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NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Battle of Wilson's Creek

   

THE FINAL SOUTHERN ASSAULT


THE DEATH OF BRIGADIER GENERAL NATHANIEL LYON

Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon was killed about 9:30 A.M. on August 10 while leading the Second Kansas Volunteer Infantry into action on Bloody Hill. His body was quickly taken to the rear of the Union lines and placed underneath a blackjack oak tree. The federals then loaded Lyon into a wagon, intending to take the fallen general with them when they retreated from the battlefield. In the confusion of the retreat, however, Lyon was left behind. With the battle over, the victorious southerners found the corpse as they searched the field for their wounded and dead. Union Dr. Samuel H. Melcher a Missouri assistant surgeon who had remained behind to look after the federal wounded, was told that Lyon's body had been found. The southerners took Melcher to a wagon carrying the remains, and he positively identified his dead general.

Melcher then asked that the body be taken to the nearby house of John Ray, a farmer and postmaster whose home was being used as a southern field hospital. There Melcher examined the body, determined how Lyon died, then had his commander returned to the wagon for the trip back to Springfield. Five southerners offered to ride along with the doctor as an escort, and the little group arrived in town about 6 o'clock that evening. Melcher delivered the remains to Major John M. Schofield, then the acting adjutant general of Lyon's army, and Lyon came to rest in the same house in Springfield that he had used as his headquarters before the battle.

THE DEATH OF LYON, SKETCH BY ANDY THOMAS. (COURTESY OF WILSON'S CREEK NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD FOUNDATION)

Major Samuel Sturgis, who had assumed command on Bloody Hill upon Lyon's death, soon met with Schofield and some of the other federal officers, and they decided to try to take the body with them as they retreated again, early the next morning, to Rolla, Missouri, the nearest railhead more than one hundred miles northeast of Springfield. To make such a journey in the heat of summer, Lyon would have to be embalmed, so Sturgis sent for Dr. Edward C. Franklin of the Fifth Missouri Infantry, who arrived at headquarters about 10 P.M. The assembled officers gave the surgeon the difficult assignment, and Franklin tried to embalm the body, but his attempt proved fruitless because of the damage to Lyon's heart and the exit wound as the corpse could not retain the fluid. After this failure, the senior federals told Franklin to do the best he could with the general.

Early the next morning, Franklin returned to Lyon's headquarters. Supplied with some money by Major Sturgis, Franklin next traveled to find Presley Beal, a local undertaker, ordered him to build a coffin of the best material, and paid Beal to take charge of Lyon's funeral and perform "the last obsequies."

Eventually a black walnut coffin arrived, Lyon was placed inside, loaded into a butcher's wagon, and the general began the two mile journey to the farm of U.S. congressman John S. Phelps south of town. Mary Phelps, the congressman's wife, thinking that the body would soon be taken away, decided not to bury it. Instead, at about 2 P.M. on August 11, the coffin was placed in a building used by Mrs. Phelps as an ice house and covered with straw. A local tinsmith was ordered to make a zinc case for the new walnut coffin to help further slow the body's deterioration.

In the meantime, Major Sturgis and the federal army left for Rolla (and after marching twenty-five miles, discovered that Lyon's corpse had been left behind again, according to some sources), and the southerners occupied Springfield. Lyon's body was naturally a curiosity for the victorious rebels, and the ice house was soon visited by some civilians and many southern troops. Some belligerent, drunken southerners threatened to open the coffin and "cut out the d—d heart" for a relic. Because of such talk, Mrs. Phelps became concerned that the remains would come to some harm and sent to Missouri State Guard commander General Sterling Price for a detail to finally bury Lyon. Captain Henry Guibor, a Missouri State Guard artilleryman whose battery was camped on the Phelps farm, called for and received volunteers to help bury their old nemesis in the family garden.

MARKER ERECTED ON THE SITE OF LYON'S DEATH. (NPS)

Lyon rested in peace until August 22, when a wagon pulled by four mules and bearing a large, three-hundred-pound iron coffin pulled up in front of the Phelps home. With it were Danford Knowlton and John Hasler, two of Lyon's relatives traveling at the expense of the state of Connecticut to find and retrieve their fallen hero. That evening they excavated the coffin, cast aside the zinc case, placed the wooden coffin in the large metallic casket, then packed it in ice. The next morning Lyon's relatives turned their wagon back toward Rolla, where they loaded the coffin onto a Southwest Branch Pacific Railroad train, and on August 26, all were back in St. Louis, where the general had started his journey only two and a half months before.

Lyon lay in state for two days in St. Louis, thousands came to view the casket, and "the whole city seemed buried in the profoundest grief," according to one report. On August 28, a military funeral passed through the city, featuring the flag-draped casket and the horse Lyon had been riding when he was killed, accompanied by cavalry, infantry, and artillery units, General Frémont and his staff, Franz Sigel, and the mayor of St. Louis. Stores, homes, and other buildings were draped in mourning as the entourage moved to the city's levee, where the coffin was taken across the Mississippi, then placed on board a train to continue the journey east. The Adams Express Company graciously offered to transport Lyon to Connecticut free of charge and provided a railroad car heavily draped with mourning crepe, inside and out, with the coffin resting on a stand covered with silk velvet in the center of the car.


A great national outpouring of grief occurred as Lyon traveled east and lay in state in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York, and Hartford . .. . Wherever the train made a brief stop, crowds gathered in hushed silence, wreaths of fresh flowers were placed on the coffin, and bystanders asked for withered flowers that had rested on the pall.

A great national outpouring of grief occurred as Lyon traveled east and lay in state in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York, and Hartford, although Lyon was mourned in the smaller cities as well. Wherever the train made a brief stop, crowds gathered in hushed silence, wreaths of fresh flowers were placed on the coffin, and bystanders asked for withered flowers that had rested on the pall. One of the men escorting the body noted that "there was a spontaneous tribute of affection, sorrow and honor manifested along the whole route."

The funeral train finally arrived in Willimantic, Connecticut, on September 4, where the coffin was loaded onto a hearse and taken to Eastford, Lyon's hometown. As church bells tolled and a band played mournful music, the body was removed to the Congregational church. One eyewitness remembered that it was "a beautiful evening" and that "in the clear stillness . . . the band played the sweet and simple airs of 'Home, Sweet Home,' and 'Auld Lang Syne,' mingled with solemn dirges. . . . There was not a dry eye in the whole assemblage."

Finally, the funeral began about 11 o'clock the next morning and was attended by thousands, including the governors of Rhode Island and Connecticut, three members of Congress, and Lyon's family. After the two-hour service, a mile-and-a-half-long procession then traveled with the coffin to the small town cemetery of Phoenixville, where Lyon's mother and sister were already buried. At the cemetery, one participant remembered that "four magnificent black horses entered the portal; the military formed around the open grave; . . . and the mortal remains of General Nathaniel Lyon were lowered to their last resting place." After a minister read the "Methodist Episcopal services," a Hartford military company fired three volleys while a band performed a dirge. Nearly a month after his death, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon finally came to rest just two miles from his birthplace.

—Jeff Patrick, Wilson's Creek National Battlefield

As Price had arranged his troops for a second push up the southern slope of Bloody Hill, he sent his adjutant, Colonel Thomas Snead, in search of McCulloch. At about 8:45 A.M., Snead found McCulloch at the Sharp farm, his men celebrating their decisive victory over Sigel's flanking column, and informed the Texan that the Missouri State Guard needed immediate assistance. McCulloch sent messengers to various of his subordinates, including Bart Pearce, commander of the Arkansas State Troops, directing them to move to support Price in an effort to concentrate all available forces against Lyon. He then led a battalion of the Third Louisiana up the Wire Road in person, telling them, "You have beaten the enemy's right and left wings, only their centre is left, and with all our forces concentrated upon that we will soon make short work of it."

LIEUTENANT JOHN V. DUBOIS (FURTAK FAMILY COLLECTION)

As Price's men rested after their second effort to take the crest, McCulloch ordered Colonel Elkanah Greer, commander of the South Kansas-Texas Cavalry, to turn the federals' right flank. With only half of the regiment present (having never located the troops that had become separated from him during their flight from Sigel's dawn bombardment), Greer's Texans were nonetheless ready to redeem themselves, and 400 horsemen moved west along the north side of Skegg's Branch. They passed behind and to the left of Price's infantry and joined with the 350 men of the Carroll's First Arkansas Cavalry. The column then used the cover of a large ravine to move to a point Greer believed was behind the Union flank. Greer ordered an immediate charge, failing to coordinate the move with Carroll or even to communicate with his own captains. As a result, no more than three of the five companies of horsemen actually made the charge.


Greer's attack was more daring than effective. While some federal troops fled in advance of the charging horsemen, the reserve units immediately positioned themselves to fire on Greer's right flank as the Texans advanced.

Greer's attack was more daring than effective. While some federal troops fled in advance of the charging horsemen, the reserve units immediately positioned themselves to fire on Greer's right flank as the Texans advanced. After sending several volleys into the Texans' ranks, drawing their first blood of the battle, Du Bois and Totten pivoted guns to fire on the southerners. Together, they drove Greer's men off "with ease," causing Totten to remark of the only cavalry demonstration of the day that "their cavalry is utterly worthless on the battle-field."

At the base of Bloody Hill, Price prepared for what would prove the largest assault of the day.

He sent couriers looking for Pearce, whose Arkansas State Troops had yet to see action. After Sigel's rout, Pearce had led the Fourth Arkansas south from their camp on the east side of Wilson Creek to the ridge that Sigel had occupied before to his morning advance, leaving his remaining two regiments in reserve near the Wire Road. The Arkansas troops had remained in their respective places until around 10 A.M., when McIntosh, as McCulloch's adjutant, brought word that Price's troops on Bloody Hill needed reinforcing. Price's couriers reached Pearce at nearly the same time, and with the southern rear now secure, Pearce and McIntosh lead seven companies from the Fourth Arkansas to the aid of the Missouri State Guard. Pearce did not want to leave the Wire Road unguarded and dispatched only the Third Arkansas from the camp to help Price, leaving the Pulaski Battery and the Second Arkansas in reserve.

A LIVING HISTORY DEMONSTRATION AT WILSON'S CREEK NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD DEPICTS MEMBERS OF THE SECOND KANSAS INFANTRY FIRING AT THE ENEMY. (NPS)

COLONEL RICHARD H. WEIGHTMAN OF THE MISSOURI STATE GUARD WAS KILLED WHILE LEADING HIS BRIGADE ON BLOODY HILL. (NPS)

In a lull following the State Guard's second assault, Pearce led his men to the extreme left of Price's line. After personally leading them into place, Price offered welcome as well as stern instruction to Third Arkansas Colonel John R. Gratiot: "That is your position, colonel; take it and hold it whatever you do. I will see that you are not too hard-pressed. Don't yield an inch." With Pearce's arrival, as well as that of McCulloch and the Third Louisiana, the southern line shifted somewhat to make room for the fresh troops on the left. Price shifted Guibor's Missouri Light Artillery and Parson's infantry division to the center of his line, between General William Y. Slack's and Clark's State Guard divisions, in preparation for a renewed assault. Pearce's Third Arkansas initially moved in column but their commander, Colonel John R. Gratiot, soon deployed them into line and advanced. Immediately, they came under enfilade fire from Totten's artillery to their left, forcing Gratiot's men to lie in the tall grass, firing while prone, to avoid Totten's fearful fire. The lull was over.

When McIntosh placed the seven companies of the Fifth Arkansas, the Arkansas State Troops brought about a thousand fresh men into the struggle. Amid cheering, within minutes of Gratiot's advance the entire southern line began to advance. At 10:30 A.M., up to three thousand Arkansas and Missouri soldiers in a front more than a thousand yards long surged toward the federal line. The final assault on Bloody Hill had begun.

On the federal side, Schofield found Sturgis at about 10 A.M., during the lull following Price's second withdrawal and informed him that he was now in command of the Army of the West. The new Union commander took time to assess the situation. It looked dim. With what he believed to be twenty thousand troops in his front, the federals were "scattered and broken" after having driven off two assaults. Sturgis held the high ground, but his men were weary, hot, thirsty, and had not eaten since leaving Springfield approximately fifteen hours earlier. Ammunition was running low and no one knew anything of Sigel, causing Sturgis to fear the worst. The new commander called his available officers into a brief council of war and concluded that if Sigel did not appear soon, they must retreat. Hope revived when the officers saw a large column of infantry moving down the hill on the east side of Wilson Creek, seemingly carrying an American flag. Believing it might be the German, Sturgis issued orders for the federals on Bloody Hill to prepare for an advance and to engage the approaching force.


"They were lying down in the brush and grass until we were within one hundred yards of them, then they opened up on us bringing us down like sheep but we never wavered."

As Sturgis's men were readying themselves for an advance, Price and McCulloch moved their long line forward. The center of the Union line bore the brunt of this third southern assault. Federal officers instructed the soldiers to remain concealed in the grass and expose themselves only to shoot. "Lying flat on their faces our men poured in their fire with telling effect," newspaperman Franc Wilkie reported. Southerners did similarly; a private in the Third Arkansas recalled, "They were lying down in the brush and grass until we were within one hundred yards of them, then they opened up on us bringing us down like Sheep but we never wavered. We did not wait for orders to fire but all of us cut loose at them like wild men, then we dropped to our knees and loaded and shot as fast as we could. We had to shoot by guess as they were lying upon the hill lying in the grass." Because men on both sides kept so low to the ground, a disproportionate number of those killed or wounded were struck in the head.

THIS PILE OF STONES MARKED THE SPOT WHERE GENERAL LYON FELL. PHOTOGRAPH CIRCA 1897. (NPS)

This firing during this third southern assault proved the most intense of the day, and huge clouds of powder smoke covered much of the south slope of Bloody Hill. Sturgis's infantry fire was telling, but artillery may well have saved the federal line. With four guns in place at the federal center, Totten threw round after round of canister into the southern ranks, punishing them terribly. The southerners managed to advance to within twenty feet of the artillery before being forced back nearly immediately. With only limited battle experience, much less against artillery at close range, the State Guard performed extraordinarily to advance even as close as they did. With the center safe, Sturgis's line did not yield. After about forty-five minutes of combat all along the battle front, Price realized that once again his attack had failed, and he broke off his infantry for a third time, falling back to regroup. Firing ended almost immediately. It was about 11:30 A.M., and with still no word from Sigel, Sturgis ordered the Second Kansas, low on ammunition, to retire. As the regiment moved onto the northern spur of Bloody Hill, Du Bois's Battery and the Second Missouri joined them, followed shortly by the First Kansas and First Iowa.


(click on image for a PDF version)
THE UNION ARMY WITHDRAWS AND THE BATTLE ENDS (Bloody Hill, 1:30 A.M.-12:30 P.M.)
After a second southern assault on Bloody Hill fails to break the federal line (9-10 A.M.), Price prepares for a third attack. Reinforced by the Third and Fifth Arkansas Infantry Regiments, the southern line surges forward again about 10:30 A.M. Once more the Union troops hold fast, and at about 11 A.M. the southerners retire. Because of the death of General Lyon at about 9:30 A.M., Malor Samuel Sturgis is now in command of the Union forces on Bloody Hill. Following the third assault on his position, Sturgis orders a retreat to Springfield. At about 11:30 A.M. the federals begin to withdraw from Bloody Hill. As a large force of southerners moves against the Union rear guard, Captain Gordon Granger leads a counterattack that checks the advance. When the men of the Western Army advance up Bloody Hill a fourth time, they find themselves in possession of the field. The Battle of Wilson's Creek is over.

The southern troops, exhausted in the fiery noontime heat and low on ammunition, did not follow, and Sturgis's rear guard easily beat back a weak advance by Price's men before retiring in good order. Pearce recalled that he and McCulloch "watched the retreating enemy through our field-glasses, and were glad to see him go." The federal force marched northward, reaching Springfield around 5 P.M., half an hour after Sigel reached town (well ahead of his own routed troops), approximately twelve hours after they had first marched out to attack the southern army. A council of war determined to evacuate Springfield the next day, pulling back to Rolla. The battle, as well as Lyon's campaign, was over. With its leader had died its purpose.

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