Today marks the 148th anniversary of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. During the spring, and summer, of 1861, the Lincoln administration was very concerned with keeping the border states in the Union. These states were slave states that had not seceded from the United States and were part of the upper south. They included Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. Missouri had chosen to not follow her sister slave states out of the Union, but the state had many significant pockets of “secesh.” During this same period Lincoln was working diligently to staff his growing volunteer army with capable general officers. At the start of 1861, there were 1,105 officers in the regular army. Of these, 824 were West Point graduates, the majority of which were lieutenants and captains. From this number, 296 had already resigned from the regular army, most of which had chosen to pursue careers in the private sector or not fight in the war. 184 had resigned to receive commissions in the Confederate Provisional Army. Lincoln was left with left with 754 West Point educated officers to man his rapidly growing army.(i) These officers would fill ranks from lieutenants to major generals. Another consideration, as Lincoln was working to add general officers was political. He needed to keep the Radical Republicans and War Democrats well represented. The War Democrats were very important as most of them would come from the border states. Lastly, Lincoln was concerned with having an ethnic balance in his general officer ranks. German and Irish immigrants topped his list of preferred ethnicities.
Even before the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Lincoln had his hands full in Missouri. It was a sharply divided state that had a Confederate supporting militia – the Missouri State Guard – and extensive guerilla activities occurring throughout the state by Partisan Rangers. To stabilize the St. Louis area, US Brigadier General Nathanial Lyon, with an ethnic blend of local militia, primarily of German descent, marched on Camp Jackson, in St. Louis, on the morning of May 10, 1861. The Confederate militia general, D.M. Frost, facing a vastly larger force surrendered Camp Jackson. Without a space to house the Confederate militia, Lyon determined to parole them, after they took an oath of allegiance to the United States. However, instead of immediately releasing the Southern militia he decided to humiliate them by marching them through the streets of St. Louis. This proved disastrous as Southern supporting civilians had begun throwing rocks, bottles and eventually fired guns into Lyon’s soldiers. Before the melee was over, 28 civilians had been killed and 75 wounded. Four soldiers were also killed.(ii) While a debacle, the capture of Camp Jackson solidified the Federal government’s control on St. Louis the majority of eastern Missouri.
By early July, the majority of the fighting in Missouri had shifted to the southwestern portion of the state. By this time, John C. Fremont had been appointed major general in the regular army, the third highest ranking general in the United States. On July 3, 1861 he was officially appointed to command the Western Department – encompassing all of Illinois and all states west of the Mississippi River. Assigned to his department was Nathanial Lyon and US Colonel Franz Sigel. Sigel represented an important ethnic group for Lincoln. Sigel received his military training in Germany and would fight with the revolutionary forces in Germany, against Prussia, rising to the rank of general. After immigrating to the United States, in the 1840’s, Sigel would relocate to St. Louis and be very involved in the German community. This appealed to Lincoln as he need the support of German Americans.(iii)
In early July, Sigel would push west from Springfield, Missouri, searching for the Confederate army. He would find them north of Carthage. With his 1000 man army camped at Carthage, he would be induced to attack 4,000 Confederates, in battle line, 10 miles north of Carthage, on July 5. Sigel would be guilty of not scouting the terrain well enough, and would be attacked on the flanks, before he would be forced to retire. The first major battle in Missouri, the Battle of Carthage, would end with a Confederate victory.
With Sigel defeated, General Nathanial Lyon would rush towards Springfield, Missouri to keep Sigel from being torn apart. Reunited with Sigel, Lyon found himself at the end of a precarious supply line, that used a railroad from St. Louis to Rolla, and wagons from Rolla to Springfield. While Fremont had still not arrived in St. Louis (he would not arrive until July 25), he issued clear orders to Lyon stating if his army “was not strong enough to maintain his position as far in advance as Springfield, he should fall back toward Rolla until reinforcements should meet him.”(iv) Unfortunately, Lyon would not receive these orders until three days after they were written by which time the strategic situation in southwest Missouri had changed.
Lyon was now facing a significant army of Missouri State Guard, commanded by CSA Major General Sterling Price, and the Confederate Western Army, commanded by CSA Brigadier General Ben McCullough. By August 1, Lyon’s Army of the West would be bivouacked south of Springfield, near the Ray Farm. Southwest of his position was the highest ground in the area. This hill would earn the moniker, Bloody Hill, during the coming battle. Over the coming days, Lyon would receive reports of a growing Confederate presence to his south, and southwest. Captured Rebel soldiers provided intelligence that McCullough’s forces numbered close to 15,000, many of them cavalry that could flank Lyon’s position. Additionally the Missouri State Guard was somewhere to the southwest. With only a light garrison at Springfield, Lyon would call a council of war on August 3. With almost no food to feed his army, and a tenuous supply line, Lyon determined to pull back north to Springfield. William Branson of the 1st Iowa Infantry vividly described the situation, “General Lyon has come to the wise conclusion that it is all foolishness to march his men any further south, as he is killing more men every day marching them through the hot sun than by bullets.”(v) On the morning of August 4, Lyon would relocate his army to Springfield. On August 5, Lyon received bad news from St. Louis. Fremont, finally at his headquarters, had answered previous dispatches from Lyon requesting more troops. There would be none sent. Pulling back to Rolla would be the most prudent choice, but Lyon was determined to push the Confederate forces from Missouri.
The situation on the Confederate side was not much better. Price and McCullough had been openly clashing. After a small skirmish at Dug Springs, on August 2, McCullough began to question the bravery of the troops in Price’s Missouri State Guard. Additionally, he was unsure of Price’s ability to command effectively. On August 4, the relationship nearly ruptured between the two commanders when Price learned that McCullough was considering a retreat to Arkansas. Price would ride to McCullough’s headquarters and issue an ultimatum, “…if you will consent to help us whip Lyon and to repossess Missouri, I will put myself and all my forces under your command, and will obey you as faithfully as the humblest of your men….if you refuse to accept this offer, I will move with the Missourians alone, against Lyon.”(vi) While some of this dialog may be questioned, there is no doubt that there was at least a compromise between the two officers. McCullough would issue orders to move towards Wilson’s Creek and engage the enemy, on August 5. Moving out as planned, Price found the Federal camps abandoned and advised McCullough that the enemy was in full retreat. Over the coming days, the Confederate army would move their camps to the area of Wilson’s Creek – for the primary reason that the creek offered a source of good drinking water. Starting on August 7, he would use his cavalry to determine the Federal position and strength. McCullough determined that he would push after them and strike them in the rear.
On the Federal side, Lyon’s forces back in Springfield, would receive supplies on August 6. This allowed the men to get their fill of food, and rest. With the improved supply line, and his commanders’ desire to not give up southwest Missouri without a fight, Lyon’s confidence began to increase. By this time, the Federal commander also knew that the Confederates had set up camp at Wilson’s Creek. On August 8, Lyon met with his officers for a council of war. He asked them, “Shall we endeavor to retreat without giving the enemy battle beforehand and run the risk of having to fight every inch along our line of retreat? Or shall we attack him in his position and endeavor to hurt him so he cannot follow?”(vii) Lyon, always aggressive, favored the latter option. Sigel offered another option, suggesting that Lyon split his force, with Sigel taking the smaller portion and moving around the Confederate right flank, he would attack them from the south, while Lyon would move and attack them from the north – catching them in a pincer. On the afternoon of August 9, Lyon would call another council of war. Turning the meeting over to Sigel, the German explained his plan for his proposed flank attack. The officers in attendance voiced their concerns immediately, with the biggest concern being that the size of Sigel’s flanking column was too small to be of use. Lyon sustained Sigel and overrode their concerns. They would attack McCullough, hurting him badly enough that he could not pursue them when they pulled back to Rolla. He issued orders for the Federal Army of the West to begin their march at 6:00 p.m. that evening. The plans were now set for the first major battle in the Western Theater.
Sigel began his march on the evening of August 9. Leaving Springfield with Company I 1st U.S. Cavalry, Company C 2d U.S. Dragoons, 3d and 5th Missouri Infantry and Franz Backof’s six gun battery of the Missouri Light Artillery he had an effective strength of 1,200. He would march east of Wilson’s Creek, to a position south of the Confederate camps, before pushing west across the creek and attacking from the south. Lyon would lead his remaining three brigades, with batteries containing ten guns, south from Springfield. He planned to avoid the Wire Road, the route the Confederates would expect an attack from, and push cross country from due north.
At 5:00 a.m. on August 10, Lyon arrived on the north spur of Bloody Hill. Immediately ordering a battery of his guns to fire a volley, it signaled the army to attack. Immediately in their front was James Cawthorn’s Missouri State Guard Cavalry – 1,200 strong. Leading the Federal infantry assault was the 2d Kansas, 1st Missouri, 1st Kansas, 1st Iowa and a battalion of the 1st U.S. Infantry. The Missouri infantry regiment, near the center of the line, would encounter the most resistance from Cawthorn’s cavalry. However, with their lines significantly overlapped, the the Rebel cavalry had no choice but to fall back. Reaching the top of Bloody Hill, and surveying the Rebel camps, Lyon was confident, “In less than an hour they’ll wish they were a thousand miles away.”(vii)
Before dawn, Sterling Price sent his adjutant, Captain Thomas Snead, to McCullough’s headquarters. He wanted additional information on the plans to attack Lyon at Springfield. The Confederates were totally unprepared for what was about to happen. McCullogh, having decided to speak directly to Price, after his conference with Snead, rode the short distance to Price’s headquarters at William Edwards’ farm. Sitting down to have breakfast with Price, they were soon interrupted by John Snyder, from Colonel Rives’ Missouri State Guard cavalry stating that the Federals were “approaching with twenty thousand men and 100 pieces of artillery.”(viii) With heavy skirmishing and artillery fire taking place directly to their north, both Price and McCullough were fooled by a physical anomaly caused by terrain and weather conditions: an acoustic shadow. This acoustic shadow prevented them from hearing the sounds of battle, no more than 3/4 of a mile distant. While not twenty thousand men, Lyon’s 3,900 men were about to surprise Rive’s First Cavalry regiment. Coming over the crest of Bloody Hill, were the 1st Missouri and 1st Kansas Infantry regiments. Additionally Captain James Totten’s six gun battery of Company F, 2d U.S. Artillery quickly unlimbered and joined the infantry in blasting away at Rive’s cavalry. Rive would later describe the incoming fire as, “a tremendous shower of case-shot, grape and minie ball.” Luckily enough for Rive, the Federal aim was not perfect and much of the incoming lead missed its mark. This would give him time to split his cavalry into two columns and escape by each flank. They would not reunite until late in the day, after the battle was over. CSA Lieutenant Colonel A.J. Austin and two privates were were killed in the action that morning.(ix)
Approximate 1/3 of a mile to the east, on another hill, was the Winn house. Having set up his headquarters there, McCullough also had Captain William E. Woodruff’s four gun Pulaski Light Artillery Battery nearby. Woodruff witnessed what was taking place on Bloody Hill, as Cawthorn’s Missouri State Guard Cavalry were rapidly descending the hill. While not too alarmed at this point, as McCullough’s forces doubted the elan of the state militia, that soon changed when he saw Totten’s battery unlimber and start firing into the retreating cavaliers. Quickly unlimbering his four gun section, Woodruff brought them into battery. Spotted by the Federal artillery, on Bloody Hill, they quickly positioned their guns and began firing into Woodruff’s men. Fortunately the Federal fire was high. Woodruff was able to get the range correct and began pouring a fire into Lyon’s forces on Bloody Hill. This would hold the Union forces on the hill, buying much needed time for McCullough’s Confederate Western Army and Price’s Missouri State Guard. It would take Lyon until 6:30 a.m. to bring his brigades into position, by which time Price’s State Guard, bivouacked closest to Bloody Hill, was able to get their lines in some order to accept battle. Simultaneously, McCullough was getting his men in line, on the east side of Wilson’s Creek – just south of the John Ray farmhouse.
As McCullough was organizing his line, US Captain Joseph B. Plummer was pushing his three company battalion, of the 1st U.S. Infantry across Wilson’s Creek. He had been ordered to detach from the main Federal line, by Lyon, and push the Confederate right flank. He would cross the creek just south of John Gibson’s Mill. The Gibson family took cover in their home while Plummer’s Regulars pushed through their property, to the north end of John Ray’s cornfield. Seeing Woodruff’s Pulaski Artillery pounding Lyon’s forces on Bloody Hill, Plummer determined to storm the artillery. McCullough, about this time learned that his forces south of the Missouri State Guard had been attacked from the south. Franz Sigel’s brigade had entered the fight, primarily against Confederate cavalry, at the south end of Joseph Sharp’s cornfield. Pushing them through the cornfield, Sigel’s small brigade was able to cross the Wire Road and approach the camps of McCullough’s regulars – where confusion reigned. Most of the Confederate soldiers were quietly enjoying breakfast and had not heard the firing on Bloody Hill, due to the acoustic shadow.
Farther north, close to the Ray home, CSA Colonel Louis Hebert got his men in order along the Wire Road. His 3d Louisiana Infantry and CSA Colonel Dandridge McRae’s Arkansas Battalion began to push north, up the Wire Road. CSA Colonel James McIntosh’s 2d Arkansas Mounted Rifles, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin T. Embry (McIntosh was at this time acting as McCullough’s adjutant) quickly passed around Hebert and McRae’s infantry and pushed towards the Ray cornfield. The combined Rebel infantry and cavalry passed near the Pulaski Battery, which was under heavy artillery fire from Bloody Hill. Reaching a shallow area near the Ray spring house, they were able to organize their men before pushing up the hill to the cornfield. As they came up the hill, they were surprised to see Plummer’s Regular U.S. Infantry on the other side of a fence, bordering the field. Two companies of Hebert’s 3d Louisiana were able to deploy and push towards the Federals who were also surprised to see so many of the enemy within 15 paces of their position. Both sides gathered on opposite sides of the fence, with many of the U.S. Regulars kneeling for cover. Due to tall weeds, and the fence row, Plummer’s troops were immediately at a disadvantage, “men frequently asked, ‘Where are they?’ ‘What do you see?’”(x) This bought Hebert time to bring his detachment into proper position, from which point they started to fire. Instructed to fire “low,” the musketry took down many Federal soldiers. Because of the length of his line, Hebert’s forces were able to pour an enfilade fire down Plummer’s left flank. Plummer, pacing behind the lines, encouraged his men, “Keep cool, my boys, you are doing well, you are mowing them down.” His enthusiasm had the proper effect and allowed the Regulars to maintain their position while suffering through a hail of lead. Hebert’s right flank, reaching far past the left flank of the Federals, began to swing around, on their left, forming a 90 degree angle. They would suffer miserably during this move, with, “(men) dropping all along the line; it was becoming uncomfortably hot.”(ix) Plummer’s Regulars, by this time, were outnumbered three-to-one. McIntosh, having arrived, ordered a charge. While elements of McRae’s Arkansas Battalion did not receive, or understand the orders, the Federals were overwhelmed by the charge and retreated north, across the cornfield, in an organized fashion. By now, disorganized by their success, the Rebel troops stormed north after the retreating U.S. Regulars. Pausing to reorganize their lines, they threatened to flank Lyon’s main force on the other side of Wilson’s Creek. Seeing the failing position on their left, US Lieutenant John Du Bois brought his battery into action. Posted on Bloody Hill, to support Totten’s Battery, he immediately began raking Hebert’s Confederates while they chased after Plummer’s soldiers. Du Bois who had believed, “the day lost,” would prove instrumental in holding the Rebels in position, allowing the Regulars to escape across the creek. While only a few men became casualties, the heavy artillery fire had a dramatic effect on the men. CSA Sergeant William Watson described the fire as “a storm of shrapnel and grape.”(xii) Hebert immediately ordered a retreat to the woods, south of their position. During the fighting at the Ray cornfield Hebert’s detachment lost about 100 men. Plummer would suffer significantly worse, with 90 casualties – nearly 30% of his original strength.
On the other end of the battlefield, Franz Sigel’s small brigade reached their gathering point, a tall ridge east of Wilson’s Creek, before 5:30 a.m. Hearing Lyon’s artillery fire, from the north, he dressed his lines and prepared to attack. Sigel then ordered the “green” 1st Missouri Light Artillery to fire towards the Confederate camps. Unfortunately, for Sigel, this announced to the opposing forces his presence south of their position. With shells screeching through the tree tops, McCullough’s Confederates prepared for the attack. The following cavalry regiments got into line: 1st Arkansas Mounted Rifles, the 2d Kansas-Texas Cavalry, 1st Arkansas Cavalry, James P. Major’s Missouri State Cavalry and William Brown’s Missouri State Cavalry. CSA Colonel Elkanah Greer’s mixed Kansas-Texas cavalry sported a company, Texas Hunters, that had Colt’s repeating rifles. These guns were highly effective. Captain Thomas Winston, commander of the Texas Hunters, wanted to use the company to anchor the Confederate formation. Unfortunately, it was very difficult for these men to coordinate their lines, under the heavy fire Franz Backof’s Missouri Light Artillery were firing into the camp. The Rebel cavalry panicked, pushing north along the Wire Road towards the ford on Wilson’s Creek. Caught up in their baggage trains, and the Missouri State Guard Cavalry, the 2d South Kansas-Texas Cavalry ended up becoming separated – with one company crossing the creek, while the other two companies pushed north towards Bloody Hill. With the melee that resulted, Sigel’s initial bombardment threw the entire Confederate cavalry into confusion. Some heading towards Bloody Hill while others pushed across the ford of Wilson’s Creek. These units would operate independently, attempting to protect individual batteries, and infantry units, throughout the coming battle.
Seeing the Confederate cavalry reeling, Sigel left four of Backof’s guns on the ridge, overlooking the creek, and pushed his 2d U.S. Dragoons, 1st Cavalry units and the 3d and 5th Missouri Infantry regiments across Wilson’s Creek, to the John Dixon farm. While Backof’s guns continued to pound the enemy, US Captain Eugene Carr dismounted his 1st U.S. Cavalry company, with one men holding four horses, the other men acted in an infantry fashion, firing their carbines into the retreating Confederate forces. Carr would continue to push north, over 1/2 mile from Sigel’s line, and nearly to the Rebel camps. From this position he was shocked to see McCullough’s men reforming in line of battle – in the exact area that Sigel was marching the rest of his brigade. If the opposing sides continued to march in the same direction, the Confederates would fall on Sigel’s left flank. Sigel, stopped at this point, and issued orders for the remainder of Backof’s guns, still on the ridge behind them, to limber up and join the rest of his brigade. Marching north on the Wire Road, Sigel maintained his brigade in column – the most efficient method of moving troops. Unfortunately he was unaware of the potential threat on his left, as he was monitoring the Confederates to his right, along Wilson’s Creek. From 6:30 to 7:00 a.m., Sigel rested his troops. Once the remainder of Backof’s guns reached the field, Sigel resumed offensive operations. Placing them along the Wire Road, Sigel ordered Backof to open on the enemy. The artillery once again unnerved the Rebels as they sheltered in the woods. Pushing his brigade north on the Wire Road, they arrived at the Sharp home. By then, the Confederate cavalry had pushed east across Wilson’s Creek and the field was clear of the enemy. Interestingly enough, the reforming Confederate line that Carr witnessed, north of Sigel’s position, never joined the fray.
While Plummer was being attacked, in Ray’s cornfield, and Sigel was attacking the Confederate southern flank, the situation on Bloody Hill was rapidly developing. General Nathanial Lyon was rapidly trying to position his three brigades where they could take advantage of the terrain, on Bloody Hill, to launch an assault against McCullough and Price. It became a race to see which side could launch an attack first. By 6:30 a.m., Lyon had organized his forces at the top of the hill. On the far left was the 1st Iowa Infantry, on their right were six companies of the 1st Kansas Infantry, Totten’s six gun battery of the 2d U.S. Artillery, the remaining four companies of the 1st Kansas, 1st Missouri Infantry and the 2d Missouri Infantry Battalion. Du Bois had his four gun battery positioned to the rear of Totten and the 2d Kansas Infantry was placed in reserve. Combined, Lyon had roughly 2,800 troops in place. Facing them were the infantry of Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard and Cawthorn’s disorganized mob of militia cavalry. Price was valiantly attempted to get his lines organized.
Lyon would strike first. Sending six companies of the 1st Kansas and the entire 1st Missouri Infantry surging down the hill, he was committing less than half of his force to attack the Missouri State Guard, which numbered nearly 5,000 troops.(xiii) It is not known why Lyon decided to send such a small force, but is can be assumed that he wanted to keep a healthy reserve as he knew the attacking force would be enfiladed by the Pulaski Battery near the Winn house. The 1st Missouri would push ahead first, followed on their left by the six companies of Kansas infantry. Because the Kansans had to maneuver around Totten’s guns, they were slow in organizing their ranks to push down the hill. As they marched towards Price’s battle line, 800 yards distant, they would move on opposite sides of a wooded ravine, separate by perhaps sixty yards. Confederates, after hearing Union officers giving orders, and soldiers coming through the ravine, prepared to meet them. With only a portion of his line complete, and not enough ammunition for all his units, Price was content to wait for their arrival. They did not have to wait long, as the Federal soldiers began to appear between the widely spaced trees, and above the scrub brush that dotted the hillside. Scattered fire from the Missouri State Guard, many of which had not been issued proper muskets (some were using hunting guns), began to play on the Federals. Causing little damage, they pushed on. Once they were in range, however, the entire line of the Missouri State Guard opened fire on them. The musket fire was hot, and heavy. It was estimated that the distance between the opposing lines was between 40–100 yards. Because the woodlot had separated the two Federal regiments, each fought separately. After a short time, Lyon ordered the rest of the 1st Kansas into the fight. White acidic smoke began to cover the battlefield. The commanders in Price’s command ordered their troops to conserve their ammunition, “…save your ammunition; don’t fire without taking steady aim.”(xiv) Over the next thirty minutes the battle would rage. At the crest of Bloody Hill, with Totten’s Battery now having no infantry support after the departure of the Kansans, Lyon ordered up US Captain Frederick Steele’s regular army battalion. This allowed the Federal artillery batteries to keep up a withering fire. One Rebel soldiers last words were, “Scatter, boys, you are making a target for their cannon.”(xv) At that second, incoming artillery rounds be-headed two Confederate soldiers.
With the artillery duel between the Federal artillery, and the Pulaski Battery, Lyon’s forces at the top of Bloody Hill were unable to move. By this time, Henry Guibor’s Missouri Light Artillery (Confederate) had moved to a position on the left flank of the Missouri State Guard. Once in battery, these guns proved very deadly for the 1st Missouri Infantry on the right Federal attacking flank. With additional State Guard troops moving to the Federal right, US Lieutenant Colonel George Andrews’ 1st Missouri Infantry’s position was untenable. They had been flanked. They began a fighting retreat back towards the main line at the top of the hill. Stopping to face the new threat, the 1st Missouri was positioned with its right flank refused, awaiting the Rebel infantry attack. The portion of the line facing Guibor’s Battery continued to take artillery hits – fortunately many of the artillery shells did not explode. Battlefield accounts during this first Confederate counterattack were sketchy. However, it is believed that some of the artillery shells, the 1st Missouri were taking, were coming from Backof’s Federal battery, located in Sharp’s field.
Further to the Federal left, the remainder of the Missouri State Guard began to push towards the 1st Kansas. The fire was intense. Sergeant George W. Hutt, of Atchison’s All Hazard Company (1st Kansas), described the fire, “…a perfect hurricane of bullets. For a few minutes the struggle was terrible and the anxiety was exhibited on all faces.”(xvi) The brave Kansans would remain in their musketry raked position until the 1st Missouri began to retreat. Soon they would follow. Due to the disjointed, uncoordinated Federal attack, by 7:30 a.m. the Federals were back in their original position. Confusion reined, as the 1st Kansas was now facing MSG Colonel Richard Weightman’s State Guard brigade – many of which wore similar blue uniforms as the Kansans. Numbering over 1,000 men, Weightman’s Brigade seriously jeopardized the Federal position. Lyon ordering the 2d Kansas from its reserve position, to support the main line, ordered the 1st Kansas to fix bayonets and charge Weightman’s Brigade. Fewer than 200 soldiers actually pushed back down Bloody Hill, but the unexpected ferocity of the Kansans sent the State Guard troops reeling several hundred yards down the hill. The commander of the 1st Kansas, US Colonel George Deitzler was wounded in the attack and would be carried off the field. This left the lone Kansans separated from the rest of the Federal army, with no commander. Lyon ordered them back to the main line, with the exception being the Leavenworth Light Infantry, commanded by Captain Powell Clayton, which did not hear Lyon’s recall order. In what would be one of the most unusual events of the entire battle, Clayton’s men would dress ranks and continue their push down Bloody Hill. Running into the 5th Missouri (MSG), of Weightman’s Brigade, they believed they were part of Sigel’s attacking column having pushed through the Confederate line. They were wearing gray uniforms similar to Sigel’s men. When the colonel of the 5th Missouri asked Clayton which direction the enemy was, Clayton pointed towards the southwest, at which point the two opposing forces marched off together! Before they had marched thirty yards, Clayton realized he was amongst the enemy. Ordering his men to separate, by a right oblique move, they began to separate from the Rebels. The adjutant of the 5th Missouri (MSG), Captain Michael W. Buster, became suspicious and ordered the men to halt, and identify themselves. Clayton halted his men, and grabbed Buster from his horse, pointing his pistol at his chest and commanding, “Now, sir, God damn you, order your men not to fire on us, or you are a dead man.” Buster, turning to his commander, he said, “There sir, is my colonel.” By then the 5th Missouri (MSG) had wheeled their position and faced Clayton’s Kansans. The Missourians let loose a volley, and Buster was shot at close range by Clayton, but was not seriously injured. Turning quickly to his men, Clayton ordered his men to, “…run for their lives.”(xvii)
By this time, the 2d Kansas had marched over the crest of Bloody Hill. Taking position on the left flank of the 1st Missouri, they fired a nasty volley into the Missouri State Guard. Equipped with old flintlock rifles, that had been converted to percussion, they fired buck-and-ball – essentially a shotgun type of charge. The charge of the 2d Kansas, in conjunction with the 1st Missouri, took all the energy out of the attacking Missouri State Guards. Retreating down the hill, Price would once again set to work organizing his line.
Around 7:15 a.m., CSA General Ben McCullough set off to appraise the situation of Sigel’s attack on the rear of his army. Heading south on the Wire Road, he was able to assess the damage Sigel had done to his cavalry, but he was also able to see that Sigel’s troop placements were defective. Additionally, Backof’s Battery was placed on a rise near the Sharp home, directing their fire on the slope of Bloody Hill. Viewing the terrain surround the battery, McCullough quickly realized that Sigel was vulnerable. Sigel, meanwhile, had started to reposition some of his artillery so the Wire Road was covered. He could also view enemy movement on his left, that he believed pointed to a rout of the Missouri State Guard by Lyon. Sigel was confident of success. He never realized how perilous his position was, separated from Lyon’s forces, with a much larger enemy force between them. He had a cavalry force, but he was not using it to scout the position between himself and Lyon. McCullough was already planning his counterattack against Sigel. On his way back north, towards his headquarters at the Winn house, McCullough came upon two companies of Louisiana troops – the Pelican Rifles and the Iberville Grays. Urging them back across Wilson’s Creek, McCullough inspired the boys, “Come, my brave lads, I have a battery for you to charge and the day is ours.” These were good soldiers and they followed his lead.(xviii) Leading the soldiers across Skegg’s Branch, McCullough’s force of roughly 100 men pushed away Sigel’s skirmishers. Sigel meanwhile had been given faulty intelligence that a dust cloud, coming down the road, was from Lyon’s troops and encouraged him to display the U.S. flag to identify themselves. With all this going on, McCullough was able to organize the two companies at Skegg’s Branch, and additional reinforcements that were brought by Colonel McIntosh, and prepare them to charge Backof’s Battery. Sigel, concerned about firing into his troops, urged his troops to not fire into them as they were approaching down the road. With the 3d and 5th Missouri Infantry (US) advising their troops not to fire into the soldiers on the Wire Road, Sigel dispatch Private Charles Todt to go meet the friendly soldiers. Approaching McCullough’s troops, young Todt quickly realized they were not friendly troops. Raising his musket to McCullough, he was quickly killed. At this, McCullough turned to Captain Vigilini and said, “Captain, take your men up and give them hell.”(xix) The Louisianans and troops from the Missouri State Guard charged out of Skegg’s Branch. They were greeted with intense artillery fire, but besides Backof’s Battery, there were only 250 men of the 3d Missouri to support a line several hundred yards wide. The Confederate forces quickly overwhelmed Sigel’s scant force, with nearly 100 of the Federals becoming casualties. The Yankee troops were caught by surprise and were not ready. They were expecting these troops to be from Lyon’s force, and the gray uniforms caused them to believe they were the 1st Iowa – also wearing gray. The situation for Sigel turned hopeless when Rosser’s Missouri State Guard appeared on the ridge on their left, launching into their flank. Sigel tried valiantly to organize his troops, but many still believed they were facing a friendly regiment. Soon, pandemonium broke out and Sigel’s brigade, roughly three times the size of their attackers, melted away with one thing on their mind – escape. McCullough now controlled his southern line again, and the area around the Sharp house was free of Federals. Still facing a crisis on Bloody Hill, McCullough did not order a pursuit of Sigel. Sigel’s brigade did not stop their retreat until they reached Springfield.
On Bloody Hill, the lull in the fighting lasted until about 9:00 a.m. Lyon made very few adjustments of his line during this time. Plummer’s Regulars arrived to reinforce the lines - minus Plummer as he had been carried from the field, wounded. Lyon now had around 3,500 men to face the entire Confederate Western Army and Price’s Missouri State Guard. With renewed artillery fire from the Confederates, many of the Federal troops were prone, on the ground. It was not long before Lyon’s forces saw the Confederate infantry approaching, and opened fire. A desperate battle would continue for nearly an hour. US Major Samuel Sturgis, commanding Lyon’s First Brigade would later state that the fighting became “almost inconceivably fierce along the entire line.”(xx) With the Rebel forces pushing through a ravine, they appeared within thirty yards of Totten’s Battery, which began to suffer casualties. They would continue a terrific cannonade into the approach Confederates, buying additional time. By this time, Lyon was directing his troops on foot. He would suffer two minor wounds, one to his leg and another grazing shot to his head. He was said to have blood matted in his beard as he continued to direct is troops. In the center of the Union line, the First Iowa became entangled with Kansans pulling back from the heavy fire. With Lyon, now on horseback, commanding from behind the 1st Iowa, several Confederate horsemen appeared in front of their infantry. Lyon believing it was Sterling Price, told his escort, “to draw pistols and follow.”(xxi) Fortunately, his escorts talked him out of putting himself in such a vulnerable position. With Sturgis organizing the 1st Iowa, Lyon brought the 2d Kansas out of line to charge the enemy stating, “Come my brave boys, I will lead you forward.” As they were preparing to charge, a volley of Rebel musketry erupted from the brush. Lyon would be shot through both lungs, and his heart. Falling from his horse, his personal aide, Albert Lehmann would catch him. Lyon’s last words were, “Lehmann, I am going.” Lyon would be the first Federal general officer to die in the Civil War.(xxii) He would be taken to the Ray house where he would be placed on a bed in their front bedroom.
The fighting would continue for some time, as the Federal troops reorganized their ranks. The Confederates would finally pull back, allowing Lyon’s troops to recover their dead and wounded. The Confederates would suffer a significant casualty when Colonel Richard Weightman fell mortally wounded.
Around 8:45 a.m., after nearly four hours of fighting at Bloody Hill, Sterling Price sent a staffer to find McCullough. Finding him near the Sharp farm, he advised the general that the Missouri State Guard was extremely pressed on Bloody Hill, and that the line may collapse without immediate reinforcements. McCullough immediately sent orders for all available units to move to the hill. This included CSA Brigadier General Bart Pearce’s brigade of Arkansas State Troops and Samuel Hyman’s battalion of the 3d Louisiana Infantry. It was McCullough’s desire to put all the available manpower on the last remaining threat – Lyon’s three brigades (now commanded by Major Samuel Sturgis) on the Bloody Hill. “Old Ben” (McCullough) gave a rousing speech to his forces, “You have beaten the enemy’s right and left wings, only their centre is left, and with all of our forces concentrated upon that we will soon make short work of it.”(xxiii) As Piston and Hatcher explain in their book, “Wilson’s Creek,” the work turned out to be anything but short. With orders reaching Colonel Elkanah Greer, to use all his available forces, from the 2d South Kansas-Texas Cavalry, to turn the enemy’s right flank, he immediately set out to work. Only having a portion of his command left, as several companies were separated after Sigel’s initial attack at the Sharp Farm, he trotted north with his battalion. On his way towards his mission, he would meet Colonel DeRosey Carroll and his 1st Arkansas Cavalry, who would join him for the flank movement. Reaching their staging point, and dressing his lines, Greer yelled to his command, “Draw your pistols, men, and charge!” One of his cavaliers, Bugler A.B. Blocker recalled the charge, “With a yell, we went toward the line of blue, like a wind….On we went-pouring lead into the blue line that was standing there 50 yards in front of us, with fixed bayonets, prepared to receive the cavalry. The next moment that blue line was a mass of running, stampeding soldiers trying to get out of the way of that mass of horses and men that were bearing down on them.”(xxiv) While some men probably did retreat, the Federals made a good show of themselves, eventually turning away the cavalry charge. With heavy musketry, and artillery fire from Totten’s Battery, Greer was fortunate to only suffer 24 casualties.
At the same time as Greer’s cavaliers were charging the Federal flank, Price pushed off with his Missouri State Guard. Leading from the front, wearing a white duster and white hat, he was said to look more like a farmer than a commanding general. This second attack, like the first, suffered from moving over uneven terrain, with little ability to attack from a unified front. Price would have several bullets pass through his clothing before he was finally grazed by a bullet in his side. Price commented to an officer near him, “That isn’t fair; if I were as slim as Lyon that fellow would have missed me entirely.” Fortunately for Price, although painful, the wound did not require immediate medical care and he stayed on the field. As before, the State Guard suffered from a shortage of ammunition, forcing them to move closely to Sturgis’ command before discharging their weapons, the result of which has been characterized as a series of jerky forward movements.(xxv) Once again, Price’s largely “green” force was pushed back down the hill.
While Sturgis dealt with his alignment, Price was working to coordinate the largest attack of the day. McCullough had arrived with the reunited 3d Louisiana commanded by Louis Hebert and additional reinforcements came from near Ray’s cornfield: three companies of the 5th Arkansas Infantry, and Colonel John R. Gratiot’s 3d Arkansas. Price had significantly more firepower to make a final charge. Arrayed from left to right were the 3d Arkansas, seven companies of the 5th Arkansas, two regiments of the Missouri State Guard, 1st Arkansas Mounted Rifles, Guibor’s Battery, another Missouri State Guard regiment, the 3d Missouri (MSG), the 5th Missouri (MSG), remnants of Cawthorn’s Cavalry and one one additional Missouri State Guard regiment holding the right flank. Opening with artillery fire, from Guibor’s Battery, the 3d Arkansas started forward. Quickly, they not only ran into fire from the front, but enfilade musketry from their left and Totten’s Battery fire from their right. The men were forced to a prone position to keep from being annihilated. They would suffer 110 casualties in just a few minutes time. At approximate 10:30 a.m., the entire reinforced Confederate line started forward. Approaching Sturgis’ Federal line, the brunt of the attack would be received in the center of the Yankee line. With many of the Federals laying on the ground, they were forced to fire from a prone position. The tall prairie grass, and clouds of white smoke covered the battlefield making it hard for them to see their targets. With artillery support from the Sharp farm, McCullough and Price’s soldiers pushed forward. The musket fire became so intense that one Kansan said, “(it sounded like) hundreds of bunches of firecrackers going off.” After about 45 minutes, Price once again called for his troops to retreat, and reform. On the Federal side, the 2d Kansas had run out of ammunition, and moved to the rear. With the Confederates retreating, Sturgis determined the battle was lost and started to pull troops from his right flank with Du Bois’ Battery and the 2d Missouri following the 2d Kansas to the rear. Seeing the Federal right flank uncovered, Hebert pushed his 3d Louisiana into action. They would be quickly overcome by the quickly dispatched Regular Battalion of Captain Frederick Steele. Sturgis then ordered Totten to limber his artillery and retreat off Bloody Hill, with the 1st Iowa, 1st Kansas, Home Guards and the 13th Illinois quickly following. Totten’s battery horses would be killed, in their retreat. Quickly recognizing that the guns may be lost, Corporal Lorenzo Immell quickly went and cut the traces from the dead horses. With help from Private Nicholas Bouquet, of the Burlington Rifles, a horse was found to pull the caisson to the rear. Immell would receive a painful wound in his shin, from a spent minie ball. Both soldiers would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions to save the caisson, removing any ammunition that could be used in their stranded guns, against them. Steele’s Regulars were acting as the rear guard, on Bloody Hill. Within a few minutes, Confederates were seen pushing towards their exposed position. Racing to the rear, Steele returned with several companies from the 1st Iowa, 1st Missouri and 1st Kansas. Forming his small line, Steele ordered them to fire into the approaching enemy. The blistering fire, from this small group of soldiers, sent the Rebels in a mad dash back down the hill. Steele wasted no time ordering his small defensive unit to the rear once his front was clear of attackers. The retreating Federals reached Springfield around 5:00 p.m. – nearly 24 hours after they left. After finding Bloody Hill had been abandoned, the Confederates did not pursue. The Western Army was “fought out.” Years after the battle, CSA Brigadier General Bart Pearce summed up the feelings of the Confederates, “We watched the retreating enemy through our field-glasses and were glad to see him go.”(xxvi)
Several factors contributed to the Federal defeat at Wilson’s Creek.
- Lyon’s forces were significantly smaller than those he attacked. Military protocol usually demands that an attacking force should be three times the strength of the enemy. In this case, the attacking force was 1/3 the strength of their foe.
- The adoption of Franz Sigel’s flanking plan was a poor decision by Lyon. Even with his commanders (with the exception of Sigel) not supporting this plan, Lyon adopted it. This inevitably discouraged his commanders as Lyon went against the will of his immediate lieutenants making the council of war a mockery.
- Even if perfectly coordinated, from a tactical sense, Sigel’s small attacking force offered little chance of military success. Unfortunately, due to defective placement of his forces, Sigel’s slim chance became impossible – leading to the rout of his command and an early retreat to Springfield.
This author does not agree with other scholars with regards to the impact of Lyon’s death. Lyon at times was overwhelmed trying to command a disintegrating position. He could not manage the actions of the south side of the battlefield. Once he was killed, Major Samuel Sturgis performed very well in overall command (Sturgis would reach the rank of brigadier general in the regular army). He had a better tactical sense of his surroundings and responded well to all exigencies that occurred – especially during the most dangerous portion of the fight – the withdrawal.
Campaign: Wilson’s Creek
Outcome: Confederate victory
Confederate: 12,000 (approximate)
Union: 1,235 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 1,095 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was a significant defeat for the United States. Still reeling from the Federal debacle at Bull Run, three weeks earlier, the country was mortified over the additional loss of life. With the United States having no control in southwest Missouri, the Missouri State Guard, commanded by Sterling Price, would continue to raid Federal outposts, winning a stunning victory at Lexington, Missouri in a battle fought from September 13–20, 1861. Additionally, with little Federal presence outside St. Louis, guerilla raiders became as much of a problem as the Missouri State Guard. While the guerilla warfare would continue through the Civil War, in February 1862, US Major General Samuel Curtis would fight McCullough and Price at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. The battle, also called Elk Horn Tavern, would be a complete Federal success, routing the forces commanded by CSA Major General Earl Van Dorn. Brigadier General Ben McCullough would be killed in the fighting. This would end the Confederate presence in Missouri, until 1864, when Sterling Price once again raided the state.
(i) Work, David, Lincoln’s Political Generals, published by the University of Illinois Press in 2009, Pg. 7.
(ii) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 36.
(iii) Work, David, Lincoln’s Political Generals, published by the University of Illinois Press in 2009, Pg. 21.
(iv) Work, David, Lincoln’s Political Generals, published by the University of Illinois Press in 2009, Pg. 37.
(v) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 144.
(vi) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 147.
(vii) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 199.
(viii) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 202.
(ix) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 203.
(x) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 215.
(xi) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 216.
(xii) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 218.
(xiii) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 337.
(xiv) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 235.
(xv) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 236.
(xvi) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 242.
(xvii) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 244.
(xviii) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 251.
(xix) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 253.
(xx) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 263.
(xxi) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 265.
(xxii) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 268.
(xxiii) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 270.
(xxiv) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 271.
(xxv) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 273.
(xxvi) Piston, William Garrett and Hatcher, Richard W. III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2000, Pg. 286.