Date: August 10, 1861
Location: Greene and Christian counties in southwest Missouri; about 10 miles southwest of Springfield.
Approximate Troop Strength: Union 5400; Confederate 10,200-11,000.
Commanders: Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon and Colonel Franz Sigel (Union Army); Major General Sterling Price (Missouri State Guard, Confederate) and Brigadier General Benjamin McCullough (Confederate Army).
Estimated Union Casualties: 258 killed, 873 wounded, 186 missing or captured; total 1317.
Estimated Confederate Casualties: 279 killed, 951 wounded; total 1230.
Result: Confederate victory
What Happened: On August 9th, 1861, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon led his four brigade Army of the West out of Springfield, Missouri, on a southwest march along the Wire Road, an important route between Springfield and Fort Smith, Arkansas. The Wire Road term came from the telegraph wires that ran along the road. Lyon wanted to hit the Confederate Army that had gathered a few miles southwest of Springfield on the Wire Road at stream called Wilson Creek. (The creek itself was named Wilson Creek, and was misnamed Wilson’s Creek by battlefield participants, although the battle is referred to as the Battle of Wilson’s Creek). This Confederate Army consisted of Brigadier General Benjamin McCullough’s Western Army and the Missouri State Guard troops of Major General Sterling Price. The two Confederate commanders agreed that McCullough would be in overall command of the army.
Although his force was considerably smaller than his opponent, Lyon divided his army into two parts, detaching 1200 men under Colonel Franz Sigel to swing around to the south and attack the Confederate right flank. Lyon would attack from the north with the rest of the army. Early in the morning of August 10th, the Federals attacked.
Sigel launched his attack with an artillery barrage that took the Confederates by surprise, driving them from their camps. However, following the barrage, Sigel did not deploy his men well and made no contact with Lyon. McCullough organized a counterattack, hitting Sigel’s left flank and front, driving his troops from the field.
Meanwhile, Lyon, with the main Union force, attacked Price’s camps and had some initial success, driving the enemy back and occupying some high ground that would come to be known as Bloody Hill. But the Confederates rallied, and Price attempted several unsuccessful attacks against Lyon’s defensive line. After defeating Sigel, McCullough joined in the attacks against Lyon. The Union general, already wounded twice and with one horse shot under him, was killed leading a counterattack.
With Lyon dead, Major Samuel Sturgis assumed command. The Federals on Bloody hill had suffered extensive casualties and were running low on ammunition. There would be no reinforcements from Sigel’s forces, so Sturgis ordered a retreat back to Springfield.
The Confederates had won the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, having driven the enemy from the field, but were in no condition to pursue and destroy the retreating Federals. Although the Confederates had control of southwest Missouri, they could not maintain it. Early in 1862, Union forces pushed the Confederates out of Missouri, and fought a major battle in far northwest Arkansas. The Battle of Pea Ridge, or Elkhorn Tavern, was a Union victory. It ended Confederate hopes of taking and holding Missouri, although there would be other Rebel incursions, cavalry raids, and extensive guerrilla action for the rest of the war. Price would make one final attempt to take Missouri for the Confederacy. He led a significant sized force into Missouri in late summer 1864, fighting several engagements before being defeated at the Battle of Westport in October 1864.
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was the second major Union defeat in as many battles; in Virginia, Confederate forces defeated the Union Army at the Battle of Bull Run less than three weeks earlier.
General Nathaniel Lyon was a staunch defender of the Union cause. He kept Confederate sympathizers from capturing the U.S. arsenal at St. Louis and fought several small engagements during the early weeks of the war to hold Missouri for the Union. Lyon was the first Union general killed in action in the Civil War.
Several other Union officers who survived the battle went on to make notable contributions to the northern war effort.
German native Franz Sigel was the director of the St. Louis public school system at the beginning of the war. Sigel was educated at a German military academy and had served in the army there and in state militias in the U.S. Despite all that, he did not have much success as a commander, with the exception of the Battle of Pea Ridge, where he performed very well commanding two divisions. It was mostly downhill after that; he was unable to stop Stonewall Jackson during the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, and the low point came when he was beaten badly at the Battle of New Market in May 1864 by an slapped together Confederate force that included cadets from the Virginia Military Institute. Sigel was driven from the Shenandoah Valley after the defeat, and an incensed U.S. Grant relieved him of what turned out to be his final field command. Sigel attained the rank of Major General, but despite his uneven results as a field commander, he played an extremely effective and important role as a recruiter of German immigrants to the Union cause.
West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran Samuel Sturgis eventually reached the rank of Brigadier General. He fought at the Battles of South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. In June of 1864, his command was soundly beaten by Nathan Bedford Forrest at the Battle of Brices Crossroads in Mississippi. Sturgis did not hold a field command for the rest of the war, but he stayed in the army and served in the West and Great Plains before retiring in 1889. The city of Sturgis, South Dakota is named after him. Sturgis filed this after action report on the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
Lyon’s Chief of Staff was Major John M. Schofield. A West Point graduate, Schofield would reach the rank of Major General, and fought in Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, and
North Carolina. He was in command of the Union 23rd Corps during the Atlanta Campaign, and at the Battles of Franklin and Nashville. In 1865, his corps was moved to North Carolina, where he captured Wilmington and coordinated with William T. Sherman’s army in the final days of the Campaign of the Carolinas. Schofield remained in the army after the war, and 1888 became the commanding general of the U.S. Army after the death of Phillip Sheridan. He remained in that post until retiring in 1895. Schofield was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1892 for leading an attack on the enemy at Wilson’s Creek. In his post Civil War military career, Schofield recommended that the U.S. establish a naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Schofield Barracks military base in Hawaii is named after him.
Captain Frederick Steele commanded four companies of U.S. Regular Army troops at Wilson’s Creek. Steele was another West Point graduate who was eventually promoted to Major General. He commanded troops in several battles in Arkansas, as well as in the Vicksburg Campaign under General William T. Sherman, and in the Mobile, Alabama Campaign in 1865.
Captain Gordon Granger was a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War. Granger served under Sturgis at Wilson’s Creek, and was a Major General by mid September 1862. Granger commanded troops at Island No 10, Corinth, Chattanooga, and Mobile. His outstanding performance at the Battle of Chickamauga was particularly noteworthy. On June 19th, 1865, at Galveston, Texas, Granger read General Order 3 that announced to the slave population that slavery had ended and they were free. The event is commemorated today by African Americans as Juneteenth Day.
Major Peter Osterhaus commanded a Missouri infantry regiment at Wilson’s Creek. Like Sigel, Osterhaus was born in modern day Germany and emigrated to the U.S., settling in St. Louis. Osterhaus commanded troops at Pea Ridge, many of the battles of the Vicksburg Campaign, Lookout Mountain, as well as Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. Osterhaus, who rose to the rank of Major General, also served as Chief of Staff to Major General E.R.S. Canby in the Mobile Campaign.
West Point graduate Captain Eugene Carr commanded a company of cavalry at Wilson’s Creek. Like Osterhaus, Carr would be promoted to Major General during the course of the war, and would command troops at Pea Ridge, the Vicksburg Campaign, and at Mobile. After the capture of Vicksburg, Carr served under Steele in Arkansas until early 1865 when, like many other commanders who had fought at Wilson’s Creek, he also participated in the Mobile Campaign. Carr filed this report on the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
Major General Sterling Price was a former governor of Missouri and veteran of the Mexican War. After Wilson’s Creek, he moved north and captured Lexington, Kentucky, although Federal reinforcements later forced him out. Price fought at Pea Ridge and Helena in Arkansas, Iuka and Corinth, Mississippi, before leading a raid deep into Missouri in September and October of 1864 that ended in defeat at the Battle of Westport. Price led his defeated army to Texas, where he remained until the end of the war.
Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch was born in Tennessee, where one of his neighbors was frontiersman Davy Crockett. McCulloch followed Crockett to Texas, and fought in the Texas war of independence from Mexico and the Mexican War. Though he would be photographed wearing a Confederate general’s uniform, he preferred to wear a black velvet suit in battle. He was wearing one when he was killed in action at the Battle of Pea Ridge on March 7, 1862.
Colonel James M. McIntosh was a West Point graduate from Florida. After resigning from the U.S. Army in May 1861, he assumed command of the 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles leading that unit at Wilson’s Creek. McIntosh was promoted to Brigadier General in January 1862. An aggressive commander who led from the front to the point of recklessness, McIntosh was killed and was killed in action at Pea Ridge while leading a cavalry charge.
Another West Point graduate, Colonel Louis Hebert, commanded the 3rd Louisiana Infantry at Wilson’s Creek. Unlike McCulloch and McIntosh, Hebert survived the Battle of Pea Ridge, although he was wounded and captured. After being exchanged, he fought in Mississippi at Iuka, Corinth, and Vicksburg, where he was again a prisoner of war following the surrender of Confederate forces there. After being exchanged a second time, Hebert was assigned far to the east, commanding artillery at Fort Fisher, North Carolina.
Colonel Thomas Churchill commanded the 1st Arkansas Mounted Rifles at Wilson’s Creek. Churchill was promoted to Brigadier General in March of 1862, and fought at the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky in August of that year. Churchill was in command at Arkansas Post, which fell to Union forces in January of 1863. After being exchanged, Churchill participated in the Red River Campaign in 1864, and was promoted to Major General in March of 1865.
Union forces included regular U.S. Army troops plus volunteer regiments from Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas, as well as a small detachment of Illinois soldiers. Most of the Confederate units were from Missouri and Arkansas, plus one regiment of Texas cavalrymen and one Louisiana infantry regiment.
In terms of troop strength, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek is the second largest battle in Missouri in the Civil War, with somewhere between 15,000 and 16,000 troops from both sides. The October 1864 Battle of Westport, fought in what is now part of Kansas City, was the largest battle in Missouri with about 30,000-31,000 troops participating.
Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield was established in 1960.