American Civil War: Battle of Wilson's Creek

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Battle of Wilson's Creek. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Wilson's Creek - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Wilson's Creek was fought August 10, 1861, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

Confederate

Battle of Wilson's Creek - Background:

As the secession crisis gripped the United States in the winter and spring of 1861, Missouri increasingly found itself caught between the two sides. With the attack on Fort Sumter in April, the state attempted to maintain a neutral stance. Despite this, each side began organizing a military presence in the state. That same month, Southern-leaning Governor Claiborne F. Jackson covertly sent a request to Confederate President Jefferson Davis for heavy artillery with which to attack the Union-held St. Louis Arsenal. This was granted and four guns and 500 rifles secretly arrived on May 9. Met at St. Louis by officials of the Missouri Volunteer Militia, these munitions were transported to the militia's base at Camp Jackson outside the city. Learning of the artillery's arrival, Captain Nathaniel Lyon moved against Camp Jackson the next day with 6,000 Union soldiers.

Compelling the militia's surrender, Lyon marched those militiamen who would not take an oath of allegiance through the streets of St. Louis before paroling them. This action inflamed the local population and several days of rioting ensued. On May 11, the Missouri General Assembly formed the Missouri State Guard to defend the state and appointed Mexican-American War veteran Sterling Price as its major general. Though initially against secession, Price turned to the Southern cause after Lyon's actions at Camp Jackson. Increasingly concerned that the state would join the Confederacy, Brigadier General William Harney, commander of the US Army's Department of the West, concluded the Price-Harney Truce on May 21. This stated that Federal forces would hold St. Louis while state troops would be responsible for maintaining peace elsewhere in Missouri.

Battle of Wilson's Creek - Change of Command:

Harney's actions quickly drew the ire of Missouri's leading Unionists, including Representative Francis P. Blair, who saw it as a surrender to the Southern cause. Reports soon began reaching the city that Union supporters in countryside were being harassed by pro-Southern forces. Learning of the situation, an angry President Abraham Lincoln directed that Harney be removed and replaced with Lyon who was to be promoted to brigadier general. Following the change of command on May 30, the truce effectively ended. Though Lyon met with Jackson and Price on June 11, the latter two were unwilling to submit to Federal authority. In the wake of the meeting, Jackson and Price withdrew to Jefferson City to concentrate Missouri State Guard forces. Pursued by Lyon, they were compelled to cede the state capital and retreated into the southwestern part of the state.

Battle of Wilson's Creek - Fighting Begins:

On July 13, Lyon's 6,000-man Army of the West encamped near Springfield. Consisting of four brigades, it was comprised of troops from Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa as well as contained contingents of US Regular infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Seventy-five miles to the southwest, Price's State Guard soon grew as it was reinforced by Confederate forces led by Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch and Brigadier General N. Bart Pearce's Arkansas militia. This combined force numbered around 12,000 and overall command fell to McCulloch. Moving north, the Confederates sought to attack Lyon's position at Springfield. This plan soon unraveled as the Union army departed the town on August 1. Advancing, Lyon, took the offensive with the goal of surprising the enemy. An initial skirmish at Dug Springs the next day saw Union forces victorious, but Lyon learned that he was badly outnumbered.

Battle of Wilson's Creek - The Union Plan:

Assessing the situation, Lyon made plans to fall back to Rolla, but first decided to mount a spoiling attack on McCulloch, who was encamped at Wilson's Creek, to delay the Confederate pursuit. In planning the strike, one of Lyon's brigade commanders, Colonel Franz Sigel, proposed an audacious pincer movement which called for splitting the already smaller Union force. Agreeing, Lyon directed Sigel to take 1,200 men and swing to the east to strike McCulloch's rear while Lyon attacked from the north. Departing Springfield on the night of August 9, he sought to commence the assault at first light.

Battle of Wilson's Creek - Early Success:

Reaching Wilson's Creek on schedule, Lyon's men deployed before dawn. Advancing with the sun, his troops took McCulloch's cavalry by surprise and drove them from their camps along a ridge which became known as Bloody Hill. Pushing on, the Union advance was soon checked by Pulaski's Arkansas Battery. Intense fire from these guns gave Price's Missourians time to rally and form lines to the south of the hill. Consolidating his position on Bloody Hill, Lyon attempted to restart the advance but with little success. As fighting intensified, each side mounted attacks but failed to gain ground. Like Lyon, Sigel's initial efforts achieved their goal. Scattering Confederate cavalry at Sharp's Farm with artillery, his brigade pushed forward to Skegg's Branch before halting at the stream (Map).

Battle of Wilson's Creek - The Tide Turns:

Having halted, Sigel failed to post skirmishers on his left flank. Recovering from the shock of the Union attack, McCulloch began directing forces against Sigel's position. Striking the Union left, he drove the enemy back. Losing four guns, Sigel's line soon collapsed and his men began retreating from the field. To the north, a bloody stalemate continued between Lyon and Price. As the fighting raged, Lyon was wounded twice and had his horse killed. Around 9:30 AM, Lyon fell dead when he was shot in the heart while leading a charge forward. With his death and the wounding of Brigadier General Thomas Sweeny, command fell to Major Samuel D. Sturgis. At 11:00 AM, having repulsed a third major enemy assault and with ammunition dwindling, Sturgis ordered Union forces to withdraw towards Springfield.

Battle of Wilson's Creek - Aftermath:

In the fighting at Wilson's Creek, Union forces suffered 258 killed, 873 wounded, and 186 missing while the Confederates incurred 277 killed, 945 wounded, and around 10 missing. In the wake of the battle, McCulloch elected not to pursue the retreating enemy as he was concerned about the length of his supply lines and the quality of Price's troops. Instead, he withdrew back into Arkansas while Price embarked on a campaign in northern Missouri. The first major battle in the West, Wilson's Creek was likened to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell's defeat the previous month at the First Battle of Bull Run. During the fall, Union troops effectively drove Price from Missouri. Pursuing him into northern Arkansas, Union forces won a key victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862 which effectively secured Missouri for the North.

Selected Sources