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Chapter 16:

  • Battle of “Elk Horn,” Missouri, march seventh, 1862
  • -- incidents and sketches of the war in that State -- Colonel Fremont superseded in the command of the Federals -- General Van Dorn -- our Guerrilla horse -- Breach of parole by Northern troops -- McCulloch and McIntosh killed -- our forces retire -- the loss on either side.

Elk River, McDonald Co., Mo., March 14th, 1862.
Dear Tom: Your last was received and perused with much pleasure, and here am I on the confines of Missouri, within a few hours' travel of Arkansas and. the Cherokee Indian territory, endeavoring to pen a few lines to satisfy your ardent curiosity. You have, doubtless, had reports of our previous manoeuvres since I wrote from Lexington in September, and ere this reaches you in the far East, a thousand newspapers will have related very curious tales regarding our recent battle with the combined forces of Curtis and Sturgis1 at Elk Horn, a few miles from. here. Still, such details as I may be able to supply will not be unacceptable to you.

The fall of Lexington was an unexpected and heavy blow to the Union party throughout the whole North. Fremont was so exasperated that he instantly began to muster every available man, intending to surround and capture us. Lane had been reenforced, and was advancing from the west; Sturgis was moving from the north; while Fremont, with a heavy command, began to advance from the east, thinking to cut off all retreat by the south. Our victory, however, had aroused a spirit of resistance throughout the length and breadth of the State, and volunteers flocked to Lexington by thousands. A few days after Mulligan's surrender, Price had not less than twenty-five thousand men around him, but lacked arms, provisions, wagons, tents, and ammunition; and besides these, from ten thousand to [132] fifteen thousand more were gathered at different points north of the river, endeavoring to form a junction with us, and, like the rest, unarmed. Price had been promised a heavy wagon train of ammunition and provision from the south-west, and McCulloch was to have sent an escort for it, but after many trying delays, it was known that the train was not on its way, and thousands of recruits were obliged to disperse to their homes again, hoping that ere long things would be more favorable for taking the field.

With almost superhuman exertions, Price managed to keep around him some fifteen thousand men, and as the foe were closing in upon him from different directions, started the baggage and provisions southward, together with most of the infantry; at the same time ordering the cavalry to make demonstrations calculated to deceive Lane, Sturgis, and Fremont. The cavalry acted their part so well that the different columns of the enemy thought themselves threatened, and halted, while Price's main army had stolen several long marches upon them, and were making rapidly towards the south-west. At Springfield we learned that a different plan of campaign had been decided upon by the Confederate generals, and that Hardee's forces were withdrawn from the south-east. Pushing on towards Neosha, Price formed a junction there with McCulloch, and the Missouri Legislature, in full session, unanimously passed the Ordinance of Secession, amid salvos of artillery, and with the rapturous approval of representatives from every county in the State.

As the combined forces of the enemy were still approaching in great numbers, and evidently bent on mischief, Price and McCulloch fell back to a strong position at Pineville, (McDonald county,) and awaited Fremont's approach. The main body of the Federals were at Springfield, but had an advance division much nearer the Confederate leaders Our boys were particularly anxious for Fremont's advance, for as his main body was composed of Dutch and Germans, they looked forward with pleasure to the task of thrashing them. Imagine then, if you can, our astonishment to find, from prisoners, that Fremont had been thrust from the command by Lincoln, and that his whole army, in a state of mutiny, was running a race towards Rolla and St. Louis! [133]

Here was news indeed! Lincoln “did not approve Fremont's emancipation proclamation and confiscating programme; the North were fighting,” he said, “to preserve the Constitution intact, etc., and that we should be treated in this war as wayward brethren, whose rights were guaranteed on return to duty.” Fremont's heavy expenditure was another objection to him, especially as Frank Blair and other pets of the Administration had so little influence with him, and he had forestalled Lincoln himself in the favor of the abolitionists. Political aspirants thought, too, he was endeavoring to supplant them in the good graces of those who should live to vote in 1864, and his enemies even imagined that he was endeavoring to follow in the footprints of the Napoleons, and make himself Emperor of all the Dutch, most of whom had flocked around him like geese from all parts of the Union. This last accusation was certainly groundless, if for no other reason simply because Fremont lacked the nerve to attempt any coup so dazzling. Place the fact in whatever light we please, Fremont received peremptory orders to resign, and the messenger had the greatest difficulty in gaining admittance to his tent; the whole camp being in a terrible uproar, and all discipline abandoned! Halleck, the Veracious, is appointed in his stead, but how long would you insure his head?

On learning that the troops of Fremont had retreated, Price immediately prepared for the pursuit. He followed them several days, capturing many prisoners and large quantities of stores, and at last halted his weary column at Springfield — that city of changing masters! It seemed unwise to proceed farther; the enemy had halted at Rolla, or a little beyond, vastly superior in force, and were making preparations for another advance.

While recruiting and drilling his men, Price watched for the first movements of the foe, and-early in January they began to advance. Price had taken up a strong position and fortified it, expecting that McCulloch would move forward to his assistance, but that commander did not stir, nor make the slightest diversion in his favor; so that, finding the enemy closing in upon him rapidly, he withdrew from Springfield, and was obliged to cut his way through towards Boston Mountain, where McCulloch was reported to be. After hard fighting and [134] infinite toil, this was successfully accomplished, and all were agreeably surprised to find General Van Dorn there — the newly-appointed general — in chief of the Trans-Mississippi Department. This appointment had been wisely made by President Davis, for there was evidently little unanimity of feeling existing among commanders, but less querulousness, perhaps, on the part of Price, than of many others. “Old Stirling” had begun the war without any means whatever, yet had captured ten thousand stand of arms, fifty cannon, hundreds of tents, together with many other things needful to an active army. No other generals in the department could show half as many proofs of their prowess, though all had done well.

Our sufferings during the campaign had been extreme, but setting the inconveniences aside, had tended to harden us and make our limbs as tough as steel. Continually marching through non-inhabited districts, we had to depend upon Providence for supplies. Over mountains, through “gaps,” across rivers and creeks, our progress was toilsome and weary; but few doctors meddled with any one, and not more than a hundred names could be found upon the sick-list at any time during our frequent and rapid journeyings. Our cavalry led a hard life, and must have been made of brass to support the trials incident to their daily duty. Among the mountains a party of these “ irregular” horse would watch all the roads, conceal their fires, and hang around the enemy with a pertinacious determination that no man should stir without their knowledge, and at the least opportunity making a dash at the foe, capturing and destroying as they went, living as best they might, and doing whatever they pleased, generally. As scouts, these men were invaluable — they were here, there, and everywhere — it was impossible to follow in their track. Their dress was of skins or any thing that came to hand, and so long as grass was found for their hardy, wiry Indian horses, the riders cared little for food, dress, leisure, or relief from duty.

The enemy vowed vengeance against these hardy fellows, and sought to train their own horsemen to the wild, half-indian kind of life practised by ours. But just imagine obese Dutchmen rivalling the swiftness, daring, and endurance of our wiry frontiersmen! They were posted on mountains and in the [135] “passes,” to guard fords, bridges, and roads, as ours did, but their loss was continual, and the mysterious disappearance of stores, horses, wagons, and men unaccountable; so at length they were withdrawn, and the experiment abandoned as an expensive and fruitless one. Entirely masters of the roads, and every route by land or water, our horse seldom troubled Price for supplies of any kind, save ammunition, but frequently drove into camp large numbers of beeves, hogs, fodder, corn, and whatever could be purloined from the enemy. Flank, front, or rear, the Federals hardly dared to move except in large bodies; guerrillas lay in every bush, and many an enemy was found lying dead at his post, without a trace of those who did it. These Partisans were remorseless; they expected little mercy if captured, and spared few found in arms against us. Some of our men falling into the hands of the enemy were hung on the spot; but this only heightened the animosity on either side; and when Federal soldiers were found dangling from trees by the roadside, the enemy thought it expedient to recognize our Partisan Rangers as “legitimate” soldiers. After this our scouts usually paroled their prisoners.

But of what avail is the parole with men who seem to have no honorable instincts, and scoff at an oath when voluntarily given? Look at the conduct of Mulligan's men-upwards of four thousand we paroled at Lexington! Nine tenths of them were from Illinois and Ohio, and had not been home more than a week, when it was argued, “No faith should be kept with. Rebels;” and these men were instantly enrolled into new regiments and sent forth to fight again in some other quarter This is incontrovertible; and the same perfidy has been enacted in regard to all those paroled in various directions, whether the men can be prevailed upon to re-enlist or not. These are stubborn, ugly facts, and no wonder, I say, that Partisans for a time forgot the usages of war, and retaliated with signal vengeance. But to my story once again.

Scouts informed us that the enemy were strongly posted on rising ground at a place called Sugar Creek, about sixty miles distant, having a force of some twenty-five thousand men, under Curtis and Sturgis. It was also reported that they did not intend to advance until the arrival of heavy reenforcements, which were rapidly moving up. Although not twenty [136] thousand strong, Van Dorn resolved to attack them, and sending word to Albert Pike to hurry forward with his brigade of Indians, moved out of camp on the fourth of March, with Price and McCulloch's forces, his intention being to surround the enemy's advance, some eight thousand strong, under Sigel, at Bentonville. That excellent officer, however, was not to be so caught; he was far superior to Van Dorn in generalship, and successfully slipped through his fingers, fighting as he went towards the main body at the creek. This retreat of Sigel was admirably conducted, and though he could not successfully withstand our advance, he fought manfully and scientifically, losing many men, some prisoners, and stores. He effected a junction with Sturgis and Curtis, however, and on the seventh both armies were in full view of each other. Early in the morning, Van Dorn bad made every disposition for attack, and the advance began. The enemy were strongly posted on high ground, as usual, their front being covered with a heavy body of skirmishers and artillery, but they gave way as we advanced in like order upon them, and fell back upon the main body. Price's forces constituted our left and centre, while McCulloch was on the right.

To prevent the junction of reenforcements, known to be on the way, Van Dorn's attack was made from the north and west, his columns almost surrounding the foe. The fight was long and obstinate. Every commander handled his men in an admirable manner; and though the superior metal of our men forced the enemy before them, they constantly re-formed under a superior fire of artillery, and renewed the conflict as fiercely as ever. For once we had met good fighters. Our antagonists were nearly all Western men, and their fire was rapid and accurate. We could not bring all our artillery into play, and this proved a great disadvantage; besides which, it was soon perceived that Van Dorn's idea of “surrounding” the enemy was a bad one; for they were equal to us in number, and in much better position. We boldly pushed forward, however, up hill, under a murderous fire; and when we gained the level, found our work a little easier, so that we captured some hundreds of prisoners, several cannon, one or two standards, many [137] wagons, and some stores, and every thing promised a complete rout of the enemy. They repeatedly fell back, but re-formed and continued the fight, Price on the left and centre, hurling his Missourians upon them with irresistible fury, so that their line became shaken, and required but a little additional effort to break it in two.

Perceiving this, Van Dorn ordered McCulloch to repress his ardor, but keep up the enemy's attention on our right, while he threw forward the whole of the centre and left, so as to completely sweep the field. But McCulloch and his second in command were both killed, and there were none to direct the progress of the troops, who felt they were now pushing on to victory; the various colonels, in fact, did not stop to inquire who had succeeded to the command, but each was doing his best in his own way. The enemy were before them, and they neither knew nor cared for any thing more: of strategy, they were almost, if not quite, ignorant; the men were in disorder, but still fought on, regiment mixed with regiment. Thinking that his orders would be obeyed, and not knowing that McCulloch and McIntosh were among the slain, Van Dorn pushed forward his centre and left as best he could, and after much hard fighting, drove the enemy from their position, inflicting much loss. It was now far past noon.

Curtis and Sturgis, perceiving the confusion on our right, rallied their commands, and presented a formidable front, the skilful Sigel covering the retreat in a slow and masterly manner, so that, though we had thoroughly beaten them, they were retiring in excellent order to other positions some miles to the rear; and success was not so decided as it would have been had the various commands been under better discipline. Cheering on our men, Price and the other commanders re-formed their regiments and began the pursuit in earnest; but it was a continual running fight for the distance of two miles; and the men were so intoxicated with success that discipline seemed forgotten, and thousands fought without orders, “pitching in” wherever the enemy seemed in force, or inclined to continue the engagement. At last, worn out with fatigue, we all halted, and Van Dorn, taking up his quarters at Elk Horn Tavern, commenced burying the dead, and providing for the wounded, who covered a space of over three miles. [138]

The camps of the enemy had fallen into our hands, with many prisoners, stores, cannon, etc.; and the men were so excited with their success that it was impossible to form them into line for exigencies. Van Dorn indeed surmised that reenforcements had reached the enemy in great number, and felt himself too weak to accept another engagement on the morrow, should the enemy force one upon him; he therefore ordered the sick far to the rear, and, destroying so much of the booty as could not be transported, began to prepare for a retreat. Officers did all in their power to gather and re-form their commands during the night; but. it was a work of impossibility, as, completely broken down by long marches over hills and mountains, together with many hours of hard fighting, hundreds lay in the bushes completely exhausted, and weak as-children. Coupled with this, our supplies were exhausted, our artillery had but a few rounds of cartridge remaining, and our ammunition wagons were miles in the rear. Under the circumstances, Van Dorn wisely decided upon falling back, and refusing another engagement, should the enemy, from reenforcements, have the hardihood to move forward and try the fortunes of war a second time.

Early in the morning, scouts informed us that the enemy, having been largely reenforced, were advancing upon us, but Van Dorn had made every disposition for falling back to a strong position some seven miles to the rear, at which point our supplies of ammunition had halted. Covering this movement with a well-displayed disposition of force, the enemy were received with great valor, and their advance checked. Sharp fighting ensued, but they made feeble efforts to move forward, seeming to be highly delighted that we were falling back, and desirous of nothing more agreeable. In truth, their movements seemed to be nothing more than a feint in force to cover their own retreat! Most of our forces had retired, however, and the idea did not seem to be countenanced by our commander, who withdrew quietly, and halted six miles to the rear, bringing away between three and four hundred prisoners, seven cannon, stores, wagons, and other booty. It was impossible for us to have withstood the enemy a second time, had they been seriously inclined for battle, for all our ammunition was expended, [139] and the artillery, for the most part, had fired their last shell to cover our retreat. The enemy did not follow, however, but, after resting on the old battle-field a few hours, turned their columns eastward, and were in full flight! [This is incorrect. My friend was too far from the field after the first day's engagement to know the exact truth. The Federals occupied the field after the second day's fight, and remained there until Van Dorn had retreated many miles from it. The truth of history requires this correction.]

What their loss may have been during the skirmishing of the sixth and the battle of the seventh of March, cannot be ascertained; but, from the large number of dead and wounded, I think that three thousand would not cover it, irrespective of prisoners and sick that fell into our hands. Our loss was heavy, but nothing near that of the enemy. Price2 thinks that one thousand will cover all.

I expect that Halleck the Veracious will issue a grand account of this Federal victory for the amusement of the North. [140] This is a terribly wild, barren country for a campaign. The boys seem to enjoy good health, however; but it would be of much greater advantage to the cause did proper disciplinarians come among us, for although brave and hardy enough for any enterprise, we lack educated officers; and without them, little of importance can be effected against a numerous, well-appointed, and highly disciplined enemy. The late battle proved all this; and although we whipped the Yankees by sheer audacity, “rough and ready” fighting, with any weapons that may be at hand, can not maintain a contest successfully with an army ever increasing in number, and supplied with the most costly arms in the world, and with every comfort and improvement provided which science has invented or money can procure.

Yours, Polk.

1 Brigadier-General Samuel D. Sturgis, U. S. A., ranked as captain, Company E, First Cavalry, in 1860. He was stationed near St. Louis when the troubles commenced, and rose rapidly.

2 This gallant officer received a severe wound in the right arm during the action, but could not be prevailed upon to retire. When the war broke out between the United States and Mexico, Sterling Price resigned his seat in Congress, and led a regiment into New-Mexico, capturing Santa Fe, and routing the Mexicans in several engagements. Although not a military man by education, he evinced great talent and an uncommon idea of strategy, having frequently out-manoeuvred several generals sent against him. His services were of such note that no history of that war fails to bestow upon him the praise his many brilliant achievements deserve. He was Governor of Missouri in 1863, and filled the chair with remarkable ability, having successfully saved the State from the Republican sophistry of Senator Benton, when that demagogue canvassed it in favor of Fremont, his son-in-law. In person General Price is very farmer-like. No one would suppose his predilections to be martial. He is more than fifty years of age, about five feet ten inches in height, strongly made, thick-set, and inclined to obesity. He has a large, round face, of a ruddy complexion, short-cut grey hair, small and restless grey eyes. In his movements he is slow; in manners extremely social and unpretending, a plain, out-spoken man, true as steel, and an unflinching patriot. There were great objections raised against his commanding a large force; for the few thousands under him were indifferently drilled, and he was considered too lax a disciplinarian to accomplish much against the well-educated officers sent against him. Whatever may have been achieved was due more to the indomitable energy and reckless bravery of his men, than to any great display of consummate generalship. Greatly beloved as he is by the masses, I think Government acted wisely in placing others over him; for there is always danger to be feared from the movements of uneducated, though oftentimes successful, talent.

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