The opposing armies in southwestern Missouri were poised for battle in the early morning of August 10. Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon led 5,400 Federals out of Springfield to confront Brigadier General Ben McCulloch’s 12,000 Confederates at Wilson’s Creek, about 10 miles southwest. McCulloch had planned to advance and attack as well, but he suspended the movement due to rain. Thus, Lyon would be launching the initial attack. His army moved in two columns: one was led by Brigadier General Franz Sigel, and one by Lyon himself. The plan was for Lyon’s column to hit the Confederate front while Sigel’s hit the flank and rear.
The attack began at 5 a.m. when Lyon’s 4,200 Federals began firing on a small enemy force west of Wilson’s Creek. The Confederates fell back to the northern crest of Oak Hill, but then the advancing Federals forced them to withdraw to the hill’s south slope. The Federals began moving across the hill’s north face around 6 a.m. when the Pulaski Arkansas Artillery opened enfilading fire from a ridge east of the Wilson’s Creek. This slowed the Federal advance. Major General Sterling Price, commanding the Missouri State Guard within McCulloch’s army, used the time bought by the artillery to reform his line on the southern ridge of what became known as “Bloody Hill.”
Meanwhile, Sigel’s men were positioned east of Wilson’s Creek and south of the main Confederate camp at Sharp’s farm. Lyon had ordered Sigel to “wait until you hear the firing on our side” before attacking. When he heard the firing to the west, Sigel directed his cannons to open fire. The panicked Confederates hastily retreated from their camp, moving north and west. Sigel led his Federals west across Wilson’s Creek and then north to a hill that blocked the Telegraph road. This was intended to cut off any Confederate retreat. From this spot, the forces of Lyon and Sigel were completely separated, with no means of communication to try to coordinate their movements.
Back on Lyon’s front, he deployed Federals to the east, across Wilson’s Creek, to silence the Pulaski battery. They were met in a cornfield by two regiments led by Colonel James McIntosh. The Confederates held their ground and sent the Federals back across the creek. This enabled the Confederates to secure this sector of the battlefield and turn their full attention to the two separated Federal forces.
McCulloch sent a force to confront Sigel to the south. This force consisted of various regiments, including the 3rd Louisiana Infantry. As the Louisianans approached his left flank, Sigel ordered his men to hold their fire because he thought they were men of the gray-clad 1st Iowa coming to reinforce him. From 40 yards, the Louisianans stopped and fired a massive volley that crushed the Federal left and sent Sigel’s men fleeing from the battlefield. They left behind five of their six guns.
By 9 a.m. the Confederates controlled the southern sector of the field. All that was left was Bloody Hill, where the majority of Lyon’s army still remained. Price’s Missourians had attacked Lyon’s right around 7:30 a.m., but the Federal line held and the Missourians fell back a half-hour later. A second attack at 9:00 failed to break through, but the Federal line buckled. Then, Texas cavalry attempted to flank the Federal right. This diversion enabled Price to fall back and assemble a massive force for a third assault.
Lyon was growing despondent about his chances; he had been shot in the leg and grazed in the head while attempting to rally his men, and according to his chief of staff John A. Schofield, the wounds made him “more despondent than before.” After “exposing himself with utter recklessness to the enemy’s fire” once more, Lyon was shot in the chest and killed instantly. He became the first Federal general killed in the war. Command passed to Major Samuel D. Sturgis, the highest-ranking officer still on the field. Sturgis saw the massive assault that Price about to unleash and brought nearly every available man to the front.
Price attacked with 6,000 men along a 1,000-yard line. The fighting was intense, but Price was forced to withdraw back down Bloody Hill. The Federals had withstood three major charges, and they still held the high ground. But ammunition was running short, Lyon was dead, Sigel was routed, and morale was low. Sturgis feared that his men could not withstand a fourth attack, so as Schofield noted, “There was then nothing left us but to return to Springfield.”
The first major battle west of the Mississippi ended the same as the first east of it: in Confederate victory. The six-hour fight at Wilson’s Creek, or Oak Hill, resulted in the Federals suffering 1,317 casualties (258 killed, 873 wounded, and 186 missing), while the Confederates lost 1,230; General Price had been wounded but would survive. McCulloch opted not to pursue; the Federal attack had caught him by surprise, and his men had become disorganized and exhausted in fighting it off. When McCulloch and his officers rode atop Bloody Hill and saw Sturgis retreating, they “were glad to see him go.” Had Sturgis held his ground, it might have been McCulloch doing the retreating.
Sturgis returned to Springfield on the night of the 10th. He finally caught up with Sigel, and the top command met to discuss their next move. Lyon had been killed, the Federal army shattered, and the Confederates were sure to march on Springfield the next day. Their only move was to retreat to their supply railroad at Rolla, 110 miles away. For now, this would give southwestern Missouri back to the Confederates.
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