James H. Wiswell Papers

Before the war, James Wiswell lived in Rutland County, Vermont with his parents, James and Catherine, and his three young sisters.1 James was a day laborer and only seventeen years old when he joined the military. He enlisted in Company C, 4th Regiment, US Cavalry. The 4th Regiment was on duty at Fort Washita, Wise, and Kearney, Kansas at the outbreak of the Civil War.2 The regiment then moved to Fort Leavenworth and stayed there between April 17 and May 31, 1861. Wiswell’s company, under the command of General Nathan Lyon, participated in the Battles of Dug Springs and Wilson’s Creek in August 1861.

Wiswell was one of thousands of young men throughout the North and South who enthusiastically joined the army. At the outbreak of the Civil War, there was a standing force of “regular” units in the United States Army. Each state was also given a quota of “volunteer regiments” to be raised for service lasting from three months to three years. These state militias were called into service, but they needed to be Federalized in order to receive pay from the United States government and serve outside of state borders.3 By 1863, many of the state regiments in both armies had served since 1861 and still composed of mostly volunteer soldiers. A regiment’s flag contained the regiment’s number and state affiliation, usually followed by “VOLUNTEER INFANTRY”. Wiswell noted the distinction between volunteer and regular soldiers stating, “There is a great difference between Volunteers and regulars about coolness in Battle the Volunteers go in on a run yelling like indians the regulars take it as cool as they would if they was going to supper, talking and wondering whether they will get coffee at night or not.”.4

Regardless if a soldier was a volunteer or regular, they experienced the same rough lifestyle. Civil War soldiers lived on a sparse diet as Wiswell said his full rations consisted of, “18 oz Flour 20 oz Beef or Bacon 2 Qts Coffee with Sugar 1 Qt Bean or Rice Soup with Soap and Vinegar enough to use,” unfortunately the soldiers were living on only half rations at the time Wiswell wrote to his sister, Naomi, and had marched for days.5 The 4th US Cavalry had little time to rest between drilling and pursuing the enemy as they prepared to engage the Confederates encamped along Wilson Creek on August 10, 1861.

In early August 1861, the combined forces of Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard and Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch’s Army from Arkansas marched north to Springfield, Missouri. The Confederate force prepared to assault Lyon’s army camped in Springfield, on August 9, 1861; however, rain delayed their attack as waterlogged powder cartridges would impede military success. Instead of waiting to be attacked, Lyon marched his men from Springfield and assaulted the Confederate encampment at 5am the following morning.

The Confederate forces were initially caught off guard by Lyon’s assault. Price and McCulloch, however, were able to rally their men and repel the Union advance. Lyon was killed during the battle as he tried to plug a hole in the Union line. Maj. Samuel D. Sturgis replaced him, and soon realized that his men were exhausted and ammunition was low. The remaining Union forces withdrew from the battlefield and evacuated Springfield as they retreated to Rolla, Missouri.

Wiswell described the defeat at Wilson’s Creek stating, “the Battle lasted 6 or 7 hours we were defeated and retired to Springfield that night and retreated from there towards St Louis. We are now near the RR about 120 miles from there. Out of 50 in our Co that went into the fight 40 was killed and wounded.”6

While the defeat at Wilson’s Creek was initially demoralizing for the soldiers who participated in the battle, it ultimately drew national attention to the vulnerable position of Missouri. Thus, the Union government poured additional resources into the war effort to secure the state for the Union.

The Wiswell collection is small, but contains valuable documents related to early engagements of the Civil War. Included in the collection are: a six page letter and a period newspaper clipping, depicting the Battle of Wilson’s Creek with a map and troop movement annotations drawn by Wiswell.

Contributed by the Pearce Museum at Navarro College

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  1. 1860 United States Federal Census; Census Place: Castleton, Rutland, Vermont; Roll: M653_1326; Page: 63; Image: 131; Family History Library Film: 805326.
  2. “4th Regiment of the US Calvry, Regular Army,” National Parks Service Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Systems, http://www.itd.nps.gov/cwss/regiments.cfm
  3. John Heiser, National Park Service, Gettysburg National Military Park, September 2000, http://www.nps.gov/archive/gett/getttour/armorg.htm.
  4. James H. Wiswell Letter to Naomi Wiswell. Aug. 9, 1861. Wiswell (James H.) Papers, 1861, 1996.062, Pearce Civil War Collection, Navarro College, Corsicana.
  5. James H. Wiswell Letter to Naomi Wiswell. Aug. 9, 1861. Wiswell (James H.) Papers, 1861, 1996.062, Pearce Civil War Collection, Navarro College, Corsicana.
  6. James H. Wiswell Letter to Naomi Wiswell. Aug. 9, 1861. Wiswell (James H.) Papers, 1861, 1996.062, Pearce Civil War Collection, Navarro College, Corsicana.