Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

Location: Republic, Missouri

Webpage: National Park

General Description: The Civil War got an early start in Missouri and Kansas with violence breaking out between pro-slavery and abolitionists raids on both sides of the state line following the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowing each territory to decide for themselves whether to seek statehood as a slave or free state.  The state of Missouri was truly divided over the issue, even though it was a slave state due to the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the state legislature in Missouri voted narrowly to stay in the Union, but to remain neutral sending no men or supplies to either side.  This did not satisfy Governor Jackson who called out the Missouri State Guard to “drill” on the edge of St. Louis in Lindell Grove in May, 1861.  He also smuggled in Confederate artillery to what became known as Camp Jackson.  Union Captain Nathaniel Lyon was concerned that this force intended to move on the St Louis Arsenal, so on May 10, 1861 he surrounded Camp Jackson forcing the surrender of the militia.  A day later, the Missouri General Assembly created the Missouri State Guard to theoretically defend the state from any perceived enemies, but immediately made plans to attack Union forces.  Governor Jackson appointed Major General Sterling Price to command the State Guard.  After failed attempts at peace between Lyon and Jackson, formal conflict began between the two sides, each made up of primarily Missouri forces.  Lyon sent forces to capture Springfield, driving the State Guard and Governor Jackson from the state capital.  After skirmishes including Battle of Boonville on June 17 and Battle of Carthage on July 5, Lyon had secured his command of 6000 troops in Springfield.  By the end of July, the Missouri State Guard was camped 75 miles southwest of Springfield at Wilson’s Creek and had been reinforced by Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch and the Arkansas state militia under Brigadier General Bart Pierce bringing their numbers to 12,000.  This force now outnumber the Union forces in Springfield by 2 to 1 and Lyon knew he needed to withdraw to Rolla where they could board trains back to St Louis.  However, General Franz Sigel convinced Lyon that a surprise attack on the Confederates could delay them and allow for a much easier withdrawal to Rolla.  As it happened the Confederates also had decided to attack Springfield on the same day and broke camp on August 9, 1861.  However, a late afternoon storm caused them to return to camp rather than risking their powder.  For some reason they failed to reestablish their pickets so the Union forces were able to advance without detection.  According to their plan, General Lyon split their forces to execute a pincer movement.  At dawn on August 10, 1861, General Lyon overran the surprised outlying Confederate forces and obtained the high ground on what became known as “Bloody Hill”.  However, the Confederate artillery of Pulaski Arkansas battery soon stalled the advance down the hill.  At the same time, General Sigel led his force around to the rear of the Confederates and at dawn surprised the encamped Confederates with an artillery barrage at Sharp’s farm, initially routing them as they scrambled from their beds.  Sigel advanced into the camp and stopped along Skegg’s Branch to control any Confederate retreat on Wire Road.  However, he mistook Confederate troops believing them to be Lyon’s Iowa Brigade who were also dressed in gray uniforms until they were within point blank range.  Being badly outnumbered Sigel was quickly routed and his troops were scattered for the rest of the day.  Without Sigel’s soldiers, Lyons found himself to be outnumbered by over 3-1 and Bloody Hill became a defensive battle.  Over the next 5 hours the Confederates attempted to drive him off the hill in three separate attempts, each time being driven back.  General Lyon led the counterattack to repel the third attempt and was killed for his efforts. General Lyon was the first Union General to die in the Civil War and briefly was a national hero for his sacrifice.  General Sweeney had also been wounded, so command fell to Major Sturgis.  After repelling the third attack, he ordered his remaining outnumbered forces to withdraw leaving the Confederates the field.  Being short of ammunition, the Confederates did not pursue and the Union was able to retreat all the way to Rolla unopposed.  So although the Confederates won the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, they managed to achieve the objective of being able to get out of Springfield and withdraw to St Louis, but at a huge cost.  The Union lost over 1300 soldiers, nearly 25% of their force, while the Confederates lost over 1200, just under 10% of their force.  This defeat led to an attempt by General Price to secure Missouri for the Confederacy with taking of Lexington in September.  However, this success was short lived as the Union army reformed and in 1862 began to drive the Confederates out of Missouri.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) The Visitor Center is an excellent place to began the exploration of the Wilson’s Creek battlefield.  They have an excellent set of exhibits about the battle, which includes a lighted diagram of the battle.  There is also an excellent video about the battle.  In combination, you get a very good understanding of the battle that took place on August 10, 1861.

VisitorCenter

2) We also purchased the CD for the auto tour of the battlefield, which gave a lot of additional information about the battle and the principal participants.  The auto tour begins at Gibson’s Mill which is the northern end of the Confederate camp.  This is the location where General Rains of the Missouri State Guard was attacked and driven quickly south when General Lyons attacked at dawn.  There is a nice trail along Wilson’s Creek to the site of Gibson’s Mill.

3) The next stop is at the Ray House and Cornfield.  For the battle, the Ray House was used as a field Hospital for the Confederates.  General Lyon’s body was brought here after the battle before being taken back for burial as a national hero.  The only major fighting on this side of Wilson’s Creek occurred in the cornfield at Ray’s house where Union forces attempted to take out Pulaski’s Arkansas Battery that was raking the Union soldiers on Bloody Hill.  The attempt failed and the Union forces were forced back across the creek.

RayHouse

4) The next stop had a short walk up to an overlook of the battlefield, which is not very useful since trees block nearly the entire view.  In the other direction is a trail that goes down to the location of Pulaski’s Arkansas Battery.

5)  While Sigel’s first position behind the Confederate lines is not part of the driving tour (there is a trail however), the next stop is the second position in Sharp’s stubblefield which was essentially the southern end of the Confederate camp.

Battlefield1

6) The next stop is where Sigel moved to protect the Wire Road and keep the Confederates from retreating.  It was along the position that he was surprised by the Confederates who he allowed to advance to point blank range before routing Sigel.

7) The next stop is at the left end of the Confederate line at the base of Bloody Hill where Guibor’s Battery was located.

8)  The next stop is the center of Bloody Hill where most of the fighting occurred.  Here 4,200 Union soldiers held the high ground against three attacks over a five hour period.  There is a 3/4 mile hiking trail with multiple interpretive signs about Union battery positions along the hill and ends at the site where General Lyon was killed.  There is also a small sinkhole where 30 Union soldiers were initially buried by the Confederates following the battle.

9) The final stop is another overlook from the north end of the battlefield where the first shots of the battle occurred where Lyon quickly overcame Southern resistance on their advance to Bloody Hill.  At 11 am the Union troops fought a small delaying action near the stop to cover their retreat to Springfield.