Early on the morning of August 10th, 1861, 5,400 Union troops under the command of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon attacked a Confederate force of 11,000 under the command of Brigadier General Ben McCullough at Wilson Creek, about a dozen miles outside of Springfield, Missouri. Lyon’s force consisted of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois volunteer regiments, plus some Regular Army troops. McCullough had mostly Missouri and Arkansas men, with one regiment of Louisiana troops. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was the second largest battle in Missouri during the Civil War in terms of troop strength and took place about three weeks after the war’s initial big battle at Bull Run, Virginia.
Lyon split his already smaller force into two parts. Before dawn on the 10th, Colonel Franz Sigel and 1200 men swung around to the south and attacked the Confederate right flank, while Lyon attacked from the north with the rest of the force. The attack caught the Confederates by surprise. Sigel had initial success on the flank until a Rebel counterattack drove him from the field. Likewise, Lyon pushed the enemy back and occupied some high ground later known as Bloody Hill before the Confederates formed effective defensive lines. The Federals successfully held off three attacks. About 9:30 a.m. Lyon, who had been wounded twice and had a horse shot out from under him, was killed while deploying his men. He was the first Union general killed in the war.
Major Samuel Sturgis assumed command upon Lyon’s death, and held the ground until about 11:30. At that time, with ammunition running low and casualties increasing, Sturgis gave the order to retire. As the movement got under way, Sturgis received word that Sigel had been driven from the field and there was no hope of reinforcement from him. The Federals retreated to Springfield. The victorious and thoroughly exhausted Rebels did not pursue.
Here are excerpts from Sturgis’ after action report on the Battle of Wilson’s Creek:
HDQRS. ARMY OF THE WEST, CAMP CARY GRATZ,
Near Rolla, Mo., August 20, 1861.
SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the battle of Springfield, fought on the 10th instant, at Wilson’s Creek, some 10 miles south of the city, between the United States troops under General Lyon and the rebel forces under McCulloch.
On the 9th instant General Lyon came to the determination of attacking the enemy’s camp, and accordingly dispositions were made on the afternoon of that day for an attack at daylight next morning 10th). The command was to move in two columns…
Here my official information of the movements of Colonel Sigel’s column ceases, as we have not been able to procure any written report of its operations. General Lyon marched from Springfield at 5 o’clock p.m. on the 9th, making a detour to the right, at 1 o’clock in the morning arriving in view of the enemy’s guard fires. Here the column halted and lay on their arms until the dawn of day, when it again moved forward. Captain Gilbert’s company, which had formed the advance during the night, still remained in advance, and the column moved in the same order in which it had halted.
A southeasterly direction was now taken, with a view to strike the extreme northern point of the enemy’s camp. At daylight a line of battle was formed, closely followed by Totten’s battery, supported by a strong reserve. In this order we advanced, with skirmishers in front, until the first outpost of the rebels was encountered and driven in, when the column was halted, and the following dispositions made, viz: Captain Plummer’s battalion, with the Home Guards on his left, were to cross Wilson’s Creek and move towards the front, keeping pace with the advance on the opposite bank, for the purpose of protecting our left flank against any attempt of the enemy to turn it. After crossing ravine and ascending a high ridge, we came in full view of a considerable force of the enemy’s skirmishers. Major Osterhaus’ battalion was at once deployed to the right, and two companies of the First Missouri Volunteers, under Captains Yates and Cavender, were deployed to the left; all as skirmishers. The firing now became very severe, and it was evident we were approaching the enemy’s stronghold, where they intended giving battle. A few shells from Totten’s battery assisted our skirmishers in clearing the ground in front.
The First Missouri and First Kansas moved at once to the front, supported by Totten’s battery; and the First Iowa Regiment, Du Bois’ battery, Steele’s battalion, and the Second Kansas were held in reserve. The Missouri First now took its position in front, upon the crest of a small elevated plateau. The First Kansas was posted on the left of the First Missouri, and separated from it some 60 yards on account of a ravine. The First Iowa took its position on the left of the First Kansas, while Totten’s battery was placed opposite the interval between the First Kansas and the First Missouri. Major Osterhaus’ battalion occupied the extreme right, with his right resting on a ravine which turned abruptly to our right and rear. Du Bois’ battery, supported by Steele’s battalion, was placed some 80 yards to left and rear of Totten’s
guns, so as to bear upon a powerful battery of the enemy, posted to our left and front, on the opposite side of Wilson’s Creek, to sweep the entire plateau upon which our troops were formed.
The enemy now rallied in large force near the foot of the slope, and under considerable cover opposite our left wing, and along the slope in front, and on our right towards the crest of the main range running parallel to the creek. During this time Captain Plummer, with his four companies of infantry, had moved down a ridge about 500 yards to our left, and separated from us by a deep ravine, and reached its abrupt terminus, where he found his farther progress arrested by a large force of infantry occupying a corn field in the valley in his front. At this moment an artillery fire was opened from a high point about 2 miles distant, and nearly in our front, from which Colonel Sigel was to have commenced his attack. This fire was answered from the opposite side of the valley, and at a little greater distance from us, the line of fire of the batteries being nearly perpendicular to our own. After about ten or twelve shots on either side the firing ceased, and we neither heard nor saw anything more of Colonel Sigel’s brigade until about 8.30 o’clock, when a brisk cannonading was heard for a few minutes about a mile to the right of that heard before, and from 2 to 3 miles distant.
Our whole line now advanced with much energy upon the enemy’s position. The firing, which had been spirited for the last half hour, was now increasing to a continuous roar. During this time, Captain Totten’s battery came into action by section and by piece, as the nature of the ground would permit (it being wooded, with much undergrowth), and played upon the enemy’s lines with great effect. After a fierce engagement, lasting perhaps half an hour, and in which our troops retired two or three times, in more or less disorder, but never more than a few yards, again to rally and press forward with increased vigor, the enemy gave way in the utmost confusion, and left us in possession of the position. Meanwhile Captain Plummer was ordered to move forward on our left, but meeting with overpowering resistance from the large mass of infantry in the corn field in his front and in the woods beyond, was compelled to fall back; but at this moment Lieutenant Du Bois’ battery, which had taken position on our left flank, supported by Captain Steele’s battalion, opened upon the enemy in the corn field a fire of shells with such marked effect as to drive him in the utmost confusion and with great slaughter from the field.
There was now a momentary cessation of fire along nearly the whole line except the extreme right, where the First Missouri was still engaged with a superior force of the enemy, attempting to turn our right. The general having been informed of this movement, sent the Second Kansas to the support of the First Missouri. It came up in time to prevent the Missourians from being destroyed by the overwhelming force against which they were unflinchingly holding their position.
The battalion of regular infantry, under Captain Steele, which had been detailed to the support of Lieutenant Du Bois’ battery, was during this time brought forward to the support of Captain Totten’s battery. Scarcely had these dispositions been made, when the enemy again appeared in very large force along our entire front and moving towards each flank. The engagement at once became general, and almost inconceivably fierce, along the entire line; the enemy appearing in front often in three or four ranks, lying down, kneeling, and standing, the lines often approaching to within 30 or 40 yards of each other, as the enemy would charge upon Captain Totten’s battery and be driven back. Early in the engagement the First Iowa came to the support of the First Kansas and First Missouri, both of which had stood like veteran troops, exposed to a galling fire of the enemy.
Every available battalion was now brought into action, and the battle raged with unabated fury for more than an hour; the scales seeming all the time nearly equally balanced, our troops sometimes gaining a little ground, and again giving way a few yards to rally again. Early in this engagement, while General Lyon was leading his horse along the line on the left of Captain Totten’s battery and endeavoring to rally our troops, which were at this time in considerable disorder, his horse was killed, and he received a wound in the leg and one in the head. He walked slowly a few paces to the rear and said, “I fear the day is lost.” I then dismounted one of my orderlies, and tendered the horse to the general, who at first declined, saying it was not necessary. The horse, however, was left with him, and I moved off to rally a portion of the Iowa regiment, which was beginning to break in considerable numbers.
In the mean time the general mounted, and swinging his hat in the air, called to the troops nearest him to follow. The Second Kansas, or at least a portion of it, gallantly rallied around him, headed by the brave Colonel Mitchell. In a few moments the colonel fell, severely wounded; about the same time a fatal ball was lodged in the general’s breast, and he was carried from the field a corpse. Thus gloriously fell as brave a soldier as ever drew a sword, a man whose honesty of purpose was proverbial, a noble patriot, and one who held his life as nothing when his country demanded it of him.
Of this dire calamity I was not informed until perhaps half an hour after its occurrence. In the mean time our disordered line on the left was again rallied and pressed the enemy with great vigor and coolness, particularly the First Iowa Regiment, which fought like veterans. This hot encounter lasted perhaps half an hour.
Major Schofield now informed me of the death of General Lyon, and reported for orders. The responsibility which rested upon me was duly felt and appreciated. Our brave little army was scattered and broken; over 20,000 men were still in our front, and our men had had no water since 5 o’clock the evening before, and could hope for none short of Springfield, 12 miles distant. If we should go forward, our own success would prove our certain defeat in the end; if we retreated, disaster stared us in the face. Our ammunition was well-nigh exhausted, and should the enemy make this discovery through a slackening of our fire, total annihilation was all we could expect. The great question in my mind was, “Where is Sigel?” If I could still hope for a vigorous attack by him on the enemy’s right flank or rear, then we could go forward with some hope of success. If he had retreated, there was nothing else left for us.
In this perplexing condition of affairs I summoned the principal officers for consultation. The question with most of them was, “Is retreat possible?” The consultation was brought to a close by the advance of a heavy column of infantry advancing from the hill where Sigel’s guns had been heard before. Supposing they were Sigel’s men, the line was formed for an advance, with the hope of forming a junction with him. These troops wore a dress much resembling that of Sigel’s brigade, and carried the American flag. They were therefore permitted to move down the hill within easy range of Du Bois’ battery, until they had reached the covered position at the foot of the ridge on which we were posted, and from which we had been fiercely assailed before, when suddenly a battery was planted on the hill in our front, and began to pour upon us shrapnel and canister–a species of shot not before fired by the enemy.
At this moment the enemy showed his true colors, and at once commenced along our entire lines the fiercest and most bloody engagement of the day. Lieutenant Du Bois’ battery on our left, gallantly supported by Major Osterhaus’ battalion and the rallied fragments of the Missouri First, soon silenced the enemy’s battery on the hill and repulsed the right wing of the infantry. Captain Totten’s battery in the center, supported by the Iowas and regulars, was the main point of attack. The enemy could frequently be seen within 20 feet of Totten’s guns, and the smoke of the opposing lines was often so confounded as to seem but one.
Now for the first time during the day our entire line maintained its position with perfect firmness. Not the slightest disposition to give way was manifested at any point, and while Captain Steele’s battalion, which was some yards in front of the line, together with the troops on the right and left, were in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by superior numbers, the contending lines being almost muzzle to muzzle, Captain Granger rushed to the rear and brought up the supports of Du Bois’; battery, consisting of two or three companies of the First Missouri, three companies of the First Kansas, and two companies of the First Iowa, in quick time, and fell upon the enemy’s right flank, and poured into it a murderous volley, killing or wounding nearly every man within 60 or 70 yards. From this moment a perfect rout took place throughout the rebel front, while ours, on the right flank, continued to pour a galling fire into their disorganized masses. It was then evident that Totten’s battery and Steele’s little battalion were safe. Among the officers conspicuous in leading this assault were Adjutant Hescock, Captains Burke, Miller, Manter, Maurice, and Richardson, and Lieutenant Howard, all of the First Missouri. There were others of the First Kansas and First Iowa who participated, but whose names I do not remember. The enemy then fled from the field. A few moments before the close of the engagement the Second Kansas, which had firmly maintained its position on the extreme right from the time it was first sent there, found its ammunition exhausted, and I directed it to withdraw slowly and in good order from the field, which it did, bringing off its wounded. This left our right flank exposed, and the enemy renewed the attack at that point, after it had ceased along the whole line; but it was gallantly met by Captain Steele’s battalion of regulars, which had just driven the enemy from the right of the center, and after a sharp engagement drove him precipitately from the field.
Thus closed, at about 11.30 o’clock, an almost uninterrupted conflict of six hours. The order to retreat was given soon after the enemy gave way from our front and center…
It should be remembered that just after the order to retire was given, and while it was undecided whether the retreat should be continued, or whether we should occupy the more favorable position in our rear, and await tidings of Colonel Sigel, one of his non-commissioned officers arrived, and reported that the colonel’s brigade had been totally routed and all his artillery captured, Colonel Sigel himself being either killed or made prisoner. Most of our men had fired away all their ammunition and all that could be obtained from the boxes of the killed and wounded. Nothing, therefore, was left to do but to return to Springfield, where 250 Home Guards, with two pieces of artillery, had been left to take care of the train. On reaching the Little York road we met Lieutenant Farrand, with his company of dragoons and a considerable portion of Colonel Sigel’s command, with one piece of artillery. At 5 o’clock p.m. we reached Springfield….
Our total loss in killed, wounded, and missing amounts to 1,235. That of the enemy will probably reach 3,000.
I am, sir, your obedient servant,
S. D. STURGIS,
Major, First Cavalry, Commanding.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 3.
Sturgis’ estimate of the Confederate losses was wishful thinking by the Federals; although estimates vary, the total was between about 1100 and 1250.
Sturgis was promoted to Brigadier General and sent east, where he fought at Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. In June of 1864, his command was defeated at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads in Tennessee, which effectively ended his Civil War service. Sturgis was an officer in the regular U.S. Army before the war and remained in the army after the Civil War, serving in many posts in the west and on the plains. The town of Sturgis, South Dakota is named after Samuel Sturgis.
Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders
by Ezra Warner
Wilson’s Creek and the Death of Lyon by William M. Wherry. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 1.
Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road
By Earl J. Hess, Richard Hatcher III, William Garrett Piston, and William Shea.