The Federal Army of the West had withdrawn to Springfield after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10. Its commander, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, had been killed, and it was now led by Brigadier General Franz Sigel. The top Federal commanders believed that Brigadier General Ben McCulloch’s Confederates would attack at dawn on the 11th to try to finish them off. They therefore decided to pull out of Springfield at 2 a.m. and head back to Rolla, the terminus of their railroad supply line, 110 miles away.
The withdrawal started two hours late because Sigel was asleep, and the town was not evacuated until after 6 a.m. Unbeknownst to the Federals, McCulloch was very reluctant to attack. Although he had won at Wilson’s Creek, his men were disorganized, exhausted, and low on ammunition. Moreover, McCulloch’s main base of operations was in Arkansas, so it was not clear whether the Confederate government even approved of his waging war in a non-Confederate state such as Missouri.
McCulloch dispatched the 3rd Texas Cavalry to reconnoiter Federal positions and learned that Springfield had been abandoned. He moved his army into the town and arranged to tend to the wounded on both sides. Springfield soon became a vast military hospital. McCulloch released the Federal prisoners captured in the battle because he would “rather fight them than feed them.”
Meanwhile, the Federals marched 32 miles on the 11th, putting as much distance as possible between themselves and McCulloch. Sigel, a former German revolutionary, had his German immigrant troops leading the march, prompting other Federals to charge favoritism. They started calling for Major Samuel D. Sturgis, who had taken temporary army command after Lyon’s death, to be reinstated. The calls got louder as the march wore on, and 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 on the 12th, stating in part, “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 “you can no longer procrastinate. 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 Unionist sentiment shared by most of the residents there even stronger.
Major General Sterling “Pap” Price, commanding the Missouri State Guard within McCulloch’s army, urged McCulloch to advance on Lexington. It had originally been envisioned that McCulloch would be joined by Confederates under General Gideon Pillow moving west from New Madrid. But word came that Pillow had been ordered to go back to Arkansas, leaving McCulloch’s army in Missouri without support and low on ammunition. He refused Price’s suggestion.
East of Springfield, the 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.
Sturgis was a major and Sigel was a brigadier general, but Sturgis’s rank was in the Regular Army while Sigel’s was in the volunteers. Thus, Sturgis explained that he technically ranked Sigel. Sigel angrily refused to relinquish command and then suggested that the officers vote on the question. Sturgis demurred, arguing that officers voting for Sigel “might refuse to obey my orders, and I should be under the necessity of shooting you.” Sigel backed down, and the march resumed. The army finally reached Rolla on 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 claimed no 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.
News of the Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek quickly spread throughout North and South. Southerners celebrated their second major victory within a month, and many felt that the war would soon be over. Colonel Thomas R.R. Cobb, brother of Confederate statesman Howell Cobb and commander of Cobb’s Legion, wrote his wife, “The news of McCulloch’s victory in Missouri came today. If it is not exaggerated I look upon it as the finishing stroke of this war.” Depressed northerners thought that Missouri would soon join the Confederacy. But the Unionists still controlled the state government, and in time the Federal grip on the state would tighten.
- 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.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.