A look at the Civil War’s second big battle, and an Iowan of General Ulysses S. Grant’s western army airs his views.
By Earl J. Hess
Historians are finally beginning to accept the battles west of the Mississippi River as integral parts of Civil War history. Roughly half the territory of the Confederacy lay west of the river, yet with only a fraction of the Confederacy’s population and material resources, the region was only one step away from frontier status. Consequently, the war in the Trans-Mississippi differed in many ways from the war in the East. It was less organized, less closely monitored by political authorities and frequently less civilized.
In Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2000, $37.50), authors William Garret Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III have produced a well-written, scholarly study of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, which the authors note was the second major battle of the war. Fought on August 10, 1861, it involved about 10,000 Confederate and 5,000 Union soldiers, and it set back Union efforts to control the border slave state of Missouri by several months.
Wilson’s Creek resulted from Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon’s efforts to save Missouri for the Union. The battle ended a series of Federal successes that included the capture of the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard on May 10, Lyon’s occupation of the Missouri River Valley in June and the disruption of efforts to raise another pro-Confederate state army, the Missouri State Guard. Lyon’s actions were contested by Missouri’s governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, and Maj. Gen. Sterling Price.
The struggle to decide the fate of Missouri also drew many Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas troops, under the command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch, into the state, and a few Cherokees even fought on the Confederate side. Lyon’s force consisted of a tiny field army of German-American regiments from St. Louis, volunteers from Kansas and Iowa and Regular Army troops from the frontier.
Piston and Hatcher set out to write a book that combined the tried and true attributes of a traditional battle study with a social history of the men who fought in the engagement. In both areas they have succeeded admirably. Piston, a professor at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, and Hatcher, a National Park Service historian who once worked at the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, have done exhaustive research on the engagement.
Their detailed tactical study of the battle is as good as any yet produced by the new generation of military historians. Every turn of events is analyzed without tedium, each terrain feature is noted, and the book contains excellent comments on everything from logistics to firing tactics, combat morale, unit formations, the care of the wounded, the burial of the dead and hometown reactions to the battle.
Piston and Hatcher also offer some new, or at least not widely recognized, views of Wilson’s Creek. They portray Lyon as an innovator, among the first Civil War field commanders to use steamboats and railroads to move troops strategically, and they rightly give him credit for seizing the Missouri River Valley and thereby securing that essential portion of the state.
Lyon moved his small army a total of 260 miles from St. Louis to Springfield with pitifully few resources and improvised logistical support. Moreover, his superior commander, Maj. Gen. John Charles Frémont, seemed to care little whether he succeeded or failed. Piston and Hatcher also point out that one of the reasons for the often-confusing propensity of the Trans-Mississippi’s field armies to be constantly on the move was that they needed to forage heavily from the countryside.
The authors do not, however, spare Lyon’s poor performance in the later phase of the campaign leading up to Wilson’s Creek. They point out that he showed signs of decline in the days before the battle; pressure and emotional strain led him to abandon his dictatorial command style and rely heavily on councils of war to make decisions. Still eager to engage the Confederates in battle, he decided to attack McCulloch and Price’s camps along Wilson’s Creek to punish the Rebels before falling back to Rolla. Colonel Franz Sigel easily persuaded the exhausted general to give him command of a small detachment to attack the Confederate rear, thus dividing his already outnumbered command. For the Federals, the results were disastrous. The authors also point out that Lyon was a poor tactician. He failed to handle his army well on the battlefield and thereby lessened his own chances of victory. His death during the battle, however, made Lyon an early Union martyr and obscured his flaws.
Piston and Hatcher also criticize McCulloch and Price. The former, who commanded the combined Confederate forces in the battle, probably was intimidated by Lyon’s success early in the campaign. Price, although not intimidated by anyone, was not a good tactician. He was uncooperative with McCulloch to the point of being obtuse, and his sour relations with his superior officer contributed to the Confederate failure to fully realize the fruits of their victory at Wilson’s Creek.
A careful reading of this fine book reveals many insights into Civil War military history, including how ineffective both armies were at this early, highly improvisational stage of the conflict. On all levels of command, from Lyon and McCulloch down to company commanders, officers had only vague ideas about how to lead men in battle, and the common soldier had only specious insights into what combat was like. Despite such inexperience, the battle reached a level of bitter violence typical of the frontier environment.
While Piston and Hatcher excel in writing a good battle study, they blend a traditional military narrative with substantial social analysis. Thus much of the book is devoted to explaining how and why the companies that fought at Wilson’s Creek were organized. The authors’ emphasis on the company rather than the regiment as the basic unit of identity for most soldiers is well taken, at least at this early period of the war. Piston and Hatcher have absorbed many lessons suggested by a handful of Civil War historians who have recently argued that motivation, community ties, concepts of honor and other cultural values played an immensely important role in determining the behavior of the common soldier. Basing their findings on personal accounts, muster rolls, descriptive rolls and soldiers’ letters published in hometown newspapers, Piston and Hatcher believe that a commitment to honor the prestige of home communities and pride in their companies were the most important motivating factors in the soldiers’ behavior.
There is scant reason to offer criticism of this excellent book, for it accomplishes what the authors intended. I do wonder, however, if a true social history of the men who fought at Wilson’s Creek can be complete without intently looking at their lives after the battle. Unfortunately, while Piston and Hatcher found wonderful pre-Wilson’s Creek letters from soldiers expressing their concern for upholding their honor, they included none that discussed whether these men felt the same way after surviving the horrible battle. The result is that the social analysis often comes across as snapshots of soldiers frozen at the same brief point in time rather than as a well-rounded history.
The book’s other weakness is its lack of a detailed study of the long, complex campaign that led to Wilson’s Creek. Three months separated Lyon’s capture of the Missouri State Guard and the clash at Wilson’s Creek. A new assessment of the strategic picture in Missouri before and after the battle still needs to be written. Nevertheless, Piston and Hatcher have provided an innovative social history and a detailed tactical analysis of a small but crucial Civil War battle, one that had an impact far beyond its size on all subsequent events in the Trans-Mississippi theater.