By Roger McKinney
REPUBLIC, Mo. —
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek, 150 years ago this week, was a victory for the Confederates.
It also resulted in the first death of a Union commander, Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon.
But as Don Akers, a past president of the Greene County Historical Society, described the battle during Wednesday’s 150th anniversary program: “It saved Missouri for the Union.”
The Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Foundation has scheduled re-enactments and other events today through Sunday near the battlefield.
The battlefield, operated by the National Park Service, was busy Wednesday as visitors participated in its sesquicentennial activities.
Lyon had installed a pro-Union state government after defeating state military units formed by pro-Southern Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson at Boonville. Jackson’s Missouri State Guard, commanded by Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, retreated to Southwest Missouri.
Lyon, too, moved south, making camp in Springfield with about 6,000 troops on July 13, 1861.
Price joined with Confederate troops under Gens. Nicholas Bartlett Pearce and Benjamin McCulloch to form a force of more than 12,000 with plans to defeat Lyon and regain control of the state government.
The Union troops intercepted a Confederate attack on Aug. 1 at Dug Springs. Lyon’s forces defeated the Confederate coalition, but Lyon retreated to Springfield when he realized he was outnumbered. The Confederates set up their camp at Wilson’s Creek.
Lyon decided to try a surprise attack on the Confederates, despite the numerical disadvantage. He marched out of Springfield on Aug. 9 with 5,400 soldiers, including 1,200 men under Col. Franz Sigel, fresh from defeat at the Battle of Carthage on July 5. Sigel’s troops, of German extraction, were to flank the Confederate forces to the south, while the main force was to attack from the north.
The Confederates had planned a surprise attack on the Union troops on the night of Aug. 9, but rain caused commanders to call off the attack.
By 4 a.m. on Aug. 10, Union troops had taken control of a hill, which came to be known as Bloody Hill. When they were spotted, Confederate artillery opened fire. Union artillery returned fire, with cannons roaring for the better part of an hour.
Sigel’s forces began their attack on the rear of the Confederate forces, and Confederate and Missouri State Guard troops launched a counterattack, overtaking Sigel’s troops, who retreated. Sigel lost 292 men and five cannons in the counterattack.
Lyon consolidated his troops on Bloody Hill, but Price’s force was three times the size of Lyon’s when McCulloch’s troops joined Price’s. The close-range fighting on the hill raged for hours.
A wounded Lyon was killed by a shot through the heart about 9:30 a.m. Maj. Samuel Sturgis, taking command of the Union forces, ordered a retreat to Springfield as ammunition ran low.
The Union losses in the battle to deaths and injuries totaled 1,317, while the Confederates lost 1,222 to deaths and injuries.
Though the Confederate forces won the battle, they didn’t pursue the Union troops, which retreated to Rolla. After another Confederate victory at Lexington, Federal troops drove Price into Arkansas in 1862. The Missouri State Guard troops were defeated at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862.
Most of the account is from the website of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, with other information from mocivilwar.org.
Jim Gallion, of Springfield, is a volunteer at the John Ray House on the property of the national battlefield. He was conducting tours for visitors on Wednesday. The house served as a field hospital after the battle. He told visitors on the porch that 150 years ago, it would have been covered with wounded and dying soldiers.
“The family woke up 150 years ago literally with a war in their front yard,” Gallion said.
Ray also served as postmaster for the area, and a room of his house was the post office. When a cannonball knocked a log off the chicken house, the family raised a yellow hospital flag, and the shooting was directed away from the house.
Gallion said the last of the wounded left the Ray house six weeks after the battle. Some of the dead from the battle weren’t discovered until October.
Among those on the tour Wednesday was Dick Wasson, 82, of Union City, Ind. He was at the battlefield with his children and their families for a family reunion. He said they hadn’t realized until they arrived that the reunion was scheduled during the 150th anniversary of the battle.
His distant relatives, John and Lucinda Wasson, lived in the area that is now part of the national battlefield. He said Lucinda Wasson would have been among the women taking water to the wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
Scott Schroeder, of Bloomington, Ind., also was at the site. He was photographing the view from an overlook of the battlefield. He said he’s a Civil War buff and a member of a Civil War Roundtable in Bloomington. He said being there on the anniversary of the battle made it more interesting to him.
Schroeder said he thinks the Civil War battles in the eastern U.S. are sometimes over-emphasized, and those in the west are de-emphasized.
He said he’s impressed that the Wilson’s Creek battlefield remains undeveloped, unlike some of those in the South.
“It’s much more pristine,” he said. “You’re seeing it more how they saw it.”
Also at the battlefield overlook were Jessica Agnew, of Omaha, Neb., and Kevin Forch, of Lincoln, Neb. The engaged couple were on their way to a vacation in Memphis, Tenn.
Forch is a history buff; Agnew, not so much.
“He drags me along,” she said, adding that she was enjoying the day.
“It’s been very interesting,” she said. “It’s gorgeous out here.”
She said Forch was loving it, which he confirmed.
Forch said he thinks he inherited the love of history from his mother, a history teacher.
At the commemoration ceremony Wednesday night at Republic High School, Lt. Col. Sherman Fleck, historian for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., said the Civil War was fought and won in the west.
“The Battle of Wilson’s Creek is an epic story,” he said.
He said officials should do more to promote the battle and the battlefield.
“Wilson’s Creek is the best-kept secret in America,” Fleck said, adding that those participating and in the audience are obligated not to keep it a secret.