The 1st Iowa Infantry at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek

Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon

On August 10th, 1861, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon’s four brigade Union Army of the West attacked Confederate forces under the command of Brigadier General Ben McCulloch and Missouri State Guard troops of Major General Sterling Price at a location about a dozen miles southwest of Springfield, Missouri, called Wilson Creek. Lyon had successfully driven the Missouri State Guard troops out of the St. Louis area and central Missouri, but now here in the southwestern part of the state, they were joined by McCulloch’s troops, who had arrived from Arkansas. The Confederates outnumbered Lyon’s army by two to one, and although the Federal general requested reinforcements, none were forthcoming. Lyon did not have a force sufficient enough to defend against an attack, but he did not want to withdraw, either. Lyon had a mix of U.S. regular army troops and volunteers, and to make matters worse, many of his men were in 90 day volunteer regiments whose terms of service were due to expire.

Lyon decided his best course of action was to attack the Confederate forces before they could attack him, and on the evening of August 9th, the Federals marched southwest from Springfield toward the Confederate encampment along Wilson Creek. Lyon’s army halted at 1:00 A.M. on the 10th, about two miles away from the Rebels, and quietly resumed the march at dawn.

Harvey Graham, 1st Lieutenant of Co. B 1st Iowa Infantry. Later Colonel of 22nd Iowa Infantry

Despite already being outnumbered, Lyon split his force in two. His plan was to have half the army under Colonel Franz Sigel attack the Confederate rear while Lyon would lead the rest in an attack on the Rebel front. Between 5:00 and 5:30 on the morning of August 10th, Lyon attacked, driving the Confederates his force encountered up and over some high ground called Oak Hill. The Federals established a strong defensive position on Oak Hill. After the battle, Oak Hill would become better known as Bloody Hill.

One of the volunteer regiments in Lyon’s Third Brigade was the 1st Iowa Infantry. The 1st Iowa was one of the regiments whose 90 day enlistment had ended, but when it was apparent that fighting was imminent, the men opted to stay. At that early stage of the war, there were not enough uniforms for the rapidly expanding Union Army, so local Iowa women designed and made the uniforms for the regiment, which were made of what Private E.F. Ware described as an “azure-gray cloth” a color that could easily be confused for Confederate uniforms. (Gray was often the color of state militia uniforms, so it was not unheard of for Union soldiers at that stage of the war to be clad in that color).

The 1st Iowa was on the left flank of the Union line on Bloody Hill. As Private Ware described it:

We took a position on the ridge…Wilson’s creek was in our front, with an easy descending hillside and a broad meadow before us, in which about five acres of Confederate wagons were parked, axle to axle…Across the creek, which was not very far, perhaps a third of a mile, a battery of artillery made a specialty of our ranks, opening out thunderously…

In a little while, in front of us, appeared, advancing in the meadow, a body of men estimated at about one thousand…When they got close the firing began on both sides. How long it lasted I do not know. It might have been an hour; it seemed like a week; it was probably twenty minutes. Every man was shooting as fast, on our side, as we could load, and yelling as loud as his breath could permit.

The 1st Iowa acted in support of Union artillery, which played a crucial role for the outnumbered Federals. Private Ware:

we heard yelling in the rear, and we saw a crowd of cavalry coming on a grand gallop, very disorderly, with the apex pointing steadily at out pieces of artillery. We were ordered to face about and step forward to meet them. We advanced down the hill toward them about forty yards to where our view was better, and rallied in round squads of fifteen or twenty men as we had been drilled to do, to repel a cavalry charge. We kept firing, and awaited their approach with fixed bayonets. Our firing was very deadly…The charge, so far as its force was concerned, was checked before it got within fifty yards of us.

As the morning’s fighting continued, there were charges by the Confederates and counter charges by the Union troops along the Bloody Hill front, with lulls in the action in between. About 9:00 Price took his entire Missouri Guard command and attacked the entire Union line. Lyon ordered the 1st Iowa and the 2nd Kansas, another Third Brigade regiment, to attack. Lyon himself led the assault by the 1st Iowa, and while doing so, he was shot in the chest and killed. Despite this, the two regiments continued the counterattack and Rebels were driven back.

The Charge of the 1st Iowa With Gen. Lyon at its Head

With Lyon dead, Major Samuel Sturgis assumed command on Bloody Hill. Price’s assault had been repulsed, but after assessing the situation (and with no word from Sigel regarding his attack) Sturgis decided to withdraw to Springfield. The decision was opposed by some officers and men in the ranks, as they believed they had the upper hand. The withdrawal was carried out in good order, and as the army approached Springfield, Sturgis was informed of Sigel’s defeat on the other end of the battlefield. Believing that an attack on Springfield was imminent, the Federals retreated northeast toward Rolla, Missouri early on August 11th.

But there was no pursuit; both sides were physically exhausted and had suffered large numbers of casualties, and while the Rebels had not destroyed the Army of the West, they did retain control of southern Missouri. Sturgis reported Union casualties as 223 killed, 721 wounded, and 291 missing or captured for a total of 1235 of 5400 engaged. The Confederate forces reported 265 killed, 800 wounded, and 30 missing or captured for a total of 1095 out of an estimated 10,175 troops.

The 1st Iowa Infantry had 12 killed, 138 wounded, and four missing or captured for a total of 154 casualties. Lieutenant Colonel William H. Merritt commanded the 1st Iowa at The Battle of Wilson’s Creek and filed this after action report:

DEAR SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by the Iowa troops in the late hotly contested battle of Wilson’s Creek.

At 6 o’clock p.m. of the 9th instant the First Regiment of Iowa Volunteers, under command of Lieut. Col. William H. Merritt, Col. J. F. Bates being sick, united with the forces at Springfield under command of General Lyon, and commenced the march to Wilson’s Creek, 12 miles distant. Arriving within 3 miles of the enemy’s camp, and in close proximity of their pickets, the order was given to halt. The troops lay on their arms until 3 o’clock a.m. of the 10th instant, when they advanced on the enemy’s lines. About 5 o’clock a.m. our advanced skirmishers engaged the enemy’s pickets and drove them in. The First Missouri and First Kansas Volunteers, and a battalion of regular infantry, under command of Captain Plummer, with Totten’s battery, very soon engaged a considerable number of the rebel forces.

Lt. Col William H. Merritt 1st Iowa Infantry

Du Bois’ battery took position a short distance east of where the enemy were being engaged, and the Iowa troops were drawn up in line of battle on its left. A brisk fire was commenced and kept up for thirty minutes. The enemy responded promptly with a battery in the ravine, but their shot passed from 10 to 100 feet over our heads. Detailed Company D, First Lieutenant Keller commanding, and Company E, First Lieutenant Abercrombie commanding, to act as skirmishers in advance of my line. Ordered to advance over the hill, engage the enemy, and relieve the First Regiment Kansas Volunteers. In advancing to engage the enemy, met the First Kansas retreating in confusion. They broke through our line on the right, separating Companies A and F from the balance of the command. While in this confused state received a murderous fire from the enemy’s infantry. Gave the command to fall back and reform the line, the din of fire-arms and the loud talking of the retreating troops drowned my voice, so that the command could not be heard on the left. Led the two companies, A and F, over the hill, halted them, and ordered them to about face and fire on a squadron of the enemy’s cavalry advancing to charge on a section of Totten’s battery. The fire was executed with promptness and effect, and after receiving the discharge from the battery the enemy retired in double-quick time, leaving a number of dead and wounded on the field. Ordered Companies A and F to hold their position until further orders, and then returned to Companies I, C, H, K, G, and B, who had been left facing the enemy’s line. Found our troops advancing under a galling fire from the enemy’s infantry. After repulsing the enemy they fell back in good order. Ordered Maj. A. B. Porter to proceed to the rear and take command of the four companies, A, F, D, and E, there stationed. Held our position in front for five hours, alternately advancing and retiring, as the approach and repulse of the enemy made it necessary to do so. In every charge the enemy made we repulsed them, and drove them into the ravine below. About 12 o’clock m. the order was given to retire from the field, which was done in good order. As we retired over the hill we passed a section of Totten’s battery, occupying a commanding point to the right, supported on the right by Companies A, F, D, and E, of the Iowa troops, under command of Major Porter, and on the left by one company of regular infantry, under command of Captain Lothrop. This command sustained our retreat with great coolness and determination under a most terrific discharge from the enemy’s infantry. After the wounded were gathered up our column formed in order of march, and, the enemy repulsed, the battery and infantry retired in good order.

Thus closed one of the most hotly-contested engagements known to the country, commencing 5.20 o’clock a.m. and concluding 12.20 o’clock p.m., in which the enemy brought to the field 14,000

Francis J. Herron, Captain in Co. I, 1st Iowa Infantry. Later a Major General

well-armed and Well disciplined troops and 10,000 irregular troops, and our own force amounted to about 5,000 troops in the early part of the engagement, and considerably less than 4,000 troops for the concluding four hours of it.

It is with great pleasure that I acknowledge valuable aid and assistance from Maj. A. B. Porter, Adjt. George W. Waldron, who was wounded in the leg, and Sergt. Maj. Charles Compton, and to express my unbounded admiration of the heroic conduct displayed by both officers and men. No troops, regular or volunteer, ever sustained their country’s flag with more determined valor and fortitude. They have crowned themselves with imperishable honor, and must occupy a conspicuous place in the history of their country.

A list of the killed, wounded, and missing will be found attached to this report, together with such notices of individual prowess as were observed on the field.

Before concluding this report I must bear testimony to the gallant and meritorious conduct of Capt. A. L. Mason, of Company C, who fell in a charge at the head of his company.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
WILLIAM H. MERRITT,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding.

J. M. SCHOFIELD,
Acting Adjutant-General.

Though it no doubt seemed to Merritt at times that the Confederates had 24,000 men, his estimate of enemy strength was way off.

Shortly after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the 1st Iowa Infantry was mustered out and returned to Iowa. Many reenlisted in other regiments and returned to the war. Among these were Francis Herron and Harvey Graham. Herron, who was a Captain with Company I of the 1st Iowa, rose to the rank of Major General. Graham, a 1st Lieutenant with Company B of the 1st Iowa, later served with the 22nd Iowa Infantry, eventually commanding the regiment as it’s Colonel. The 22nd Iowa saw extensive action in the Vicksburg Campaign and Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.

Return to Iowa of the 1st Iowa Volunteers from Harper’s Weekly

Sources:

Campaign for Wilson’s Creek: The Fight for Missouri Begins by Jeffery L. Patrick

The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History by Louis S. Gerteis

The Lyon Campaign in Missouri. Being a History of the First Iowa Infantry by E. F. Ware

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 3

Wilson’s Creek, and the Death of Lyon by William H. Wherry. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I, edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence C. Buel

Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road by Earl J. Hess, Richard W. Hatcher III, William Garrett Piston, and William L. Shea.

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