In southwestern Missouri, Brigadier General Ben McCulloch’s Confederate army of Arkansans, Texans, Louisianans, and the Missouri State Guard had pushed Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon’s Federals back to Springfield. McCulloch had about 12,000 men, though many were ill-equipped with 1812-style flintlock muskets or not even armed at all. Lyon had only 5,800 men, and his repeated requests for reinforcements had gone unanswered. By August 8, McCulloch’s men were camped at Wilson’s Creek, 10 miles southwest of Springfield.
About half of McCulloch’s command consisted of the Missouri State Guard, led by Major General Sterling Price. Price urged an immediate attack, but McCulloch, who had dispatched scouts to reconnoiter enemy positions two days prior, had not heard back from them yet. In Springfield, Lyon had prohibited residents from leaving the town out of fear they might divulge information about his army to the enemy. He made an exception for two ladies who convinced him that they were Unionists. These ladies went straight to Price and told him that Lyon’s men were worn out and probably not strong enough to hold Springfield.
Price shared this information with McCulloch, but he 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 for a council of war with his ranking officers to take place on the afternoon of the 9th.
At the meeting, McCulloch explained that his scouts still had not returned with any intelligence on Lyon’s army. He noted that the Confederate government discouraged its armies from going on the offensive in non-Confederate states. He also questioned the combat readiness of the Missouri Guard, citing their defeat at Dug Springs on the 2nd. When Price threatened to lead his Guard in an independent attack on Lyon, McCulloch finally ordered a general advance to begin at 9 p.m.
Meanwhile, Springfield residents hurried to pack and leave town as Lyon spent most of the 9th waiting for an attack. He planned to face the Confederates head-on, hoping they would not use their superior numbers to maneuver around 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 of his own. 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 urged a retreat, arguing that it defied military logic to divide a smaller army to attack a larger one. But Lyon, feeling that it would demoralize Unionist southwestern Missourians to abandon the region, overruled them. The Federals were divided into three units: Sigel led one with about 1,200 men, Lyon led one with about 4,200, and the remainder stayed behind to guard supplies at Springfield. His men received new shoes from the supply depot at Rolla, and the attack columns began moving out around 6 p.m.
McCulloch’s men started out at 9 p.m., but rain started falling and the march was halted; most men were carrying their cartridges in their pockets or cloth bags, and McCulloch feared that the rain would ruin them. The Confederates returned to their camps, but the pickets did not resume their duty. If they had, they would have seen the Federals approaching and alerted their comrades.
Later that night, Lyon halted his Federals to rest before dawn. He 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.” With the enemy’s campfires visible in the distance, Lyon was about to lead his army against a force over twice its size. He 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.”
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide. James M. McPherson, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Mullins, Michael A. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.