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NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Battle of Wilson's Creek

   

THE DEATH OF LYON

After nearly three-quarters of an hour of inactivity, Price ordered a second attack, and his line of battle emerged from the brush and prairie grass. The federal line, poised for another assault, responded immediately. Lyon had put the remainder of Plummer's battalion, now returned from their foray across the creek, in reserve with every other infantry unit now in line of battle. Altogether, Lyon had some 3,500 men and ten pieces of artillery positioned to meet the ensuing attack. For the next hour, according to Sturgis, the fighting was "almost inconceivably fierce along the entire line." The southern units were often in formations three or four ranks deep, with the first rank lying, the second rank kneeling, and the third (and sometimes fourth) rank standing, all firing together. The massed fire on both sides at close range increased casualties dramatically.

As the firing increased, white smoke began to obscure the field, and by mid-morning, the heat had become frightful. Bloody Hill had at the time few trees of any consequence, mostly clumps of scrub oaks in the midst of chest-high prairie grass, with occasional thickets, and in the open terrain men fell from both wounds and heat exhaustion. Lulls settled periodically over the battlefield, marred only by desultory firing, as if both armies needed to catch their breath and take precious water before resuming the desperate struggle. Then the great crash of musketry would resume almost spontaneously to continue with wavelike intensity until another respite mysteriously occurred. The tall grass, the soldiers' relative inexperience, and, above all, the scarcity of ammunition conspired to slow the pace of the combat. Many on both sides used the grass as a shield, firing and reloading while either kneeling or lying down, despite their lack of practice in such techniques and the extra time it took to do so.

A POSTWAR ILLUSTRATION OF BLOODY HILL FROM THE EAST. (BL)

LIEUTENANT WILLIAM WHERRY. (NPS)

Lyon's troops bore up well under the withering fire and intense August heat. Their commander did not fare as well. Having dismounted from his dapple-gray horse, Lyon directed the battle on foot, leading his mount by the reins. A career army captain, he was accustomed to leading troops at the front, not as a general at the rear. As he walked close to the lines, a bullet grazed his right calf, a painful if not serious wound that required treatment to stop the flow of blood. Shortly thereafter Lyon's mount was shot, sank to its haunches, and died. Throughout, Lyon kept his worn captain's frock coat buttoned up to his chin. Limping now, and waving his hat and sword to encourage his troops, he suffered a second wound when a bullet brushed the right side of his head. Blood ran profusely down his face and became matted in his sweaty hair and beard. Pale and dazed, he moved to the rear, found a relatively safe spot, and sat down. An officer offered a handkerchief and bound the general's head. Totten noticed his commander's wound and offered Lyon brandy from his canteen, but he somberly declined. When Schofield arrived, Lyon was despondent. "It is as I expected," he moaned, "Major, I am afraid the day is lost." Schofield replied, "No, General; let us try it again." Encouraged by Schofield's enthusiasm, Lyon revived, determined to continue the fight.

Believing this his last chance for victory, Lyon intended to lead a fresh assault. Taking the mount of one of Sturgis's orderlies, blood dripping from the heel of his boot, Lyon rode forward to deal with problems at the federal center. Followed by his aide, Lieutenant William M. Wherry, and six to eight orderlies, Lyon rode past the right end of the First Iowa's line to close a gap between it and the First Missouri. When his aides attempted to dissuade him from exposing himself so precariously to fire, Lyon replied firmly, "I am but doing my duty." The federal commander observed a group of horsemen with the enemy's infantry to the left, one of whom Lyon recognized as Price, commander of the Missouri State Guard, wearing a long white linen duster and a plain white felt hat. Starting toward the horsemen, Lyon ordered his escort to "draw pistols and follow." Wherry managed to convince his fiery leader that the attempt would be too risky and suggested instead that some troops be brought forward.

DEATH OF GENERAL NATHANIEL LYON AT THE BATTLE OF WILSON'S CREEK, SPRINGFIELD, MO., AUGUST 10TH, 1861. ILLUSTRATION FROM HARPER'S WEEKLY. (FW)

At near 9:30 A.M., Lyon returned to his lines, and the Iowans called for the general to lead them. When Sweeny came up, Lyon initially directed him to take charge of the Iowans. Pulling the Second Kansas out of line, Lyon moved them in column behind the First Missouri and into the gap. He then decided to lead the troops personally. Riding with the reins in his left hand and his felt hat in his right hand, Lyon turned back to his right, waving his hat and crying, "Come on my brave boys, I will lead you! Forward!" At that moment a volley exploded from the thick undergrowth in the troops' immediate front. A large-caliber bullet, fired from only a few yards, tore into the left side of Lyon's chest below the fourth rib, passed through both lungs and the heart, severing the aorta, and exited just below the right shoulder blade. According to one source, the wounded general attempted to dismount but began to fall from the saddle. Private Albert Lehmann, the general's personal aide, rushed to catch Lyon as he collapsed. Cradling Lyon's head against his shoulder, the orderly tried to stop the profuse flow of blood. The general gasped for breath, then whispered hoarsely, "Lehmann, I am going." He then expired, amid the smoke and din of battle. According to another eyewitness, Lyon died instantly upon being hit, and fell backward from his horse to the ground, without any last words, a version perhaps substantiated by a pencil sketch by Henry Lovie, an artist covering the campaign for Frank Leslie's illustrated Newspaper. In either case, Lyon was the first Union general officer to be killed in battle in the Civil War.

COLONEL ROBERT BYINGTON MITCHELL, COMMANDER OF THE SECOND KANSAS VOLUNTEER INFANTRY. (GS)

The fight raged on around the general's death site. Captain Samuel J. Crawford of the Second Kansas, later governor of the newest state, remembered, "We fired over Lyon's body, and three or four of [the] men, as they lay wounded." Few of the troops likely realized their commander had fallen, and after twenty minutes, the Kansans managed to drive the southerners in their front from the crest of Bloody Hill. Yet another lull ensued, during which Lieutenant Gustavus Schreyer and a detachment of men retrieved the dead and wounded, finding Lehmann clutching his commander's hat and bemoaning his death. As they carried Lyon's body to the rear, Wherry arrived and, fearing that news of the general's death might affect the men, decided to conceal the fact for as long as possible. He had the coattails of Lyon's tunic pulled over the general's face and ordered the body placed under the shade of a small blackjack oak, in a sheltered spot not far from Du Bois's guns. Wherry then located Schofield, informed him of Lyon's death, and Schofield rode off to inform Sturgis the senior regular army officer, that the forces upon Bloody Hill were now under his command.

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