- Date: August 10, 1861
- Location: Approx. 10 miles southwest of Springfield, Missouri
- Adversaries: Confederate Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch and Missouri State Guard Maj. Gen. Sterling Price vs. Union Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and Col. Franz Sigel
- Size of Forces: 11,000 combined force of Confederate soldiers and the Missouri State Guard vs. approx. 5,400 Union soldiers
- Casualties: 1,095 Confederates and Missouri State Guard members vs. 1,235 Union soldiers killed, captured, wounded, or missing
- Result: Confederate military victory and southwestern Missouri secured for secessionists
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861, was the first major engagement of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River. It pitted a smaller but aggressive Union army against a numerically superior force of Confederate soldiers and pro-secessionist Missouri State Guard for the future of Missouri. Despite surprising the Confederates that morning, the federals withdrew by mid-day in the face of repeated Southern counterattacks. The Southern victory bolstered Confederate sentiment in Missouri and set the stage for a bold campaign in September by the Missouri State Guard against federal forces further to the north.
Yet, the bloodless victory turned into a disaster when Lyon’s men paraded the prisoners through St. Louis, sparking a riot.
The battle took place due to the aggressiveness of Nathaniel Lyon, a fiercely pro-Union federal army officer anxious to crush secessionist forces within the politically fractured state of Missouri in the summer of 1861. During the secession crisis following Lincoln’s election, Missouri had become a state divided. Much of its population—including the new governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson—sympathized with the disunion activities of the Deep South. Yet, when Missourians held a convention in February 1861 to determine their state’s future path, voters elected a majority of pro-Union delegates. Officially, Missouri remained committed to the Union. Nonetheless, Governor Jackson labored to draw the state into the Confederacy. He mobilized pro-secessionist militia units and, after the attack on Fort Sumter, requested support from Confederate president Jefferson Davis to capture the federal arsenal in St. Louis. Lyon responded to Jackson’s activities with force. He attacked and captured a large number of pro-secessionist recruits at “Camp Jackson,” in St. Louis on May 10. Yet, the bloodless victory turned into a disaster when Lyon’s men paraded the prisoners through St. Louis, sparking a riot. Pelted by rocks and bottles, and eventually sporadic gunshots, Lyon’s troops opened fire, killing 28 people and wounding nearly 100 more. Nonetheless, Lyon received his promotion to brigadier general and gained overall command of Union forces in Missouri.
The “Camp Jackson Affair” or “Camp Jackson Massacre,” as it became known, boosted secessionist sentiment in Missouri. Many previously neutral Missourians rallied behind Governor Jackson. The state’s legislature, which had been primarily pro-Union before the massacre in St. Louis, created the Missouri State Guard (MSG) the day after the massacre. Though technically dedicated to preserving the state’s laws, the MSG had a pro-secession leaning.
As [Lyon] stormed out of the room, he gave one final statement: “This means war.”
The MSG was an amateur force, lacking regular uniforms and possessing insufficient and often antiquated arms. But it had experienced military leadership. Its overall commander was Sterling Price, a Mexican War hero and former governor. And it had the potential to draw strength from the state’s 100,000 military age men. Lyon saw the State Guard as a direct threat to Unionist interests in Missouri. In June 1861, he met with Governor Jackson in St. Louis to discuss the fragile neutrality between federal forces and the State Guard. When Jackson suggested a mutual disarmament, Lyon lost his temper and announced that, “rather than concede to the State of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my government in any matter however important, I would see you, and you, and you, and you, and every man, woman and child in the State, dead and buried!” As he stormed out of the room, he gave one final statement: “This means war.”
Over the next several weeks, Lyon gathered reinforcements and occupied the state capital. He sent his troops toward the Ozarks in three columns, winning some skirmishes, including ones at Boonville and Carthage, along the way. By mid-July, Lyon had nearly 7,000 soldiers in Springfield. As a result of these aggressive actions, the MSG consolidated its forces in the state’s southwestern corner. There, Price called for assistance from the Confederacy. He received help from Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch and 5,000 Confederate soldiers. When McCulloch arrived, he took overall command of the now 11,000-strong Southern force, renamed the Western Army.
After a skirmish at Dug Springs on August 2, Lyon regrouped in Springfield while McCulloch watched cautiously from a position nearly 10 miles to the southwest. On August 9, both commanders decided to strike. Poor weather hindered the Confederate advance, so McCulloch ordered his men to rest that night at Wilson Creek (at the time, the creek was known as “Wilson Creek,” while the battle came to be called “Wilson’s Creek”). Lyon, on the other hand, moved forward. During a meeting, one of his subordinates, Colonel Franz Sigel—a German immigrant and veteran of war on the European continent—had recommended a two-prong attack against the Confederates. The plan called for Lyon and the bulk of the Army of the West to strike McCulloch’s army from the north while Sigel led 1,200 soldiers in a flanking maneuver to surprise the Confederate rear in the south. The plan was risky, for it required Lyon to divide his numerically inferior force and coordinate a simultaneous attack after a nighttime march. Despite the objections from other officers in his command, Lyon accepted Sigel’s plan and ordered his army to move out that evening.
[Lyon's] men brushed aside some Southern pickets and advanced up a large rise, soon to be named “Bloody Hill.”
At dawn on August 10, Lyon’s column was in position north of the Confederate camp. His men brushed aside some Southern pickets and advanced up a large rise, soon to be named “Bloody Hill.” The attack caught the northern edge of the camp by complete surprise. However, when a small band of secessionists contested the Union assault, Lyon paused to bring forward artillery. Sterling Price, now aware of the threat to the north, rushed troops from the valley along Wilson Creek to meet Lyon’s attack.
Meanwhile, Sigel had marched his band of 1,200 men to a rise overlooking the Confederate camp from the south. When he heard the ripple of musket fire to the north, he began his surprise attack with an artillery barrage. Stunned Confederates ran through their camp in panic.
Although Lyon and Sigel had achieved complete surprise with their opening attacks, neither officer took full advantage of these early gains. Following his artillery barrage, Sigel placed his soldiers in a vulnerable position along the main road leading to the camp. Furthermore, he made no attempt to contact Lyon. Isolated and ignorant of events to the north, Sigel’s federal soldiers found themselves confronted by a massive counterattack organized by McCulloch. Since there was no standard uniform among these early war armies, many of Sigel’s men mistook the approaching Confederates as federals. When McCulloch’s Southerners opened fire, confusion and panic raced through Sigel’s line. Within moments, the Union line fell apart. Sigel and the survivors fled in various directions.
To the north, Lyon’s force on Bloody Hill found itself facing a superior number of Confederate soldiers. Unable to advance further, the federals fought to hold their position. Twice Price’s Southern troops charged the hill. Although the Union soldiers held their ground, Lyon was shot through the chest and killed while rallying his troops during the second Confederate attack. He was the first Union general to die in battle during the Civil War.
After Lyon’s death, command of the northern column fell to Major Samuel Sturgis. Mistaking an approaching Confederate column as Sigel’s force, Sturgis adjusted his line in preparation for a new advance. Instead, the Union line was hit with the largest attack of the day. Kansas troops in the center of the line received the brunt of the assault. Yet, the federals held and pushed Price’s soldiers back again.
Following this third Confederate attack, Sturgis decided to withdraw. His troops were low on ammunition and he had received no word from Sigel about events to the South. He ordered a tactical retreat, removing the Union wounded as the troops fell back. Rear guard units masked the Union withdrawal from probing Confederate advances. By the time McCulloch’s and Price’s Confederates advanced against Bloody Hill one last time, they found it unoccupied.
Sturgis’s column and the remnants of Sigel’s force fell back to Springfield. Once united, Sigel took overall command and led a disjointed retreat to Rolla. McCulloch’s Confederates were exhausted and did not immediately pursue. They held the battlefield and felt satisfied with their victory, especially after learning that Lyon had been killed. Although the Union army had fallen back, many federals felt they had performed well. They had withdrawn in an orderly fashion, after having repulsed three attacks by superior numbers. Nonetheless, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, as it came to be known, was a Confederate victory. Lyon had failed to destroy the Missouri State Guard and was killed in the process. Sigel faced criticism for his poor performance during his flank attack and for his poor organization of the army’s retreat to Rolla. Nonetheless, his popularity among the important German-American community protected his military career.
Price’s and McCulloch’s success at Wilson’s Creek secured southwestern Missouri for Confederate forces. McCulloch marched his Confederate troops back to Arkansas, while Price led his Missourians northward in a campaign that culminated with the capture of Lexington. Politically, the Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek energized pro-secession Missouri legislators to hold a rump session in Neosho in October 1861 and pass an ordinance of secession. These legislators formed a state government that would be exiled for the duration of the war but still gained recognition from the Confederate government, which admitted Missouri into the Confederacy on November 28, 1861. Meanwhile, the Union Army established loose control over most of the state, and the Missouri Constitutional Convention set up a provisional state government to manage the state for the duration of the war.
William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher, III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000)
Louis S. Gerteis, The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2012)
Earl J. Hess, Richard W. Hatcher, III, William Garrett Piston, and William L. Shea, Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, & Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide with a Section on Wire Road (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006)
Jeffrey L. Patrick, Campaign for Wilson’s Creek: The Fight for Missouri Begins (Buffalo Gap, TX: McWhiney Foundation Press, 2011)