THE FEDERALS ADVANCE
Most saw in their commander visible fatigue, others could "detect
traces of deep anxiety in his countenance and voice. The latter more
subdued and milder than usual."
Shortly before his troops' designated hour of departure, Lyon arrived
at Phelps's Grove, the home of Congressman John S. Phelps, where Sturgis
and four thousand troops had been stationed since their return to
Springfield. The troops had been issued cartridges and two days'
rations. Before commencing the march, Lyon addressed each of the
regiments individually. Most saw in their commander visible fatigue;
others could "detect traces of deep anxiety in his countenance and
voice. The latter more subdued and milder than usual." Rather than
encouragement, he offered instructions, telling them, "Don't shoot until
you get orders. Fire lowdon't aim higher than their knees; wait
until they get close; don't get scared; it's no part of a soldier's duty
to get scared." Duty and honor, not confidence in them as soldiers, was
the recurring theme as Lyon addressed the various units. Though he meant
his words to bolster his troops, many found them uninspiring, even
"tactless and chilling." The only feeling they seemed to convey was
exhaustion on the general's part.
Striking west, the column soon emerged onto Grand Prairie, with its
rolling fields of grass and scattered trees. The setting sun shone
directly into the soldiers' eyes for a short time, then replaced with
thick dust and gloomy dusk. With the artillery's wheels wrapped with
blankets and the horses' hooves in burlap to muffle the noise, Lyon
personally led the main attack force, organized into three brigades.
Sturgis's First Brigade, which spearheaded the march, was composed of
700 men (including an infantry battalion of regulars who headed the
column and Totten's artillery battery) led by Captain Joseph B. Plummer.
The Third Brigade, which came next in Lyon's column, over 1,100 strong
and including Captain Frederick Steele's battalion of regulars and
Lieutenant John V. Du Bois's four-gun battery, was led by the First
Missouri's Lieutenant Colonel George W. Andrews. The final brigade in
Lyon's column, the Fourth Brigade, with 2,300 men and composed of three
volunteer infantry regimentsthe First and Second Kansas, and the
First Iowawas the Army of the West's largest and was commanded by
Colonel George W. Deitzler. All told, Lyon's column numbered 4,300
effectives3,800 infantry, 350 mounted men, and 150 cannoneers
manning ten guns.
COLONEL GEORGE DEITZLER (GS)|
Once darkness had fallen, local guides led the federals off the Mt.
Vernon Road and onto local byroads or trails toward a point north of the
Western Army's camps. When the federals halted about 1 A.M., they could
see the glow of the enemy's campfires beyond the hills in the distance.
Surprisingly, they met no outposts. Early on the evening of the August
9, in preparation for the attack on Springfield, the southern pickets
had been withdrawn and had not returned to their posts after rain
postponed the movement. Undetected, the federal column lay down to rest,
waiting for dawn to approach so their attack could be coordinated with
that of Sigel's column.
South of Springfield, Sigel prepared his Second Brigade for the
impending attack. The German's command was composed of three units:
eight companies of Third Missouri Infantry, nine companies of the Fifth
Missouri Infantry, and the six-piece battery of Backofs Missouri Light
artillery. By August 9 the combined regiments were down to only eleven
hundred officers and men, including artillery (many of whom were recent
recruits still learning to drill), having lost as many as three hundred
men on the very eve of the battle, Nearly a third of Sigel's brigade
officers had left their commands.
MAJOR JOHN M. SCHOFIELD (NPS)|
At 6:30 P.M., the brigade marched south out of its camp on the
Yokermill Road, cavalry guarding the head and rear of the column. After
crossing the James River and covering about five miles, Sigel led his
troops southwest through woods and past farms, the rain setting in just
after dark. With almost no moon and under cloud cover, the night was
exceedingly dark and the units moved along only "with great difficulty."
Around 11 P.M., Sigel halted the brigade and remained in position for
three hours, resuming the march at 2 A.M. Sigel's guides led his command
to a point close to Wilson Creek, just below where Terrell Creek joined
the stream and southeast of the southern camps, halting again at around
4:30 A.M. Just before first light, Sigel put his men into motion once
again, climbing a long hill that towered above the creek's east side.
From there, the German had a commanding view of the unsuspecting
southern cavalry camps spread across the wide, flat fields owned by
Joseph D. Sharp, which lay along the creek's west side, a half-mile
south of the main southern camps. His surprise appeared as yet complete.
Unable to communicate with Lyon, Sigel awaited the dawn and the sound of
Lyon's guns, his signal for his own attack.
(click on image for a PDF version)
THE BATTLE OPENS AS LYON AND SIGEL ATTACK (5:00-6:00 A.M.)|
Lyon's vanguard makes contact with Colonel Dewitt Hunter's Missouri
State Guard Regiment and drives the southerners toward Bloody Hill.
State Guard colonel James Cawthorn then positions McCown's and Peyton's
cavalrymen on Bloody Hill to slow Lyon's advance until reinforcements
arrive. Lyon orders Captain Plummer and his regulars to cross Wilson's
Creek to guard the federal left flank. At the opposite end of the
southern encampment, Colonel Sigel's artillery opens fire on the enemy
encamped at the Sharp Farm. The southern cavalrymen flee from Sigel's
bombardment and Sigel begins his advance.
Turning to his chief of staff he remarked morbidly, "I am a
believer in presentiments, and I have a feeling that I can't get rid of
that I shall not survive this battle." A bit later, he added, "I will
gladly give my life for a victory."
Far to the north side of the southern camps, Lyon and Schofield
shared a rubber blanket in the light rain. The federal commander
appeared more disconsolate than ever. Clearly, he was not hopeful for
victory and muttered repeatedly about being abandoned by his superiors,
especially Frémont. As Schofield remembered, the Connecticut
Yankee "was oppressed with the responsibility of his situation, with
anxiety for the cause, and with sympathy for the Union people in that
section," lamenting that he "was the intended victim of a deliberate
sacrifice to another's ambition." Turning to his chief of staff, he
remarked morbidly, "I am a believer in presentiments, and I have a
feeling that I can't get rid of that I shall not survive this battle." A
bit later, he added, "I will gladly give my life for a victory."
At 4 A.M., Lyon resumed his advance, marching cross-country through
the tall prairie grass to maintain the element of surprise. Entering a
long, low valley, Lyon sensed that he would soon make contact with
southern troops and deployed a line of skirmishers ahead of the main
column. Nearly immediately, the skirmishers ran into a group of southern
foragers who fired a few shots before running away. Assuming they were
pickets posted to give the alarm, Lyon halted his column and formed its
leading units into line of battle. The march resumed, with the federals
maintaining a fairly rapid pace, encountering no more southerners for
more than a mile.
THE BATTLEFIELD AS SEEN FROM BEHIND PEARCE'S CAMP ON THE EAST SIDE OF
THE CREEK. (BL)|
Lyon's surprise was not complete. The foragers, along with a separate
group of teamsters who had also spotted Lyon's advancing column, had
returned back to their units in Rains's State Guard division and alerted
their respective commanders. Within minutes, Rains ordered couriers to
ride south to inform Price and McCulloch at their respective
headquarters nearer to Skegg's Branch, more than a half-mile away.
Colonel James Cawthorn, commander of the brigade that included the
foragers who had made the initial contact with Lyon's men, dispatched a
mounted three-hundred-man regiment along the west side of Wilson Creek.
When these troops emerged from the ravine and onto the ridge forming the
northern spur of the 170-foot eminence soon to be called "Bloody Hill,"
they could see Lyon's column, not quite 450 yards distant, dismounted
and formed into line. Rather than brush the small force of horsemen
aside, Lyon moved cautiously, deploying his artillery and opening fire
before advancing at approximately 5 A.M. When Cawthorn heard the sound
of firing, he formed the rest of his mounted brigade, at least six
hundred strong, into position on the crest of the main portion of Bloody
Hill to create a second line of defense between the enemy and the
unprotected southern camps. Within a half-hour, the First Missouri on
the right and the First Kansas on the left had moved the half-mile of
rugged slope and pushed Cawthorn from the crest, exposing the Arkansans
camps on the east side of Wilson Creek. Because Bloody Hill was so
broad, they still could view neither Price's headquarters nor the
majority of the camps of the Missouri State Guard and waited for the
rest of Lyon's column.
Despite their early warning, the southern commanders were unprepared
for Lyon's attack. At dawn, Price had sent an adjutant to McCulloch's
headquarters to learn his plans for the advance on Springfield.
McCulloch failed to inform the adjutant that several minutes earlier he
had received word from Rains claiming enemy activity to the north. After
sending two cavalry units to investigate, McCulloch decided to confer
with Price in person. He left his headquarters around 5 A.M., and rode
south to Price's headquarters, at the farm of William Edwards, just as
Lyon's troops were engaging the State Guard on the northern spur of
Bloody Hill. As McCulloch and Price ate breakfast, one of Rains's
adjutants rode up and announced that federals were "approaching with
twenty thousand men and 100 pieces of artillery." When a second
messenger arrived from Rains, announcing that "the main body of the
enemy was upon him," both Price and McCulloch set out to survey the
situation at the northern end of their encampment. They soon heard the
sound of cannon.
CAPTAIN JAMES TOTTEN (USAMHI)|
AN UNKNOWN PRIVATE OF THE PULASKI BATTERY (GS)|
As Lyon's Missourians and Kansans, now joined by the First Iowa, on
Bloody Hill engaged Rains's troops, Totten arrived and deployed his guns
in between them, and both infantry and the artillery opened fire. They
soon cleared the crest of the hill of southerners, and as Lyon waited
for the rest of his line to deploy, Woodruff's Pulaski Arkansas Battery
opened on him. Positioned on a lightly wooded ridge that paralleled the
Wire Road on the east side of Wilson Creek, the Arkansans, under Captain
William Woodruff, saw Lyon's two batteries deploy on Bloody Hill, more
than half a mile away. As he watched the Missouri State Guard being
driven off the hill by the federals, Woodruff began firing. The unit's
two twelve-pounder howitzers and two six-pounder guns roared into
action, effectively enfilading Lyon's advance. Totten's federal
artillery immediately wheeled to target them, and soon shells screamed
back and forth, high above and across Wilson Creek. The effectiveness of
Woodruff s battery slowed Lyon's deployment, allowing the southern
troopswhich Lyon could not yet seeto form and advance to meet the
stalled federals on Bloody Hill. The battle would soon join, the firing
so intense that it was heard as far away as Springfield.