Battle of Wilson’s Creek important Civil War campaign

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The Battle of Wilson’s Creek occurred on Aug. 10, 1861.

This story was published in the Christian County Headliner News on July 11, 2009.

As dawn broke the morning of Aug. 10, 1861, it brought with it the sweltering heat of summertime in the Ozarks. That morning, more than 150 years ago, started off much the same as any other morning, with one grave exception. By the end of the day more than 500 people would die. That’s the story visitors will hear when they explore the historic battlefield tucked among the rolling hills in Christian and Greene counties.

I don’t think that anybody really thought that there would be fighting right here,” said Jeff Patrick, librarian at Wilson’s Creek.

“I don’t think that anybody really thought that there would be fighting right here,” said Jeff Patrick, librarian at Wilson’s Creek. “Even though you had an army of 12,000 men camped here, (people) knew that the southerners are here; the federal army is in Springfield; more than likely there’s going to be fighting in Springfield.”

As the second battle in the Civil War and the first fought west of the Mississippi River, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek is recognized as significant for a number of reasons. However, the days and months leading up to the battle played an important factor in shaping where and why the battle occurred.

The Civil War officially began in 1861; fighting, however, in Missouri dates back much farther. As recorded by the Library of Congress, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 prompted a number of skirmishes between pro- and anti-slavery forces throughout the 1850s.

With pressure from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, the beginning of the Civil War tore Missouri in different directions. Though Missouri desired to remain an “armed neutral” state, according to information from author Marisa Morigi, deputy curator for the Gilder Lehrman Collection, the Union was dedicated to keeping Missouri within its confines “because of its natural resources and key location on the Mississippi River.”

On the opposing side, the state’s southern ties were evident through Gov. Claiborne F. Jackson, who sympathized with the Confederacy. When President Lincoln asked him to supply regiments of troops for the Union, Jackson refused and instead ordered the state military to take over the U.S. Arsenal in St. Louis. The plan was thwarted by the arsenal’s commander, Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, who got wind of the plan and had the majority of the weapons secretly moved to Illinois.

The following days provided an environment conducive for battle. Regardless what side a man supported, each believed that they would quickly defeat the enemy.

“There was a real sense, in this area, that we were going to fight once and pretty well be done with it,” said Ozarks historian Champ Herren. “They figured they’d be back in time to harvest and spend the winter at home. That was, of course, not the case; there are stories of fellows taking their plow horses and such and going into combat with them at Wilson’s Creek and staying for several years.”

After several go-rounds in the following days, the different armies were destined to meet. On Aug. 6, 1861, the Confederate troops reached Wilson’s Creek and camped all around the water. Union soldiers were headed their way from Springfield where they had been camped since July 13.

According to information from the 2004 Wilson’s Creek Landscape Report, now Gen. Lyon and the Union Army advanced with the intent to engage the enemy camped at Wilson’s Creek. Waiting for dawn, the Union Army descended at 4 a.m. and about an hour later the conflict officially began.

There are various accounts from soldiers about what they saw that morning. According to one soldier’s account written in the Cultural Landscape Report by National Park Service, the battlefield “rose in a gradual succession of hills extending as far as the eye could reach. The hillside northwest was about three quarters of a mile distant, the intervening space being covered by cornfields in the valley formed by Wilson’s Creek. On the north was a slight rise beyond the ravine, covered as usual with a dense undergrowth of black jack and hazel, skirting a large and open corn and hay field.”

Though Lyon’s army was vastly outnumbered by the Confederates, he formulated a plan that he believed would be effective. The army would attack in two sections; about 1,000 soldiers would swing to the south while the rest would attack coming from the north.

Lyon’s plan was fundamentally successful. The southerners, caught off guard by the attack, were pushed back. The momentum of the attack going strong, the northern troops destroyed several Confederate camps and won occupation of high point of ground, today known as “Bloody Hill.”

“It’s where the majority of the fighting takes place at Wilson’s Creek,” said Todd Wilkinson, Civil War historian and instructor at Ozarks Technical Community College. “There are other places (that fighting occurred), but that’s where we see the largest number of causalities.”

Over the next five hours, both sides waged battle with fierce intensity. At about 9:30 a.m., a landmark moment in Civil War history was made with the death of Lyon. The first Union general to die in the war, Lyon had been wounded twice before he was killed leading a counter charge. An hour and a half later, the battle was over, and the Union army retreated to Springfield.

Though Lyon was killed in the battle at Wilson’s Creek, declared a Southern victory, the Northern army made numerous gains through the experience.

“Lyon managed to accomplish everything he wanted to,” said Wilkinson. “He was able to stun the south and keep them from going farther in Missouri, as well as allowing the Federals more time to regroup in St. Louis.”

Wilkinson said the battle ultimately secured Missouri for the northern cause and provided soldiers valuable combat experience.

Though the Confederate Army was declared victorious at Wilson’s Creek, both sides were affected as a result of the conflict. The Federal Army had approximately 1,317 affected soldiers; the Confederates, around 1,222. The battle, however, produced more than just causalities.

“(The soldiers) learned very quickly that it’s not going to be an easy war and it’s not going to be over soon,” said Wilkinson.

Additional Sources:

Hallowed Ground, The Civil War Preservation Trust, Fall 2006; Where the Civil War Began, Missouri Division of Tourism; Wilson’s Creek, National Park Service; Library of Congress, Web guide, Kansas-Nebraska Act; Cultural Landscape Report, National Park Service, 2004