Battle of Wilson’s Creek

In early August 1861, two armies prepared to fight the second major battle of the Civil War, a battle that would largely determine the fate of Missouri.

Union General Nathaniel Lyon had concentrated 7,000 troops in and around Springfield, about ten miles from Wilson’s Creek. To oppose Lyon, troops from the Confederate states west of the Mississippi, along with Arkansas State forces, had come to Missouri to reinforce General Sterling Price’s pro-secessionist Missouri State Guard. They outnumbered Lyon’s army two-to-one. Approaching Springfield, the Southerners halted and went into camp on both sides of Wilson’s Creek.

Confederate General Benjamin McCulloch, the overall Southern commander, planned an attack on Springfield, while General Lyon planned a surprise attack on the Southerners. Lyon’s strategy was to cripple his enemy, allowing him to retreat safely to the railhead at Rolla.

On August 9, an early evening shower cancelled McCulloch’s march on Springfield. In the meantime, Lyon’s army left Springfield in two columns, one under his command, the other led by Colonel Franz Sigel, to attack the enemy camp from two directions.

The battle began at 5 a.m. on August 10. Lyon’s troops encountered a small force of Missouri State Guard cavalrymen and forced them to retreat. At the same time, Colonel Sigel positioned his guns overlooking Southern cavalry encamped in farmer Joseph Sharp’s fields.

Lyon soon divided his forces again, ordering Captain Joseph Plummer and his battalion of U.S. Regulars to ford Wilson’s Creek and secure the Federal left flank. The remainder of Lyon’s force continued to drive south toward a height later christened “Bloody Hill.”

When the sounds of battle reached Sigel, he opened a bombardment that drove the Southerners at the Sharp Farm away in a panic. Sigel began a triumphant advance.

At 6 a.m., as Lyon’s troops crested Bloody Hill, they were slowed by fire from the Pulaski Arkansas Battery. Alerted to the danger, McCulloch ordered Price’s State Guard to meet Lyon’s onslaught. The Missourians began moving from their camps and pressed cautiously up Bloody Hill. The Southerners seized the initiative from Lyon, who went on the defensive thereafter.

On the east side of Wilson’s Creek, as Captain Plummer moved through farmer John Ray’s cornfield, he noticed that the fire from the Pulaski Battery was slowing the Union advance on Bloody Hill. He advanced toward the battery. At the same time, McCulloch ordered Colonel James McIntosh to lead a force against Plummer. They engaged each other at 7:30, and after a brief but intense firefight, Plummer retreated.

At the Sharp farm, Sigel’s men went into position around the Sharp House, but his troops were poorly deployed. McCulloch gathered the 3rd Louisiana and some Missourians and Arkansans troops, and supported by two artillery batteries, launched a surprise attack that overwhelmed Sigel and set the Union brigade to flight.

On Bloody Hill, General James McBride’s Missouri State Guard division launched an attack on Lyon’s right flank about 7:30 a.m., without success, only adding to the blood already spilled there.

About 9 a.m., Price began a second assault up Bloody Hill, nearly breaking the center of the Union line. Lyon was mortally wounded while repositioning his troops, becoming the first Union general to be killed in combat during the Civil War. Command of the Union “Army of the West” passed to Major Samuel Sturgis. After about an hour of combat, Price disengaged his troops, and the Southerners retired down the hill to regroup.

The quest for Bloody Hill renewed about 10:30, when Price began his third and largest assault on Bloody Hill. Despite their best efforts, the third Southern attack failed.

As the Southerners fell back from Bloody Hill once again, Sturgis assessed his position. With heavy casualties, supplies of ammunition almost exhausted, and no word from Sigel, Sturgis ordered his men to retreat. By 11:30, the battle was over. The Southerners, disorganized and low on ammunition, decided not to pursue.

Wilson’s Creek was s small battle by later war standards, but a large one for 1861. Lyon’s army lost nearly a quarter of its strength here, while 12% of the Southern army became casualties. More than 535 dead and 2,000 wounded or missing soldiers littered the field.

Wilson’s Creek was a tactical victory for the Southerners, but thanks to later dissention between McCulloch and Price, they did not follow up their advantage. This set the stage for greater Federal military activity in Missouri and the decisive Union victory at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March 1862. Although plagued by guerrilla warfare and internal strife, Missouri remained under Union control for the remainder of the conflict.

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