The Rebel armies under Price and McCulloch had been united and strongly re-enforced, the whole being under the command of General Van Dorn. Their strength was upward of twenty thousand men, and they were confident of their ability to overpower us. Knowing our strong front line, General Van Dorn decided upon a bold movement, and threw himself around our right flank to a position between us and our base at Springfield.
In moving to our right and rear, the Rebels encountered General Sigel’s Division before it had left Bentonville, and kept up a running fight during the afternoon of the 6th. Several times the Rebels, in small force, secured positions in Sigel’s front, but that officer succeeded in cutting his way through and reaching the main force, with a loss of less than a hundred men.
The position of the enemy at Bentonville showed us his intentions, and we made our best preparations to oppose him. Our first step was to obstruct the road from Bentonville to our rear, so as to retard the enemy’s movements. Colonel Dodge, of the Fourth Iowa (afterward a major-general), rose from a sick-bed to perform this work. The impediments which he placed in the way of the Rebels prevented their reaching the road in our rear until nine o’clock on the morning of the 7th.
Our next movement was to reverse our position. We had been facing south—it was now necessary to face to the north. The line that had been our rear became our front. A change of front implied that our artillery train should take the place of the supply train, and vice versa. “Elkhorn Tavern” had been the quartermaster’s depot. We made all haste to substitute artillery for baggage-wagons, and boxes of ammunition for boxes of hard bread. This transfer was not accomplished before the battle began, and as our troops were pressed steadily back on our new front, Elkhorn Tavern fell into the hands of the Rebels.
The sugar, salt, and bread which they captured, happily not of large quantity, were very acceptable, and speedily disappeared. Among the quartermaster’s stores was a wagon-load of desiccated vegetables, a very valuable article for an army in the field. All expected it would be made into soup and eaten by the Rebels. What was our astonishment to find, two days later, that they had opened and examined a single case, and, after scattering its contents on the ground, left the balance undisturbed!
Elkhorn Tavern was designated by a pair of elk-horns, which occupied a conspicuous position above the door. After the battle these horns were removed by Colonel Carr, and sent to his home in Illinois, as trophies of the victory.
A family occupied the building at the time of the battle, and remained there during the whole contest. When the battle raged most fiercely the cellar proved a place of refuge. Shells tore through the house, sometimes from the National batteries, and sometimes from Rebel guns. One shell exploded in a room where three women were sitting. Though their clothes were torn by the flying fragments, they escaped without personal injury. They announced their determination not to leave home so long as the house remained standing.