The Battle of Wilson’s Creek or Oak Hills in southwestern Greene County on August 10, 1861, is Missouri’s best-known Civil War engagement. Southern forces, consisting of an independent Missouri State Guard army allied with Arkansas state troops and Confederate units, prevailed over a smaller Union force of US Regular troops, midwestern volunteers, native whites, and ethnic German Missourians. An estimated 17,500 men fought in the bloody confrontation that became the war’s second significant battle, following the first Battle of Bull Run in Virginia on July 21.
Events leading to the battlefield began on June 11, 1861, in St. Louis at a meeting in the Planters’ House hotel between Missouri secessionist leaders Claiborne Fox Jackson, the state’s governor, and General Sterling Price, the commander of the Missouri State Guard, and a federal delegation including General Nathaniel Lyon, the commander of US forces in Missouri, and Frank Blair, the powerful politician-turned-soldier and President Lincoln’s man in St. Louis. The conference followed a turbulent springtime during which secessionists had seized the federal arsenal at Liberty, Price and US General William S. Harney had arranged a truce resulting in the latter’s loss of command, and Lyon had captured the state militia’s Camp Jackson, with subsequent civilian deaths and rioting in St. Louis. By the June meeting, the issues were long-standing and both sides were intractable. When Lyon broke off discussion and delivered an ultimatum threatening war, the secessionist representatives returned to Jefferson City, burning the Osage River railroad bridge on their way as they prepared to take up arms against the United States.
Lyon and Blair planned to occupy the state’s strategic river towns and railheads and to crush the gathering secessionists or drive them from the state. They took a mixed force of Regulars and volunteer soldiers aboard transports and steamed 145 miles up the Missouri River to Jefferson City. Simultaneously, two infantry regiments and two artillery batteries of German volunteers under Colonel Franz Sigel proceeded to Rolla via train and secured the railhead of the South West Branch of the Pacific Railroad. Sigel was to continue along the state road to Springfield and intercept secessionist forces fleeing Lyon’s operations in the Missouri River heartland. Indeed, when Lyon routed Governor Jackson’s forces at Boonville, the enemy headed straight for Confederate help. But Sigel failed in his part of the pincer operation, marching to Neosho without finding the enemy, then heading toward Carthage, where he blundered into Jackson’s southbound army. Sigel’s outnumbered men were nearly enveloped during a day-long retreat. Sigel’s forces escaped but failed to keep the secessionists from reaching Cowskin Prairie, only a few miles from Confederate Arkansas and Indian Territory.
Lyon had assembled 5,800 officers and men at Springfield, but he lost tactical advantage. For their part, Missouri leaders had gathered about 10,000 men under Price and recovered their nerve. The state was still officially part of the Union, however, making cooperation with Confederate forces awkward. Furthermore, the Confederate commander, General Benjamin McCulloch, and his Arkansas counterpart, General Nicholas Bartlett Pearce, were unimpressed with the Missouri secessionist army, which was still a disorganized, beggarly mob bereft of experienced leaders, organization, discipline, supplies, arms, and ammunition. McCulloch underestimated the men, and, most unfortunately for Missouri’s pro-Southern forces, he and Price developed a mutual antipathy to one another. Missouri political envoys to the Confederate capital in Richmond fared no better, further alienating Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, who had not trusted Price or Jackson since the truce with Union commander Harney. The personal antagonisms compromised military efficiency.
McCulloch agreed with Price that the best option was to beat Lyon in Missouri, but disagreed on method and command. The generals quarreled for a month before agreeing at the end of July to advance their combined forces, an estimated 13,500 men, with McCulloch commanding Price’s Missourians, Pearce’s Arkansas state troops, and his own Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas Confederates. They could not agree on a name—the “Army of the West” or “Western Army” has become the preferred designation for this unusual combination of Confederate and state troops.
Underscoring the political ambiguity in Missouri, Lyon’s federal force also was known as the “Army of the West.” Volunteers from Missouri, Iowa, and Kansas made up the ranks, but with a professional core of US Regular Army infantrymen and artillerists led by West Point–trained officers (later generals) Samuel Sturgis, John M. Schofield, Frederick Steele, and James Totten. The volunteers were still inexperienced and their regimental leaders not much better than their rebel counterparts, but Lyon’s forces were better organized and armed, and were willing to fight. However, Lyon’s army was outnumbered by at least three to one, and the enlistments of many volunteers were about to expire. The soldiers remained on constant alert and responded to alarms from all quarters. Two hundred miles from St. Louis and one hundred from the Rolla railhead, Lyon’s army had reached the end of its logistical tether. Only a trickle of supplies reached Springfield. The men lived on half and quarter rations, and there were severe shortages of wagons, supplies, and tents. But the army did get a new department commander, John C. Frémont.
Frémont, the son-in-law of Missouri’s former US senator Thomas Hart Benton, “Pathfinder” of the Rocky Mountain West, and the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate in 1856, seemed the perfect man for Missouri. President Lincoln commissioned him a major general and gave him a free hand, but Frémont did not reach St. Louis until July 25. Once there, he demonstrated little concern for Lyon. Instead, visitors to headquarters noticed maps of the Mississippi River valley, not southwestern Missouri, covering the Pathfinder’s desk. In his defense, his command was chaotic, and, following the Union defeat at Bull Run, he would get no help from the US War Department. Frémont’s first concern was rightly Union control of the mouth of the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois, threatened by Arkansas and Tennessee Confederates and Missouri State Guard organizations in southeastern Missouri. However, he overestimated the threat, sending his meager reserves down the Mississippi rather than to Springfield.
After an extraordinary six-week campaign, Lyon ran out of momentum. Unsupported and with the enemy moving toward Springfield, his only choices were retreating to Rolla or staying to be starved out, assaulted, and captured. His West Point subordinates counseled retreat, but shared Lyon’s desire to strike a blow and reluctance to abandon southwest Missouri Unionists. Lyon determined to cripple the enemy before withdrawing, a risky but not unreasonable decision if the Union army remained compact and moved quickly. Lyon might have withdrawn on August 2 after routing James S. Rains’s advancing Missouri cavalry at Dug Spring, but he decided on one last attempt. He erred seriously by letting himself be talked into a revised battle plan by Franz Sigel in which Sigel’s brigade (two German regiments, an artillery battery, a company of Regular cavalry, and a company of US Dragoons) would march around the enemy’s rear to strike from behind. The ill-advised scheme reduced Lyon’s already outnumbered main force.
With their own supplies dwindling, Southern forces also had to move quickly to destroy Lyon’s army. After a bitter dispute between McCulloch and Price over Rains’s rout, the combined army moved north on the road toward Springfield, with Price’s men leading the advance. The Southerners might have struck first had it not been for a light rain on August 9 that threatened unprotected ammunition in the soldiers’ pockets and led to an overnight bivouac along a stream called Wilson Creek. The next morning as the men were getting breakfast, Lyon’s main force of 4,200 federals attacked from the north, setting wagons and tents afire with artillery shells and throwing Price’s men into chaos. Initially, the Union assault was a stunning surprise. Sigel’s operation also began well. Undetected, he brought his 1,200-man brigade and artillery to a position in McCulloch’s rear. He shelled the enemy out of their camps, but then lost control of his troops and let an unidentified force in gray believed to be Union (blue uniforms were not yet the Northern standard) advance unchallenged within firing distance. The mystery troops, Louisiana soldiers sent by McCulloch, unleashed a devastating volley and drove Sigel’s brigade from the field, killing or capturing a large number. Sigel’s brigade played no further part in the battle and its commander abandoned his troops. Sigel was among the first to return to Springfield—accompanied by a single orderly.
Lyon never knew what became of Sigel. Meanwhile, the enemy had recovered from its surprise, as Louisiana and Arkansas troops pushed back Lyon’s eastern flank. Price gradually formed a fighting line with his infantry divisions blocking the main Union advance on a hill overlooking the camps in the Wilson Creek valley. Known afterward as Bloody Hill, the low, brush-covered eminence became the focus of the battle. Lyon formed a line on its brow with the Missouri, Iowa, and Kansas volunteers, backed them with his artillery, and forced the enemy to come to him. Price’s men obliged whenever an officer rallied enough men to launch a charge uphill into the brush and the muzzles of enemy rifles. It wasn’t quite hand-to-hand fighting, but the combat was within shotgun range (a common Missouri weapon at the time), which was close and deadly enough. Price pushed more and more men toward the Union forces as the day wore on. Once finished with Sigel, McCulloch sent his Confederates to join Price’s Missourians.
Price and McCulloch ultimately brought forces about three times the number of Lyon’s into battle, launching increasingly violent general assaults on the Union line before being driven back. Both sides gained and lost ground, but the rebels threatened to swamp Lyon’s army. Lyon’s men fought well, but there were terrible casualties among his infantry, and ammunition was running low. James Totten’s Regular Army artillerymen saved the Union army from utter destruction, raking enemy assaults with canister, breaking up rebel concentrations, and repulsing enemy cavalry threatening the Union right flank. Price and Lyon even spotted one another, and Lyon may have rashly considered personal combat before committing his last reserve, a Kansas infantry regiment. Masked in blood from earlier wounds, Lyon led the Kansans in a countercharge until a bullet through the heart killed him. It was not yet noon; combat had been in progress for nearly five hours in brutal heat.
Federal command devolved on Major Samuel Sturgis, who reorganized the line and repulsed yet another ferocious Southern onslaught. He ordered the inevitable withdrawal during the next lull in the fighting, surprising some soldiers who did not consider themselves beaten. The Union army withdrew to Springfield in good order, taking up most of their wounded, although Lyon’s corpse was left behind in the confusion. It was the Southerners’ turn to be surprised when they advanced through the brush to the top of Bloody Hill again, only to find the enemy’s positions abandoned. Many soldiers probably would have agreed with General Pearce’s comment when he said of the enemy, “We watched the retreating enemy through our field-glasses, and were glad to see him go.”
Measured by the percentage of casualties, the battle at Wilson Creek (“Wilson’s” was adopted later) was one of the costliest of the Civil War. The Southerners held the field in victory, but about one in ten were killed or wounded. The men in the Missouri divisions suffered the worst losses. General Price himself was slightly wounded. Arkansans and Confederates contributed another tithe (almost 500 out of 5,000 men in the two brigades) to the casualties. The Missouri State Guard’s shaky organization reeled from casualties among its officers, including one of its most promising, Colonel Richard Weightman, who died from earlier wounds as the battle ended. Medical arrangements were virtually nonexistent, and large numbers of wounded in both armies remained untended on the battlefield while bodies were yet unburied. Petty disputes broke out among the victors over captured equipment and battle honors. McCulloch still held the military capacity of Price and his Missourians in contempt. He should have known better by then, but McCulloch had valid concerns about his authority in Missouri and his tenuous supply situation. Missourians understandably wanted to capitalize on the victory by marching immediately to reclaim the pro-secession heartland in the center of the state, but McCulloch declined and marched his Confederates back to his base. General Pearce took the Arkansans home. There was no pursuit of the retreating foe.
The Union forces abandoned Springfield the day after the battle. Followed by a horde of Unionist refugees, the army moved slowly toward Rolla, fortunate that the Southerners were in no condition to harass them. Nearly one in four men in the Union army engaged at Wilson’s Creek had been wounded or lay dead on the battlefield with Lyon, whose body was brought to Springfield, where relatives from Connecticut retrieved it. Among the ranks, the First Kansas and First Missouri infantry regiments lost over a quarter of their number, putting them in the company of Union regiments with the greatest single-battle losses during the entire war. Like their Southern counterparts, Union officers suffered grievously. Sigel’s brigade suffered fewer dead and wounded, but 130 men were prisoners of war in Confederate hands. The worst wounded remained in temporary hospitals at Springfield, while those able to travel endured evacuation in army wagons. Sigel led the withdrawal despite his brigade’s disgrace, but he relinquished command to Major Sturgis after a revolt by Regular officers who blamed Sigel for the defeat and for mismanaging the retreat. However, the volunteers credited the enemy’s courage and imagined the demoralizing effect of having successive assaults go to ground in front of the Union line. One Iowa soldier believed there was plenty of blame to go around among officers that failed soldiers who “…fought well enough, but couldn’t get anywhere. Their high officers were no good; they were like ours.”
As the second significant battle of the war and the first west of the Mississippi, Wilson’s Creek garnered considerable attention in national newspapers. By the time the federal army reached safety at Rolla a week later, the Northern press was trying to portray defeat as victory, and in the lamented Lyon had found one of the North’s earliest war heroes. However, federal strategy in Missouri was in shambles, and General Frémont did not seem to recognize the enthusiasm that the victory generated among secessionists in the state. The ruin of Frémont’s reputation began in St. Louis with his failure to support Lyon and consolidate his gains, which counted more against him than his subordinate’s refusal to retreat. Much of the blame for Wilson’s Creek attached to Frémont, but he was already building on Lyon’s successes by fortifying St. Louis, reinforcing railheads at Rolla and Pilot Knob, and concentrating other forces around Cairo, Illinois, and on the Mississippi shore in Missouri. Because his attention remained directed to the Mississippi valley, where the Confederacy blocked access to the Gulf, all of western Missouri was open to Price’s Missourians, and before the leaves turned, they surged northward to Lexington on the Missouri River in what would be the high tide of the Missouri State Guard.
The Southern victory at Wilson’s Creek was not decisive. There were two more terrific battles near Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1862. In regular Confederate units and what remained of the Missouri State Guard, many veterans of Wilson’s Creek fought in Southern armies at Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, but with less success. Soldiers from both sides visited the already storied Wilson’s Creek battlefield during those campaigns. The battle is mentioned frequently in personal histories and biographies of survivors, many of whom returned for reunions in 1883 and 1897. The battle remained large in Missouri’s memory of the war into the twentieth century. Following a public fund-raising campaign, the Wilson’s Creek Battlefield Foundation purchased Bloody Hill for preservation in 1951. The state of Missouri acquired most of the remaining battlefield and transferred the property to the National Park Service in 1961. The Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield is considered one of the most pristine of Civil War battle sites.
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Published September 16, 2018; Last updated March 13, 2020
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