Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 02/October/Recollections of the Elkhorn Campaign

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 2, Number 4  (1876)  by Dabney Herndon Maury
Recollections of the Elkhorn Campaign
Southern Historical Society Papers, October 1876

Recollections of the Elkhorn Campaign.
By General D. H. Maury.

[The following paper was not originally prepared for publication, but for the information of the accomplished gentleman to whom it is addressed, who has been engaged on a memoir of his father that great soldier and pure patriot, Albert Sydney Johnston; but it will be found to be a vivid sketch of men and events well worth preserving in these Papers.]

Montgomery White Sulphur Springs, Va.,
June 10th, 1876. 

Colonel Wm. Preston Johnston:

My dear Colonel—In compliance with your request, I will endeavor to write you some recollections of the campaign of Elkhorn. As I am not able to refer to any documents, I can only give you my recollections; and I hope, therefore, that any one who can correct my mistakes of omission will do so, for after a lapse of so long a time, passed in events of such absorbing interest as those of our great war, one's memory loses many facts.

In January, 1862, General Earl Van Dorn was appointed commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, then a part of the great territorial command of your father, General Sydney Johnston. I was ordered from the Potomac to go with Van Dorn as chief of the staff of his Trans-Mississippi district.

In February we reached Jacksonport, Arkansas, on the White river, and soon after moved up to Pocahontas, in the northeastern part of Arkansas, and began to organize an expedition against Saint Louis. Van Dorn's plan was to carry Saint Louis by a coup de main, and then to throw his forces into Illinois and transfer the war into the enemy's country.

We had been busily occupied in preparing for this operation, when, late in February, Colonel Clay Taylor arrived at headquarters with dispatches from General Price, then in Boston mountains in northwest Arkansas. General Price related that after his victory at Springfield, or Oakhill, he had been forced by the reinforced enemy to retreat through Missouri down into Arkansas; that General McCulloch, commanding the Texans, was near him in Boston mountain; that the enemy, under Generals Curtis and Siegel, were lying only two marches distant, not over 18,000 strong, and might be overcome by a vigorous, combined attack of all the forces of McCulloch and Price,—but that points of difference of opinion and precedence of rank had arisen between them, in consequence of which no co-operation could be efficiently conducted; and he prayed that Van Dorn, as their common superior, would come at once to Boston mountains, combine the forces of the discordant generals, and lead them to attack the enemy's army.

As our designed operations upon Saint Louis depended mainly upon these commands of Price and McCulloch for success, Van Dorn at once set out for Boston mountains, where he knew he would find a battle ready for him, and, should victory crown him, the success of his Saint Louis expedition would be assured.

We took a steamer for Jacksonport, whence on February 23d, we mounted our horses and started upon our ride across the State to Van Buren. Our party consisted of Van Dorn, myself, Lieutenant Sullivan, who was nephew and aid-de-camp to General Van Dorn, my negro boy Jem, and a guide—a stupid, hulking fellow, who did us more harm than service. Leaving Jacksonport in the morning, we rode twelve miles to the spacious and hospitable farm house of a planter named Bryan, I think. I shall be sorry if I have not given his name, for he was very intelligent and very hospitable, and with him and the kind mistress of his house and her daughters, we found the most cordial and comfortable entertainment we ever met with beyond the Mississippi, and in the trials and disappointments which soon after befell us, we often reverted to that night as a "green spot" in our Arkansas experience.

Next morning, February 24th, we set out after a most abundant breakfast, on our ride across the State of Arkansas. Van Dorn on his black mare, a powerful, hardy thoroughbred, led off in a trot which, for the ensuing five days, carried us along at about fifty miles a day.

He wore a very beautiful Turkish cimeter, the gift of a friend. It was the only article of personal belonging in which I ever knew him to evince especial pleasure. When about five miles from the house he missed his sabre from its sheath. Sullivan insisted on riding back to look for it, while we pursued our way in that relentless trot. Something was said about the "bad omen," which jarred on my feelings and was remembered. Sullivan soon rejoined us with the sword, which he found lying in the road a mile or so behind us.

On the second day, February 25th, we crossed Black river. The stream was narrow, but rapid and deep to the banks. The ferry-boat was a long "dug out."

Van Dorn entered first, taking with him Jem, and at the moment of leaving the shore the guide also stepped into the boat and capsized it. Van Dorn, being at the further end, was thrown well out into the stream encumbered with his heavy cavalry cloak, boots, spurs and sabre; but he struck strongly out for the shore, with a countenance as smiling as ever a schoolboy wore in a summer bath.

Seeing he was all right, I directed my interest and efforts to Jem, who, though a stout swimmer and not excessively encumbered by raiment, seemed to realise all the gravity of his position. His round eyes were distended to their utmost, and he blew the water out at every stroke with the snort of a porpoise, and was the picture of a negro who knew he was swimming for his life. I stood ready with my sash to throw out to him, but he soon struck bottom at the very shore, and scrambled out. The day was very bleak; and after crossing over the river we halted for two hours in a very comfortless house, where Van Dorn made an ineffectual effort to dry his clothes, which resulted in the severest attack of chill and fever I ever saw. It clung to him throughout the campaign, and except when in the presence of the enemy, made him quake as Cassius tells us Caesar did.

I revert to this whole march as peculiarly devoid of interest or pleasure. The country was monotonous and unpicturesque, while some of the people were ignorant of the causes and objects of the war and unsympathetic with us; but there were many honorable exceptions to this, and every night of our five days' trip we received hospitable entertainment in the house of an Arkansas planter; and every night we each slept in a feather bed, which closed about us like a poultice and drew out all the soreness of the sore bones and the saddle-galls which our fifty miles' ride had left with us. After a lifetime of experience in the cavalry service, I then discovered in a feather bed the only panacea for a jaded horseman's ills.

Although I had not made a day's march in the saddle for months prior to our trip across Arkansas, and although every day we trotted from fifty to fifty-five miles, on leaving our feather beds at dawn for our saddles, we found all the stiffness and soreness had been drawn out of us, and we were as fresh and nimble as if we were just setting out.

The United States War Department ought to know about this, and all the cavalry ought to sleep in feather beds: no man can get good rest on the bare ground. And "post traders" would make great profit in feathers if the constituted authorities would only adopt them.

We rode into Van Buren on the evening of February 28th, and next morning, March 1st, left Van Buren for Price's camp in Boston mountains, distant about thirty miles.

The weather was bitter cold, and all day we rode over an ascending mountain road until dark, when we came to the little farm house in which the leader of the Missourians had made his headquarters.

I was much impressed by the grand proportions and the stately air of the man who up to that time had been the foremost figure of the war beyond the Mississippi.

General Price was one of the handsomest men I have ever seen. He was over six feet two inches in stature, of massive proportions, but easy and graceful in his carriage and his gestures; his hands and feet were remarkably small and well shaped; his hair and whiskers, which he wore in the old English fashion, were silver white; his face was ruddy and very benignant, yet firm in its expression; his profile was finely chiseled, and bespoke manhood of the highest type; his voice was clear and ringing, and his accentuation singularly distinct. A braver or a kinder heart beat in no man's bosom; he was wise in counsel and bold in action, and never spared his own blood on any battle field. No man had greater influence over his troops; and as he sat his superb charger with the ease and lightness of one accustomed all his days to "ride a thoroughbred horse," it was impossible to find a more magnificent specimen of manhood in its prime, than Sterling Price presented to the brave Missourians, who loved him with a fervor not less than we Virginians felt for Lee.

On this our first meeting, General Price showed us the hospitality traditional of his native State (Virginia). He took Van Dorn to share his chamber, and sent a staff officer to conduct Sullivan and me to the bivouac of his staff, where we found sumptuous entertainment.

Never before or since have I enjoyed such luxurious accommodations in camp as were at my service that wintry night, in the camp of Price's staff in the Boston mountains.

We were conducted to a beautiful little meadow, where the staff and the band (all through the war he carried with him a fine band) had cast their lines in one of the pleasantest places I have ever been in during campaign. The General's following was very numerous, and it seemed to me they were as thoroughly good fellows as I ever met. We were entertained at a glorious supper and soon after were conducted to our tent. It was a very large wall tent, the central portion of which was occupied by a bed of blankets and buffalo robes near a foot deep. In front of the tent, a huge fire of logs had been burning for more than an hour, heating the ground and the air of the tent, the doors of which were thrown wide open to receive the genial warmth. We were soon enjoying, in a wearied soldier's slumber, all of these judicious arrangements, and awoke next morning in prime condition for anything before us.

And first came a breakfast, the peer of the supper, and the last breakfast of that quality I ever saw. I can never forget—for it was the first and the last time I enjoyed that dish—the kidneys stewed in sherry! which, late in the course of that breakfast, were served to me as a sort of chasse by a generous young Missouri colonel, who had brought to that rough field of war this memento of the more refined culinary accomplishments he had acquired in Saint Louis.

The breakfast dispatched, we mounted our horses and were soon on our way over the mountain ridge which divided Price's camp from that of the Texans under General McCulloch.

McCulloch's little army was bivouacked several miles distant from the Missourians. We found the noted Texan ranger occupying a small farm house on the mountain side—comfortless and bare enough it was.

In person, in manner and in character, McCulloch presented a strong contrast with Price. He was near six feet tall, was spare and wirey, and somewhat inclined to a stoop in his shoulders. His deep set gray eyes were shaded by rather heavy eyebrows, which gave an expression of almost suspicious scrutiny to his countenance. In manner, he was undemonstrative, reticent, and, to us, even cautious. He was calm and anxious in view of the enterprise we had undertaken; but avowed his confidence in it, and co-operated heartily for its success.

His whole conduct during these operations impressed us very favorably as to his capacity for war, and but for his untimely death, he would have played an important part in our struggle.

His staff was limited to five or six earnest, working men, and all about him bespoke the stern seriousness of soldiers trained to arms. Frank Armstrong, Lindsay Lomax, Edward Dillon, ——— Kimmell, were members of his staff, whom I found with him, all of whom served often and long with me in the stirring events of the great contest we had embarked in.

A full conference with McCulloch, whose remarkable knowledge of roads and country were much relied upon in the operations of that campaign, enabled Van Dorn to organize the corps of Price and of McCulloch into an army of about 16,000 men, and to march at dawn of March 1st to attack the enemy in the valley of Sugar creek at the "Elkhorn tavern."

The night had been bitter cold. We had slept in a sort of barn or stable, and had only a little coffee and hard bread to eat. The snow was falling fast as we rode to the head of the column: and we did not feel very bright, until we were struck with the splendid appearance of a large regiment we were passing. It halted as we came upon its flank, faced to the front and presented arms, and as General Van Dorn reached its centre, three rousing cheers rang out upon the morning air, and made us feel we were with soldiers. It was the ever glorious Third Louisiana which thus cheered us.

That day we crossed over Boston mountain, and encamped near Fayetteville. Our cavalry, under McIntosh, was sent forward to make a demonstration.

Next morning, March 2d, we passed through Fayetteville, and camped for the night at Fulton springs, a few miles this side of Bentonville.

Van Dorn knew the enemy was occupying three detached camps, and the design was to strike the main body at Elkhorn before the divisions of Siegel or of Carr could join it. He ordered the army to march at 3 A. M. of the third, hoping to reach Bentonville before Siegel, with his 7,000 men, could pass that point and join Curtis in Sugar creek canon. But the enemy was up before we could get the troops to move; and on the march, they would delay at the crossing of every stream (and they were numerous), till they could pass by single file over a log dry shod. And thus it was, that when the head of our column debouched from the timber out upon the open prairie, three miles from Bentonville, we had the mortification to see the head of Siegel's column already entering that village, and marching so rapidly through it, on the Sugar Creek road, that we were unable to intercept or delay his movements.

Even yet McIntosh, with his mounted men, might have thrown himself across his (Siegel's) road, dismounted and formed line in his front, and thus delayed him till we could close in behind and cause his surrender. But his impetuous valor induced him to attempt a sort of charge upon Seigel's veteran infantry, with his wild men on wilder horses. Siegel met the attack with a volley or two, which scattered McIntosh's horsemen in every direction, and then resumed his rapid march.

We pressed on in pursuit, but the road led along a narrow canyon shut in by steep rocks and hills, and we could only follow Siegel, who, whenever he passed a favorable point, placed a battery in position to check the head of our column as we reached it. Long before dark he had closed up upon Curtis' army, and we halted for the night beyond cannon range.

Our march had been along the main Telegraph road from Bentonville to Springfield, on which, in our front, lay the enemy's army, Van Dorn had learned from McCulloch of a road by which we might turn off to the left from the Telegraph road, make a detour of eight miles, and come into the Telegraph road again in the enemy's rear. We therefore halted, as if for the night, just at the junction of this road; and as soon as it was full dark, the army was moved out upon this road to the left, leaving a force of 1,000 men to cover the movement, and occupy the enemy.

We found the route very bad, and it had been much obstructed by the enemy; so that our march was slow, and it was 8 A. M. when we debouched into the main Telegraph road, about two miles north of Elkhorn tavern and quite in rear of the enemy. We occupied the only route by which he could retire to Missouri.

The game seemed now to be in our own hands; but never was a well conceived plan more completely defeated in its execution than ours was by the remarkable mischances which befell us that day—all of which were plainly traceable to our own want of discipline.

When Price's corps advanced along the Telegraph road, we found only some skirmishers and a battery to oppose us, the whole Federal army having concentrated towards its front, where we were supposed to be; but very soon Curtis discovered he had a heavy force in his rear, and made such quick and efficient changes to meet us that we had plenty to do; but we bore the enemy steadily back, and were pretty warmly engaged, when McCulloch sent to request that instead of closing up and joining in our attack, he should strike the enemy from where he then was. Van Dorn assented, and soon both armies were warmly engaged, McCulloch's position being some three miles distant from ours, and his attack being made upon the enemy's defences in the front.

By two o'clock, Price had forced the enemy back along his whole line, and Van Dorn sent orders to McCulloch to press the enemy vigorously in his front, and he would close in upon him with all his (Price's) force, and end the battle.

Just at this moment a staff officer, Colonel Edward Dillon, galloped up, with disaster on his face. Riding close up to Van Dorn, he said, in a low tone, "McCulloch is killed, McIntosh is killed, Hébert is killed, and the attack on the front has ceased."

The General set his lips, ordered every thing to be urged to the attack, and that the troops of McCulloch's corps should be at once moved up to join us.

Meantime the enemy, finding himself no longer pressed in front, transferred heavy reinforcements to meet us. About sunset we discovered that a new line of battle had been formed 300 yards in our front, in the edge of the timber. The fences had been cleared, so as to form breastworks of the rails, before we knew of this attack, and had the enemy charged us then, we would have been probably beaten.

But he gave us fifteen minutes, in which time Van Dorn brought up some guns in a position to enfilade his line, and quickly dismounted all of the cavalry within reach, to extend our line upon the left, and then we all charged with a yell, and the enemy, delivering a brief fire, broke and fled, and our whole line pursued him quite into his wagon trains.

It was not yet dark, we had every thing on the move, and Van Dorn was urging up all available troops to join in the continued pressure of the enemy, when he found General Price had already stopped the pursuit and ordered the troops to fall back to take up a position for the night.

We made our headquarters for the night at the Elkhorn tavern, where the enemy's had been in the morning.

Price's corps had been hotly engaged from 10 A. M. till after sunset, and had been constantly victorious. We had now won the field, but we had lost very heavily. Generals Slack, McCulloch, McIntosh and Hebert were killed while General Price and many others were wounded, and our losses told upon us. The ammunition of the troops in action was exhausted, and to our dismay, when the reserve train of ammunition was sought for, it could not be found. The prudent and intelligent ordnance officer in charge of it had sent it off beyond Bentonville, about fifteen miles, and the enemy lay between!

McCulloch's corps was much disorganized, and when it was found there was no fresh supply of ammunition for Price's troops, all idea of resuming the attack next morning was abandoned. Van Dorn decided to await attack on the ground he had won, and meantime to put his wagon trains upon a road towards Van Buren, and to make the best dispositions for a defensive movement in the morning. Our line was formed about 1,200 yards from the Elkhorn tavern, south of it, and was under command of General Henry Little, one of the best and bravest of the Missourians. With him was the brigade of Colonel Rives and Little's own brigade. All of these were staunch troops, veterans of many battles. He had also Bledsoe's battery, Wade's battery, McDonald's battery and the battery of the gallant young Churchill Clarke, already the Pelham of that army. A cannon shot carried off his head that morning while he was working his guns.

This line was held most gallantly till 10 o'clock, when, the trains and the artillery and most of the army being on the road, we withdrew it and ordered it to cover our march. The gallant fellows faced about with cheers, believing they were only changing front to fight in some other position. The enemy was too much crippled to follow, and we marched back to Van Buren.

The battle of Elkhorn was then ended, and many a noble soldier had fallen, but of all who fell that day, I remember none who was more regretted than Colonel Rives. His very presence and manner bespoke a man of lofty nature, worthy of all the love and admiration in which he was held throughout that army. Only a few minutes before he fell he rode out of the line to give some explanation in person to Van Dorn of the condition of affairs, and as he concluded his brief interview, and turned his horse to gallop back to his place, we exclaimed, "What a noble looking fellow he is." Ten minutes after an aid-de-camp reported, "Colonel Rives is down, sir."

The battle of Elkhorn illustrates the danger of co-operative attack. Had Van Dorn adhered to his original plan and fallen on the enemy's rear with all the forces of Price and McCulloch, the disasters of the day would have been averted. We may fairly conclude that it was lost through want of discipline and cohesion in our army. Had we marched at the hour appointed in the order on the morning of the 4th, we would have cut off Siegel at Bentonville; even had we moved as rapidly as infantry should march, we must have met him there.

The remarkable fatality which befell McCulloch and McIntosh was fairly attributable to the same indiscipline. McCulloch was killed by a sharpshooter while riding alone to reconnoitre the ground in front of his army—where he ought not to have been.

McIntosh, being thus left in command of that wing, yielded to a gallant impulse and placed himself at the head of a regiment of Texas horse, which was moving to charge a Federal battery. He was one of the few killed in the charge, and was entirely out of his proper place when he fell.

The battle might yet have gone in our favor had it been pressed half an hour longer on the evening of the 5th. The cessation of our attack then was a fatal error.

And finally, the inexcusable incompetency of the ordnance officer who sent our ordnance train beyond reach, so that we could not resume the offensive on the morning of the 6th, completed the mischances which caused a well planned, bold and bravely fought battle to go against the Confederate arms, and left no other results than a loss to the enemy in killed and wounded, a few prisoners and two light batteries, which we took with us back to Van Buren, and the moral effect with which our unexpected attack had impressed him by the boldness and energy of our enterprise, so that he did not venture upon any aggressive movement against us.

After reaching Van Buren, Van Dorn recognized the importance to our cause of a victory on the Tennessee and of joining our forces to those under General Sydney Johnston at Corinth, instead of lying idle all spring, observing an army which evidently would not attempt any invasion of Arkansas. He therefore proposed to General Johnston to let him march across Arkansas (over 200 miles), join him on the Tennessee, and fall upon Grant with all the forces combined. Before Van Dorn's proposition had reached General Johnson, he had written for Van Dorn to join him, if possible.

Our army therefore was put upon the march as soon as practicable, and Van Dorn, preceding it by the quickest route, went to Corinth for conference with Generals Johnston and Beauregard. We found Grant lying in force on the Tennessee river, while Johnston's army over—30,000 strong—occupied entrenched lines about Corinth.

In the council of war it was resolved to attack Grant before Buell could join him. If the army of the West should arrive in time for the battle, success would be certain, but in any case Grant would be attacked before he received reinforcements.

The rains and terrible roads of Arkansas delayed the arrival of the Army of the West in time for the battle of Shiloh. Only one of our regiments—the Second Texas, which arrived by water from Texas—participated in the fight.

It was my privilege to be present during a part of the conference between these three remarkable men Johnston, Beauregard and Van Dorn.

I was much impressed by the dignity and earnestness of General Johnston. He expressed with clearness and decision his views and purposes, and with the air of one conscious of the gravity of the crisis before him, which was in a few days to decide his fate and that of his country.

But amidst these heavy cares, he was ever mindful of the most delicate attentions due to us as his guests, and was cordial in his recognition of Van Dorn's earnest desire to come to his help. I never saw General Johnston again, but shall always remember that last interview with him as one of the most interesting of my life. I have often reverted to Van Dorn's action in this matter as illustrative of the lofty sentiments of a soldier's duty, which always animated him.

To voluntarily give up so important an independent command as that of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi Department and become a subordinate corps commander of another army, from his own perception that such a course would best promote the general public interest, was an abnegation of self such as has rarely been known amongst military men. Very few generals could have perceived the necessity for such a sacrifice, and fewer still could have made it.

The Army of the West reached Corinth sometime after the battle of Shiloh. We were 15,000 effectives, and brought Beauregard's effective force up to 45,000 men. We remained in position, offering battle until May 30th. Three times we advanced from our works and offered battle to Halleck: three times he refused it. Once, at Farmington, five miles from Corinth, we struck Pope's corps, which escaped us by rapid retreat. May 30th, Beauregard evacuated the place in a masterly manner, and took position at Tupelo. The enemy did not follow us.

One of the most remarkable incidents I have ever known occurred during the most critical part of the battle of Elkhorn.

The batteries of Wade and McDonald had been so constantly engaged, that on the morning of the 6th their ammunition was entirely gone, and General Little ordered them out of action, and we sent to replace them the battery of Captain ———, which had not yet been engaged.

The two withdrawn batteries were in a little open field in rear of the line, when, to our surprise, the battery of Captain ——— appeared galloping out of the battle to the rear. Van Dorn asked what was the matter. He replied he found the fire so severe he could not stay in it any longer. Van Dorn arrested him at once, and published an order striking him from the rolls for cowardice.

Wade then approached the General, and said, "General Van Dorn, the limbers of this battery are full of ammunition; may I not transfer some of it to my own boxes and go back into the fight?"

"Captain," said Van Dorn, "I am delighted by your request; certainly, sir, you can."

Wade at once drew up alongside the withdrawn battery, and had begun the transfer, when McDonald discovered what was going on, and asked if he might not have some too; and the whole contents of the recreant's limbers were in a few minutes transferred to Wade's and McDonald's batteries, who galloped off again, cheering and in high glee, to their places on the lines. I never have witnessed any thing more hearty and active than the satisfaction with which these gallant soldiers found themselves so unexpectedly in fighting order again.

Wade was ever after a great favorite with Van Dorn, and I have never known a more gallant battery commander than he was. He was always cheerful and alert, and never grumbled; kept his men, horses, guns and equipage in the best possible trim, and always looked after the comfort of his command, and knew how to find for them something good to eat and to drink, when nobody else could. His cheerful voice on the eve of a fight, and his bright face, had a mesmeric effect on all about him. His very spectacles seemed to shine with extra lustre, and his short stature to extend itself on such occasions. He was but little over five feet high. I do not think any man in the army, up to the last, was more respected than Wade. He became colonel of artillery, and fell at Port Hudson, decapitated by a shot from Farragut's fleet.

Dabney H. Maury.