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Civil War Series

The Battle of Wilson's Creek

   

THE GRAND STEEPLE CHASE

Jackson's despondent troops trudged southward, joining with troops under Price from near Lexington while leaving behind an undetermined number of recruits from northern Missouri who had been unable to reach Boonville before Lyon's preemptive strike. After pausing briefly at Warsaw (where Jackson sent Price southward to assist other emissaries in the enlistment of aid from Arkansas Confederates and to recruit in southern Missouri), the State Guard forces converged near Lamar. A number of trailing recruit companies and hundreds of individuals joined them throughout the march, as the column of nearly six thousand—a third of whom were unarmed—quickly moved southward through steady rains that impeded their progress.

The weather actually proved a blessing for it delayed Lyon's pursuit even more than it did the governor's forces. Lyon remained at Boonville for nearly two weeks to gather supplies, horses, and wagons for his campaign which, because of his hasty departure from St. Louis and his choice of a river expedition, he lacked. With just seventeen hundred troops and an entire river to garrison, Lyon was in need of reinforcements from St. Louis and Kansas. He also was hampered by the quartermaster at St. Louis, who confiscated most of the wagons and mules procured for his expedition, forcing Lyon to gather what makeshift transportation he could from around Boonville. By the time he ordered his troops out of camp, he contended with flooded rather than merely rising rivers, as Jackson's men had faced in the past few days.

COMPANY H OF MCRAE'S THIRD ARKANSAS PHOTOGRAPHED AT ARKADELPHIA IN JUNE 1861. (GS)

At Lamar, former Missouri senator David Rice Atchison joined the governor's staff as principal aide, boosting the troops'—and the governor's—morale, and Jackson used the time to organize his command more thoroughly. Striking out at daybreak on July 5 (two days after Lyon left Boonville), Jackson's State Guard columns were approaching Carthage when they encountered the southwest force of Lyon's expedition under Sigel, the Third and Fifth Regiments of Missouri Volunteers and Backof's eight-gun artillery battery, totalling some eleven hundred men. After a sharp fight, the armed contingent of State Guard troops—who alone outnumbered Sigel's men four to one—nearly surrounded the federals before the latter retired in good order from the field. Jackson's Guard pushed on toward Neosho and the next day met up with Sterling Price, who had convinced the commander of Confederates in northern Arkansas, Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, to enter southwest Missouri and advance against Sigel. The three men determined that Jackson and Atchison could now best serve their state by diplomacy, rather than direct leadership. After assisting Price in encamping the state troops at Cowskin Prairie, in McDonald County, the governor, a small cadre of aides, and the former senator left the state on July 12, traveling south through Arkansas's Boston Mountains toward Little Rock. On the morning of July 19, the Arkansas governor, Henry Rector, received the two men at the state capital, and that evening, though weary, Jackson addressed an enthusiastic audience. Next morning, he and Atchison pushed on toward Memphis, convincing the Confederate commander there, General Leonidas Polk, to send troops into southeast Missouri. Jackson and Atchison then left Memphis by train for Richmond, Virginia, the new Confederate capital, to solicit Confederate intervention in Missouri.

AUGUST 1861 ILLUSTRATION OF THE BATTLE OF CARTHAGE, MISSOURI. (HARPER'S WEEKLY)

On July 22, the same day that Jackson reached Memphis, the Missouri state convention met again in emergency session in Jefferson City. The commitment to conciliation that had pervaded the initial convention was not so evident in this subsequent meeting; the atmosphere was fractious and contentious nearly from the outset. Unionists quickly sought to declare vacant the "expatriated" executive branch, which had committed treason for defying federal forces, and moved to fill those state offices now open, including those in the General Assembly. With some opposition, the seventy-five-member convention voted to amend the state constitution so as to replace the exiled state officials and abrogated the Military Act that the legislature had recently passed under duress. The convention then seated Hamilton R. Gamble as provisional governor, Willard P. Hall as lieutenant governor, and Mordecai Oliver as secretary of state—all staunch Unionists. This administration would maintain steadfast support for the federal government for the duration of the war, In practical terms, Claiborne P. Jackson was little more than Missouri's "Governor in the saddle."

Had Lyon's campaign ended at this point, it would have been viewed as an unquestioned success. With lightning speed, he had captured the state capital and chased the secessionist governor and many of his conspiratorial legislators from their seat of power, effectively eliminating any chance of their further promoting the state's secession. With scant losses, he then dispersed a sizable force of the State Guard, the primary threat to federal authority in Missouri, and blocked a large contingent of future recruits from reaching the main body of prosouthern forces. Moreover, from a military standpoint, the movement of Lyon's wing of the campaign had alone accomplished all that was strategically necessary to secure Missouri. By occupying the Missouri River line, Lyon controlled most of the state's population, agriculture, industry, and wealth, as well as the transportation lifeline of Missouri (both river and rail) that would allow the federal troops to concentrate superior forces quickly at any point between St. Louis and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, both fortified and in federal hands. His southwestern campaign, regardless of the outcome at Carthage, had secured the rail line to Rolla, thus giving federals control of virtually the entire rail network in Missouri. Lyon's campaign had already provided the federal government all it needed strategically to keep Missouri in the Union.

GOVERNOR HAMILTON R. GAMBLE (NPS)

MAJOR GENERAL JOHN C. FRÉMONT (BL)

Whether Lyon recognized the strategic importance of his coup is not known. Despite his successes and the national praise be had received, Lyon was not yet satisfied. Believing he had been "too mild" with Missouri's secessionists, he intended now to "deal summarily" with the governor's fleeing forces. As a newspaper correspondent covering the Missouri campaign wrote, Lyon denounced the treason of the state's secessionists and "asserted with vehemence that no punishment was too great for that crime." At all costs, and above and beyond any strategic consideration, Lyon was determined to inflict requisite punishment on secessionists for their crime against the nation. Lyon was no longer directing a military campaign; he was now leading a punitive crusade.

As Lyon prepared to pursue Jackson's militia southward, controversy over the events in Missouri swirled well outside the state's borders. A phalanx of moderate Missouri politicos lobbied the Lincoln administration to name a new commander of the Department of the West. Though the Blairs exerted similar pressure to allow Lyon to continue as acting commander, Army general in chief Winfield Scott had reservations about his rash actions. Fearing Lyon's removal, the Blairs convinced the War Department to name John C. Frémont, a close personal friend of the Blair family, as department commander. They were confident that Frémont would sustain not only Lyon but radical Unionist leadership in Missouri. The close call also convinced Frank Blair to relinquish command of a brigade in Lyon's Army of the West and assume his congressional seat in Washington, where he could better protect Lyon's flank.

Having arranged for the transfer of the First and Second Kansas Volunteers as well as cavalry (totaling some 2,200 men) under command of Major Samuel D. Sturgis, a West Pointer and Mexican War veteran, and buoyed by the arrival of the First Iowa, Lyon's column of 2,354 set out from Boonville on July 3. Slowed by mud and continued rains, the troops did not reach Clinton, on the Grand River, until early in the afternoon on July 7, where they met Sturgis's force. The river was a torrent, and the crossing took more than a day, during which Lyon learned of Sigel's withdrawal at Carthage. Lyon force-marched the combined force, now totaling some 4,500 troops, toward the Osage, twenty-five miles distant. They slowly crossed the swollen Osage on July 10, losing men and horses to drowning and abandoning their tents and other equipage. The rains now had subsided, and the heat became ferocious. Lyon pushed his troops relentlessly, with only hardtack for provisions. Despite their commander's constant vigilance, hundreds straggled, hopelessly fatigued and many suffering heat stroke. His exhausted troops arrived outside Springfield on July 13, having learned that the State Guard had moved on to Cowskin Prairie, in the extreme southwestern corner of the state.

BRIGADIER GENERAL BEN MCCULLOCH (GS)

A VIEW OF SPRINGFIELD, MISSOURI, FROM THE SEPTEMBER 1861 ISSUE OF HARPER'S WEEKLY. (HARPER'S WEEKLY)

As Lyon's column drove on toward Springfield, McCulloch—a former Texas Ranger, Mexican War veteran, and at that time the only man holding the rank of general in the Confederate army who lacked a West Point education—entered Missouri. Though he had received orders from the Confederate War Department cautioning against entering the neutral state except under the most dire circumstances, and despite his skepticism of the untrained and unarmed State Guard, McCulloch sent mounted troops into the state as far as Neosho, capturing one of Sigel's detachments. News of the governor's victory at Carthage sent the Texan with his troops hastily back into Arkansas while Jackson and Price encamped at Cowskin Prairie, where State Guard enlistees continued to swell the militia's ranks. Price undertook personal training of his men and detailed many to the nearby Granby mines, an abundant source of lead. The once-rabble slowly began to resemble an army.

Meanwhile, Lyon occupied Springfield, with two thousand inhabitants the largest town in the Ozark region. Lyon had envisioned the town as an ending point of his campaign, a place for jubilant respite after the destruction of the Stare Guard, Now, he found himself compelled to hold a predominantly Unionist city against a much larger force. With Sigel's troops from Carthage and Sweeny's arrival with 1,500 troops from St. Louis, Lyon had an effective force of 5,868 along with three full artillery batteries of eighteen pieces. Yet supplies were woefully short and those that Sweeny arranged for had not arrived; the nearest railhead was in Rolla, more than a hundred miles distant over rough terrain. The troops needed shoes and clothing after the hard march from Boonville, and most had not been paid since their enlistment. Particularly distressing was that the ninety-day enlistments of nearly half of his volunteers would soon expire. Having experienced the harshness and deprivations of campaigning, many of the dispirited Home Guards—who had enlisted to protect St. Louis, not to swelter in the Ozarks—now would not reenlist for three years of government service. Others declared openly that they wanted "a fight or a discharge." In a thirty-six-hour span, Lyon sent most of two Reserve Corps regiments back to St. Louis to be mustered out as well as receiving an order recalling his regulars under Sweeny. Realizing he faced a potential crisis, Lyon flooded the telegraph wires with requests for reinforcements from Frémont, who would soon arrive in St. Louis. "See Frémont, if he has arrived," he wrote desperately to an aide in St. Louis. "Everything seems to combine against me at this point. Stir up Blair."

CAPTAIN THOMAS W. SWEENY (KANSAS STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

No assistance was forthcoming. Arriving on July 25, Frémont was overwhelmed by the enormity of his new position. Threatened with an imminent invasion of Missouri's Bootheel (which Governor Jackson had helped to organize) and the potential loss of Cairo, Illinois, and even St. Louis, the celebrated "Pathfinder of the West" saw Lyon's force primarily as a defense to prevent Price's State Guard and Confederates in northwestern Arkansas from advancing toward St. Louis to act in concert with Gideon J. Pillow's "Army of Liberation," now occupying New Madrid. Frémont was convinced that Lyon had enough troops to repel an attack, and if not, he should withdraw to Rolla, claiming that if Lyon should fight in the Ozarks, he would do so "only on his own responsibility."

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