Washington, D.C., buzzed with war fever. Each day eager young would-be soldiers stepped off trains in the U.S. capital, around which a massive Federal army was being organized and trained. Technically, war on the ground had already begun: On June 10, 1861, a 2,500-man Federal force had clashed with 1,200 Confederates at Big Bethel, Virginia. The Union had lost 18 men and the Southerners only one–just the smallest foretaste of the national bloodletting that would begin at Bull Run six weeks later.
President Abraham Lincoln was still receiving reports of the fight the following morning as a small group of men met in the Planter’s House hotel in St. Louis to discuss the fate of Missouri. This key border state’s future had been hanging in the balance for months as uncompromising Unionists led by Captain Nathaniel Lyon and stalwart Republican Frank Blair Jr. struggled to prevent governor and Confederate sympathizer Claiborne Fox Jackson from leading it into the Confederacy. Political maneuvering and threats had already led to military action: On May 10, Lyon’s 7,000-man army of Missouri Home Guards, German volunteers and U.S. Regulars captured a pro-secessionist militia force camped on the city’s outskirts (see ‘Firebrand in a Powder Keg,’ June 2005). The subsequent increase in violence and military preparations on both sides had led to the Planter’s House meeting. Few thought any good would come of it.
The doubters were right. Governor Jackson and Sterling Price, a former Missouri governor now in command of the state militia, offered to cease all military preparations if Lyon would do the same. But Lyon and Blair were unwilling to compromise Federal authority in a bargain with Jackson — a man openly committed to Missouri’s secession. After several fruitless hours, Lyon, a red-bearded 20-year Army veteran with unshakable beliefs and a volcanic temper, rose and declared that due to ‘a failure on the part of the chief executive to comply with constitutional requirements,’ the time for talking had reached an end. Standing before Jackson, Lyon laid his cards on the table. ‘Better, sir, far better,’ he swore, ‘that the blood of every man, woman, and child within the limits of the state should flow, than that she should defy the federal government.’ With these stunning words still hanging in the air, Lyon added: ‘This means war. In an hour one of my officers will call for you and conduct you out of my lines.’
Within hours, Lyon was ready to unleash his small but grandly named Army of the West by rail and river. By moving quickly he hoped to encircle and capture Jackson, Price and whatever forces they could muster. Now a brigadier general of volunteers, Lyon would lead the main attack force — about 2,000 troops — west, securing the Missouri River and the northern part of the state. He planned to link up with Major Samuel D. Sturgis’ 2,300 Kansas volunteers and U.S. Regulars at Clinton as Sturgis moved southeast. Meanwhile, 500 men under Brig. Gen. Franz Sigel would ride the rails southwest toward Rolla, then continue overland to Neosho. With luck, the two wings would squeeze the secessionist forces between them above Springfield, in the state’s southwest corner.
Jackson and Price knew Lyon meant business and rushed back to Jefferson City, ordering key bridges burned and telegraph wires cut. On June 12, after issuing a statement to the press warning of the coming Federal offensive and calling for volunteers, the two raced north to Boonville, one of several key Missouri River towns. There, they expected to gather recruits and to find a small army prepared to at least stall Lyon’s advance. But the hard-charging Union commander was fast on their heels: Steaming out of St. Louis early on June 13, Lyon occupied the capital two days later, and on the afternoon of June 17 a detachment of his men humbled Colonel John S. Marmaduke’s inexperienced State Guards at Boonville, sending the governor and militia leader scrambling south to reorganize.
Everything was progressing smoothly for the Federals. In short order Lyon had secured the northern half of Missouri and sent his foes scurrying into the mouth of a trap. Meanwhile, nattily dressed newspapermen dashed off colorful reports on the progress of Lyon’s lightning campaign to Northern newspapers, which hailed the general as ‘evidently the right man in the right place.’
At Boonville, however, Lyon’s advance stalled, the nagging teeth of attrition nipping at his army. Short on wagons, horses, food and clothing, and also beset by heavy rain and muddied roads, the Federals were stranded until July 3. By the time Lyon’s army, which now included Sturgis’ men, arrived in Springfield 10 days later, a 4,000-man force under Governor Jackson’s personal command had defeated Sigel at Carthage, and the governor and General Price had traveled south to the Arkansas border in search of Confederate help. As for the supposed supply depot of Springfield, it held no relief for Lyon’s hungry and unpaid men, many of whom were dressed in rags. Worse yet, his three-month recruits were beginning to desert the cause in droves.
Lyon sent waves of letters and junior officers to new Department of the West commander Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont in St. Louis in a desperate bid for help. None was forthcoming. ‘Everything seems to combine against me at this point,’ the exasperated general wrote on July 17. In another letter Lyon described what he foresaw if his army was not supported: ‘Loyal citizens will be unprotected, repressed treason will assume alarming boldness, and possible defeat of my troops in battle will peril the continued ascendancy of the Federal power itself, not only in the State, but in the whole West.’
By August 1, Lyon faced a tough decision: retreat and risk pursuit by growing enemy forces, or stage a hit-and-run attack designed to leave his enemy too stunned to pursue him. Desperate to punish the secessionists while he still had the semblance of an army, Lyon chose to go on the offensive. On August 2, his advance guard encountered a body of Southern cavalry at Dug Springs and sent it scurrying. But his exhausted and thirsty men could stand little more, and Lyon returned to Springfield.
Lyon’s struggling army had nearly come to grips with a larger force recently assembled on Missouri’s southern plains. This new Western Army totaled about 12,000 men, including Price’s Missouri militia, Brig. Gen. Ben McCulloch’s Confederate Brigade and Brig. Gen. Nicholas B. ‘Bart’ Pearce’s Arkansas state troops. It was a shaky alliance from the start. After fleeing headlong across Missouri, the 52-year-old Price was eager to turn the tables on his pursuer. But the fiery 50-year-old McCulloch, whose service in Texas’ fight for independence, the Mexican War and with the Texas Rangers had made him a legend in the Southwest, was hesitant to attack.
The truth was, McCulloch thought little of Price’s ragged militia, with their decrepit old fowling pieces, shotguns and hunting rifles–especially on the heels of the Dug Springs debacle. But when he received word of a possible Confederate movement farther into Missouri from New Madrid to the east, the emboldened general decided to strike. In the early hours of August 5, McCulloch’s Western Army set off in search of Lyon’s Federals. A day later blinding heat forced him into camp again, this time on Wilson’s Creek, 10 miles southwest of Springfield. The Southern army remained there until August 9, when McCulloch–pressed by the impatient Price–ordered an attack for the following morning on Springfield, where Lyon’s army was now known to be situated.
But fate and weather would combine to deny McCulloch the initiative. As the Southern soldiers molded bullets and tinkered with their weapons that evening, Lyon’s legions were already lining up to take the offensive. Lyon’s staff had taken heart from the words of fiery, one-armed Captain Thomas Sweeny, who had vowed to ‘eat the last bit of mule flesh and fire the last cartridge before we think of retreating.’ Now, riding slowly up and down his lines on his conspicuous gray charger, Lyon addressed his weary men by company. His words–a straightforward, common-sense reminder of a soldier’s duty–suited his style and personality: ‘Men, we are going to have a fight. We will march out in a short time. Don’t shoot until you get orders. Fire low–don’t aim higher than their knees; wait until they get close; don’t get scared; it is no part of a soldier’s duty to get scared.’
Lyon’s attack plan was risky. While his subordinates all favored taking the fight to the enemy, each had opposed a proposal by Sigel to divide the army and attack from two sides. But Lyon — perhaps hoping that backing Sigel would produce greater results from his adoring German troops, or for a smashing victory to throw in the face of Frémont, who had apparently abandoned him–decided to roll the dice. Lyon’s wing totaled about 4,300 men, most of them infantry, and 10 cannons. Trying to preserve surprise, the general ordered complete silence in the ranks and directed that the wagon wheels be muffled. At about 1 a.m. on August 10, Lyon halted his army within reach of the enemy’s camps. Meanwhile, Sigel’s 1,100-man column managed to swing wide around the Southerners’ right flank and make camp, perched on the enemy’s southernmost doorstep.
As his men tried to sleep, a melancholy Lyon sat alongside Major John Schofield, his chief of staff. Weeks of frustration, worry and anger over his army’s plight had eaten away at his vigor and confidence. ‘I am a believer in presentiments,’ he confessed to his aide, ‘and I have a feeling that I can’t get rid of that I shall not survive this battle.’ After a few minutes’ reflection he admitted, ‘I will gladly give my life for a victory.’
Shortly after 5 a.m., as the smell of boiling coffee and fried green corn wafted out over the Southern camps, the ground to the north began to rumble. A horseman galloped into General Price’s camp, spewing forth a harried report of ‘twenty thousand men and 100 pieces of artillery’ just to the north. McCulloch, who had postponed his own offensive due to the threat of rain and was now breakfasting, was not concerned. He had already dispatched a body of cavalrymen to investigate an earlier such report. But when Federal cannons began booming to the north and south, the generals mounted their horses and galloped off to organize a defense.
By the time Price and McCulloch had put down their breakfasts, the battle was unfolding on two fronts. Resuming the march at about 4 a.m., Lyon’s soldiers had trudged quietly along the western side of Wilson’s Creek, tramping through wet fields and scattering Southern foragers. With Captain Joseph Plummer’s battalion of Regulars on his left, Captain James Totten’s 2nd U.S. Artillery and the 1st Missouri in his front and the 2nd Missouri Battalion on his right, Lyon turned south, where the waterway bent in the same direction. The rolling ground immediately ahead of him rose gradually to a crest long known as Oak Hill, which would soon be rechristened ‘Bloody Hill.’ Covered with thigh-high prairie grass, rough underbrush and trees, it was awful ground for a fight–but it did limit the Southerners’ advantage in numbers, as nearly half the Western Army was mounted and armed accordingly. South of the height the ground sloped downward, intersected by a tributary of the creek (Skegg’s Branch) before rising sharply again to fields owned by local farmer Joseph Sharp. The area’s main thoroughfare, the Wire (or Telegraph) Road, ran southwest diagonally across the battleground, fording the creek southeast of Bloody Hill. The situation of Price’s camps put his men in a position to confront Lyon first.
As he approached the hill, Lyon ordered Plummer’s battalion and a handful of mounted Home Guards to cross the creek to the left and sweep up its eastern bank. He called up the 1st Kansas to replace Totten’s artillery in his center and pressed forward toward Colonel James Cawthorn’s shaky line of 700 dismounted cavalrymen, who had scrambled to slow the Union advance. Lyon sent a portion of his force–Major Peter Osterhaus’ 2nd Missouri (just 150 men), the 1st Iowa, Lieutenant John V. DuBois’ four-gun battery and another battalion of Regulars–sweeping around to the right, from where he planned to deploy them later. The 2nd Kansas formed his reserve. To the southeast Generals Price and McCulloch were just springing into action as Lyon’s infantry and artillery drove Cawthorn’s Missouri troopers from Bloody Hill.
Before Lyon could exploit his advantage, a Southern battery on a rise to the east began dropping shells on his advancing lines. Captain Totten, a hard-boiled Pennsylvanian and an extremely capable artilleryman, quickly swung his six guns around to answer. But the Arkansas men handling Captain William E. Woodruff Jr.’s Pulaski Battery bought desperately needed time for Price, who had by now reached the hill. As the Federal line slowed, Price’s militia units scrambled to respond to his calls for reinforcements. After rallying some of Cawthorn’s troopers near the foot of the hill, the general extended his line to the left with each Missouri unit that arrived, including 650 troops of Brig. Gen. William Y. Slack’s Division under Colonel John T. Hughes; battalions under Colonel John Burbridge and Colonel Joseph Kelly (of Brig. Gen. Mosby Parsons’ Division); and two more regiments under Colonels John Foster and Edmond Wingo (of Brig. Gen. James McBride’s Division). Captain Henry Guibor’s Missouri Light Artillery went into the line between Kelly and Foster. When Colonel Richard H. Weightman arrived with two regiments and plugged them into a gap on the right, Price had the makings of a tough defense.
His drive stalled, Lyon strengthened his line. Totten’s gunners moved forward to split the 1st Kansas, while the Iowans marched over from the right to anchor the left flank. DuBois also rushed his battery to the left rear, supported by Captain Frederick Steele’s Regulars. While Totten and DuBois dueled with their Arkansas counterparts to the east, Lyon’s troops surged through brush and high grass toward Price’s line. But a sheet of lead spat from 2,000 rifles, shotguns and various small arms in the hands of Price’s kneeling and prone militia stopped them cold. The next move was Price’s, and he sent McBride’s state guards circling around to assail Lyon’s right flank, held by Lt. Col. George Andrews’ 1st Missouri and Osterhaus’ 2nd Missouri Battalion. Twice Totten’s quick-firing gunners drove the attackers back into the woods west of Bloody Hill. McBride’s men seized the high ground on their third try, just as Parsons’ Division charged Andrews’ line on its front. Suddenly things looked bleak for the Federals. The tired 1st Missouri fell back toward the crest of Bloody Hill, pursued by infantry and Guibor’s artillery. But before the Southerners could blast into the gaps left by the retreating Missourians, the 2nd Kansas arrived to steel the line.
Meanwhile Plummer had been stopped cold. Hoping to silence Woodruff’s nagging guns, Plummer had led his men across the creek and south into the cornfield of local farmer John Ray. There, the bluecoats ran into the 3rd Louisiana and the 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles, led by McCulloch’s second-in-command, Colonel James McIntosh. After nearly an hour of confused firing McIntosh sent his two regiments howling through the corn, driving the Federals back across the creek. Nineteen Regulars were killed; DuBois’ four cannons firing from Bloody Hill saved the others from the same fate.
As if agreed upon beforehand by the opposing generals, the fighting suddenly stopped around 8:30 a.m. With Price in charge on Bloody Hill and Plummer’s force dealt with, McCulloch scrambled to take on Sigel. Hearing firing from the north at about 5:30 a.m., Sigel had unleashed his artillery on the Southerners’ camps, scattering sleepy-eyed Confederates. With his confidence brimming, the former German army officer had marched his men northwest, stopping briefly to scatter a body of enemy cavalry, until he struck the Wire Road. There, he had placed the 5th and 3rd Missouri regiments, plus four guns of Major Franz Backof’s Missouri Light Artillery, in a defensive position straddling the turnpike, about a half-mile south of the smoke-shrouded lines on Bloody Hill. A company of Regular cavalry guarded each flank. To Sigel, all that appeared to be left for his men to do was to gather up prisoners when Lyon sent them scurrying south.
With several units (the 3rd, 4th and 5th Arkansas State troops, plus the four guns of the Fort Smith Light Battery) of Bart Pearce’s command positioned on high ground covering the confluence of Skegg’s Branch, the Wire Road and Wilson’s Creek, McCulloch quickly rallied several companies of the 3rd Louisiana — which had just returned from its fight with Plummer — and rushed south down the Wire Road. At the last minute two eager regiments of Missouri state infantry and one of artillery attached themselves to McCulloch’s right flank. The Confederates would exploit a blind spot left unattended by Sigel, who often neglected to send out skirmishers or properly scout new ground.
Sigel watched as the troops approached. Outside of the regulation blue uniforms worn by the Regulars, there was little to distinguish the Union men from their enemies, and to him these soldiers looked like Lyon’s Iowans. Private Charles Todt was within a stone’s throw of the approaching line when McCulloch called out for him to identify his unit. ‘Sigel’s regiment,’ he called. The young private apparently realized his predicament just as a Rebel bullet cut him down.
Turning to a Louisiana officer, McCulloch ordered, ‘Captain, take your company up and give them hell.’ With a shout McCulloch’s men charged uphill toward Sigel’s soft center. The sudden attack paralyzed and terrified many of the green Germans, who thought their own men were firing on them. Southern cannons from heights to the east and from now-quiet Bloody Hill dropped iron into their midst. When scores of Missouri and Arkansas troops crashed into Sigel’s distracted left flank, the rout was on. Forgetting their devotion to their leader, the panicked Germans ignored Sigel’s curses and ran for their lives. Within minutes Sigel’s entire force was out of the battle, racing for any roads that led back to Springfield. The beleaguered general–hiding his uniform with a blanket and yellow hat–escaped capture only after Rebel horsemen chased him for six miles.
As Sigel’s wing disintegrated, Price prepared for another lunge at the Federals with reinforcements dispatched by McCulloch and Pearce. After shifting Foster’s regiment to his right, he sent the troopers of Colonel Elkanah Greer’s 2nd Kansas Battalion and Colonel Dandridge McRae’s 2nd Arkansas Battalion to his left. Colonel Thomas Churchill’s 500 dismounted Arkansas cavalrymen and another 100 Louisianans arrived to solidify the middle of Price’s bristling line. The silver-haired general was determined to punch through Lyon’s center.
The Union commander had fewer resources on which to draw, but he moved Steele’s Regulars up to support Totten’s gunners and shifted his lines where necessary. At about 9 a.m. Price’s onslaught began. For an hour heavy firing continued, with one participant reporting,’some of the best blood in the land was being spilled as recklessly as if it were ditch water.’ Impenetrable smoke drifted over the rough terrain, making the confused fighting even more perilous. To the left of the Union center, the 1st Kansas launched a stunning bayonet charge. But the Kansans soon recoiled under heavy pressure and were saved only by the sudden arrival of the charging 1st Iowa, which Lyon hurried into the fray from its position on the far left.
Around this time the sullen and stunned Union commander — on foot after his horse was killed — made his way to the rear of his lines, where concerned officers and aides quickly surrounded him. Blood dripped from gashes in his head and leg. The general remained ignorant of Sigel’s fate, and his spirit, which had been wavering since Boonville, was again flagging. ‘Major, I am afraid the day is lost,’ he mumbled to Schofield. But his aide quickly rallied him. ‘No, General; let us try it again.’
Minutes later, as a remounted Lyon rode along the Union center, he spotted a pair of Confederate officers off to the left. Certain that one was Price, Lyon wheeled and directed his escort to ‘draw pistols and follow.’ An aide talked him out of such a rash action, but when Lyon heard Iowa troops calling for him to lead them, the reenergized general did not hesitate. ‘I am but doing my duty,’ he told worried staff officers. Sending Captain Sweeny to lead the 1st Iowa, Lyon joined Colonel Robert Mitchell at the head of his 2nd Kansas, which he had called over from the right center. Waving his hat, Lyon yelled, ‘Come on, my brave boys, I will lead you forward!’ As the cheering Kansans started forth, fire and smoke exploded in the general’s front. Lyon, his heart punctured by a bullet, fell from his horse into the arms of his aide, Private Thomas Lehmann. ‘Lehmann,’ the general choked, ‘I am going.’ He was dead a moment later.
Savage fighting erupted all around the Federal left center as Price’s grim Missourians toted their weapons uphill. The 2nd Kansas rushed forward, and alongside the Iowans doggedly held their ground. After 20 minutes of back-and-forth probing, the Southerners fell back. Meanwhile, Greer’s Texas horsemen launched a poorly coordinated attack on the Federal right flank, which Totten’s gunners ended in quick fashion.
As Price regrouped for another assault, Federal command passed to Major Sturgis, who would have little time to choose the army’s next move. Although Lyon’s stubborn Army of the West continued to hold its ground, time was against it. The Federal troops were exhausted, thirsty and short on ammunition. The enemy, Sturgis believed, had thousands of untapped reserves, and even now Sigel’s fate remained unknown. Retreat seemed the logical move, but disengaging from an army just yards away would take timing and skill. Sturgis did his best to quickly firm up his lines, moving Andrews’ 1st Missouri (led in the wounded Andrews’ absence by Captain Theodore Yates) and Osterhaus’ battalion to his left flank, and shifting four companies of the 1st Kansas to the right.
The situation on the other side was uglier than Sturgis might have guessed. The Southerners were suffering as much as the Federals were. What Price and McCulloch did have, however, was more men (though not the 20,000 Sturgis believed), and they rushed to round up as many as possible for one last charge. Pearce delivered the 3rd Arkansas, which Price sent to anchor his left, and seven companies of the 5th Arkansas, who took their place a step to the right. Price also ordered the four guns of the Fort Smith Battery into line alongside Guibor’s Battery (the Missouri Light Artillery, now led by Lieutenant William Barlow).
At approximately 10:30 a.m., the strengthened Southern battle line–1,000 yards long and up to three ranks deep–stepped forward. On the left, Colonel John Gratiot’s 3rd Arkansas men strode firmly uphill through entangling brush and weeds–into hot lead and canister fired by Kansas infantrymen and a section of Totten’s Battery under Lieutenant George Sokalski. Off to the right of the incline Price’s militia tangled with their Missouri brethren. A shortage of projectiles hampered the Southern artillery here, allowing DuBois’ four Union guns to rake approaching troops. And in the center, where ‘the incessant roll of musketry was deafening, and the balls fell thick as hailstones,’ Price’s Missourians fought desperately to get at Totten’s four remaining guns, closing to within 20 feet at times. But Steele’s battalion of Regulars, troops from the 1st Iowa and 1st Kansas, and Totten’s gunners held them off. For a solid hour Missourians and Arkansans plugged away at the thinner Union line, but it never wavered.
The Union troops, in fact, seemed to be doing their best fighting of the day. But when the 2nd Kansas reported a near total lack of ammunition, reality set in again. At about 11:45, as Price’s troops again retreated back down Bloody Hill’s southern slope, Sturgis began his withdrawal. The 2nd Kansas pulled out first, followed closely by DuBois’ gunners and the 2nd Missouri from the left. A body of Confederates rushed toward the gap left by the Kansans, but Sturgis sent Steele’s Regulars tramping over to the right to plug the hole. Totten’s tired artillerymen, the 1st Iowa, the 1st Kansas and Missouri’s Home Guards fell back next. Another column of Southern infantry appeared on the left but quickly fled when a patchwork force led by veteran Captain Gordon Granger ambushed them. DuBois’ gunners halted north of the hill to protect the infantry as it passed them, then they joined the long Union column on its march back to Springfield, and then on to Rolla. Somewhere along the dusty road a small band of Sigel’s refugees rode up with news of their defeat hours before.
Wilson’s Creek had witnessed one ‘mighty mean-fowt fight,’ in the words of a Rebel officer. Reflecting on the battle years later, Bart Pearce wrote, ‘it is difficult to measure the vast results had Lyon lived and the battle gone against us.’ The Western Army left 277 men on the field; another 945 had been wounded. Union casualties amounted to 258 killed and 873 wounded. The South held the field, but Lyon’s army had fought well enough to ensure its safe retreat. It almost didn’t matter who had won: Lyon had long since secured the state’s vital waterways and railways for the Union, and Missouri had by now seated a pro-Union legislature. Still, after occupying abandoned Springfield in August, Price marched north without the skeptical McCulloch, seeking to ignite anti-Union sentiment. He even captured an isolated Federal garrison at Lexington. But his army of Missourians–lacking transportation, supplies and the numbers to face a larger Union army finally assembled by the awakened Frémont–rapidly melted away.
Left with just a toehold on Missouri, the secessionists lost even that in early March 1862 after the Union victory at Pea Ridge, Ark. There a sharpshooter’s bullet killed McCulloch, who had been serving along with Price as a wing commander under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn. In December, Claiborne Jackson, the now-deposed governor of Missouri, died of cancer. It fell to Price to try to win the state for the Confederacy. In 1864 he led a massive force of cavalry across the state — only to be driven back to Arkansas once again. Roughly 40,000 young Missourians would fight for the Confederacy, and four years of guerrilla fighting would ravage the state’s countryside. But Missouri remained in the Union.
The first Union general to die in combat, Nathaniel Lyon was hailed across the North as the ‘Savior of Missouri.’ Yet he would soon be forgotten, eclipsed by heroes with longer résumés. (His body, in fact, was forgotten on the battlefield and nearly lost.) His coarse, opinionated manner had made him nearly impossible to like, and his uncompromising stance in St. Louis had alienated many. But until the rise of tough Union commanders like Grant and Sherman a couple of years later, his hard-driving style would be sorely missed in an army filled with too many Sigels and Frémonts. And few could have argued with Samuel Sturgis, who after Lyon’s death remembered him to have been ‘as brave a soldier as ever drew a sword, a man whose honesty of purpose was proverbial, a noble patriot, and one who held his life as nothing when his country demanded it of him.’
This article was written by Eric Ethier and originally published in the December 2005 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.
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