The Battle of Wilson’s Creek

August 10, 1861 – Federals not only suffered a second major defeat within a month, but they lost an army commander as well.

In early morning darkness, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon’s Federal Army of the West moved to within striking distance of the combined force of Confederates and Missouri secessionists under Generals Ben McCulloch and Sterling “Pap” Price near Wilson’s Creek, Missouri. The Federals, hoping to deceive the enemy by avoiding the road from Springfield, approached the Confederates from the northwest. The Confederates had not posted pickets and thus did not know they were about to be attacked, with Lyon’s main force approaching their front and Brigadier General Franz Sigel’s detachment approaching their southern (right) flank and rear.

Though outnumbered 2-to-1, both Lyon and Sigel attacked around 5 a.m. amid the rolling hills and thick brush about 12 miles southwest of Springfield. To the north, Lyon led Federals that drove off enemy cavalry and seized Oak Hill, a key strategic position west of Wilson’s Creek. From there the entire Confederate camp could be seen below; it later became known as “Bloody Hill.”

Battle of Wilson's Creek | Image Credit:
Battle of Wilson’s Creek | Image Credit:

To the south, Sigel’s Federals attacked the opposite end of the Confederate camp, catching the men by surprise with an artillery battery. Soon the Confederates found themselves caught between Sigel and Lyon, with Sigel pushing them toward Lyon.

McCulloch and Price focused mainly on Bloody Hill. The Pulaski Arkansas Artillery opened an enfilading fire on the Federals as Price rushed his troops to the southern base of the hill around 6:30 a.m. This, along with Lyon waiting to hear from Sigel, halted the Federal advance and gave the Confederates time to organize.

Brigadier General James McIntosh’s Confederates stopped a Federal attempt to silence the Pulaski battery. McIntosh’s troops tried pursuing the Federals, but they were stopped by Federal artillery. Brigadier General James H. McBride led a Confederate attack on the Federal right at 7:30 a.m., but that was stopped as well. The Confederates fell back to regroup.

Meanwhile, Sigel led his men northward on the Telegraph road running along Wilson’s Creek. He lost contact with Lyon, leaving his men isolated on the Confederate right and rear. McCulloch personally led Louisiana troops in an attack on Sigel’s vulnerable left flank south of Skegg’s Branch. The Federals hesitated to fire because the Louisianans wore the same gray uniforms as the familiar 1st Iowa. This enabled the Confederates to unleash a deadly volley that crumpled Sigel’s flank and sent his men running from the field. The Confederates captured all five of Sigel’s cannon before turning their full attention to Lyon on Bloody Hill.

Lyon brought up reinforcements that withstood a second Confederate advance and then counterattacked around 9 a.m. Price’s Confederates lay in wait within the brush as Lyon advanced. The farther down Bloody Hill the Federals marched, the heavier the gunfire became until both sides stopped and traded deafening shots. The Federals slowly fell back, regrouped, and then regained the lost ground.

From atop his horse, Lyon was encouraging his men to stand firm when a nearby shell exploded, killing his horse and wounding him in the leg and head. Lyon waved his sword to urge the troops to press on, then stepped behind the lines to contemplate his next move. Officers urged Lyon to order another attack. Lyon directed Major Samuel D. Sturgis, the second ranking Federal, to rally the men, then mounted another horse and returned to the front. Fighting now raged all along the line.

Lyon led an Iowa regiment over the hill’s crest. As he waved his hat to inspire the 2nd Kansas, Lyon was shot in the chest. His orderly, Private Albert Lehman, helped him off the horse, where he said, “Lehman, I am killed,” shortly before dying. Lyon became the first Federal general killed in combat. His death shattered Federal morale.

Command passed to Major Sturgis, whose first priority was to determine Sigel’s location because the Federals could not maintain their position without his support. Meanwhile, Confederate cavalry briefly stopped the Federal advance, giving Price time to regroup once more. Reinforced by the troops that had routed Sigel, Price charged a third time but was again repulsed after about an hour of fighting.

Sturgis received word of Sigel’s failure as the Confederates withdrew around 11 a.m. Noting that his men were exhausted and their ammunition was running low, Sturgis ordered them to fall back toward Springfield. The Confederates learned of the Federal withdrawal while preparing for a fourth charge. McCulloch and Price rode to the crest of Bloody Hill to see the enemy troops retiring in good order. Both men agreed that their forces were too disorganized to pursue.

Nevertheless, like Bull Run a month earlier, the second major battle of the war ended in Confederate victory. The Federals suffered 1,317 casualties (258 killed, 873 wounded, and 186 missing), an alarming 24 percent casualty rate. The Confederates lost 1,230 (277 killed and 945 wounded), or about 12 percent of those engaged.

The Federals returned to Springfield around 5 p.m., where Sturgis transferred army command to Sigel. The officers held a meeting and resolved that since the ranks had been so heavily battered and their commander killed, they would retreat to Rolla, 110 miles northeast. This would concede a major part of Missouri to the secessionists. The retreat was slated to begin at 2 a.m.



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