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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Wilson's Creek



As Plummer and Sigel struggled with respective elements of the southern army, Lyon raced to consolidate his forces on the crest of Bloody Hill and move forward to a position from which he could assault Price and McCulloch's main encampments. Totten's Battery continued to duel with Woodruff's Pulaski Arkansas Battery, while Lyon kept the Second Kansas, under Colonel Robert Mitchell, in reserve.

At the base of the hill to the south, Price also struggled to bring the infantry and artillery of the Missouri State Guard into line of battle. The inexperience of the troops in the face of an unexpected attack made for a difficult process, but Price managed to get nearly two thousand men into line by the time Lyon's federals renewed their attack. The advance was uncoordinated, without designated leadership, and as the troops advanced over the various spurs that constituted the hill, the units became separated by tree-filled ravines, causing them to lose contact. Once in line of battle, Lyon's men moved to the edge of the hill's southern slope and engaged Price's line.


Unlike later and larger battles in the war, the fighting on Bloody Hill was often sporadic, even episodic, and inevitably close, with the lines separated at most by one hundred yards and more often by as few as twenty yards. With only twenty-five rounds per man on average, the southern troops waited until they were near the enemy, then fired in bursts, with frequent lulls in between. As one Kansan recalled simply, "The lines were within shotgun range." Moreover, inexperienced Missouri officers instructed their equally green troops to take careful aim before firing, allowing for few full volleys as the morning wore on. Yet the constant barrage of artillery created an illusion of nearly uninterrupted fire. The artillery duel between Totten and Woodruff, while inflicting few casualties, accomplished more than mere noise; it fixed the federals in position. Lyon used Totten's guns as the anchor upon which he formed his battle line on Bloody Hill. The situation worked to the southerners' advantage; because the hill was very broad, the federals could not see its base from the crest. Lyon's deployment near the top of the hill rather than further down the slopes left a wide blind spot that provided protection for the Missouri State Guard units as they gradually formed into battle lines.

As the federal line advanced past Totten's position, he left the artillery duel to Du Bois and reoriented his fire to support the infantry's advance down the south slope of Bloody Hill. Price's growing battle line was now reinforced by the battery of Captain Henry Guibor's Missouri Light Artillery, which deployed in a position left of the center of Price's line. Its fire, as well as the advance around the federal right flank by General James H. McBride's State Guard division, soon forced the First Missouri back toward the crest. McBride's action signaled the turning point in the fight for Bloody Hill. Up to this point, Lyon had been on the offensive, For the remainder of the battle the federals would be on the defensive as the southern forces mounted growing attacks against them.


McBride's unordered movement initiated a general southern attack, and the State Guard divisions to his right, under Generals Mosby M. Parsons and John B. Clark, moved forward en echelon to support McBride, pushing slowly up the slope through the underbrush. Because the units advanced at different speeds according to the terrain, their discipline, and the resistance they encountered, any coordination that may have existed at the beginning of the assault soon broke down. Sharp fighting ensued between the Missourians on both sides and the Kansans on the hill, with the lack of distinctive uniforms, flags, and even uniform color causing confusion, as it had fatally for Sigel. On one occasion, two enemy units aligned in the same battle line and marched together before realizing the mistake. By 7:30 A.M., when the southern line overlapped the federal right flank, forcing them to retreat, Lyon's federals were essentially back where they had started. The federal commander's battle line formed an arc from left to right consisting of Du Bois's Battery, the First Kansas, two sections (four guns) of Totten's Battery, the First Missouri, and the remaining section of Totten's Battery. The Second Kansas remained in reserve.

The advancing southern line, with swelling ranks, forced Lyon to make a desperate move. After ordering the Second Kansas to the front, he commanded Deitzler's First Kansas to fix bayonets and charge. Confusion over the order caused fewer than two hundred men actually to make the risky movement, during which Deitzler was wounded and carried off the field, but it caught the southerners by surprise and the units facing the Kansans fell back several hundred yards. The noise, smoke, and underbrush prevented the now exposed southern troops to their right and left from noticing the Kansans. Lyon quickly ordered them back to the crest, where the six hundred men of the Second Kansas joined the right flank of Lyon's line and opened fire, many with "buck and ball," a cartridge containing one large musket ball and three buckshot. It gave the Kansans devastating firepower and together, the First and Second Kansans halted the uncoordinated southern assault, producing a lull as Price realigned his troops at the base of Bloody Hill. It was somewhat past 8 A.M.


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