Wilson’s Creek: The Prelude

August 9, 1861 – Two opposing forces inadvertently advanced upon each other in southwestern Missouri, setting the stage for the second major battle of the war.

Federal Cpt. Nathaniel Lyon | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com
Federal Cpt. Nathaniel Lyon | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

By this month, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon’s Federal Army of the West had subjugated the Missouri government and pushed pro-secession state militia to Missouri’s southwestern corner. However, Lyon expected a strong counterattack, and sure enough Brigadier General Ben McCulloch had combined his force of Louisianans, Texans, and Arkansans with Major General Sterling “Pap” Price’s Missouri State Guardsmen. This 12,000-man force advanced to Crane Creek near Springfield on August 1, with McCulloch as the ranking commander.

Lyon’s army, totaling less than 6,000 men, moved 10 miles along the Wire road to Wilson’s Creek, south of Springfield. Lyon knew that a larger force was closing in on him, but he did not know from where. Varying reports indicated that the Confederates could be at Cassville, Carthage, or Sarcoxie.

McCulloch’s lead division under General James Rains advanced to the Curran Post Office and Dug Springs on the 2nd, about eight miles from the Federals. Lyon moved his men up to Dug Springs to meet the threat, and after dispersing a small cavalry force, both sides traded cannon fire through the woods. Rains then deployed infantry which pushed back the Federal left, but the remaining Federals held firm and sent Rains’s troops fleeing back to McCulloch at Crane Creek.

The next day, Lyon’s men dispersed a small Confederate camp at Curran and made off with most of the equipment left behind. However, he still could not pinpoint the location of the main enemy force, and many of his 90-day enlistments were about to expire. This would leave him with just 3,500 men.

Confederate General Sterling Price | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com
Confederate General Sterling Price | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

At Crane Creek, Price urged McCulloch to attack. McCulloch initially refused, but then a message from his superior, General Leonidas Polk, notified him that another 12,000-man Confederate force under General Gideon Pillow was advancing on New Madrid in southeastern Missouri. Seeing the potential of trapping Lyon between Pillow and himself, McCulloch relented and ordered an advance at midnight on the 5th to surprise Lyon the following dawn. But the Confederates did not know that Lyon had conducted a grueling day-long withdrawal toward Springfield.

Exaggerating the Confederates’ strength, Lyon reported that 20,000 men were confronting him, adding: “I am under the painful necessity of retreating, and can at most only hope to make my retreat good. I am in too great haste to explain more fully… Prudence seems now to indicate the necessity of withdrawing, if possible, from the country, and falling upon either Saint Louis or Kansas.”

Lyon stopped on the night of the 4th near Terrell Creek, a tributary of Wilson’s Creek. Major General John C. Fremont, Lyon’s superior in command of the Western Department, issued orders that “Montgomery’s force (the 3rd Kansas at Fort Leavenworth) join General Lyon’s command at Springfield, Missouri, immediately.”

On the morning of August 5, McCulloch discovered that Lyon was farther away than expected. Leaving his supplies at Crane Creek, McCulloch directed his men to pursue the Federals, whose supply wagons slowed their march on the Wire road. Intermittent skirmishing occurred with Lyon’s rear guard throughout the hot, humid day until McCulloch finally ordered a halt at Moody Springs, a few miles south of Wilson’s Creek. Lyon’s Federals continued on to Springfield.

By the 8th, McCulloch’s forces had gathered at Wilson’s Creek, 10 miles southwest of Lyon. Price urged an immediate attack, but McCulloch, who had dispatched scouts to reconnoiter enemy positions two days before, had not heard back from them yet. In Springfield, Lyon had prohibited residents from leaving town so they could not aid his opposition. However, two ladies claiming loyalty to the Union persuaded Lyon to let them out. They went straight to Price and informed him that Lyon’s men were worn out and perhaps not strong enough to hold Springfield.

Price shared this information with McCulloch, who still was not convinced that attacking Lyon was the best move. Even after scouting the Federal positions himself on the night of the 8th and seeing that they were much weaker than he had originally believed, McCulloch still hesitated. He called a council of war with his ranking officers for the afternoon of August 9.

At the meeting, McCulloch explained that his scouts still had not returned with any intelligence on Lyon’s army. Also, McCulloch questioned the combat readiness of the Missouri Guardsmen, citing their defeat at Dug Springs on the 2nd. When Price threatened to take back command of the Guard, McCulloch finally ordered a general advance to begin at 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, Springfield residents hurriedly packed and left town as Lyon spent most of the 9th waiting for an attack. He planned to meet the Confederates head-on, hoping that they would not use their superior numbers to attack his vulnerable flanks. But then Brigadier General Franz Sigel, who had led the Federals to defeat at Carthage, persuaded Lyon to launch a preemptive two-pronged attack. Sigel’s cavalry would work its way around the enemy flank and rear while Lyon’s infantry would assault the Confederate front.

At a council of war, Lyon’s officers argued that it defied military logic to divide a smaller army to attack a larger one. But Lyon overruled them and, after his men received new shoes from Rolla, they began moving out around 6 p.m. Lyon toured the camps and told his men to wait until the enemy got close before firing, and then to fire low to offset the recoil. Lyon added, “It is no part of a soldier’s duty to get scared.”

McCulloch’s men moved out three hours later but then halted when rain began falling; McCulloch feared that the rain would ruin the gunpowder his men carried in cloth bags. The Confederates posted no pickets, otherwise they would have seen the Federals marching toward them.

With the enemy’s campfires visible in the distance, Lyon led his army against a force over twice its size. Halting his men to rest before dawn, Lyon told an aide, “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… I will gladly give my life for a victory.”



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 63-66; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 91-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 53-55; http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/wilson-s-creek.html; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 104-05, 107; Mullins, Michael A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 833-34; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24-25; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q361

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