After the Civil War, Asa Payne’s life settled into the ordinary. He married, fathered children, and became a real estate agent well known around Carthage, Mo., where he lived the last 32 years of his life.
But something in Payne’s past summoned him in 1911 — at the age of 66 — to return to the arena of his youth.
On March 7, 1862, Payne, a 16-year-old private, charged with others from the First Missouri Brigade toward Elkhorn Tavern, which sat along the Old Wire Road atop Pea Ridge. The fighting around Elkhorn Tavern would be some of the most ferocious of the war.
Resting on the porch of Elkhorn Tavern 49 years later, as a full moon glowed over the battlefield, Payne, the aging Confederate soldier, was carried back to those momentous days a half-century before when the fate of Missouri, and the nation, hung in the balance.
“I was not the beardless boy that marched away, but an old, gray-bearded man,” Payne wrote in 1917 in a Carthage newspaper account.
“We double-quicked to the top of the rise and the federal line was in full view and I could hear something going ‘zip, zip, zip’ all around and could see the dust flying out of the trees, and the limbs and twigs seemed to be in a commotion from the concussion of the guns.”
“It was here we lost our first lieutenant. I heard the bullet strike him with a thud. He was so near me that he almost brushed me as he fell. He threw up his hands and said, ‘O Lord’ and fell on his back and was dead.”
“Every artilleryman lay near the guns, dead, in some instances lying across each other and mingled with dead horses, all scorched and burned black from the explosion of the ammunition wagon.”
The 1,000-mile front
As 1862 came on, the South guarded a thousand-mile western front stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to Indian Territory. The Confederate commander of all those forces, Albert Sydney Johnston, had ordered a Mississippian, Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, to unite Southern armies operating west of the Mississippi River and launch an offensive toward St. Louis that spring.
One of those armies, encamped in Arkansas, was led by Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch; a second, led by Brig. Gen. Albert Pike, operated out of Indian Territory.
The third was the one young Asa Payne joined in the summer of 1861. It was the Missouri State Guard, led by Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, a former Missouri governor.
“We were a raw set of men,” Payne wrote. “That is, we had very little training, and we were armed with every kind of weapon that could hastily be assembled, from pistols four inches long to a double-barrel shotgun and squirrel rifles. We had no uniforms and were a motley bunch of men.”
“Raw” and “motley” though they were, these men had helped defeat Union armies at Carthage in July 1861 and at Wilson’s Creek that August.
Those early Southern victories meant much of Missouri — especially Southwest Missouri — remained under the control of Price and his Missouri State Guard, which had pushed as far north as the Missouri River in the fall of 1861 before pulling back to Springfield.
“With these,” Van Dorn proposed, “can we not hope to take St. Louis by rapid marches and assault?”
‘Defeat ... destroy’
Union officials, meanwhile, had their own plans for St. Louis, but before they could begin, they had to neutralize those outlying rebel armies.
According to historians William Shea and Earl Hess, who wrote a history of the Pea Ridge campaign, Union officials wanted St. Louis as a base to launch offensives using the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers — all of which penetrated that thousand-mile front.
But as long as Price remained unchecked, and other Southern armies operated nearby, they tied up Union forces several times larger than their own needed to protect St. Louis. In this way, Price paralyzed Union operations from Kansas to Kentucky, noted Shea and Hess.
As Van Dorn prepared a spring offensive, the Union commander in Missouri, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, ordered Brig. Gen. Samuel Curtis, to “defeat, disperse or destroy” those Southern armies.
“We must have no failure in this movement against Price,” Halleck warned Curtis. “It must be the last.”
Curtis struck first, launching a winter campaign that drove Price out of Springfield and down the Old Wire Road into Arkansas. It was late February and early March and Price’s soldiers suffered from freezing temperatures.
“It had turned bitter cold and was snowing, a regular March blizzard,” Payne wrote of one evening. “We had no tents, and only one blanket to each man. We built log heaps and set them afire to warm the ground to have a place on which to lie, and I remember well the next day there were several holes burned in my uniform by sparks left on the ground.”
Both armies maneuvered for position through Northwest Arkansas. Curtis and his 10,500 men in the Army of the Southwest dug in, facing south, along a bluff above Little Sugar Creek. Van Dorn, with 16,000 men, eventually swung north and east, slipping behind Curtis.
“We had struck the wire road north of Pea Ridge and had cut Curtis’ communication,” Payne wrote in his newspaper account. They also surprised and captured a Union foraging party.
“I will never forget how surprised the men looked,” Payne wrote. “One of them seemed to be cheerfully disposed and wanted to know where in the hell we came from, and who we were, and when told we were Confederates, said that he had come all the way from Michigan to see the fun and if we would give him a gun he would as soon fight on one side as the other. The other seemed sullen and had nothing to say.”
From his vantage point, Payne watched artillery units drag heavy guns up Tanyard Hollow, which led straight to Elkhorn Tavern.
He could hear guns and artillery firing off to the south and west, but he soon was swept up in the drama at Tanyard Hollow as artillery shells began flying overhead.
“I remember some of our boys would laugh and mock the shells and others were as pale as death, while still others had great drops of sweat on their faces.”
Chaos at Leetown
Van Dorn divided his army, staying with Price and the Missouri State Guard on the east part of Pea Ridge as McCulloch and Pike swung to the west side of Pea Ridge, hoping to bust Curtis between the two blows.
With Van Dorn having moved in behind him, Curtis had to do an about-face along his entire front, explained Shea and Hess: “The result was a landmark achievement in American military history. Six hours after the start of the battle the Army of the Southwest faced north instead of south, a remarkable 180-degree change of front unparalleled in the Civil War.”
Pea Ridge evolved into two battles, one at the hamlet of Leetown on the west side of Pea Ridge, with McCulloch in charge, and the other at Elkhorn Tavern, with Van Dorn leading.
At Leetown, the fighting is chaotic. McCulloch was killed early in the battle, as was Brig. Gen. James McIntosh, a Confederate cavalry leader. Command passed to Louis Hebert, who was soon captured, leaving the Confederates at Leetown leaderless, which meant thousands of Southern men held in reserve by McCulloch spent the day awaiting orders that never come while Van Dorn remained entangled at Elkhorn Tavern, ignoring an entire wing of his army.
As the day wore on, Leetown became a Union victory. It is this fighting that Payne heard while waiting in the dirt and leaves of Tanyard Hollow.
‘Shot right through’
Finally, Payne gets his orders to advance. It is then that he hears the “zip, zip, zip” of Union bullets.
“We had hardly reached the top of the rise when one of my mess-mates on my right threw up his hand to his breast and said, ‘Ase, I am shot right through.’”
Payne later learned that his comrade survived. However, Lt. Irv Glasscock, of the unit, was not so lucky. He was the one who brushed past Payne and exclaimed “O Lord” after he was shot.
Despite heroic Union resistance, Van Dorn and Price overwhelmed the smaller federal forces at Elkhorn Tavern and drove them off the ridge as the sun set.
According to Shea and Hess, the first day ended in a draw.
“Victory or defeat ... depended in large part on how well each army prepared during the night for a renewal of the struggle,” they wrote.
Throughout the night, Curtis got little sleep, shuffling troops and artillery from Leetown toward Elkhorn Tavern, and meeting with subordinates. Despite the setback at Elkhorn, Curtis told his officers he planned to fight it out, according to Shea and Hess.
Van Dorn, meanwhile, made no effort to find out what had happened to his men at Leetown on March 7, and also failed to bring up supplies and ammunition for the next day’s fighting. It would be his most serious blunder, the historians concluded.
At dawn, from the top of the ridge, Payne looked down into the valley and saw federal troops swing into formation.
Nearly 10,000 Union soldiers, including artillery and cavalry, according to Shea and Hess, arrayed for battle in a line stretching a full mile — all of it visible to the Confederates.
“For what may have been the only time in the Civil War, an entire army was visible in line of battle from flank to flank. It was a scene of martial grandeur right out of a picture book on the Napoleonic wars,” the two historians wrote.
Before advancing, Curtis opened with the most intense artillery bombardment that had taken place on the North American continent up to that time, Shea said during an interview. Union artillerists poured 30 shots a minute into the exhausted rebels, and did so for more than two solid hours.
“The crashing waves of sound could be heard for more than 50 miles across the Ozark Plateau,” wrote Shea and Hess.
“I remember one rifle cannon ball struck a tree near me and made a round hole where it entered and tore off a large slab on the opposite side,” Payne wrote, “and an artillery horse with its nose shot away up to its eyes came through our lines, and every time its heart beat the blood would spurt out in jets and it dropped dead just after passing through.”
Payne joined other Confederate soldiers falling back and came upon the artillery battery that had been commanded by Capt. Churchill Clark of St. Louis — grandson of the famed explorer William Clark. The men were dead, scattered among their horses, and burned black by the explosion of the artillery wagon. Nearby was Clark, “with his head shot away from his eyes up,” writes Payne.
Van Dorn, who learned that morning that his supplies were still six hours away, decided he had no choice but to pull back.
Between them, the two armies report between 3,000 and 4,000 men dead, wounded or missing from the battle at Pea Ridge.
Thirty-nine men in Payne’s regiment died at Pea Ridge, another 45 survived the wounds, 33 were missing. Among those mortally wounded was Col. Benjamin Rives, commander of Payne’s regiment.
The Union victory at Pea Ridge had enormous ramifications for both sides.
The success of Curtis and the Army of the Southwest secured Missouri for the Union, and was one of a series of victories that spring throughout Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.
Ulysses S. Grant captured a Confederate army at Fort Donelson, Tenn., in February, and defeated another at nearby Shiloh in April, while a combined army-naval force of Union men won a key victory at Island No. 10, opening up the Mississippi River to Fort Pillow, Tenn.
All of this “represents a tremendous breakthrough on the Confederate perimeter and lead to the collapse of the Western Confederacy,” Shea said in a telephone interview. “The West just caved in and Pea Ridge was an integral part of that.”
Afterward, soldiers on both sides will be shifted east of the Mississippi River and participate in campaigns there.
Although Pea Ridge would be eclipsed by bloodier battles back East, said Shea, no less an authority on the war than William Tecumseh Sherman said it should not be overlooked.
“Somehow, few men realized the full value of the victories at Pea Ridge, Donelson and Shiloh,” he said after the war. “Though not conclusive, they gave the keynote to all subsequent events of the war. They encouraged us, and discouraged our too sanguine opponents, thereby leading to all our Western successes, which were conclusive of the final result.”
For Asa Payne — Company E, 3rd Missouri Infantry, 1st Missouri Brigade — the battle of Pea Ridge was over, but not the journey.
“After a lapse of 49 years, I again visited the Pea Ridge battle ground,” Payne wrote, concluding a series of articles about his experiences that appeared in The Carthage Press in 1917, four years before he died.
“I was surprised to find how little it had changed, what seemed to be the same old tavern with its elk horns was standing there still, but the barn was gone and in its place an apple orchard grew. There was nothing to remind me of the treacherous days in March of ’62 but two monuments about 12 feet high.”
“I stayed all night in that old tavern but all was quiet, the booming of cannon and the wails of the wounded were hushed forever. I was lulled to sleep by the tinkling of cow bells ... and was awakened only by the hoot of owls which seemed to me were hooting their last long hoot in memory of the past.”
Asa Payne was born July 20, 1845, and died Feb. 20, 1921. He is buried in Park Cemetery in Carthage. Jasper County Archivist Steve Weldon and Parks Cemetery Administrator Frank Stine say there are plans to get a Confederate headstone for Payne’s grave.
This narrative was reconstructed from a number of sources, primarily from Asa Payne’s accounts of the battles of Carthage and Pea Ridge written for his hometown newspaper in 1917, and his obituary, which appeared in 1921; “Pea Ridge, Civil War Campaign in the West,” written by William Shea and Earl Hess; records, documentaries and interviews with officials at Pea Ridge National Military Park; and “Pea Ridge: Gettysburg of the West,” by Walter Brown, which appeared in the Arkansas Historical Review.