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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Wilson's Creek



Most saw in their commander visible fatigue, others could "detect traces of deep anxiety in his countenance and voice. The latter more subdued and milder than usual."

Shortly before his troops' designated hour of departure, Lyon arrived at Phelps's Grove, the home of Congressman John S. Phelps, where Sturgis and four thousand troops had been stationed since their return to Springfield. The troops had been issued cartridges and two days' rations. Before commencing the march, Lyon addressed each of the regiments individually. Most saw in their commander visible fatigue; others could "detect traces of deep anxiety in his countenance and voice. The latter more subdued and milder than usual." Rather than encouragement, he offered instructions, telling them, "Don't shoot until you get orders. Fire low—don't aim higher than their knees; wait until they get close; don't get scared; it's no part of a soldier's duty to get scared." Duty and honor, not confidence in them as soldiers, was the recurring theme as Lyon addressed the various units. Though he meant his words to bolster his troops, many found them uninspiring, even "tactless and chilling." The only feeling they seemed to convey was exhaustion on the general's part.

Striking west, the column soon emerged onto Grand Prairie, with its rolling fields of grass and scattered trees. The setting sun shone directly into the soldiers' eyes for a short time, then replaced with thick dust and gloomy dusk. With the artillery's wheels wrapped with blankets and the horses' hooves in burlap to muffle the noise, Lyon personally led the main attack force, organized into three brigades. Sturgis's First Brigade, which spearheaded the march, was composed of 700 men (including an infantry battalion of regulars who headed the column and Totten's artillery battery) led by Captain Joseph B. Plummer. The Third Brigade, which came next in Lyon's column, over 1,100 strong and including Captain Frederick Steele's battalion of regulars and Lieutenant John V. Du Bois's four-gun battery, was led by the First Missouri's Lieutenant Colonel George W. Andrews. The final brigade in Lyon's column, the Fourth Brigade, with 2,300 men and composed of three volunteer infantry regiments—the First and Second Kansas, and the First Iowa—was the Army of the West's largest and was commanded by Colonel George W. Deitzler. All told, Lyon's column numbered 4,300 effectives—3,800 infantry, 350 mounted men, and 150 cannoneers manning ten guns.


Once darkness had fallen, local guides led the federals off the Mt. Vernon Road and onto local byroads or trails toward a point north of the Western Army's camps. When the federals halted about 1 A.M., they could see the glow of the enemy's campfires beyond the hills in the distance. Surprisingly, they met no outposts. Early on the evening of the August 9, in preparation for the attack on Springfield, the southern pickets had been withdrawn and had not returned to their posts after rain postponed the movement. Undetected, the federal column lay down to rest, waiting for dawn to approach so their attack could be coordinated with that of Sigel's column.

South of Springfield, Sigel prepared his Second Brigade for the impending attack. The German's command was composed of three units: eight companies of Third Missouri Infantry, nine companies of the Fifth Missouri Infantry, and the six-piece battery of Backofs Missouri Light artillery. By August 9 the combined regiments were down to only eleven hundred officers and men, including artillery (many of whom were recent recruits still learning to drill), having lost as many as three hundred men on the very eve of the battle, Nearly a third of Sigel's brigade officers had left their commands.


At 6:30 P.M., the brigade marched south out of its camp on the Yokermill Road, cavalry guarding the head and rear of the column. After crossing the James River and covering about five miles, Sigel led his troops southwest through woods and past farms, the rain setting in just after dark. With almost no moon and under cloud cover, the night was exceedingly dark and the units moved along only "with great difficulty." Around 11 P.M., Sigel halted the brigade and remained in position for three hours, resuming the march at 2 A.M. Sigel's guides led his command to a point close to Wilson Creek, just below where Terrell Creek joined the stream and southeast of the southern camps, halting again at around 4:30 A.M. Just before first light, Sigel put his men into motion once again, climbing a long hill that towered above the creek's east side. From there, the German had a commanding view of the unsuspecting southern cavalry camps spread across the wide, flat fields owned by Joseph D. Sharp, which lay along the creek's west side, a half-mile south of the main southern camps. His surprise appeared as yet complete. Unable to communicate with Lyon, Sigel awaited the dawn and the sound of Lyon's guns, his signal for his own attack.

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Lyon's vanguard makes contact with Colonel Dewitt Hunter's Missouri State Guard Regiment and drives the southerners toward Bloody Hill. State Guard colonel James Cawthorn then positions McCown's and Peyton's cavalrymen on Bloody Hill to slow Lyon's advance until reinforcements arrive. Lyon orders Captain Plummer and his regulars to cross Wilson's Creek to guard the federal left flank. At the opposite end of the southern encampment, Colonel Sigel's artillery opens fire on the enemy encamped at the Sharp Farm. The southern cavalrymen flee from Sigel's bombardment and Sigel begins his advance.

Turning to his chief of staff he remarked morbidly, "I am a believer in presentiments, and I have a feeling that I can't get rid of that I shall not survive this battle." A bit later, he added, "I will gladly give my life for a victory."

Far to the north side of the southern camps, Lyon and Schofield shared a rubber blanket in the light rain. The federal commander appeared more disconsolate than ever. Clearly, he was not hopeful for victory and muttered repeatedly about being abandoned by his superiors, especially Frémont. As Schofield remembered, the Connecticut Yankee "was oppressed with the responsibility of his situation, with anxiety for the cause, and with sympathy for the Union people in that section," lamenting that he "was the intended victim of a deliberate sacrifice to another's ambition." Turning to his chief of staff, he remarked morbidly, "I am a believer in presentiments, and I have a feeling that I can't get rid of that I shall not survive this battle." A bit later, he added, "I will gladly give my life for a victory."

At 4 A.M., Lyon resumed his advance, marching cross-country through the tall prairie grass to maintain the element of surprise. Entering a long, low valley, Lyon sensed that he would soon make contact with southern troops and deployed a line of skirmishers ahead of the main column. Nearly immediately, the skirmishers ran into a group of southern foragers who fired a few shots before running away. Assuming they were pickets posted to give the alarm, Lyon halted his column and formed its leading units into line of battle. The march resumed, with the federals maintaining a fairly rapid pace, encountering no more southerners for more than a mile.


Lyon's surprise was not complete. The foragers, along with a separate group of teamsters who had also spotted Lyon's advancing column, had returned back to their units in Rains's State Guard division and alerted their respective commanders. Within minutes, Rains ordered couriers to ride south to inform Price and McCulloch at their respective headquarters nearer to Skegg's Branch, more than a half-mile away. Colonel James Cawthorn, commander of the brigade that included the foragers who had made the initial contact with Lyon's men, dispatched a mounted three-hundred-man regiment along the west side of Wilson Creek. When these troops emerged from the ravine and onto the ridge forming the northern spur of the 170-foot eminence soon to be called "Bloody Hill," they could see Lyon's column, not quite 450 yards distant, dismounted and formed into line. Rather than brush the small force of horsemen aside, Lyon moved cautiously, deploying his artillery and opening fire before advancing at approximately 5 A.M. When Cawthorn heard the sound of firing, he formed the rest of his mounted brigade, at least six hundred strong, into position on the crest of the main portion of Bloody Hill to create a second line of defense between the enemy and the unprotected southern camps. Within a half-hour, the First Missouri on the right and the First Kansas on the left had moved the half-mile of rugged slope and pushed Cawthorn from the crest, exposing the Arkansans camps on the east side of Wilson Creek. Because Bloody Hill was so broad, they still could view neither Price's headquarters nor the majority of the camps of the Missouri State Guard and waited for the rest of Lyon's column.

Despite their early warning, the southern commanders were unprepared for Lyon's attack. At dawn, Price had sent an adjutant to McCulloch's headquarters to learn his plans for the advance on Springfield. McCulloch failed to inform the adjutant that several minutes earlier he had received word from Rains claiming enemy activity to the north. After sending two cavalry units to investigate, McCulloch decided to confer with Price in person. He left his headquarters around 5 A.M., and rode south to Price's headquarters, at the farm of William Edwards, just as Lyon's troops were engaging the State Guard on the northern spur of Bloody Hill. As McCulloch and Price ate breakfast, one of Rains's adjutants rode up and announced that federals were "approaching with twenty thousand men and 100 pieces of artillery." When a second messenger arrived from Rains, announcing that "the main body of the enemy was upon him," both Price and McCulloch set out to survey the situation at the northern end of their encampment. They soon heard the sound of cannon.



As Lyon's Missourians and Kansans, now joined by the First Iowa, on Bloody Hill engaged Rains's troops, Totten arrived and deployed his guns in between them, and both infantry and the artillery opened fire. They soon cleared the crest of the hill of southerners, and as Lyon waited for the rest of his line to deploy, Woodruff's Pulaski Arkansas Battery opened on him. Positioned on a lightly wooded ridge that paralleled the Wire Road on the east side of Wilson Creek, the Arkansans, under Captain William Woodruff, saw Lyon's two batteries deploy on Bloody Hill, more than half a mile away. As he watched the Missouri State Guard being driven off the hill by the federals, Woodruff began firing. The unit's two twelve-pounder howitzers and two six-pounder guns roared into action, effectively enfilading Lyon's advance. Totten's federal artillery immediately wheeled to target them, and soon shells screamed back and forth, high above and across Wilson Creek. The effectiveness of Woodruff s battery slowed Lyon's deployment, allowing the southern troops—which Lyon could not yet see—to form and advance to meet the stalled federals on Bloody Hill. The battle would soon join, the firing so intense that it was heard as far away as Springfield.

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