The American Civil War : Bloody Wilson's Creek Missouri August 1861

Updated on August 5, 2020
Mark Caruthers profile image

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

The Bleeding of Kansas

The Battle of Wilson's Creek was the result of a series of events that started with the "Bleeding of Kansas." It was a struggle that began in 1854 which determined whether Missouri's western neighbor would be admitted the United States as a free or a slave state. After six years of bloody intermittent violence between armed gangs along the border between the two states the region was in a state of open rebellion. With the election of the Republican Party candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1860 the potential for armed conflict between the northern and southern states dramatically increased.

Most citizens of Missouri hoped to avoid a secession crisis. Their state was western by its geographic location, in fact it was known as the gateway to the west, but was largely Southern by heritage. A slave state since its creation in 1820, Missouri's countryside was mostly made up of small farms that grew cotton and tobacco, on which slaves were used to tend to the owners crops. Yet with a tremendous inflow of immigrants, mostly Germans who settled around St. Louis, and a growing railway system that linked it to the North's factories the state's future was leaning toward a different future. Although seven Southern states left the Union to form the Confederacy by February 1861, Missouri's delegates meeting in convention the following March rejected secession.

Though most of Missouri's citizens desired neutrality, its current Governor Claiborne Jackson favored secession. He invited gangs of pro-slavery militia from the countryside into St. Louis in an effort to force Missouri into the Confederacy . When Fort Sumter fell to a Confederate attack (April 12-14 1861), President Lincoln called on all the Northern states governors to send 75,000 troops to help restore the Union. Jackson refused to obey his request. Instead, he allowed several pro-secessionist volunteer militia companies to camp just outside St. Louis giving them an opportunity to seize the large Federal arsenal located in the city. As Claiborne secretly negotiated with Confederate authorities in Richmond, many of the pro-Southern militia brazenly displayed Confederate flags. Nathaniel Lyon the commander of the Federal troops at the arsenal was committed to defending his post. He wanted Missouri to maintain their allegiance to the national government upsetting the governor's plans. He immediately set up 24-hour perimeter patrols around the arsenal. Lyon also armed the pro-Union German immigrants in the city promising to arm any and all Union volunteers regardless of his superiors orders. Soon his actions would lead to a series of events that would lead the state of Missouri in chaos.

With a small force of U.S. Army Regulars and a large contingent of volunteers Lyon seized the initiative by capturing "Camp Jackson," the large camp of Missouri militia loyal to Governor Jackson on May 10, 1861. Captain Lyon followed this bloodless coup by marching his pro-Southern captives through the crowed streets of St. Louis full of citizens loyal to Governor Jackson soon a riot erupted. Lyon's pro-Union army fired on the crowd, killing or wounding over one hundred civilians, including women and children. The "Camp Jackson Massacre" polarized the citizens of Missouri opening up a period of armed conflict between the "free staters" and those who were loyal to the confederacy. To defend the state, the previously pro-Union legislature created the Missouri State Guard, a county-based militia divided into nine geographic divisions, each headed by a brigadier general. Jackson named Sterling Price, a Mexican War hero and former governor of Missouri, as a major general to command the State Guard's forces in the field. Price whom historian Albert Castel named as a central figure in the Civil War west of the Mississippi. He was born to a modestly wealthy Virginia family who later migrated to Missouri. As Missouri's white population between the ages of eighteen and forty-five numbered over 100,000, the military potential of the State Guard was considerable.

The Battle Of Wilson's Creek

The leader of the Union forces at Wilson Creek, General Nathaniel Lyon, falls mortally wounded with a bullet to the heart the first Union general to die in the Civil War,  as Union troops fight on.
The leader of the Union forces at Wilson Creek, General Nathaniel Lyon, falls mortally wounded with a bullet to the heart the first Union general to die in the Civil War, as Union troops fight on. | Source
Mural of the Battle of Wilson's Creek which hangs in the Missouri State Capital.
Mural of the Battle of Wilson's Creek which hangs in the Missouri State Capital. | Source
Riots in the streets of St. Louis by supporters of Governor Jackson's pro-Southern supporters.
Riots in the streets of St. Louis by supporters of Governor Jackson's pro-Southern supporters. | Source
Camp Jackson Massacre of pro-Southern militia by Nathaniel Lyon who was committed to defending the St. Louis Arsenal, May 10th 1861.
Camp Jackson Massacre of pro-Southern militia by Nathaniel Lyon who was committed to defending the St. Louis Arsenal, May 10th 1861. | Source
Nathaniel Lyon, a West Point graduate, the leader of Union troops who wanted Missouri to maintain their allegiance to the national government.
Nathaniel Lyon, a West Point graduate, the leader of Union troops who wanted Missouri to maintain their allegiance to the national government. | Source
Major General Sterling Price the commander of the pro-Southern Missouri State Guard.
Major General Sterling Price the commander of the pro-Southern Missouri State Guard. | Source

General Nathaniel Lyon Captures Jefferson City

With volunteer regiments recruited from the over 50,000 loyal German immigrants General Nathaniel Lyon drove the secessionist government led by Sterling Price's Missouri State Guard out of Jefferson City. He quickly secured Missouri's key river and railway communications pushing Confederate forces into the frontier that bordered southwestern Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Lyon would not be satisfied as long as Price's State Guard remained a threat to Union control of Missouri. After receiving reinforcements from Kansas, Lyon pushed south and west in three columns, forcing State Guard troops to withdraw deep into the Ozarks before they could be properly organized, trained, and equipped.

With a force of almost 7,000 men Lyon wanted to bring about a decisive battle to punish those who defied Union authority. But his commander Major General John C. Fremont had other ideas. As the newly appointed Union commander in Missouri, he advised Lyon to set up a defensive position northeast of Rolla, near the railhead where he could be supplied more easily and be in a better position to support the primary Union objective in the Western Theater, opening the Mississippi River to Union control. Lyon would ignore Fremont's advice and in August 1861 he would defiantly march his small Union army southwest, spoiling of a fight, hoping to battle the Missouri State Guard before Price could receive assistance from the Confederacy. But Price was ready for Lyon's army with some 7,000 State Guard troops at Cowskin Prairie in the extreme southwest corner of Missouri.

Price had reached out to Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch, who commanded the Confederate forces in northwest Arkansas who had watched Lyon's progress with considerable apprehension. McCulloch was a former Texas Ranger and hero of the Mexican War. A transplanted Texan and legendary Indian fighter he was given the job of protecting Arkansas and the Indian Territory from Union troops. Given the job of protecting the northern border of Indian Territory, McCulloch believed that the presence of Price's forces in Missouri made his job considerably easier, so he decided to rescue them from impending defeat. Concentrating his forces gathered from Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana near the border of northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri, on the 4th of July 1861, McCulloch rode ahead to meet with Price at his camp as his troops marched into Missouri initiating the first Confederate invasion of the United States.

The next day, while McCulloch's men were marching into Missouri, Lyon's advance forces commanded by Franz Sigel walked into the trap. Having reached Springfield on the 24th of June well in advance of Lyon, Sigel had decided to press forward alone and engage the retreating State Guard near Carthage, Missouri. Sigel had about 1,000 troops on hand for the attack, while Price's State Guard numbered over 4,000 men, a 4 to 1 advantage. Sigel was aware of the disparity between their two forces, and had the experience to know better having commanded armies in multiple battles during the German revolution of 1848. After sustaining light casualties Sigel was able to disengage from the battle. When Lyon heard of the clash, he immediately initiated a forced march to rescue Sigel form complete destruction. Lyon had to abandon much of his baggage train crossing the Grand River, and he had his men strip down even further as they hurried southward through the night, covering more than 50 miles in 30 hours to reach Springfield.

When Lyon arrived he found Sigel's troops in good order, but both the Union forces were exhausted, their uniforms reduced to tatters from battle and forced march. Lyon demoralized and confused by the turn of events set up camp to think out his next move. But McCulloch called off his invasion of Missouri dismayed after witnessing the condition of Price's State Guard troops to await developments. The Missouri State Guard now numbered 7,000 volunteers, including 2,000 who were unarmed. Price's troops were dressed in all types of attire, and those who had weapons mostly carried shotguns and squirrel rifles. Food was perhaps Price's troops most pressing concern. Without a rail or river base, the Guards stripped the surrounding countryside clear of food. Soon they would be forced to retreat to find more food. In Springfield, Lyon's army was dealing with the same dilemma. Food had began to become scarce due to the haphazard supply situation, with typhoid and diarrhea thinning Lyon's ranks.

Battle of Wilson's Creek August 10,1861

Battle Map of Wilson's Creek
Battle Map of Wilson's Creek | Source
Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch led rebel troops from northwest Arkansas. McCulloch was a legendary Indian fighter and Texas Ranger.
Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch led rebel troops from northwest Arkansas. McCulloch was a legendary Indian fighter and Texas Ranger. | Source
Franz Sigel commanded the German troops at the Battle of Wilson's Creek
Franz Sigel commanded the German troops at the Battle of Wilson's Creek | Source
Wilson's Creek Battlefield a National Park today.
Wilson's Creek Battlefield a National Park today. | Source

Lyon Pushes Onward Toward Wilson's Creek

Instead of retreating back to Rolla, Lyon was determined to strike the State Guard once again, regardless of conditions. On the morning of the 1st of August 1861, he marched his combined command of fewer than 6,000 weary soldiers through the blistering 110 degree heat in search of battle. Price and McCulloch had combined their forces once again in an attempt to defeat Lyon as he marched toward them south of Springfield. Overcoming his distrust of Price's troops, McCulloch agreed to assume overall command of the Confederate forces. McCulloch's army now numbered over 10,000 troops, almost a two to one advantage over Lyon's Union force.

On the 2cnd and 3rd of August the leading elements of the Northern and Southern armies clashed uneventfully at Dug Springs. McCulloch believed the Missouri State Guard performed poorly in the battle, and followed Lyon's troops cautiously as they retreated toward Springfield on the 4th of August 1861. Union troops reached Springfield the next day. On the 6th of August, McCulloch halted his pursuit of Lyon's army nine miles southwest of Springfield where Wire Road crossed Wilson Creek (Wilson Creek was mislabeled Wilson's Creek by the soldiers in the after battle reports).

For the next three days McCulloch hesitated scouting the approaches to Springfield while Price grew increasingly restless at his passivity. Under pressure from Price, on the 9th of August, McCulloch ordered a night march on Springfield planning to attack the city at dawn. But when rain showers hit the area, McCulloch decided to delay the attack on Springfield until the next day hoping for better weather. The Confederate Western Army had an average of only twenty-five rounds of ammunition per man, and many of the Missouri State Guard troops lacked the cartridge boxes needed to keep their powder dry. In an effort to strengthen his rebel force McCulloch would have his quartermaster give a thousand old flintlock muskets with bayonets to some of Price's unarmed State Guard troops, and enough ammunition to make them of some use on the battlefield. When the Confederates settled down to rest before the next day's attack, McCulloch failed to repost the pickets who normally guarded the camp at night.

As darkness settled over the Confederate camp that night, the valley of Wilson Creek sheltered over 12,000 troops occupying both sides of a shallow stream called Wilson Creek, together with an unknown number of women, children, and slaves who accompanied the Confederate army. As the Confederate army slept, Lyon after several conferences with his other commanders began his march out of Springfield to attack McCulloch's rebel camps dawn the following day, the 10th of August 1861. At nearly the last moment Colonel Franz Sigel recommended dividing Lyon's command into two columns, one under Lyon's command and the other one under his command, in order to strike the Confederates simultaneously from two directions. Lyon agreed with Sigel's daring new plan believing it would surprise and confuse his enemy possibly defeating McCulloch decisively.

Instead of attacking along Wire Road (known today as Old Wire Road), where the Confederate generals expected, Lyon would move west out of Springfield, then turn due south to strike the northern end of the Confederate camps at Wilson Creek. Sigel would take his troops south then west to reach the high ground near the southern edge of McCulloch's position. Just nineteen days earlier at Bull Run, near Manassas Junction, Virginia, the attacking Union army was dealt a embarrassing defeat at the hands of Stonewall Jackson leaving the battlefield to the Confederate army as they fled in disarray back to Washington D.C.. Despite being out of communication and beyond supporting distance of each other, Lyon and Sigel achieved their difficult objective of simultaneously attacking McCulloch's army at dawn from opposite directions at Wilson Creek. Lyon would proclaim to his chief of staff, "In less than an hour the enemy will wish they were a thousand miles away."

But soon the fortunes of war for the two Union columns would differ greatly. Lyon ran into unexpectedly stiff resistance from Price's troops on the northern end of the Confederate camp on a piece of ground later christened "Bloody Hill." This would largely cancel the element of surprise as rebel cannons blasted Lyon's flank with case shot and shell. Price was able to get his troops out of their camps in the valley of Wilson Creek, and seize the initiative, forcing Lyon's troops on the defensive. In a perfect hail of bullets Lyon's and Price's troops formed ragged battle lines along the hill that bordered the northern end of the Confederate camp. Casualties mounted rapidly on both sides, as officers walked along the battle lines shouting words of assurance.

A protracted and blood-soaked struggle took place which determined the fate of Missouri's future, sometimes at distances as small as thirty yards. The fighting raged inconclusively until 7:30 A.M., at which time the strength of Price's growing battle line forced Lyon's regiment to retreat. By 8:00 A.M. Lyon's attack had lost all potential for victory. Lyon would remain in the firestorm for another two hours. Grazed by one bullet on the side of the head and struck in the calf by another, he painfully walked to the rear of the line limping awkwardly after a third Confederate bullet killed his horse. "I'm afraid the day is lost," he cried to his chief of staff, Major John Scholfield. No, General, let us try once more," shouted Scholfield. Encouraged by his men and chief of staff, Lyon returned to the hail of bullets that was Bloody Hill. With help he mounted a replacement horse, and with blood dripping from his wounds he advanced the crest of the hill for one last desperate charge.

Waving his hat, Lyon attempted to lead his men forward when suddenly a bullet would pierce his heart killing him instantly. His aids would carry his body back to the rear of the line and cover it so as not to cause a panic among his men as the regiment battled for its life. No one had heard from the German, Lyon's officers on Bloody Hill observed a column of infantry approaching the hill from the south. To their shock it was actually the 3rd Arkansas marching from reserve to reinforce the State Guard at Bloody Hill. Moving up alongside the troops from Arkansas, the 3rd Louisiana joined Price's alongside the 5th Arkansas, these were the very best Confederate troops at Wilson Creek well trained and battle hardened. McCulloch had managed to concentrate almost his entire force in an all out effort to take Bloody Hill from Lyon's forces.

Up and down the line, weary members of the State Guard joined McCulloch troops in charging the Union line. Clouds of smoke from burning powder darkened the landscape, as men fell all along the battle lines. At one point, Confederate troops advanced within 20 feet of Union cannons only to be mowed down by point-blank blast from the Union batteries. With one final grand effort McCulloch's rebels were unable to break the Union line on the crest of Bloody Hill. Union troops on the hill began to realize that Sigel would not be coming to their rescue, and with ammunition running low, they decided to take an advantage of a lull in the fighting to disengage and withdraw in well order to Springfield, although they left Lyon's body behind at Bloody Hill.

Too tired and disorganized McCulloch's troop were unable to follow the Union force as it retreated for Springfield. In the wake of the battle Union forces left the devastation of what had been a surprisingly bloody contest. With combined casualties of over 2,500, the medical staff of both armies were ill prepared for the task ahead. Days later, a wounded man in Springfield described the stench around city from the dead and dying to be so offensive as to be almost intolerable.

Sigel's initial attack on the southern end of the Confederate camp was a complete success. By placing his artillery on the high ground before his assault he was able to drive over 1,500 rebel troops away from their positions along Wire Road. This placed Sigel's troops in the rear of the entire Confederate army blocking their line of communication. Sigel, however, lost his advantage by poorly placing his troops, neglecting basic security, and making no attempt to contact Lyon. McCulloch would lead a counter-attack against Sigel's outnumbered troops that drove him from the field in disarray, capturing almost all of its artillery. Sigel's men were unable to stop the Confederate onslaught, he managed to save 400 of his 1,100 troops by hurrying them to the rear. McCulloch's cavalry caught up with what was left of Sigel's column and wiped them out, but Sigel was able to avoid capture by wrapping himself in a blanket to conceal his rank, and hiding in a cornfield eventually returning to Springfield while Lyon's troops were battling for their lives at Wilson Creek. "The battle," McCulloch wrote, "was well fought throughout, skillfully managed and stubbornly contested on both sides." Afterward, McCulloch would send Lyon's body back to Springfield for burial.

Following the battle for Wilson Creek McCulloch's reputation would become so fearsome the citizens of southwest Missouri lived in mortal fear of Ben McCulloch and his rebel army. Lyon's effort to secure the state of Missouri for the Union was mostly a success, but the aggressiveness of his campaign left the countryside, in a state of continual unrest. Savage guerrilla fighting would continue throughout the war and afterward, gunman such as the James-Younger gang would continue their raids on banks and trains until the 1890s.

Wilson Creek

Wilson Creek over one hundred and fifty years later, much like it was the day of the battle. After battle reports incorrectly referenced the body of water as Wilson's Creek, and it became the name of the battle.
Wilson Creek over one hundred and fifty years later, much like it was the day of the battle. After battle reports incorrectly referenced the body of water as Wilson's Creek, and it became the name of the battle. | Source

A Rare Atmospheric Phenomena an "Acoustic Shadow" Causes Confederate Generals Not To Hear Lyon's Attack

For the first hour of the battle at Wilson Creek McCulloch and Curtis were deaf to the fighting, the victims of an atmospheric anomaly known as an "acoustic shadow." The sound of battle was lost probably due to the configuration of the ground which broke the sound, and by the heavy wind, which appeared to blow from right to left during the day. According to Charles Ross, a physics professor at Longwood College in Virginia and a recognized expert on Civil War acoustic shadows, the zone of silence that hung over the Wilson Creek area that day "was a temperature induced refraction, combined with the effect of the terrain." The weather had been hot for weeks, and heated air near the ground pushed the sounds of battle upward. That, combined with the rugged terrain surrounding the battlefield that might have otherwise alerted McCulloch and Price as they peacefully at a breakfast of cornbread, beef, and coffee, completely unaware the battle was raging less than a mile away. Luckily they were able to react quickly to reports and help win the battle at Wilson Creek.


Cutrer, Thomas W. Ben McCulloch and the Frontier Military Tradition. University of North Carolina Press., Chapel Hill & London., 116 S Boundary St. Chapel Hill, NC 27514. USA 1993

Hess, Earl J. Wilson's Creek Pea Ridge & Prairie Grove. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln & London. 1111 Lincoln Mall, Lincoln, NE 68508 . USA 2006


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