Remembering the Little-Known Battle at One of the Best-Preserved Civil War Parks

Elkhorn Tavern at Pea Ridge National Military Park.

Elkhorn Tavern at Pea Ridge National Military Park. National Park Service photo.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, in the normally quiet and peaceful countryside just east of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, the largest Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River started. The Battle of Pea Ridge, known locally as the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern, was the culmination of several days of skirmishes in northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri between Union forces under the control of Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis and Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn’s Confederate soldiers. Curtis’s mission had been to push factions of the Confederate “Missouri State Guard” out of Missouri. The bulk of the battle took place March 7 and 8, 1862, and when it was finished, the Union Army had won, preventing Missouri from seceding from the Union.

Growing up in southwest Missouri, just a few miles from the location of the battle, I have made many visits to Pea Ridge National Military Park, where the location of this important, if little-known, battle is preserved. Because of its rural location, Pea Ridge National Military Park is believed to be one of the best-preserved Civil War battlefields in the nation. You are not going to find a McDonald’s or strip mall at the boundary of this park!

My childhood included regular trips to this national park with my parents and older brothers, seeing and learning about the battlefield and the events that took place there. I hiked through the thick, native Ozark Mountain woods, and I visited the re-created Elkhorn Tavern, which served as a headquarters and hospital during the battle. My parents, brothers, and I are not the first members of my family to know and love this section of hallowed ground. My ancestors first moved to this part of Northwest Arkansas and Southwest Missouri in the early 1850s, so my family has been tramping across this countryside for the last 160 years.

Because I come from a long line of storytellers and history lovers, I know exactly what my great-great-great–grandfather Horace H. Patterson was doing 150 years ago today. On that day, he was an eight-year-old boy who was fascinated by the clash of two great armies taking place a little more than a mile from his family’s farmhouse. With equal parts curiosity, courage, and naiveté, he left the family home and walked across fields and through fruit orchards and oak, elm, and walnut groves, following the sounds of gun and cannon fire. When he got as close to the action as he dared, he climbed high in a tree to watch the battle unfold.

From this spot, he became a spectator of history, and his experience became family lore. He watched men on both sides of the conflict die, and heard the roar of the cannon and snaps of the rifles; he saw warfare with bayonets and hand-to-hand combat. It was all instantly seared into his mind, so much so that it was a story he shared with his family for the rest of his life, and that his children and grandchildren would continue to share. But, the most remarkable part of this story to me is, even though 150 years have passed, I could visit Pea Ridge National Military Park tomorrow and see the same landscapes that my ancestor saw on the day of the battle. If he were alive today, I have no doubt that he would recognize the land and likely even be able to find where the tree stood that he climbed to watch history unfold.

Like all national parks, Pea Ridge preserves something important. To me personally, it means that in another 150 years, future generations of my family will still be able to visit and learn about the battle that took place there. I hope they will continue to know the story of the eight-year-old boy who was there on March 7, 1862 and witnessed one of the events that shaped our nation’s history. After all, what better gift can we leave future generations than the stories and places that have defined who we are and what we have experienced?

In case you are curious, Horace H. Patterson lived to the ripe old age of 84, living all of those years in Pea Ridge. He was a farmer, a teacher, and, for many years, a justice of the peace for the town. He spent two years in the 1870s representing the area in the Arkansas State Legislature and, luckily for his descendants, he was a prolific storyteller, leaving a historic record of his family’s heritage and the adventures they experienced.

About the Author

Former NPCA Senior Relations Manager Jeff Billington

Jeff Billington is former senior media relations manager at NPCA

  • Jennifer

    Love the personal story!

    • Dennis

      I’m 56 now, but have always remembered this place as one of the highlights of a cross-country vacation I took with relatives back when I’d just turned 13. Details are sketchy at best. I’m sure I had no clue as to the significance of the place at the time. I probably thought the cannons looked “cool”…or something like that. I’ve often thought of taking off to go back & see some of those old places I remember once visiting……..This would be one of them, but with a little more sense of history.

  • Edyth Hutton

    Thanks for this bit of history, and for describing your family’s connection to it. Coincidentally, my great-great–grandfather fought in this battle, with the 77th Illinois on the Union side. It’s interesting to think that our ancestors, yours and mine, might even have laid eyes upon one another, back in 1862.

    • Jeff Billington

      Edyth, indeed it was possible that they saw each other in some fashion, my ancestor seeing yours out on the field of battle and yours spying a small boy high in a tree watching the conflict unfold! If you’ve never been to the Pea Ridge National Military Park I’d encourage you to go. You’ll see it much like your great-great grandfather did 150 years ago, but without the battle of course!

      • Edyth Hutton

        Thanks, Jeff. I’ll make a point of visiting Pea Ridge when traveling through Arkansas. The Military Historical Park sounds very interesting, and your story certainly helps to bring it alive for the reader.

  • LaWana

    Interesting story. I’d like to take my family to this National Park now that I’ve learned of it. Thanks for the story and photos!

  • Steve

    I’m not sure who that good looking kid with the #7 is, but it sure looks like he found the true excitement of history unfolding in front of him. I love the article Jeff and I plan on making a trip to the battlefield soon to walk on some of those trails and see all those deer running around, last time there I spotted a bald eagle. Id like to make the anniversary but for all I know I already missed it, too bad you can’t make it.

    • Jeff Billington

      This couldn’t possibly be my brother Steve commenting, naw, no way. But, they are doing some activities tomorrow as well, to kind of bring the celebration to a close, so it’s not completely over yet!

  • Trent

    Nice read Jeff. I always enjoy the stories of American History.

  • Sean Cooper

    Mr. Billington,
    What a fantastic, well-written and researched article! This is one of those little corners of Americana that deserves to be preserved for families like yours.

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  • Andrew Childers

    History texts always relate Antietam (or Sharpsburg) and Gettyburg, but this is the first I have heard of Pea Ridge. I’ve been a volunteer for the National Park Service for about five years now, and I love history above much in life, excluding family.

    To hear about a piece of history, a story that is a part of all Americans, is a thrill especially when first learning of it. Pea Ridge sounds the type of place I would enjoy an extended visit to. The idea that few if any franchises exist in the area i appealing: that is how it should be for all national parks – no franchises, small town keeping out large companies, and family run business only catering to tourism.

    Should I ever have the chance to visit, I will stand upon the ground where history was rendered in blood and try to imagine the sight your ancestor saw. Your family should always have a place on that land, never move away entirely and always relate the story of that fateful day.

    • Jeff Billington

      Andrew, thank you for you comments on this. And while this site is currently well preserved, that may not always be the case. Benton County, Arkansas, where Pea Ridge is located, is quickly growing. This county is home to the headquarters for both Walmart and Tyson Foods, so the population, even since I was growing up there in the 80s and early 90s, has exploded. The county needs to act to put zoning buffers around the park to preserve it. One way to do this would be to allow property owners around it to apply for agricultural easements, which would lower their property taxes in exchange for zoning restrictions or for the county/state to purchase the development rights from them. The idea has been planted there, but it is hard to say what the future will hold, though I know I will fight to protect this area. And, my family is quite entrenched in the Pea Ridge area, so Horace H. Patterson’s descendents remain a strong part of the community for now and for the foreseeable future!

  • jennifer t. schultz

    I have never been to arkansa to view any of the areas where battles of the civil war took place. I have been to chattanooga tenn, gatlinburg several times where battles took place. I hiked through the great smokie mountains and in chattanooga, tenn where there are stair that lead up into the mountains that soldiers used to fight and gain access to the mountaintops.
    This was a great personal story from this gentleman. Everyone wants to develop and move further and further into areas that are pristine and untouched by mankind. It not only affects the wildlife but also affects the historical nature of these national parks. Just as great smoky national park is part of the civil war battles,so is this area in arkansa. We need to protect these areas for future generations to learn the history of our country.

  • Kenuck

    The first war against the banksters….the next is unfolding.

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  • Linda Huneycutt

    I am 70 years old. My Aunt Lottie lived in the old house before they tore it down, and replaced. I remember staying the night there. She was a busy little lady. They had a phone that hung on the wall, and wound up. I think her last name was Doke.. but can’t remember and my Mom and Dad have both passed away, so I can’t ask them. I remember going into a room with all the many guns and things to do with the war. I wish I could remember more. Was scared to go out into her grave yard. And I certainly wasn’t to excited to go out to her outhouse… we live in Los Angeles, CA.
    My Father and mother name name was
    Sherman and Jessie Scott
    My Grandfather was
    George Washington Scott,
    Both parents born in Garfield
    Grandfather lived in Brightwater for years.

    • Jeff Billington

      Ms. Huneycutt, you are correct, you’re aunt’s name was Lottie Doke, she was the daughter of Francis Cox Scott, the last private owner of Elkhorn Tavern. Francis Cox Scott would have been your great-grandmother and was likely living at the tavern with her daughter when you visited, so you may remember her as well. Francis Cox Scott was born at the tavern in 1865, after the Battle of Pea Ridge, to Joseph and Lucinda Cox, who lived at the tavern during the battle. In 1959, when ownership of the tavern transferred to the National Park Service (NPS) Francis Cox Scott was given permission to live out her life there, but her daughter Lottie had already purchased a home with the money they received from NPS in Garfield, so they moved there together and Francis Cox Scott passed away the next year, 1960, at the age of 95. As for the building itself, you’re right and wrong. The first Elkhorn Tavern was built in 1833, and your great-great-great-grandparents Jesse and Polly Cox purchased it in 1858. They lived there with their son and daughter-in-law, your great-great-grandparents Joseph and Lucinda Cox, until the Battle of Pea Ridge, during the actual fighting Joseph, Lucinda and Polly hid in the basement as the house itself was bombarded with bullets and even a cannonball and then used as a hospital. Following the battle they moved a short distance away so they could repair it before moving back into it. But in January 1863, before the Cox family had moved back, bushwackers struck and burned the building to the ground. But, since the foundation and chimneys were still in good shape, Jesse Cox rebuilt the tavern on the same foundation. This version of the tavern was very similar to the original, but in the years that followed Francis Cox Scott and her husband, Lorenza D. Scott, made a lot of additions and alterations that greatly changed the appearance of the tavern, so that by 1959 it was hardly recognizable. And, while one would assume when looking at the current structure when compared to the house you visited as a child that it is a different building, it actually is not. In the 1960s NPS stripped off all of the additions changes that had been made to the structure between 1865 and 1959 to get it to look as closely to the original structure as possible. So they didn’t actually tear it down, they just did a major restoration to restore that appearance. Also, the cemetery that you remember is the old Pratt Cemetery and is just a short distance from Elkhorn Tavern and is where everyone mentioned here is buried.

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  • Silvia Wilson

    I am a history buff and had heard of this battle before. It certainly was a pivotal event. You told the story wonderfully. It’s a great thing to know the nation’s history through your own family’s stories. My family has some stories like this that give us a sense of our ancestors’ part in history. Thank you for stirring old memories, as well as giving us more information about this important part of history.

  • Joe Bartolini

    Wonderful article including the comments. Thanks

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