The Battle of Wilson’s Creek took place 155 years ago on August 10. It resulted in the death of more than 500 men, including Union General Nathaniel Lyon. (Courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District)
Many folks hereabouts are at least casually acquainted with the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, a Civil War conflict that occurred near Springfield 155 years ago on August 10. The aftermath was significant: The Confederate victory resulted in the death of more than 500 people, although some credit the day for stunning the Southerners so greatly that Missouri was saved for the Union.
There are a few (albeit lesser-known) outcomes from the battle. It caused the area near Phelps Grove Park to become a burial ground, the installation of a monument on Springfield’s public square (that stayed nine months before being removed), and the procurement of an iron fence that has wandered around the area ever since.
All of those things are connected with General Nathaniel Lyon, who commanded Union troops on that fateful day.
Beginning in battle
Lyon, however, didn’t know he had anything to do with those things. He didn’t know because he died in the battle.
“(Lyon) becomes the first martyr for the north,” says Todd Wilkinson, historian and former ranger at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. “He’s the first general officer killed in the war, the first U.S. general killed since the War of 1812 in combat. So almost immediately, northerners know the name of Lyon.”
Lyon was described as professional soldier of “great energy and capacity” by “An Account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek or Oak Hills,” one of the first books published on the battle. But the book goes even further: “The speculation has often been made, in the light of his brief Missouri service, that had he survived that day he might well have become the Grant of the Civil War.”
Regardless of his potential, Lyon’s remains were left on the field until the battle was over. They were eventually discovered by members of the Missouri State Guard, and taken to the nearby Ray house, which was being used as a field hospital. There, Dr. Samuel Melcher identified Lyon’s body and performed a brief examination, says Wilkinson.
The Ray House, located at Wilson’s Creek, was the place Lyon’s body was taken first after his death.
Lyon’s remains were then taken to Springfield; more specifically, to the house he was using as headquarters. The home doesn’t exist today, but it was located near the corner of College Street and Main Avenue — and was owned by John and Mary Phelps.
The name Phelps may sound familiar, and with good reason: This couple is the namesake behind Phelps Grove Park, although their holdings were significantly larger than the tract that comprises Springfield’s park today. And they were friends with Lyon. “He had been invited out to (the Phelps’) house and they’d had dinner,” says local historian Richard Crabtree.
John Phelps was away from Springfield because of the war at the time of Lyon’s death. That fact, however, didn’t keep his wife from taking things into her own hands when she learned of Lyon’s demise. “She then gets in a horse and wagon and goes into town to get the body,” says Crabtree.
It was an action perhaps unusual for a woman in those days. “But Mrs. Phelps was a lady not easily daunted, or one that would shrink from what she considered a duty, no matter how unpleasant it might be,” recorded the aforementioned book.
After reaching Lyon’s body, she wrote years later that she sent for a Dr. Franklin, who was in charge of the Federal wounded. “He came,” Phelps wrote. “I asked him what disposition he intended to make of Gen. Lyon’s body. He replied: ‘I can do nothing. There are so many wounded and dying and we have not men enough to do the work.’ I then said, ‘I will take charge of the body and remove it to our farm and bury him.'”
But according to other sources, Lyon wasn’t actually buried straight away. There’s a likely explanation: While Phelps was in Springfield retrieving his body, her home had been commandeered as a Confederate hospital.
Faced with her unexpected — and unwelcome — guests, Phelps simply stored Lyon’s body in her ice house (or, by some accounts, an outdoor cellar) because it was believed it would soon be on its way back to Lyon’s home in Connecticut.
A sketch shows what the Phelps’ ice house looked like.
(Courtesy of the Johnson Family Collection)
But while Lyon was out of sight, he wasn’t out of mind: His remains were visited by a great number of people while in the ice house — including Southern soldiers, who weren’t his biggest fans.
“It is much to be regretted that some brutes there were among the soldiers that treated the remains of the dead man with all disrespect, cursing them and him openly in the vilest terms,” wrote the book’s authors. “At last some drunken ruffians, by threatening to open the coffin and “cut the d–d heart” of the body for a relic, so frightened Mrs. Phelps, causing her to fear that the remains would be mutilated in some horrible manner, that she asked Gen. Price to send a detail and bury the body.”
He was buried — in a grave dug by the Phelps’ slave, George — in the garden. And that’s where his remains stayed until disinterred at the end of August and shipped back home.
Recalling his memory
Although Lyon’s remains left Springfield in 1861, his memory lingered. Just four years later, an initial push was made to erect a monument in his memory in Greene County. Those plans, however, came to naught.
Things began to change in 1883. “That’s the year that a lot of things start to collide,” says Michael Price, Local History associate at the Springfield-Greene County Library District. He mentions the aforementioned book about Wilson’s Creek, published that year — and the first Wilson’s Creek reunion, for which 15,000 people were expected to attend in August.
Just weeks before that reunion, locals decided that the town really must erect a monument to Lyon. On July 19, 1883, the Springfield Daily Herald reported that “among the enterprises that have been presented to our citizens for endorsement none appeals more strongly to pride and patriotism than that of … the monument of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, which has been offered to the city for the comparatively insignificant sum of $300.”
There was a reason the monument was so cheap. It had been made years earlier for somewhere else, but seemingly never erected, and its owner was willing to cut someone a deal. “The readers of the Herald have been acquainted with all the facts relative to the monument and the circumstances of the generous offer on the part of the lady whose property it is,” recorded the newspaper on July 19, 1883. “Suffice it to say that by prompt action, the elegant work of art which cost $1,800, and was originally held at that figure, can now be had for $300.”
Springfield’s citizens really wanted the monument — but so did Carthage. A race ensued, each city trying to raise the funds necessary to purchase it. According to “Marking Civil War History in the Ozarks,” Springfield collected the necessary funds by July 27. Some of those donations were made in small-dollar increments, proven by the newspaper’s record that “a couple of ladies in the north part of town … telephoned in their subscriptions in the sum of one dollar each.”
Lyon’s monument was erected shortly before the first Wilson’s Creek reunion in August 1883. The monument, yet to be unveiled, can be seen on the right. To put things in perspective, the building it stands in front of is where Heer’s Luxury Lofts is today. (Courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District)
The monument was shipped to Springfield, and erected the first week of August. “This morning the necessary drawings will be affixed to the monument, where they will remain until the work is appropriately delivered to the people,” recorded the newspaper on Aug. 4.
Five days later, a crowd gathered on the public square to see the monument unveiled in all its glory.
“The heavy shower in the afternoon rendered the public square disagreeable under foot, and apprehension was felt that it might have the effect of keeping many away who were anxious to be present, but it was groundless,” reported the newspaper on Aug. 10. “The speaker’s stand was resplendent with the lights from double rows of gas jets, and the square looked at its best. The Carthage and Springfield bands joined their forces and discoursed soul-stirring music, and notwithstanding the mud under foot the speaker’s stand was soon surrounded by thousands of men, while the walks around the square and the windows and awnings were filled with women and children.”
And at eight o’ clock, the monument was unveiled: “At a given signal Col. Tracey, who had been chosen to make the presentation speech, pulled a cord, the flag with which the monument was draped fell from the shaft and it was revealed in all its unpretentious beauty, appropriately decorated with wreaths of evergreen and lovely flowers.”
However, those sentiments quickly changed. It didn’t take long for people to decide that, based on the monument’s proximity to tracks, it hindered traffic — and that it was ugly. “(They) decide this thing looks like a tombstone,” says Price.
And so, just nine months later, they take it away.
“The Lyon monument, after much tribulation, has been removed,” wrote the newspaper on May 18, 1884. “The task was accomplished yesterday under the supervision of Sam O’Dell, and nothing is left of the innocent cause of much trouble and worry of mind except the pile of dirt that was made to do service as an embankment. That will be carted away tomorrow and our critics will be estopped.”
Despite its removal from the public square, one doesn’t have to go far to find the monument. Just think: Where would something that looks like a tombstone fit in?
The answer is Springfield National Cemetery — which is where it stands today.
So says the monument: “Erected by the citizens of Springfield to the memory of General Nath Lyon who fell at the Battle of Wilson Creek while commanding the Union Army Aug. 10, 1861.”
When the monument was removed from the square, something else left, too: A wrought-iron fence that guarded the area surrounding it. But the fence, like its monument, never went far away.
According to the newspaper, the fence was originally furnished by the Ladies Park Association. They had approximately 280 feet of iron fence on hand when the monument idea came to be, and donated it to the cause.
When the monument was moved, however, the fence was rendered useless. It was sold to the McAfee family, who placed it around their home at the corner of Dollison and Cherry Streets in Springfield. Years later, the house was demolished and the land owned by First & Calvary Presbyterian Church, which eventually put the fence up for bid amid plans of building a manse.
The high bidder for the fence was Mrs. T.D. Martin, who purchased it from the church and installed at her home on Elm Street in the late 1940s. Years later, it was moved to another house on Loren Street. That’s where it remained until a couple of years go.
At that point, the fence came full circle: According to a representative from The History Museum on the Square, the fence was donated to them by some of Martin’s descendants.
Want to learn more?
Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield will hold a ceremony commemorating the 155th anniversary of the battle at 10 a.m. on August 10. U.S. Senator Roy Blunt will be the keynote speaker. Following the ceremony, there will be refreshments and a presentation from Diane Mutti-Burke, assistant professor of History at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, about her book “On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small Slaveholding Households, 1815 –1865.”
Entrance to the park will be free all day.