Wilson’s Creek: Confederates Win First Major Western Battle
For the most part, the first year of the Civil War (1861) went well for the Confederate States of America. The South won the war’s opening battle, the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12. It also won the war’s first major battle, the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in Virginia on July 21. The Confederacy followed that up by winning the first major battle of the Western Theater, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (Oak Hills) in Missouri on August 10. With that triumph the South had high hopes that Missouri, a slave state, would abandon the Union and join the Confederacy—but those hopes were never realized.
Missouri was a key state for both sides at the start of the Civil War. Its governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, favored secession. However, like Kentucky, Missouri declared its neutrality, meaning it would not leave the Union—yet would not supply men or arms to either side. With a population of 1.2 million, Missouri would have been the most populous state in the Confederacy, with the exception of Virginia, if it had seceded. It had a well-developed industrial base in St. Louis, and controlled the Missouri River and an important stretch of the Mississippi River. As a Confederate state it would have blocked off Kansas and threatened southern Illinois. It was a prize the Confederates dearly wanted.
Missouri men loyal to the South had rallied under General Sterling Price, known affectionately as “Old Pap,” who had been appointed commander of the Missouri State Guard. In the summer of 1861 Union General Nathaniel Lyon pursued Governor Jackson, General Price and the Missouri State Guard, determined not to let them stir up secessionist fervor in Missouri. By the end of July Lyon and the Union Army of the West were in Springfield, Missouri, with Price camped about 75 miles away. The Missouri State Guard had been reinforced by Confederate General Benjamin McCulloch, including the Arkansas State Militia under General N. Bart Pearce. This Southern force now numbered 12,000 men, while the Union force was about 6,000.
Clearly, it seemed Lyon had no choice but to retreat before the much-larger Southern army, with its 2-1 numerical superiority, could surround the Union troops and annihilate them. Instead, Lyon did just the opposite—he decided on a surprise attack. Leaving about 1,000 men safeguarding supplies in Springfield, Lyon marched out to astonish his foe. The resulting clash was called the Battle of Wilson’s Creek by the North, and the Battle of Oak Hills by the South. This first major Western battle resulted in a Confederate victory—yet one with long-term ramifications that proved beneficial to the Union.
Lyon knew he could not win the battle, but hoped that with the advantage of surprise he could so badly disable the Confederates that they would be unable to pursue him, securing for his army a safe retreat northward. In this brave gamble he succeeded, but not without paying a steep price: the Army of the West suffered more than 1,000 casualties—including General Lyon himself, who was shot through the heart about half-way through the morning’s six-hour battle, becoming the North’s first general killed in combat.
At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 10, 1861, the Confederates were stunned by the fierce, unexpected Union attack on their position along Wilson’s Creek. After initially being overwhelmed, the Southern troops rallied and the battle raged all morning. The Confederates mounted three counter-charges, all of which were repulsed by the Union troops, but it became apparent the exhausted, outnumbered Northerners, running low on ammunition, could not hold out any longer. Major Samuel D. Sturgis, the highest-ranking Union officer left on the field, ordered a retreat and the battle was over. As Lyon had hoped, his men did enough damage to the Confederates that there was no pursuit. Total Union casualties numbered over 1,300 but the Southerners suffered nearly as much, with more than 1,200 killed, wounded or missing.
Unable to destroy the Union army in Missouri in 1861, the Confederacy lost its best chance to bring that important state into its ranks. Although Governor Jackson and some colleagues passed an ordinance of secession in October, it was ignored by most of the state’s residents. Confederate hopes in Missouri ended with the decisive Union victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern) on March 6-8, 1862—another one of the few battles in the Civil War where the Confederate forces outnumbered the Union troops. For the remainder of the war, Missouri was the site of guerrilla warfare by such Southern raiders as Bloody Bill Anderson and Quantrill’s Raiders—vicious conflicts in which a young Jesse James learned to kill.
The following four newspaper articles are about the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. The first two articles, from a Southern paper, emphasize the Confederate victory. The second two articles, from a Northern paper, not surprisingly extol the bravery of Lyon’s attack and praise his success in gaining a safe retreat for his army.
This article was published by the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on the front page of its Sept. 2, 1861, issue:
Battle of the Oak Hills
Official Report of Gen. McCulloch
Headquarters McCulloch’s Brigade,
Camp Weightman, near Springfield, Missouri,
August 12, 1861.
Brigadier General S. Cooper, Adjutant General Confederate States Army:
General—I have the honor to make the following official report of the battle of the Oak Hills on the 10th inst.
[After reporting on the initial Union attack, McCulloch goes on to say:] A terrible fire of musketry was now kept up along the whole side and top of the hill, upon which the enemy were posted. Masses of infantry fell back and again rushed forward. The summit of the hill was covered with the dead and wounded—both sides were fighting with desperation for the day. Carroll’s and Greer’s regiments, led gallantly by Capt. Bradfute, charged the battery, but the whole strength of the enemy were immediately in rear, and a deadly fire was opened upon them. At this critical moment, when the fortune of the day seemed to be at the turning point, two regiments of Gen. Pearce’s brigade were ordered to march from their position (as reserves) to support the centre. The order was obeyed with alacrity, and Gen. Pearce gallantly rushed with his brigade to the rescue.
Reid’s battery was also ordered to move forward, and the Louisiana regiment was again called into action on the left of it. The battle then became general, and probably no two opposing forces ever fought with greater desperation; inch by inch the enemy gave way, and were driven from their position; Totten’s battery fell back, Missourians, Arkansians, Louisianians, and Texans pushed forward. The incessant roll of musketry was deafening, and the balls fell thick as hailstones; but still our gallant Southerners pushed onward, and with one wild yell broke upon the enemy, pushing them back and strewing the ground with their dead; nothing could withstand the impetuosity of our dual charge; the enemy fled, and could not again be rallied, and they were seen, at 12 [noon], fast retreating among the hills in the distance. Thus ended the battle. It lasted six hours and a half.
The force of the enemy, between 9,000 and 10,000, was composed of well disciplined troops, well armed, and a large part of them belonging to the old army of the United States.
With every advantage on their side, they have met with a signal repulse.
…I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,
Brigadier General Com’g.
Two days later, the Daily Picayune published this follow-up article—which it gleaned from a Union newspaper—on Sept. 4, 1861:
Effect of the Battle of the Oak Hills
The Missouri correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette writes:
It cannot be denied that the result of the battle at Springfield, and the withdrawal of our forces from the Southwest, have had a blighting effect upon the Union cause in Missouri. It will now require twenty-five thousand more men to redeem the State than it would have done three weeks ago. I speak that which I know when I say that hundreds, not to say thousands, are now flocking around the rebel standard, and will fight with all the zeal of religious fanatics, and that, too, without asking or expecting a dollar of remuneration. The rebels now subsist chiefly on green corn, but they will tell you that Marion lived on potatoes and roots.
[The reference to “Marion” is Francis Marion, a South Carolinian who was an American general during the Revolutionary War, known as the “Swamp Fox” for his unorthodox, highly-successful guerrilla tactics against the British troops.]
This article was published by the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on Aug. 19, 1861:
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek
The New Jersey papers bring to us the report of a speech made in that State by Mr. Senator Trumbull, who at present is sojourning there, in which, responding to a complimentary visit made by the citizens of Belleville, he stated, among other things, that Illinois was putting 50,000 men in the field, that the greatest unanimity prevailed throughout the State, and soon we would hear no more of 5,000 Union troops contending with 20,000 Secessionists, as was the case a few days ago in Missouri.
The latest intelligence received respecting the relative forces in the engagement at Wilson’s Creek confirms the accuracy of the statement made by Mr. Trumbull, and sets in a still stronger light the remarkable gallantry displayed by the national forces under Gen. Lyon’s command. It is admitted also that the Southern troops fought with the greatest courage, remaining masters of the field, but too much disabled to pursue the retiring forces of Gen. Sigel. It is of course too much to expect that with such odds against him Gen. Lyon could have resolved upon risking a battle with any assured hope of achieving a signal victory, and it may be presumed that, foreseeing the probably necessity of retreating, either before or after giving battle, he deemed it wiser to accept the [latter] alternative, as, in that event, he might at least hope so far to disable the superior force of his enemy as to prevent pursuit. Whatever may have been the theory on which he acted, it would seem to be evident that the result has justified the military prudence with which he decided to encounter the great force arrayed against him, rather than withdraw in its presence while it was in a condition to harass and possibly intercept his retreat. But it is to be hoped that the Government will soon have a force at its command sufficient to relieve the national soldiers from the hard necessity of repeating these brilliant displays of desperate valor, and that heroic Generals, like Lyon, will no longer be called, in the words of the New York Evening Post, “to throw away their precious lives in the hopeless attempt to make five thousand men a match for twenty-three thousand.”
Ten days later, the Daily National Intelligencer published this follow-up article, on Aug. 29, 1861:
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek
The St. Louis Evening News of the 23d instant comments as follows on the results of the late battle near Springfield, in Missouri:
The precise result of the battle at Wilson’s Creek is a thing that the Confederates were evidently not prepared for. They had planned a battle at Springfield, but a part of the plan was that they should make the attack. They calculated to surround the Federal army at Springfield, attack and rout it, kill half of it and capture the remainder, get possession of a large and valuable baggage train, and secure a sufficient number of efficient muskets and rifles to arm the ten thousand recruits who were to flock to their standard after the fight. Then, with a force increased to 35,000 men, and the way opened to St. Louis, McCulloch was to advance rapidly from the southwest, and, joined by Hardee’s column, capture this city, while Pillow made a splutter at Bird’s Point.
But the plan was marred by one grave oversight. It did not provide for an attack from the Federal army at Springfield; it arranged only for an attack on it; and when, therefore, Gen. Lyon, instead of waiting to be surrounded, marched out, assaulted the invaders in their own camp, and left them so badly crippled that they could not pursue the retiring Federal army, he struck a blow that deranged the entire programme.
Let not the fruits of the drawn battle at Wilson’s Creek be underrated. They are most important and valuable. Not that that bloody and costly battle secured a positive advantage to the Federal cause—because it cost the Federal army their commander and a thousand killed and wounded—but that it averted from the clutch of the Confederates advantages that were almost within their grasp, and which, once possessed, would have been almost irreparably disastrous to the Union cause in the West.
The attack of Lyon surprised and stunned the enemy, and he has not even yet recovered from his amazement. Pillow is quiet at New Madrid or Sikeston, and Hardee is quiet at Greenville, because the great victory to be gained by their confederate at Springfield, on the event of which they were to advance, did not occur. Not only, therefore, is the march of McCulloch materially retarded, but the combined and preconcerted advance of Hardee upon Ironton, and Pillow upon Bird’s Point, is absolutely checked, and they are perhaps at this moment meditating a retreat to Arkansas and Tennessee, instead of marching towards St. Louis.
These are the fruits that Lyon’s death secured; or rather these are the disasters it averted. Let it not be said his life was thrown away. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was the turning point of the war in Missouri. From it we may date the decline of Jackson’s revolt and the wane of the invasion. The invaders will not again have such a chance as they had there of securing a great triumph, because they will not again have the advantage of such odds in their favor. Henceforth they will be met at every point with forces equal to their own, and, unable to advance, they will be compelled to retire to their own soil, to await an attack upon their own strongholds.
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