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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Wilson's Creek



The Battle of Wilson's Creek, or Oak Hills, as federals and Confederates, respectively, called it, was the first major battle of the war after Bull Run. Unlike the battle in Virginia, in which casualties were light when compared to the number of troops involved, the fight at Wilson's Creek was bloodier than anyone could have imagined. In the brief six and a half hours of fighting, Lyon's Army of the West suffered 285 killed, 873 wounded, and 186 missing, or 1,317 out of 5,400 men involved (a 24.5 percent casualty rate), while McCulloch's Western Army incurred 277 dead and 945 wounded, or 1,222 losses of more than 10,200 men (a 12 percent casualty rate). Both in total numbers and as a percentage of the force engaged, Lyon's losses were greater than those of any battle in the Mexican War, while McCulloch's were higher than all but three battles in that war. Taken together, the 16 percent casualty rate was one of the highest of the Civil War. When viewed in light of the fact that the battle was fought between forces consisting overwhelmingly of untried recruits, of which nearly half were armed with no more than shotguns or hunting rifles and of which several thousand were completely unarmed and never took part in the battle, the statistics are particularly telling. As one participant aptly remembered the battle, it was one "mighty mean-fowl fight."


News of Wilson's Creek and of Lyon's death made headlines across the country, evoking conflicting responses. Despite the initial banner of the New York Times, which proclaimed the battle a "Great National Victory in Missouri," the actual results soon made for somber reading among Unionists.

News of Wilson's Creek and of Lyon's death made headlines across the country, evoking conflicting responses. Despite the initial banner of the New York Times, which proclaimed the battle a "Great National Victory in Missouri," the actual results soon made for somber reading among Unionists. Barton Bates wrote to his father, Edward, attorney general for the Lincoln administration, that "General Lyon's death cost us much popular strength throughout the state." Many were discontented by what they perceived to have been Frémont's wanton sacrifice of Lyon, while others questioned Lyon's rash strategy. Prosouthern Missourians rejoiced at the news. "Lyon, the king of the beasts, the Camp Jackson HERO, the murderer of innocent women and children and as I believe under the displeasure of God," wrote one such embittered Missourian, "has met his just reward."

The victorious Missouri State Guard remained in Springfield, while McCulloch and Pearce returned to Arkansas, the breach between the State Guard and Confederate commanders having widened in the days immediately following the battle. In September, Price marched his force northward, intending to retake the Missouri River and his home. On September 20, with exiled governor Jackson in attendance, Price—his ranks swelled to twenty thousand troops—captured a three-thousand man Union garrison under Colonel James A. Mulligan at Lexington. Together, the victories at Wilson's Creek and Lexington marked the high-water mark of secessionist hopes in Missouri. With nearly thirty-eight thousand troops massing on his flanks, Price could not remain in Lexington and retreated to Cassville. Protected by Price's force, in October a rump assembly of the state legislature met at Neosho and passed an act delivering Missouri into the Confederacy, which eventually admitted it as its twelfth state. Jackson had achieved his long-sought secession, but the gesture was meaningless. Without control of the seat of power and with the federal government firmly controlling St. Louis, the state would remain in Union hands. Sterling Price ultimately left the state, fighting with his State Guard in Arkansas at Pea Ridge (where McCulloch was killed) and serving with the Confederate army in northern Mississippi. In 1864, he led a massive armed cavalry raid back to the state, in hopes of diverting federals from Georgia and redeeming his home state from Union hands. Instead, a combined federal campaign drove Price once again from the state's borders. With the exception of that and separate cavalry raids by John S. Marmaduke, Jo Shelby, and M. Jeff Thompson, Price's retreat from Lexington in the fall of 1861 marked the last real show of Confederate force in Missouri.


In October 1861, Frémont found himself plagued by the fallout from Wilson's Creek. Continuing as department commander, the Pathfinder received vehement criticism for his abandonment of Lyon. Though Frank Blair initially lay blame for Lyon's defeat and death on "red tape and Quartermasters Department," he soon led the storm of protest against Frémont. He would ultimately appear before Congress's Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War and excoriate his family's former friend. By that time, the Pathfinder had left Missouri after angering Lincoln with a premature emancipation proclamation in the state. On November 2, Frémont received the order for his removal by courier as he led troops in pursuit of Price following the battle at Lexington. He gave up his command at Springfield, the scene of Lyon's death.

Perhaps most dramatic were the effects of Lyon's campaign and Wilson's Creek on the Missouri populace. By polarizing the state, Lyon and Blair provided guerrilla bands with a cause célèbre for which they subjected large areas of Missouri to three years of rampant bushwhacking, sniping, hit-and-run raiding, arson, and murder. The truest demonstration of the improbable oxymoron civil war was nowhere more apparent than in Missouri, its brutal guerrilla war unsurpassed in its fury and scope in the entire national conflict. Pro-Confederates such as William Quantrill, "Bloody" Bill Anderson, Jesse and Frank James, and George Todd gained notoriety by unleashing bloodthirsty attacks on Unionist residents, while pro-Union Jayhawkers like James H. Lane, James Montgomery, and Charles Jennison led retaliatory raids that often equaled their rivals in their destructive fury. More than any other state, Missouri suffered the horror of internecine warfare that, almost as Lyon had predicted at the Planters' House, touched every man, woman, and child living there in some way during the next three years and beyond. The Battle of Wilson's Creek offered the first unleashing of that coming fury.

(click on image for a PDF version)
Wilson's Creek

Back cover: The Death of Lyon, Kurz and Allison lithograph (NPS collection).
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