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The Battle of Wilson's Creek

   

DUG SPRINGS AND CURRAN POST OFFICE

While Lyon struggled in Springfield, Price renewed his efforts to convince McCulloch to reenter Missouri and advance with his 7,000 men against the federal host. Meeting with the Texan at Maysville, Price managed to convince the reluctant McCulloch to join forces with him against Lyon but only after he agreed to leave behind the 2,000 unarmed Missourians in Price's ranks. Price quickly returned to Cowskin Prairie and on July 25 marched toward Cassville, where they linked with McCulloch's brigade of Confederates on July 29 and a brigade of Arkansas State Troops (under N. Bart Pearce, a West Point graduate) two days later. Three forces together, the 12,700-man column (3,400 of whom were mounted) moved northward on the Wire Road (the main thoroughfare between Springfield and northwestern Arkansas, named for the telegraph lines that ran along it) toward Springfield. Despite Price's agreement with McCulloch, the unarmed State Guardsmen and a legion of camp followers trudged along, a day's march behind the main column.

UNION CAVALRY CHARGE AT DUG SPRINGS. (NPS)

Undeniably the plan was risky, yet Lyon believed in an aggressive offense and thought that by moving he could at least keep his dissonant troops from leaving the ranks.

In Springfield, spies and scouts informed Lyon of the concentration of southern troops at Cassville (including those from Arkansas) and that they were marching northward toward him. Believing inaccurately that three columns were moving to link somewhere south of Springfield and that once joined they would number some thirty thousand strong, Lyon sought to strike the main column before the three forces converged. He would then turn on the others and defeat each in turn. Undeniably, the plan was risky, yet Lyon believed in an aggressive offense and thought that by moving he could at least keep his dissonant troops from leaving the ranks. Haggard and suffering from weight loss and exhaustion, on August 1 Lyon ordered his troops from their cantonments that stretched as far from town as Pond Springs, thirteen miles west of Springfield. He moved cautiously southwestward along the Wire Road, less than ten miles the first day, both because he had learned from his cavalry that Jackson's force was within eighteen miles of Springfield and from the oppressive heat, which reached as high as 110°. Lyon's troops suffered badly, with little water available.

On August 2, the advance guard of the federal column encountered a sizable force of mounted State Guard under Brigadier General James S. Rains just southwest of Dug Springs, an oblong valley through which ran the Wire Road. A skirmish ensued, and the Missourians were quickly routed (causing McCulloch to dub the whole affair "Rains's Scare") and fled southward in panic to the main encampment on Crane Creek. The following morning, Lyon moved forward less than three miles before encountering a small secessionist patrol at Curran Post Office, scattering it with a few artillery rounds and capturing its camp. For the rest of the day, Lyon reconnoitered the area but was unable to learn the whereabouts of the main southern column. Fearing that enemy cavalry would cut his column off from Springfield, Lyon withdrew, completing the twenty-six-mile march late on August 5.


(click on image for a PDF version)
THE ARMIES MOVE TO WILSONS CREEK
In June 1861, Lyon begins a campaign to trap Price's Missouri State Guard. He leaves St. Louis, captures Jefferson City, and defeats State Guard forces at Boonville on June 17. Sigel arrives in Springfield on June 24. After State Guardsmen under Governor Claiborne Jackson and General James Rains leave Boonville and Lexington and unite, Sigel faces them at Carthage on July 5. The federals are forced to withdraw and the State Guard reaches Cowskin Prairie. Lyon marches from Boonville to Clinton and joins a column led by Major Samuel Sturgis. Lyon, Sturgis, and Sigel meet in Springfield on July 13. By the end of July, Price moves his force to Cassville and combines with General Ben McCulloch's Confederates and General Nicholas Pearce's Arkansas troops. The southern army moves toward Springfield. Lyon collides with them at Dug Springs on August 2, then retires back into town. The southerners go into camp along Wilson's Creek and prepare to attack Springfield, while Lyon plans a strike on the enemy encampment.

Now nominally commanding the three southern forces (though his relationship with Price was quickly deteriorating), McCulloch dubbed the collective troops the "Western Army" and pursued Lyon northward along the Wire Road, hoping to give battle before his troops reached Springfield. Unable to catch up, on August 6 the southern troops encamped on Wilson Creek (as it was then called), a small tributary of the James River some ten miles southwest of Springfield, where cornfields, fresh water, plenty of forage, and good camping ground offered the troops comfort in the withering heat. Indeed, just a few days earlier, Lyon had stopped his troops at the same spot on the first night of his foray from Springfield. By nightfall the Western Army's tents and makeshift shelters stretched for approximately two miles down the shallow valley on either side of Wilson Creek. McCulloch used the camp as a base from which he probed northward, often personally, hoping to learn the strength and position of the federal troops. Price was exasperated, and just after daybreak on August 9, he confronted McCulloch about the delay, demanding an immediate attack, The Texan reluctantly agreed, issuing orders for his soldiers to be ready to march on Springfield that night, to converge on the city in four columns in a daylight attack the following morning. When storm clouds moved into the area and rain began, McCulloch recognized that many of his force lacked leather cartridge boxes and, with a real fear of wet powder, postponed the advance. The decision was fateful.

JOHN T. HUGHES WAS A VETERAN OF THE MEXICAN WAR AND COLONEL OF THE FIRST INFANTRY REGIMENT, FOURTH DIVISION, MISSOURI STATE GUARD AT WILSON'S CREEK. (GS)
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