Confederate column.
A Federal brigade reconnoitering stumbled upon McCulloch's entire force, and although they were hopelessly outnumbered, they set up a battery of artillery and opened fire. McCulloch sent 3,000 cavalry to charge the brigade, and they completely overwhelmed the Federals. But now a crisis occurred. McCulloch went forward to reconnoiter, and was shot by the Federal skirmishers. However, he was out of sight of the army, and for an hour his men remained in position waiting for orders. Command fell to General McIntosh, who rode out to see the Federals' position, just as McCulloch had done. He too was shot, only 200 yards from his chief. The command went to Herbert, but he did not know he was in command. He advanced with his own troops, but the Federals were now reinforced. There was a hard fight in the woods. One soldier said that the air was “literally filled with leaden hail. Balls would whiz by our ears, cut off bushes closely, and even cut our clothes.” Herbert finally withdrew from the attack. For the rest of the day, most of this wing of the Confederate army was idle, with no one knowing who was in command.

The other half of the Confederate army under Price and Van Dorn also encountered Federals before they reached the entrenchments. Van Dorn was surprised at this, and although he was usually very aggressive, this day he moved cautiously. He did not organize a general attack until one hour before dark. The Confederates became disorganized as they moved forward, and the Federal troops started out holding their own, but finally Van Dorn's greater numbers crushed the Northern line. The Confederates chased the Federals through the buildings around Elkhorn tavern, and formed a line on the high ground there. Van Dorn could not find McCulloch's division, which he should have met there. However, he decided to attempt to continue on the success he had gained in the fading light. But the Federal line had been reinforced, and their artillery tore huge holes in the 3,000 advancing men. They continued on until they were within 50 yards of the Federals, for at that moment the infantry opened fire. Unable to stand up to the artillery and infantry, the Confederates fled for the rear. Night had fallen, and the first day of the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern, or Pea Ridge, was over.


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