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Civil War Series

The Battle of Wilson's Creek

   

LYON DECIDES TO ATTACK

As the southern leaders determined their course of action, circumstances forced Lyon's hand. Word reached him that Frémont would send no reinforcements and that he had personally led troops to Cairo. Facing a force he believed was as much as five times his own, and with troops leaving every day, all signs pointed to an immediate retreat to Rolla, especially after Lyon learned of McCulloch's advance to Wilson Creek. When scouts reported that they were clashing often with rebel horsemen on Grand Prairie, just west of town, Lyon recognized that he might well have to evacuate Springfield or face being surrounded. The arrival of a wagon train with provisions, bringing the troops clothing, shoes, and full rations for the first time in three weeks, brightened spirits, but Lyon remained morose. Schofield, now Lyon's chief of staff, recalled that a "morbid sensitiveness" to the inevitable disaster that would befall the residents of the region if the army were forced to retreat swept his normally determined commander. An exhausted Lyon had lost the mental energy that had characterized his entire career. He planned a night attack for the early hours of August 7, confessing that "my only hope of success is in a surprise," only to cancel the advance after "he had a premonition that a night attack would prove disastrous." Only after Sweeny's passionate speech at a late night council of war in favor of remaining did Lyon's spirit revive.

ARMED WITH HUNTING RIFLES, SHOTGUNS, AND OLD MILITARY PIECES AND LARGELY UNIFORMED CIVILIAN CLOTHING, THE MISSOURI STATE GUARD FORMED THE BACKBONE OF THE SOUTHERN ARMY AT THE BATTLE. PICTURED HERE ARE REENACTORS AT WILSON'S CREEK NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD. (NPS)

On the evening of August 8, as the southern force probed his lines south of Springfield, Lyon determined to seize the initiative. At a council with his subordinates, he announced an audacious plan. "We shall attack [the enemy] in his position, and endeavor to hurt him so that he cannot follow us," he declared. "I propose to march this evening with all our available force . . . throw our whole force upon him at once, and endeavor to rout him before he can recover from his surprise." With half of his volunteers scheduled to leave within a week, time was of the essence and Lyon chose to act. More personally, he could not pull back without punishing the secessionists, casting off sound military judgment in favor of his own purpose. Despite the remonstrances of some of his staff, Lyon determined to move out the following evening for a daybreak attack on August 10.

Early the next morning, Lyon received his only communication from Frémont, claiming that he had grossly overestimated the southern force in his front and directing that if he were "not strong enough to maintain his position as far in advance of Springfield, he should fall back toward Rolla until reinforcements should meet him." While not ordering Lyon back, the wording was clear that Lyon was on his own and would bear the consequences of his actions. Lyon was incensed, shouting, "God damn General Frémont! He is a worse enemy to me and the Union cause than Price and McCulloch and the whole damned tribe of rebels in this part of the State!" While the federal commander was still angry and vulnerable, Sigel—just promoted to brigadier general, though he would not learn of it until after the approaching battle—approached Lyon privately with an alternate plan of attack. Impetuous himself, but with the nearly blind loyalty from his German soldiers (who made up almost half of Lyon's troops), Sigel suggested dividing the attacking force into two assaults. One, under Lyon, would attack as per the original plan. The other, under Sigel consisting of two regiments of volunteers, would circle to the southeast of the enemy camp and launch a simultaneous assault on the unsuspecting rear of the southern force. If the pincer plan worked, the entire camp would be a mass of confusion and would flee before the combined federal assaults.

GENERAL FRANZ SIGEL (MHS)

The plan was even riskier than Lyon's. Sigel proposed dividing a heavily outnumbered force in the very face of the enemy. Yet Lyon accepted it—he believed he had no choice. During the last days of July hundreds of the volunteers, many of them German Americans from St. Louis had marched out of Springfield. The dire troop situation forced Lyon to rely heavily on his remaining German recruits. With the phrase "I fights mit Sigel" nearly axiomatic among the proud German troops, and because so many of them could soon leave, Lyon needed desperately to maintain Sigel's unqualified support. He assented to Sigel's rash plan and unveiled it at an afternoon meeting with his officers some of whom voiced strong opposition. Later that evening, he admitted to his most trusted subordinates that Frémont won't sustain me. Sigel has a great reputation, and if I fail against his advice it will give Sigel command and ruin me. Then again, unless he can have his own way, I fear he will not carry out my plans."

MAJOR PETER J. OSTERHAUS LED A BATTALION OF THE SECOND MISSOURI INFANTRY IN THE FIGHTING ON BLOODY HILL.

Sometime after his conversation with Sigel, Lyon received a message from Captain David S. Stanley, commanding a company of U.S. Cavalry, reporting the latest of nearly daily skirmishes on Grand Prairie, west of Springfield. The federals had captured six southern horsemen who identified themselves as members of a foraging party from the Missouri State Guard and said that the State Guard was now united with McCulloch's Confederates and Arkansas State Troops at Wilson Creek. Consequently, Lyon became convinced that his enemies were united ten miles southwest of Springfield and ordered a reconnaissance south along the Wire Road. In part he was relieved, knowing that he was not about to be flanked and cut off from Rolla. Yet he also surmised that the attack slated to begin that evening would pit the five-thousand-odd men of the Army of the West against an enemy he thought to be four times its size. Sigel's risky plan now looked reckless, yet Lyon in no way changed it. He ordered the men to be prepared to march at 6 P.M.

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