Wilson’s Creek: The Aftermath

August 11, 1861 – Demoralized Federal troops began a long retreat in Missouri following yesterday’s defeat, and the victors did not pursue.

The Federal retreat from Springfield that had been scheduled to begin at 2 a.m. on the 11th started two hours late because Brigadier General Franz Sigel, now commanding the Army of the West, was asleep. The town was not evacuated until after 6 a.m., with the Federals marching in disarray toward Rolla, 110 miles away.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Gustavus Elgin and Colonel R.H. Mercer, staffers under Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, who had been killed in yesterday’s battle, gave instructions for preparing Lyon’s body for burial. Lyon was temporarily interred in Springfield.

Confederate Brigadier General Ben McCulloch dispatched the 3rd Texas Cavalry to reconnoiter Federal positions and learned that they had abandoned Springfield. He arranged to regroup his army and tend to the wounded on both sides in the town, and Springfield soon became a vast military hospital. McCulloch released the Federal prisoners captured in battle because he would “rather fight them than feed them.”

Federal Gen Franz Sigel | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com
Federal Gen Franz Sigel | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Federals marched 32 miles, trying to put as much distance as possible between themselves and McCulloch. Sigel, a former German revolutionist, had his German immigrants leading the march, prompting other Federals to charge favoritism. They called for Major Samuel D. Sturgis, who had taken temporary army command following Lyon’s death, to be reinstated. The troops were on the verge of mutiny by the time they stopped at Niangua for the night.

Back at Springfield, McCulloch issued a proclamation to Missourians, stating, “I do not come among you to make war upon any of your people, whether Union or otherwise.” He pledged to protect the rights and property of all people, regardless of their loyalties, but asserted that Missouri “must be allowed to choose her own destiny.” McCulloch promised to require “no oaths binding your consciences,” but “Missouri must now take her position, be it North or South.”

McCulloch then issued orders to his men, stating that while he was proud that their “first battle had been glorious,” he had “hopes that the laurels you have gained will not be tarnished by a single outrage. The private property of citizens of either party must be respected. Soldiers who fought as well as you did the day before yesterday cannot rob or plunder.” However, the undisciplined Confederates looted Springfield, making the already predominantly Unionist residents there even more so.

Meanwhile, Major General Sterling “Pap” Price, commanding the Missouri State Guard portion of McCulloch’s force, urged McCulloch to advance toward Lexington. McCulloch refused, citing an ammunition shortage. Developments in southeastern Missouri may have also played a role in McCulloch’s decision to stay put: Confederate General Gideon Pillow received orders to return his force to Arkansas after being stuck in New Madrid.

East of Springfield, Sigel’s Federal army, near the crossing of the Niangua River, covered just three miles on the 12th, as troops continued railing against Sigel’s perceived favoritism toward the Germans and demanding his removal. When the march was delayed for three hours while the Germans ate their breakfast on the morning of the 13th, officers demanded that Sturgis confront Sigel.

Sturgis reluctantly complied and informed Sigel that he (Sturgis) technically ranked him since he was a major in the Regular Army and Sigel was a brigadier-general of volunteers. Outraged, Sigel demanded the move be put to a vote. Sturgis refused, stating that officers who voted against him “might refuse to obey my orders, and I should be under the necessity of shooting you.” This mollified Sigel, and the Federal march resumed. But the troops did not reach Rolla until the 17th.

When Major General John C. Fremont, commanding the Federal Department of the West from St. Louis, learned of the defeat at Wilson’s Creek, he absolved himself of any responsibility for it. But he did send an Iowa brigade to Rolla to discourage any Confederate pursuit of Sturgis’s force. Fremont then desperately called on the Lincoln administration to send more men to Missouri.

Secretary of War Simon Cameron responded by ordering volunteers in Ohio and Illinois to head west. Despite Fremont’s denials, the defeat called the administration’s attention to what seemed to be a growing lack of effective Federal military leadership in Missouri.



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 108; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 146

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