Six months into the war, a major loss in the Ozarks made the score Rebs 2, Yanks 0.
Missouri was a mess. A state convention overwhelmingly rejected secession in March 1861, but public sentiment was mixed. By late July, Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and the Army of the West were deep in the Ozarks, trying to keep southwestern Missouri in Union hands.
Lyon failed. On August 6, 12,000 Confederates—the ad hoc Western Army of General Ben McCulloch—camped on Wilson’s Creek, 10 miles southwest of the Union post at Springfield. Waist-high prairie grass and scrub oak covered the rolling hills on both sides of the water.
The Army of the West—a force of U.S. Regulars and loyalist volunteers, mostly German immigrants from St. Louis—numbered only 5,000. The volunteer enlistments were expiring, and repeated requests for reinforcements had been denied. Lyon would have to pull back a hundred miles to Rolla, the nearest railhead, but he feared McCulloch would overtake him. So Lyon decided to gamble: “I propose to…throw our whole force upon him at once, and endeavor to rout him before he can recover from his surprise.”
Union Colonel Franz Sigel added an even more surprising twist. He would split two regiments of volunteers from Lyon’s army and march around the Confederate camp to attack it from the rear. The Germans were absolutely devoted to Sigel, himself a German immigrant who had led troops back home in the failed Revolution of 1848. While extremely risky, the plan was so unexpected it just might work.
The Army of the West and the Western Army waited restlessly for days while their commanders hesitated. “Hell and Damnation,” thundered Confederate surgeon John Wyatt. “Suspense is killing us all.” When the decision was finally made to move, Lyon and McCulloch ironically launched the same plan: a night march on the enemy and a surprise attack at dawn.
On August 9, McCulloch recalled his pickets to join their commands for the march on Springfield. Shortages already plagued the Southern cause, and each man averaged only 25 rounds of ammunition. Few Confederates had
leather cartridge boxes to keep that ammunition dry; when a late-day thunderstorm rolled in off the prairie, the operation was postponed. In the confusion, the pickets failed to return to duty, leaving McCulloch’s army unprotected.
Lyon and Sigel, however, stepped off as planned about 6 p.m. Rather than taking the Telegraph Road straight into the heart of the Confederate camp, Lyon’s 4,300 men tramped over farm lanes and fields to arrive just north of the camp, on the west side of Wilson’s Creek. Sigel’s 1,100 men emerged atop a hill south of the camp, on the east side of the creek. Lyon ran into some foragers in the darkness and shots were fired. But the foragers escaped to warn their commander, Colonel James Cawthorn, of the impending attack. Cawthorn dispatched 300 mounted troopers to the top of a ridge that would soon earn the name “Bloody Hill.”
Lyon’s artillery opened fire at 5 a.m., scattering the horsemen. But it took more than an hour to fully consolidate the Union hold on the high ground. Meanwhile, Captain William Woodruff’s Pulaski Light Artillery blasted away at Lyon from the other side of Wilson’s Creek. Lyon ordered Captain Joseph Plummer across the creek to defend the Union left with a force of U.S. Regulars and Missouri Home Guards. Plummer got as far as the cornfield on John Ray’s farm before a sharp skirmish with the 3rd Louisiana Infantry and 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles drove him back across the creek.
Two miles to the south, Sigel heard the initial bombardment and unleashed his artillery on the unsuspecting Rebels camped around Joseph Sharp’s farm. The camp erupted in pandemonium as Sigel directed his troops to cross Wilson’s Creek and cut off any escape down the Telegraph Road. All had gone well so far, and when his men captured dozens of fleeing Southerners, Sigel assumed the column behind them was the gray-clad 1st Iowa Infantry in hot pursuit. He realized too late that it was actually the 3rd Louisiana with a contingent of Missouri State Guards and two artillery batteries. McCulloch had cobbled the force together on the fly, and it fired into Sigel’s men at close range, dropping a third of the volunteers on the spot. Surprised and panicked, many of the remaining Germans at first refused to return fire, believing they were facing Union troops. Then they ran.
Back at Bloody Hill, Woodruff’s artillery barrage bought Maj. Gen. Sterling Price enough time to form a battle line at the base of the hill. The Yankees struggled down the slope, unable to advance in a line, as the Southerners pushed back until their momentum was checked. After a brief respite, the armies re-engaged at close range with Lyon leading a charge. Minutes later, he was dead, shot through the heart and both lungs, the first Union general killed in combat.
McCulloch ordered reinforcements to Bloody Hill. Soon 3,000 Confederates were primed for a final assault on the Union position. Major Samuel Sturgis, now leading Lyon’s army, evaluated his options. There weren’t many. No one in Union command knew what had happened to Sigel. Ammunition and supplies were dangerously low. Still, Sturgis’ line held against a fierce attack that brought the enemy to within 20 feet of Union artillery. Price’s men were forced to fall back again, but they had unknowingly won the day. Sturgis couldn’t risk another fight.
A scorching August sun beat down as Sturgis ordered his men to Springfield. “We watched the retreating enemy through our field-glasses,” recalled Confederate Brig. Gen. Nicholas Pearce, “and were glad to see him go.”
Christine Kreiser is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.