Battle of Wilson’s Creek, MO; Fighting at Cape Hatteras, NC: August 1861

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

While the North came to terms with the sobering defeat in July at the Battle of Bull Run, it became clear to both sides that this would not be a quick and easily won war. In August 1861, there was scattered minor skirmishing from Maryland to the New Mexico Territory with the major fighting for the month occurring in Missouri and on the North Carolina coast.

Late in July, Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon concentrated his force of 5400 men at Springfield, Missouri. Lyon had driven the Missouri State Guard, under the command of Major General Sterling Price, deep into southern Missouri earlier in the summer. Price had about 7,000 men in his command, but not all were armed. Price requested help from Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch, commander of Confederate forces in northwestern Arkansas.  McCullough brought 5,000 Confederates and Arkansas militiamen with him, and the combined Confederate force camped along Wilson Creek, about a dozen miles southwest of Springfield. Price agreed to let McCulloch command the operations against Lyon.

The overall Union commander in Missouri, Major General John C. Fremont, refused to reinforce Lyon and urged him to retreat to Rolla, Missouri where he could be resupplied easier. Outnumbered, Lyon decided to surprise the Confederates and inflict enough damage upon them that his withdrawal to Rolla could proceed safely. Lyon divided his already smaller force into two columns in order to attack from two different directions. Lyon would command one column and Colonel Franz Sigel commanded the other.

Lyon left Springfield on the evening of August 9th. Despite not being in communication with each other, both Union columns attacked simultaneously at dawn on August 10th and caught the enemy by surprise. Sigel attacked the Confederate rear and achieved initial success, driving the southerners out of their positions. But McCullough counterattacked and Sigel’s force was driven from the field and back to Springfield.

Lyon attacked on the northern end of the Confederate position. He was unable to surprise the Rebels, who quickly turned the tables and forced Lyon’s column into a defensive position on some high ground that would later be called Bloody Hill. The southerners attacked three times, but each assault failed to break through. On the second assault, General Lyon was killed while rallying his men. Major Samuel Sturgis assumed command. After the third attack ended, and with ammunition running low, Sturgis decided to withdraw. The exhausted Confederates were also short of ammunition and did not pursue.

The Federals had suffered  over 1300 total casualties including 285 dead, while the Confederates had a little more than 1200 with 277 dead.

On August 26th, a Federal fleet of seven warships armed with a total of 143 cannon, plus two transports carrying two infantry regiments and a company of artillerymen, left Hampton Roads, Virginia headed for Hatteras Inlet in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Commerce raiding ships were sheltered in Hatteras Inlet, and they were taking a toll on United States merchant ships. The inlet was protected by two forts called Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark. The mission of this combined army – navy operation was the reduction of those two forts, and the elimination of Hatteras Inlet as a base for commerce raiders.

On August 28th, the task force had reached its destination and began a naval bombardment of the two forts. An amphibious landing of troops was performed with difficulty, but succeeded at putting ground forces behind the forts. The navy continued shelling all day.

The shelling resumed on the 29th, with the ships staying just out of range of the fort’s artillery. Finally, at about 11:00 AM, the commander at Fort Hatteras raised the white flag. The Federals had won a victory to close out the month. It wasn’t the same as the losses at Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, but to a northern population desperate for a victory, it would do.

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