Main Menu/Company B

Company B and the Battle of Pea Ridge

Compiled by Ed Perley from Articles by Jim Perley for the Logan Observer newspaper
Reproduced with the permission of the author and the publisher.

Part One

Memorial Day brings most of us to area cemeteries to honor the dead. We put flowers on the graves of those we know, and eventually leave. But for some graves, there are no flowers. No one alive remembers who is buried there. Weather has nearly worn the tombstones bare as our predecessors undergo something like a second death when no one knows they once existed. The Little Sioux, Iowa cemetery has many such graves, but one is unusual. A black metal fence surrounds this plot. Someone, maybe a maintaince worker, removed the gate years ago. The plot is empty save for two graves.

The tombstones of Thomas Kennedy and B.F.W. Alton stand togeter at one end of the plot. No other family members are there. Both men were members of the Grand Army of the Republic, but their names are not on the Little Sioux founding roster. Not even the Harrison County histories take note of them. An inscription tells us they were brothers in arms with the "Fighting Hawkeyes". Alton was a sergent in Company B of the 4th Iowa Infantry, and Kennedy's rank was not given.

Mr. Alton was thirty when a presidential proclamation called for an army to be raised to fight the southern secessionists. The Fourth Iowa Infantry was mainly composed of men from the western "Missouri Slope," from what is now Iowa's Fifth Congressional District. The first field officer was Colonel G. M. Dodge, a civil engineer who worked for a railroad company. Dodge turned Company B into one of the nation's finest fighting forces, and he later became a Major General. Omaha's Dodge Street and other locations still bear his name. Dwight D. Belles of Beloit, Kansas researched their story.

The new soldiers mustered in at Camp Kirkwood near Council Bluffs, and their basic training became a trial by fire. A band of confederate sympathisers gathered near the state line and was ready to march into Iowa. A force of 200 men marched to Clarinda, as members of the Home Guard joined them on the way. The Missourians faced several hundred well armed, determined young men. They also knew the Iowans lived where justice was harsh and horse thieves were hanged without trials. The would-be Confederates were not stupid. They dispersed to fight another day. The soldiers returned to Camp Kirkwood very full of themselves. The regiment left Council Bluffs by steam boat in August. They rode a train from St Joeseph to St Louis where they drilled. They were supposed to get their uniforms, weapons and other supplies, but the soldiers were ill equipped. After their basic training, a train took them to Rolla where they practiced some more. The soldiers were armed with old Prussian muskets. Thirteen exploded during practice. Their uniforms were incomplete and some soldiers still wore civilian clothes. Colonel Dodge was so frustrated, he traveled to St Louis and refused to leave until he had the uniforms, weapons and other supplies his men needed.

The men spent the fall drilling and training. They also constructed barracks and waited. An unfortunate byproduct of life in close quarters was disease, which killed some of the soldiers. One wrote he was afraid they would not receive the honor they deserved since they died in bed instead of the battlefield. Otherwise, they did what soldiers do. "Hurry up and wait."

Part 2

As Dwight D. Bells wrote, the men of Company B were bored and tired of their relentless training. Cramped lodging enabled disease to spread quickly. Though men died, sickness was mainly another thing to complain about. Death by disease was common before antibiotics were developed. Two winter diversions lessened the monotony. The soldiers marched to Licking in Texas County southwest of Rolla. They defeated a group of poorly organized Confederates and captured considerable property including horses, mules, and cattle. Another march to the south served little purpose, but the open air helped improve the soldiers' health.

General Curtis arrived in December to take command of the brigade, and Colonel Dodge was determined to present the troops as a polished military organization. During the ceremony Dodge's pistol discharged and the bullet injured his leg. Dodge was the first casuality till then, and that added to his embarrasment. He was out of action for several weeks. After Colonel Dodge recovered, General Curtis took his army into its first real battle near Springfield. Colonel Dodge sent his men into the edge of Springfield at 3AM, but within an hour, he was afraid they had been led into a Confederate trap. He didn't realise until later that another unit had driven the enemy away. The soldiers clowned around with things they had captured as they celebrated their first real victory.

The soldiers marched on and they scavenged what they could. Eventually, they were so heavy laden they were hard pressed to march quickly. Each time they reached a river, Colonel Dodge ordered them to leave their provisions at the shore and they moved on. They rebelled at the third river. Several yelled "No you don't, Colonel. We ain't going to lay down anything now. We have fed that 36th Illinois long enough." The Illionois was following the Fourth, and they picked up the sweet potatoes, chickens and other items the Fourth had abandoned. Colonel Dodge had a near rebellion on his hands and it grew worse when Captain Phil Sheridan became quartermaster.

Sheridan asked Dodge to order each regiment to surrender its transportation, leaving two wagons per regiment. Dodge issued the order and every commander at Rollo loudly compained to the Colonel. They also telegraphed their govenors and representatives to protest the outrage. Sheridan watched to see how Dodge would solve the problem. The Colonel stripped his own regiment first and turned in the wagons. Then he went after the other regiments with sharp orders to the commanders. Order was restored, and they complied. Sheridan took note for future reference. Dodge was beginning to impress him.

Sheridan was good at his job. He sent foraging expeditions up to fifty miles away to supply his 12,000 man force with food. Details visited every mill. There were no rail or water communications, and as the army marched four or five hundred miles into enemy terroritory, it was on its own. Soon the Iowans would endure one of the most challenging times of their lives.

Part 3

As Union and Confederate soldiers sparred across southern Missouri, Jessie Cox, whom researcher Dwight D Belles described as a shrewd Arkansas farmer, watched with growing alarm. When the Butterfield Company opened a stage line between St Louis and San Francisco in 1858, Cox had seen an opportunity. His large two story house was on the edge of a hill called Pea Ridge. He and his wife converted it into a tavern and waited for customers along the new stage line. He put the skull of a large elk at the center of the tavern to attract attention and soon, the Elkhorn Tavern with its wide porches and fire places became known as a place "where good cheer was most ample."

By 1861 the transcontinental coaches no longer ran on that route because of the war. Confederate generals had won some victiories, but after General Curtis took commanded of the Iowans and others, the tide began to turn. Jessie Cox watched anxiously as the southern General McCulloch slowly withdrew. Though Cox sympathised with the South, he cared more for his cattle herd. Thousands of foraging soldiers would decimate it. To save their livihood, Cox and his son drove the cattle to Kansas. Before they could return, the family tavern was destined to be at the center of one of the bloodiest battles west of the Mississippi River-- the battle of Pea Ridge.

In March 3, Major General Earl Van Dorn, a flamboyant veteran of the Mexican War, arrived to take command of the combined Confederate forces of Price and McCulloch. They numbeed 16,000 men including a thousand Cherokee Indians under the command of General Albert Pike. He was certain his larger force could defeat the northerners, but many of his soldiers were not battle tested, and the Indians had their own rules of engagement. General Curtis' main line of defense included the Elkhorn Tavern where Polly Cox, her son Joesph and his teenaged wife Lucinda lived. The Union Army's provost marshal and his staff shared the accomodations. The barns were filled with Army provisions. Everyone anticipated an attack from the south. Light snow fell as Confederate campfires burned brightly to the south.

A private Welch was on patrol in the rear when suddenly a group of soldiers captured him. His guards hustled him down a road, he could hardly believe what he saw. Company after company of infantry of what seemed to be the whole Confederate Army were assembled north of the Union army. Welch knew he had to escape to avert a disaster. At the first opportunity he dived into a thicket and escaped. He made his way back to the tavern and woke his commander. By 5AM, the Union soldiers were on alert. Thousands of rebel camp fires still burned four miles to the south, but the soldiers had vanished. The disconcerting turn of events was ominous. Soon, the soldiers heard bugles and the rumble of artilery, and Curtis realized an attack was coming from the north.

Part 4

Kennedy, Alton and the other men from Harrison County were in dire straights. Expecting a Confederate attack from the south, they realised almost too late that the enemy had out flanked them. Curtis turned his troops around and attacked before the Confederates had fully positioned their forces. Nevertheless, McCulloch's soldiers dominated the field and the confused Union artillerymen shelled their own troops. One officer was so dismayed he was on the verge of suggesting Curtis retreat or surrender. Around noon, McCulloch's Texans, supported by the Cheerokees led by Stand Watie broke through the Federal forward line. The Indians attacked with rifles, shotguns, knives and arrows. One man recalled their war whoops were more terrifying than the Texas yells. Stand Watie's men swept over a battery and killed the gunners. To the Iowans, it was over. Union calverymen rode in full retreat, some were without hats or arms as they rode through the infantrymen with shouts of "Turn back! Turn Back!"

Then something happened. The Indians did not captalize on their advantage. They milled about and inspected the guns with little regard to the enemy they had just vanquished. Frustrated southern officers yelled for the Indians to continue fighting, but their orders fell on deaf ears. Sigal, the officer who minutes before had considered retreat, took advantage of the lull and fired artillery shells at the Indians. They fled for the woods as fast as the Union soldiers had run a few minutes earlier. At the same time, soldiers from Indiana charged across the field to retake the battery. By 1:30PM the tide had turned. McCulloch's advance was stalled as Pike and Stand Watie finally restored order among the Cheerokees. Soon, McCulloch launched another counter attack. He rode ahead of his soldiers and urged them on. Peter Pelican of Illionis shot the general, grabbed his gold watch and fled ahead of the advancing Arkansans.

Meanwhile back at the tavern, artillery and infantry dueled for control. A New York Herald reporter had counted on the safety behind the lines wrote " A shell bursting upon a company of infantry beside the tavern another fell aong the horse teams in the rear yard. a solid shot struck the building and passed completely though. Polly Cox,her son, and his wife were not injured. At the first shriek of an overhead shell they had taken refuge in the cellar. " The Confederates retook the Elkhorn Tavern but the Union army fought back the next day and forced the southerners to slowly retreat.

Many soldiers of the 4th Iowa Infantry died in the war, but Thomas Kennedy and B. F. W. Alton lived to resume lives in Harrison County. They supported themselves and they made friends who mourned them when they died. Through it all they knew they had done great, heroic deeds. Kennedy and Alton are gone and virtually forgotten, but what they did lives on.

To Main Menu

Email: See Main Menu
Date last updated: November 2008