Captain William Woodruff's Account of the Battle of Wilson's Creek
By W.E. Woodruff, Late Major Art., C.S.A.
In the afternoon a light rain fell, which continued until after night. Most of our troops were without cartridge boxes, and for fear of wetting ammunition, the order to move was modified, “to be prepared to move at a moment’s notice.” The captain received no later notice of any change of orders; and fortunately kept his horses harnessed and hitched, and his men at ease or resting near posts, all night. No move was made during the night, and very early the next morning, the 10th, the men got their breakfast, largely green corn which they had gathered the day before from adjacent fields.
In an old package of papers, yellow with age, is found a substantial copy of the report of the Pulaski battery’s participation in the battle of the 10th of August. It has never been published within the knowledge of this writer, and it appears now, as having been made when matters were fresh in mind:
Camp on Wilson’s Creek, Mo., Aug. 11, 1861
Col. Joseph Hebert, Commanding Advance:--
Sir:—My battery having been assigned to your command, it becomes my duty to report its participation in the action of yesterday on the ground it occupies. If I am in error, please forward to proper headquarters.
On the morning of the 9th inst., I was ordered to be in readiness to move promptly against the enemy, at 9 p. m. Later, in consequence of the rain, I was ordered to be “ready to move at a moment’s notice.” My officers and men were ordered to remain at and near their posts, with teams harnessed and hitched, parked at full distance, and remained so all night.
About 6 a. m. on the 10th, just as my men had finished breakfast, a great commotion was observed on the Springfield road, in a direction northwesterly (as I take it) from my camp. Men, horses and other animals, with and without wagons, carriages, etc., were seen rushing hurriedly and confusedly in great numbers down the roads and to the fords on the west and south. It seemed to be a repetition of the affair at Crane Creek a few days ago, and we were not greatly disturbed. Nevertheless, I ordered officers and men to posts and mounted drivers while awaiting orders. A minute or two later, on the hill five or six hundred yards northwest a rush of teams was observed, which rapidly developed into a light battery, that quickly unlimbered and commenced firing, seemingly in the direction of General McCulloch’s headquarters, or of the crowd flying down the main road towards Sharp’s house. Almost simultaneously a second battery or section rushed forward to the right and in front of the first, about 200 yards, unlimbered and commenced firing, apparently in the direction of McRae’s battalion, or Third Louisiana regiment.* My men had been held a minute or two in expectation of orders, but satisfied the situation was grave, I passed my caissons to the rear and ordered “in battery,” at the appearance of the first mentioned force. The second battery or section of the enemy observed my movement, and opened fire on us. We were able to answer the enemy’s third or fourth shot. Generals Pearce and McCulloch were soon on the ground and approved the action taken. Within a few minutes after the enemy opened, the report of a few shots of artillery to the southwest was heard, or at both extremities of our camp. Feeling the importance of staying the assault until our infantry lines were established, the cannonade with the hostile battery was continued half an hour or more, with the double purpose of checking it and for effect on his infantry lines behind.
Early in the action, the Missouri cavalry regiment of Colonel Graves reported, in support of the battery. The colonel was requested to take position on our flanks and rear, if he approved. A considerable force of the enemy was observed in the cornfield near one-half mile immediately north of our position. Foreseeing that it was intended to attack our position and dislodge us, the appearance and position of this force, regulars, infantry, cavalry and a battery, was quickly reported to General McCulloch, who speedily opposed it with McRae’s battalion, part of the Third Louisiana, and, I think, Flanagin’s regiment, all under Colonel McIntosh. They had to pass under the fire of our guns, stationed at a higher level, to reach the enemy. With the rest of the Third Louisiana regiment, General McCulloch, in a little while, moved rapidly to the west or southwest. Our infantry line being formed, and the threatened attack from the hill north checked, our fire was thereafter directed where it could be advantageously used without injury to our own troops, sometimes at the opposing battery, at others against the assaults of the enemy on the hill to the northwest, in support of Colonel McIntosh, and after in support of our infantry line on the enemy, when the latter was uncovered. About 9 a. m., Colonel Gratiot’s Third Arkansas reported in support, and was requested to take the position vacated by Graves’ Missouri cavalry. An hour later the Third Arkansas, Colonel Gratiot, passed down the hill to the left of our position, directed by General Pearce, and crossed the creek, and in a little while went into action. Observing a Federal regiment, uniformed in gray, advancing in fine order to meet Gratiot, and having an excellent opportunity to enfilade it while Gratiot was uncovered, we opened on it with the effect of breaking its beautiful line and scattering it its full length, to the depth of a company front or more, when Gratiot met and dispersed it gallantly. The enemy commenced falling back about noon, to the northwest, in good order, their rear covered by artillery and cavalry. We opened on the retreating force, which gave our artillery antagonists opportunity to send a few spiteful shots at us in return.
Casualties. I have to report a loss of four officers and men, killed, wounded and missing. First Lieutenant Omer R. Weaver and Private Hugh Byler were killed by cannon shot; Private Richard C. Byrd, Jr., was wounded in the leg by a minnie ball, sufficiently to disable him from service for some time; two horses were also killed. The death of Weaver is an irreparable loss to the battery and the cause. Byler was a brave and useful and exemplary soldier. Their loss is all the more deplorable, because if a surgeon had been attached, their valuable lives might possibly have been saved. The missing man had gone to the corral without permission at dawn, and was cut off from return by position of the enemy and his line of fire.
During a lull in the action, by General Pearce’s order, the battery was limbered up and moved to more elevated ground some one hundred yards to the right and rear of the first position.
Very respectfully, etc.,
W.E. Woodruff, Jr.,
Captain Pulaski (Arkansas) Light Battery
The average excellence of behavior of the company was very high. There was only one absentee, and he, a boy, caught away from camp when the battle opened, had no exemplar to point the way to duty. His name is not mentioned. The army roll is challenged for superiors or peers of Tom Cavanaugh, Pat Connolly, Higgins, Cook, Lowe and Quinn, as cannoneers. They were all artists in the service of the piece. The names of a few others are given alphabetically, special mention of whom will excite no jealousy: Blocher, Brodie, Button, Campbell, Curry, Davis, W. R. Douglass George, Halliburton, Hugh Hardy, Jennings, Kimbell, Lewis, Marshall, Mears, Merrick, Mills, Osborne, the two Parks brothers, Pollock, Visart, Watkins, Williams and Woodard, as deserving of commendation. Judgment forbids extending the list, lest the heart run away with the pen and cause it to copy the roll. Ten or more were boys between 15 and 17, and their youth alone prevented some from being placed as sergeants and corporals. All seemed to vie as if each member felt desirous of averting from the State of Arkansas, the odium of an overwhelming disgrace, responsibility for which might be settled upon each.
Many of the incidents of the fight are recalled. It had been arranged between the company officers long before, that in our first engagement each should take the post of gunner at designated pieces. Weaver to take No. 1, I to take No. 2 (to be near the center) Reyburn No. 3, and Brown No. 4, assisted and rested by the proper gunner of the respective pieces. From the shape of the gun, the tendency is to “over-shoot” the mark, the outer surface of the gun being much thicker at the breech than at the muzzle. The difference is more than an inch according to caliber, and in a distance of several hundred yards the overshot is considerable. Only experience can qualify a gunner to determine what elevation to give his piece, to strike with certainty a particular object. It was a fortunate incident that our overshots were effective on the Federal lines and reserve behind. I fired the first shot and the others followed. Weaver was struck within the first hour. He had just been relieved by his gunner, Sergeant Blocher, I believe, and, was struck a moment after with a solid shot, which broke his right arm and crushed his breast. Some one told me Weaver was wounded and wanted to see me. I went to him immediately, and he said, lying on the ground, his wounded arm across his breast: “I am done for; can’t you have me moved ?“ I said, “Yes, immediately, and I will try to get a surgeon.” He said, “All right; you had better go back to your gun or post.” I called Sergeant Button and told him to detail men to move Weaver, and to get a surgeon if he could. The fight was going on all the time. A little later Byler was struck by a solid shot above the knee. He was removed also. Within an hour Byrd was shot in the leg with a minnie ball and was also removed. Button managed to find Dr. Dunlap, of Fort Smith, who ministered to all while there was life. A wheel horse of the limber of Weaver’s gun, one of the “overland” white team, was also killed. All the casualties happened at the same gun and its caisson—a piece of shell splintered the latter and fell inside the chest—except another horse which was killed near us to the left—a sergeant’s horse hitched to a small tree.
During the “cornfield fight,” a battery, I think Bledsoe’s Missouri Battery, opened at a point considerably to the left, west and south of us, and fired apparently at the Federal regulars in the cornfield four or five shots. At the time I thought it was Reed. It may be, however, that it was Guibor’s Missouri Battery, which was camped over a mile to the left and rear of us as we fired. Neither Reed, Bledsoe or Guibor was in sight. This was the only participation in the fight by the Missouri batteries that I am aware of. It occurred to me at the time, that the missiles of this battery were as dangerous to McIntosh as to the enemy. I had partially discontinued firing in that direction for that reason. The guns sounded beautifully and inspiringly, however. Reed fired a few shots at Sigel’s battery, which we heard only, as he was out of sight. All the reports of the Pulaski battery “whipping Totten” are foundationless. He manifested himself a courageous and capable officer. He was in the fight from “end to end” and in the very forefront. He fired, I think, his last shot at us on the retreat, as stated in my report—though there was another regular battery, Du Bois’, in the close vicinity of the Federal force that made the cornfield fight. Totten’s guns were abandoned at one stage. Colonel De Rosey Carroll’s regiment (he told me) went over his, Totten’s ground, and found them abandoned. They were recovered, however and drawn away. I freely say that while our post was dangerous enough, I am glad the conditions were not reversed. He was afterwards dismissed from the army on account of dissipation, a weakness which President Grant might well have overlooked, as Totten suggested to him, when notified of that President’s approval of his dismissal. The unkindest thing I ever heard of Captain Totten was a remark of Captain C. C. Danley, in ‘60 or ‘61, who remarked: “T. was always a bosom friend of the man he drank with last.” Certainly a testimonial to his generous nature, and I can testify to his soldierly qualities.
Generals McCulloch, Price, Pearce and Colonel McIntosh visited our position several times during the day; also President David Walker of the State convention. The demeanor of all was fearless. It is recalled that Price wore throughout the fight a black “plug” hat, which ranged over the field like an orriflamme, to the Missourians.
The bearing of General Lyon was in plain view, and was very gallant. There was another Federal officer, a one-armed Irish man, named Sweeny, as afterwards learned, whose actions were most gallant in bringing up and encouraging his infantry as his battalions were put into the fight successively. He was always in the thick of it. We did not know the names of either until later. One factor aided the Federals greatly; all their infantry had long range guns; our men had very few; the Federals could pick their distance out of range of our old muskets, squirrel rifles and shot guns, when the two lines clashed. This was signally manifested when Gratiot’s minnie rifles were pitted against the last regiment put in the fight, which was arrested long before a return fire was expected. The difference in arms explains the heavy loss of the Confederates.
Next day after the battle the captain went to take a look at the “dutch” prisoners. As we passed a group of Price’s Missourians, one of them spoke out so that he could be heard: “There goes the little captain of the battery that saved us yesterday.” Then it was assured our boys had done well.
Only such matters as fell under personal observation are mentioned herein, because the object of the writer is merely to show the part played by the Pulaski battery, and not to describe the battle. The field of action to the south and west of us was mostly out of view, though we could hear the noise of artillery and small arms. We knew that the Missourians and Churchill’s, Dockery’s, Walker’s Carroll’s and other Arkansas regiments were earnestly engaged with the enemy, but the trees and the smoke, as it rose high above, obscured the ground, and the noise was our only evidence. Reed’s battery and Weightman’s men were entirely out of sight; so were the operations of the Third Louisiana in the fight that resulted in the capture of Sigel’s battery. One of these guns was brought to the ground we occupied during the fight. Another it is said bore the mark of one of Reed’s shots. We also secured one of Sigel’s artillery horses, which we put in place of one horse killed. We named him Sigel. We remained in camp on the battlefield for two or three days. Lieutenant Weaver’s and Byler’s bodies were buried, but Weaver’s was disinterred and sent to Little Rock for final burial, in charge of Lieutenant Brown. His grave is still bare of any memorial stone. This ought not to be, as Arkansas sent no more promising young soldier to the field.
. . . .The writer never went over a battlefield after a fight, and had no knowledge of the execution done by his guns or missiles until early in the ‘80’s, when he in company with Lieutenant Cook and Capt. L. L. Thompson, attended a “reunion” at Springfield, Mo. There we met an officer (name forgotten) of the Iowa regiment we had opposed, who expressed a wish to become acquainted. He had lost a leg in the fight. He appeared to be an excellent gentleman, and related many interesting incidents of the affair at Wilson’s Creek. He recalled perfectly the opening of fire upon his regiment by the Pulaski battery, just before his regiment tried conclusions with Gratiot’s regiment. Among other things, he said he “Had a young friend or relative in the regiment in whom he felt a great interest. Nearly all the men laid down for safety when the Pulaski battery opened on them, but this young fellow persisted in standing up, to be sure of missing nothing in sight. Finally the colonel persuaded him to lie down, but looking toward the curious man later, he saw him half raised, looking with all his might. 'Lie down, I tell you, lie down; you d—n fool, lie down,' was shouted again, and just then,” said the colonel, “you shot my leg off.” The climax was unexpected; we supposed the curious man would be annihilated with a cannon ball. I told the colonel it was pleasant to know that he hadn’t been killed, but it was too late to apologize. I felt as badly at the time as if the injury was recent. As the war resulted, it is just as well not to prosecute the inquiry as to the amount of damage done by us.
(With The Light Guns In ’61-’65: Reminiscences of Eleven Arkansas, Missouri and Texas Light Batteries, in the Civil War, Pages 37-52)
Did You Know?
The traditional site of General Lyon's death was marked by a pile of stones soon after the battle, and quickly became a tourist attraction and historic site.