The Elkhorn Tavern, used during the battle of Pea Ridge as the Federal Provost Marshall’s headquarters, as Confederate General Earl Van Dorn’s Headquarters, and as a hospital by both Confederate and Union, was owned and operated by the Cox family, primarily by Jesse C. Cox and his wife Polly Parker-Cox.
The Cox’s owned land both in Kansas and Arkansas, and were considered to be fairly wealthy. Jesse C. Cox, born in 1802, and his wife Polly Parker Cox, born in 1803, were both from Kentucky. Jesse and Polly had seven children, James, George, Joseph C., Franklin, Richard, Elias, and Mahala. At the time of the Battle of Pea Ridge, five of the Cox children were married with four having established homes of their own elsewhere. Seventeen year old Joseph and his wife Lucinda lived with his parents at the Elkhorn Tavern and were present on the day of the battle.
Jesse Cox bought the Tavern and its adjoining land from Samuel Burks in October of 1858. Burks was the son in law of William Reddick, the original owner and builder of what would become the tavern. In the 1830s, Jesse Cox moved his family westward to Doniphan County, Kansas. When Northwest Arkansas opened up to settlement and opportunities along what would become the Telegraph-Wire Road, improved, Jesse established himself and four of his older sons and their families along this route. Jesse Cox operated the Elkhorn Tavern as a post office, trading post, voting center, worship center, and stagecoach stop where travelers and their horses could stop to eat and rest.
The Cox’s owned five slaves who helped them run the tavern and work their land these were described as one older man, two younger men, known as William and Samuel, and two women, for all intents and purposes William and Samuel’s wives, although Arkansas law prevented slaves from being legally married. The older man is said to have carried water from the spring to the Tavern and the two younger men are said to have operated the stables. The two young women would have helped the Cox women tend the gardens, the children and perform other domestic chores. After the Civil War, William and Samuel took on the Cox surname and their families were established on nearby plots of land.
Knowing that trouble was brewing in northwest Arkansas, Jesse Cox moved his cattle and horses to his property in Kansas before the armies clashed around his home on March 7 and 8. March 6, 1862, Federals under the Provost Marshal for Curtis’ Army, Major Eli Weston, were using the Elkhorn Tavern as headquarters. During the Civil War, a Provost Marshall kept order and discipline among the troops, prosecuted and charged soldiers for crimes and kept the peace between the army and civilians.
By March 7, the Tavern was being used as a Federal hospital and Colonel Eugene Carr’s headquarters. Polly Cox, her two youngest sons, and her married son Joseph and his wife Lucinda took refuge in the Tavern cellar during the fighting, where, according to family tradition, they recalled blood seeping through the floorboards of the Tavern from the wounded soldiers being sheltered in the makeshift hospital.
After the Tavern passed from Federal to Confederate control, General Earl Van Dorn used the area around the building as his headquarters and as a hospital.
After the battle, Joseph and Lucinda moved in with her father, Lewis Pratt, owner of Pratt’s Store, which was used as General Curtis’ headquarters before the battle. The Federals allowed the Cox family to take whatever items they could carry from the Tavern when they were forced to leave. Polly Cox and the two youngest children are believed to have gone to Kansas for the remainder of the war to stay with Jesse on their land near Troy.
The Tavern was burnt by Bushwhackers in 1863 but Joseph and Lucinda rebuilt it in 1865. Jesse and Polly Cox remained in Kansas for the rest of their lives and are buried in the cemetery outside the city of Troy. Descendants of Joseph and Lucinda lived in the Tavern until the State of Arkansas bought the property in the 1950s. Elkhorn Tavern was donated to the United States Government in 1956 as part of Pea Ridge National Military Park.
Elkhorn Tavern overlooks a highway of vital importance for Arkansas and Missouri during the Civil War. Union and Confederate leaders both wanted this 20-foot-wide dirt road to move men and supplies. Alongside the road ran 3-year-old telegraph wires, the latest way to send information far and fast.
In the week before battle broke out here, both armies had hurriedly marched southward past this crossroads and tavern. The night before the shooting started, Union troops from Missouri set up a small rearguard outpost here. The soldiers had stockpiled food in the barn and tavern. Provost guards watched a handful of captured Confederates nearby.
In 1858, when the first Butterfield Overland Mail couch stirred up the dust along Telegraph Road while delivering mail to San Francisco, who would have thought that some four years in to the future Union and Confederate artillery wagons would stir the same dust during a bitter Civil War.
The first run of the Butterfield Overland mail departed St. Louis, Missouri on September 18, 1858. The stage coach entered Arkansas sometime after midnight on Saturday September 18, 1858 a few hours later it passed the Elkhorn Tavern on its way to the first official stop at Callahan's Station about 8 miles from here and then on to Fayetteville, Arkansas, which was reached at 11:00 a.m.. Although the Elkhorn Tavern was never an official Butterfield station it is probable that brief stops were made to rest and water the horses. Twenty three days and some 2,800 miles later, the stage coach and mail would arrive in San Francisco, California.
It was the fiery end of the best day of Earl Van Dorn's 20 years as a professional soldier. Bone-tired from the jarring of a week-long ambulance ride and still feverish from pneumonia, the Confederate commander lay down here in the side yard of Elkhorn Tavern amid the wreckage of the day's battle.
Because he now controlled his enemy's sole supply line, General Van Dorn assumed he had the battle of Elkhorn Tavern won. No one yet knew that the rebel wagons bearing food and ammunition for the next day's fight were hopelessly out of reach.