Battle of Wilson’s Creek
“Don’t Yield an Inch” by Andy Thomas
In early August 1861, two armies prepared to fight the second major battle of the Civil War, a battle that would largely determine the fate of Missouri.
The North’s situation was desperate. Union General Nathaniel Lyon had concentrated 7,000 United States Regulars, volunteers from Missouri, Kansas and Iowa and local Home Guards in and around Springfield, about ten miles from Wilson’s Creek. Many of Lyon’s volunteers were nearing the end of the enlistments, however, and although Lyon begged his superiors for more troops and supplies, his pleas were denied.
To oppose Lyon, troops from the Confederate states west of the Mississippi, along with Arkansas State forces, had come to Missouri to reinforce General Sterling Price’s pro-secessionist Missouri State Guard. All three forces were united in a temporary coalition under the overall command of Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch. They outnumbered Lyon’s army two-to-one. Approaching Springfield cautiously, the Southerners halted and went into camp on both sides of Wilson’s Creek. The location along the Wire or Telegraph Road, the main highway leading to Lyon and Springfield, made it an ideal camping ground, with abundant water, grass, and crops for men and horses.
Confederate General McCulloch planned an attack on Springfield, while General Lyon planned a surprise attack on the Southerners. Lyon’s strategy was to cripple his enemy, allowing him to retreat safely to the railhead at Rolla, more than 100 miles northeast of Springfield.
On August 9, an early evening shower cancelled McCulloch’s march on Springfield, as many of his men carried their paper cartridge ammunition in cloth bags or clothing pockets. In the meantime, Lyon’s army left Springfield in two columns. The first, consisting of about 4,200 men, was under Lyon’s personal command, the other, about 1,200 men, was led by Colonel Franz Sigel. According to Lyon’s battle plan, they would attack the enemy camp from two directions.
The Federals advanced on the sleeping Southern camp just before dawn on August 10. Because the Southern sentries were withdrawn the night before in anticipation of the march on Springfield, and not replaced, the Southern army had little advance warning of the Federal attack.
The battle began about 5 a.m. when Lyon’s troops encountered a small force of Missouri State Guard cavalrymen on a ridge near the E.B. Short farm, and forced them to retreat. At the same time, Colonel Sigel positioned his artillery overlooking the Southern cavalry encamped in Joseph Sharp’s fields.
Lyon, who had already divided his outnumbered force, now detached Captain Joseph Plummer and his battalion of 300 U.S. Regulars to ford Wilson’s Creek and secure the Federal left flank. The 1st Kansans and 1st Missouri regiments continued to drive south toward a height that would become known as Bloody Hill. A Missouri State Guard cavalry brigade made a brief stand, but was outflanked and forced to retreat.
When the sounds of battle reached Sigel, he opened a bombardment that drove the Southerners away in a panic. Sigel began a triumphant advance, moving off the ridge and across Wilson’s Creek.
About 6 a.m., as Lyon’s 1st Kansas and 1st Missouri crested Bloody Hill, they were slowed by fire from the Pulaski Arkansas Battery. Captain James Totten’s Union battery opened fire in return. Alerted to the danger, McCulloch ordered Price’s State Guard to meet Lyon’s onslaught. The Missourians began moving from their camps into line of battle and their first units pressed cautiously up Bloody Hill. After a brief encounter they retreated, yet they had seized the initiative from Lyon, who went on the defensive thereafter.
While moving through farmer John Ray’s cornfield, Captain Plummer saw that the fire from the Pulaski Battery was slowing the Union advance on Bloody Hill. He advanced toward the battery. At the same time, McCulloch ordered Colonel James McIntosh to lead a force of about 1,100 men, consisting of the 3rd Louisiana and the 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles, against Plummer. They engaged each other at 7:30 amid the stalks of corn. After a brief but intense firefight, the Southerners charged into the cornfield. Plummer retreated, but Union artillery fire from Bloody Hill dispersed his pursuers.
Meanwhile, Sigel’s column crossed Terrell Creek. When Southern cavalrymen attempted to rally, Sigel deployed in Sharp’s Cornfield and opened fire. For a second time his bombardment drove his foes away. Sigel then continued his advance to the Joseph Sharp farm buildings.
About 7:30 a.m., General James McBride’s Missouri State Guard division launched an attack on Lyon’s right flank without success, only adding to the blood already spilled on Bloody Hill.
At the Sharp farm, Sigel’s men moved into position blocking the Wire Road, but his troops were poorly deployed. McCulloch gathered the 3rd Louisiana and some Missourians and Arkansans troops in low ground Sigel could not view. Believing that friendly troops were approaching his position, Sigel cautioned his men to hold their fire. Supported by two artillery batteries, McCulloch’s men surged forward and launched a devastating attack that overwhelmed Sigel and set the Union brigade to flight.
By 9 a.m., with most of his State Guardsmen finally in position, Price began a second assault up Bloody Hill, nearly breaking the center of the Union line. While repositioning his troops, Lyon was struck in the chest by a bullet and died almost immediately. He was the first Union general killed in combat during the Civil War, and the first general officer of the United States Army killed in combat since the War of 1812. Command of the Union Army passed to Major Samuel Sturgis.
In the only cavalry charge of the battle, part of Colonel Elkanah Greer’s Texas cavalry regiment launched an attack on the Union right and rear, diverting Federal attention and allowing Price to disengage his troops. The Southerners retired down the hill to regroup.
The field grew quiet as Price brought up reinforcements from McCulloch’s Confederate brigade and the Arkansas State Troops. Now the moans and cries of the hundreds of wounded and dying could be heard.
The quest for Bloody Hill renewed about 10:30, when Price began his third and largest assault on Bloody Hill. At least 3,000 Missourians and Arkansans moved against Sturgis and the Federals. Despite their best efforts, the third Southern attack failed.
As the Southerners fell back from Bloody Hill once again, Sturgis assessed his position. With heavy casualties, supplies of ammunition almost exhausted, and no word from Sigel, Sturgis ordered his tired men to retreat. By 11:30, the Union army moved off Bloody Hill and the battle was over. The Southerners, disorganized, low on ammunition, and with many dead and wounded, decided not to pursue. In the words of Arkansas General Nicholas Pearce, “We watched the retreating enemy through our field glasses, and were glad to see him go.”
Wilson’s Creek was s small battle by later war standards, but a large one for 1861. Lyon’s army lost nearly a quarter of its strength here, while 12% of the Southern army became casualties. More than 535 dead and 2,000 wounded or missing soldiers littered the field. Many civilians in the area, like the John Ray family, had their homes turned into field hospitals, and helped treat the wounded and bury the dead.
The Union Army withdrew back to Springfield, then, the next morning, began to retreat to Rolla. The same day, the Southerners occupied Springfield and began to move their wounded from the battlefield into town.
Wilson’s Creek was a tactical victory for the Southerners. But following the battle, Generals Price and McCulloch could not agree about their next course of action. McCulloch wanted to hold Springfield, while Price wanted to push north to the Missouri River. Their fragile coalition army broke apart, and the Southerners were not able to effectively follow up their advantage. McCulloch returned to Arkansas, while Price and his Missourians marched north and scored another victory by capturing a Federal garrison at Lexington, Missouri on September 20. Within a few weeks, however, Price and his army returned to southwest Missouri, and ended the year quartered in Springfield.
The death of General Lyon and the defeats at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington convinced Union authorities that Missouri had to be secured before they could advance down the Mississippi River. In February 1862, a new Union army under General Samuel Curtis moved southwest from Rolla, captured Springfield, and drove Price into northwest Arkansas. On March 7-8, 1862, Curtis met Earl Van Dorn, Price and McCulloch at the Battle of Pea Ridge and won a decisive Union victory.
Although plagued by civil strife and guerrilla warfare, Missouri remained under Union control for the remainder of the conflict.