The Battle of Wilson's Creek: The American Civil War

Depiction of Union General Nathaniel Lyon (shown on horseback) being shot while riding in the Battle of Wilson's Creek.
Depiction of Union General Nathaniel Lyon (shown on horseback) being shot while riding in the Battle of Wilson's Creek.

5. Background

One of the most famous battles in American history, the Battle of Wilson's Creek was part of the American Civil War, and was the first major battle to take place in the Trans-Mississippi Theatre. It took place near Springfield, Missouri on August 10th, 1861. Initially, the state of Missouri had declared it would adopt a neutral stance in the American Civil War, and therefore would not deploy any troops or materials to either warring side. On April 20th, 1861, Union concerns were heightened by the capture of Liberty Arsenal by a secessionist mob. On May 10th, the secretly pro-secessionist Governor of Missouri, Claiborne Fox Jackson, covertly obtained weapons and artillery from the Confederacy and smuggled them to a militia camp, where he conducted drills with the Missouri Volunteer Militia (MVM). Union General Nathaniel Lyon was privy to these dealings, and consequently fellow Union General Thomas Sweeney was charged with defending the arsenal while Lyon meanwhile tried to outflank them from the outside inward. Lyon’s forces encircled the militia camp, forcing them to surrender. As the prisoners were paraded through the streets, the activities of another enraged mob led to defensive gunfire and civilians, militia members, and soldiers alike lost their lives.

The following day, the Missouri General Assembly replaced the MVM with the Missouri State Guard (MSG) to protect the state from perceived enemies. The Price-Harney Truce was negotiated on May 12th, 1861 in a bid to foster cooperation between MSG and the US Army. Governor Jackson publicly supported the truce, but secretly deployed Confederate troops to infiltrate Missouri and liberate the state. Missouri loyalists raised complaints that culminated in Lyon’s replacement. This undermined the truce, and later Lyon tried to go on to establish himself as the Confederate Governor-in-exile of Missouri in Arkansas, where he would die of cancer a year and a half later. On June 12th, 1861, at the St. Louis Planters House Hotel, Jackson and Lyon met in a last minute bid to quell rising tensions in the state. Neither of the two sides would give in to the other’s demands, and the meeting ended with Lyon declaring war. Skirmishes, including the Battle of Carthage and the Battle of Boonville, soon followed. By July of 1861, the Missouri State Guard (MSG) had been reinforced and they developed plans to attack Union forces near Springfield. On August 6th, McCulloch’s forces were found camping at nearby Wilson’s Creek, and Price threatened to launch a Confederate attack with or without his support. McCulloch reluctantly agreed to launch the attack on August 10th, but heavy rains on the evening prior to the attack threw a wrench into the works. Outgunned and outnumbered, Lyon planned to launch a surprise attack on the camp and withdraw to Roller for reinforcement and supplies. These counter-events collided to initiate one of the famous battles in history: The Battle of Wilson's Creek.

4. Makeup

The Union Army commanders included Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon and General Franz Sigel. In the service of the Confederates, Brigadier General Ben McCulloch and Major General Sterling Price led the Missouri State Guard. The battle took place between the Federal US Army Department of the West, and the Missouri State Guard, reinforced by the Confederates’ Western First Division Army of Arkansas. The Missouri State Guard army was comprised of divisions consisting of units from the military district of Missouri under the command of McCulloch and Price. The Confederate-backed Missouri State Guard was 12,000 troops strong. Lyon’s Union army was 6,000 men strong, and was comprised by the First and Second Kansas Infantries, the First, Second, Third and Fifth Missouri Infantries, the First Iowa Infantry, as well as several other companies of regular army infantry and cavalry, and three batteries of artillery support.

3. Description

A surprise attack by Lyon’s forces initiated the battle on the morning of August 10th, and they made their way to the crest of a ridge that would later be known as “Bloody Hill”. Their efforts were, however, nipped in the bud by the Pulaski Arkansas Battery, and this gave Price’s infantry time to organize lines on the southern slopes of the hill. Meanwhile, Lyon launched futile counterattacks as Price retaliated with a barrage of flank and frontal attacks, which were equally unsuccessful partly due to diminishing supplies of ammunition. A communication breakdown between the Union command and ground forces indicated their impending doom. Initially, Sigel’s unit sensed victory as they arrived to engage the Confederate flanks soon after dawn, and the Confederate army was thrown into disarray by artillery fire. Sigel launched a pursuit, but he made a monumental mistake as he did not secure the defense of his force on all sides, leaving his left flank exposed. Sigel’s unit withheld their fire until the Confederates were close by, since they confused the Union First Iowa Infantry for the Confederate Third Louisiana, who wore similar, grey uniforms. Sigel’s flank was annihilated and his brigade lost four cannons, forcing them to flee. The battle shifted in the Confederate’s favor with the demise of Sigel’s flank. Lyon’s horse was killed, and he was wounded twice in short order. About 9:30 am, on Bloody hill, Lyon was shot in the heart, becoming the first Union General to be killed in battle. With General Sweeney shot in his lower limb, Major Sturgis assumed the lead position at the helm of a demoralized Union force, which was rapidly running out of supplies. At 11:00 am, Sturgis opted to retreat rather than subject his troops to a fourth Confederate attack.

2. Outcome

The Missouri State Guard had casualties and losses totaling 1,232 troops. 277 of their troops were killed, while at least ten members of the force went missing in action. 945 troops of the Missouri State Guard were wounded as a result of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Two hundred and fifty-eight (258) troops of the Federal Army of the West were killed in the Wilson’s Creek Conflict, while 873 were wounded and 186 Union troops went missing in action.

1. Significance

The formidable Confederate Army won the battle, and the Union forces made a hasty retreat northeast to Rolla. Major General Price wanted to pursue them there, but his colleague McCulloch did not concur with this decision, as he had reservations about the state of his supply lines and the abilities of the Missouri State Guard. On October 30th, 1861, Price and Jackson led Missourians to join the Confederate course. Later on Missouri, and neighboring Kansas, would continue to suffer, due to the guerrilla warfare waged between Confederate “bushwhackers”, such as William Anderson, and local Unionists. Today, the site of the Battle of Wilson's Creek is maintained as a National Battlefield by the US National Park Service. The Ray House, which was constructed in 1852 and served as a Confederate field hospital, has been restored and is open to visitors.


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