Captain James Totten’s and Lieutenant John V. DuBois’ Artillery Batteries at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek

General Nathaniel Lyon

On August 10th, 1861, Union and Confederate forces engaged in the second major battle of the Civil War, when U.S troops under Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon engaged Missouri and Arkansas troops under Generals Sterling Price and Ben McCulloch at Wilson Creek, near Springfield, Missouri. Lyon had led successful smaller operations in the state, including securing the U.S. arsenal at St. Louis, harassing the Confederate sympathizing governor, Claiborne Jackson, and his government in the Battle of Boonville and the capture of the state capital, Jeffersons City. But at Wilson Creek, Lyon’s mixture of volunteers and U.S. Army regulars, were outnumbered two to one.

The aggressive Lyon decided to attack anyway, concluding that it was better to do so and strike what he hoped would be a decisive blow to the enemy before the short term enlistments of some of his volunteer units expired. At the suggestion of General Franz Sigel, Lyon divided his force into two columns, with Lyon himself commanding one half and Sigel the other. Sigel would swing around to the south and hit the Confederate right flank while Lyon attacked from the north. Both Union columns attacked and achieved some initial success, but a McCullough counterattack drove Sigel’s force from the field and attacks and counterattacks against Lyon on high ground that came to be known as Bloody Hill, eventually turned the tide in favor of the Confederates. Lyon was killed in the fighting, and with ammunition running low and casualties mounting, Major Samuel Sturgis, who took over for Lyon, withdrew the remainder of the U.S. forces. (For more detail on the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, see this post).

Battle of Wilson’s Creek by Kurz & Allison

One factor that kept Lyon’s force in the fight on Bloody Hill as long as it did was the effective use of artillery. Captain James Totten commanded Battery F of the six gun 2nd U.S. Artillery. Second Lieutenant John V. Du Bois commanded a four gun battery, referred to as Du Bois’ Battery. Both commanders were West Point graduates. The two batteries engaged Rebel artillery and provided support for Federal infantry against Rebel assaults. Each officer filed a report on their unit’s actions at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

Captain Totten’s Report:

Springfield, Mo., August 19, 1861.
Sir: In obedience to instructions, I have the honor to make the following report relative to the part taken by my company in the battle on Wilson’s Creek, August 10, 1861:

Light Company F, Second Regiment of Artillery, marched, in company with the other troops composing General Lyon’s command, from Springfield on the evening of Friday, August 9, for the position occupied by the enemy. Early on the following morning (August 10, 1861), the camp of the Southern army was discovered about one mile and a half south of the head of General Lyon’s command, and soon after the infantry of our advance was fired upon by the pickets of the enemy. From this time our march, as directed by General Lyon in person, lay through a small wheat field, across a hill, and down into a small valley which debouches into that through which Wilson’s Creek runs at the point immediately occupied by the front of the enemy, and just where the main road to Springfield enters the valley. Keeping somewhat to the west, our advance crossed this road along the foot of the hills, and soon afterwards our skirmishers found those of the enemy, and the battle opened. Here the left section of my battery, under Lieutenant Sokalski, was at first brought to bear upon the enemy in the woods in front, and shortly afterwards the other tour pieces were thrown forward into battery to the right on higher ground. A few rounds from the artillery assisted the infantry of our advance in driving the enemy back from their first position, and they fell back towards the crests of the hills nearer and immediately over their own camp. I now conducted my battery up the hills to the left and front, and soon found a position, where I brought it into battery directly over the northern position of the enemy’s camp.

The camp of General Rains (as I afterwards learned) lay directly beneath my front and to the left, very close to my position, and a battery of the enemy to my front and right, within easy range of my guns. The camp of General Rains was entirely deserted, and therefore my first efforts were directed against the battery of the enemy to the right and front. The left half battery was then brought into position, but the right half battery, in reality occupying the most favorable ground, was principally directed against the enemy’s battery, although the whole six pieces, as opportunity occurred, played upon the enemy’s guns. As the position of the enemy’s guns was masked, the gunners of my pieces were obliged to give direction to their pieces by the flash and smoke of the opposing artillery.

In the mean time the battle was raging in the thick woods and underbrush to the front and right of the position occupied by my battery, and the First Regiment Missouri Volunteers was being hardly pressed. I now received an order from General Lyon to move a section of my battery forward to the support of the First Missouri, which I did in person, coming into battery just in front of the right company of this regiment. Within 200 yards of the position occupied by this section of my battery a regiment of the enemy were in line, with a secession flag and a Federal flag displayed together. This trick of the enemy caused me for a moment some uncertainty, fearing that by some accident a portion of our own troops might have got thus far in advance, but their fire soon satisfied me upon this. I immediately opened upon them with canister from both pieces, in which service, I am happy to be able to say, I was ably and gallantly assisted by Capt. Gordon Granger, acting adjutant-general, and First Lieutenant D. Murphy, First Missouri Volunteers.

The next step in the progress of the battle was where the enemy tried to force his way up the road passing along by their battery towards Springfield. This was an effort to turn the left of our position on the hill where my battery first came into position, and for a time the enemy seemed determined to execute his object. Four pieces of my battery were still in position there, and Captain Du Bois’ battery of four pieces on the left nearer the road. As the enemy showed himself our infantry and artillery opened upon his ranks and drove him back, and they appeared no more during the day.

About this time, and just after the enemy had been effectually driven back, as last mentioned, I met General Lyon for the last time. He was wounded, he told me, in the leg, and I observed blood trickling from his head. I offered him some brandy, of which I had a small supply in my canteen, but he declined, and rode slowly to the right and front. Immediately after he passed forward General Lyon sent me an order to support the Kansas regiments on the extreme right, who were then being closely pressed by the enemy. I ordered Lieutenant Sokalski to move forward with his section immediately, which he did, and most gallantly, too, relieving and saving the Kansas regiments from being overthrown and driven back. After this the enemy tried to overwhelm us by an attack of some 800 cavalry, which, unobserved, had formed below the crests of the hills to our right and rear. Fortunately, some of our infantry companies and a few pieces of artillery from my battery were in position to meet this demonstration, and drove off’ their cavalry with ease. This was the only demonstration made by their cavalry, and it was so effete and ineffectual in its force and character as to deserve only the appellation of child’s play. Their cavalry is utterly worthless on the battle-field.

Major Samuel Sturgis, later promoted to General as pictured here

The next and last point where the artillery of my battery was engaged was on the right of the left wing of the Iowa regiment and somewhat in their front. The battle was then, and had been for some time, very doubtful as to its results. General Lyon was killed, and all our forces had been all day engaged, and several regiments were broken and had retired. The enemy, also sadly dispirited, were merely making a demonstration to cover their retreat from the immediate field of battle. At this time the left wing of the Iowa regiment was brought up to support our brave men still in action, while two pieces of my battery were in advance on their right. The last effort was short and decisive, the enemy leaving the field and retiring down through the valley, covered by thick underbrush, to the right of the center of the field of battle towards their camp on Wilson’s Creek. After this we were left unmolested, and our forces were drawn off the field in good order under Major Sturgis, who had assumed command directly after General Lyon’s death.

Fall of General Lyon at Wilson’s Creek

It should be borne in mind that in the foregoing report I have only glanced at the main points of the battle where the pieces of my own battery of artillery were engaged. I have not entered into details at all, and could not without entering into a more elaborate history of the affair than appears to be called for on this occasion from me.

I wish simply now, in conclusion, to make a few deserving remarks upon the conduct of my officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers during the battle. In reference to Lieutenant Sokalski, it gives me the liveliest satisfaction to bear witness to his coolness and bravery throughout the entire day. No officer ever behaved better under as trying circumstances as he found himself surrounded by at times during the day.

The non-commissioned officers and men to a man behaved admirably, and it is hard to distinguish between them in this particular; but I am constrained to mention Sergeants Robert Armstrong and Gustavus Deyand, Corporals Albert Watchman and Lorenzo D. Trummel, who were on several occasions during the day greatly exposed and severely tried, and bore themselves with great credit. The other non commissioned officers and men were equally deserving and meritorious according to the time they were in action, but those mentioned were constantly engaged nearly, and deserve particular notice, because they were always equal to the duties imposed upon them.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JAS. TOTTEN,
Capt, Second Artillery, Comdg. Light Co. F.

Capt. Gordon Granger, U. S. A.,
Acting Adjutant- General, Army of the West.

Lieutenant Du Bois’ Report:

Camp near Rolla, Mo., August 17, 1861.
Captain: I have the honor to report that after the pickets of the enemy were driven in, on the morning of the 10th instant, I followed Captain Steele’s battalion into action. Having no position assigned me, I selected one directly opposite to and about 400 yards from the advanced batteries of the enemy. Mv position was such that my men were partially and my horses entirely protected from direct musketry fire.

After assisting Captain Totten to silence the enemy’s batteries, in which we perfectly succeeded, I received orders from General Lyon to move my battery to the right. Captain Granger was to

Captain Gordon Granger, pictured here as a General after promotion later in the war.

place me in position. While limbering, our left flank, which consisted of three companies of the First Infantry and one of Mounted Rifle recruits, was driven back by an overwhelming force of the enemy (five regiments, I think), who, in the order of an advance, had collected in masses. Captain Granger now countermanded my order to move, and by a change of front to the left I enfiladed their line and drove them back with great slaughter. Captain Granger directing one of my guns. Their broken troops rallied behind a house on the right of their line. I struck this house twice with a 12-pounder shot, when they showed a hospital flag. I ceased firing, and their troops retired.

Large bodies now collected in a ravine in front of our center. By using small charges I succeeded in shelling the thicket, but could not judge of the effect of my fire. It seemed to check the enemy, as he changed his position to one more to my right and beyond my fire. A new battery now opened upon us from the crest of the hill opposite, and having a plunging fire, it did great execution, all the shot which passed over me falling among the wounded, who had been carried in rear of my battery in large numbers. We succeeded in partially silencing this fire, and at the same time drove back a large column of cavalry, which had turned our position, and were preparing to charge our men.

General Lyon Leading His Men at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek

During the entire engagement I was so embarrassed by my ignorance of General Sigel’s position, that on several occasions I did not fire upon their troops until they had formed within a few hundred yards of our line, fearing they might be our own men advancing to form a junction with us. During the last effort of the enemy to break through our right wing and capture our batteries, I limbered up two guns to send to Captain Totten’s assistance. Before I could have a road opened through the wounded, I was ordered to fall back to a hill in rear and protect a retreat. I remained until all our troops had passed in good order, and was marching to the rear, when my 12-pounder gun broke down. I asked Major Osterhaus to protect me with his battalion. He remained with me until I repaired damages, and then marched in my rear until I joined the command on the prairie. I now received orders to take command of a rear guard, but as I had already joined Captain Steele’s battalion of regulars, and we had found a rear guard under his command, I reported this fact, and marched to Springfield under Captain Steele. We were not followed by the enemy, who had, I think, been driven from the field before we left it.

Many of the company, myself included, were struck and slightly injured by spent musket and canister shot; but only two were wounded and one missing. My men behaved well, and cannot be convinced that we were not victorious.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JOHN V. DU BOIS,
Second Lieutenant, Mounted Rifles, Comdg. Light Art. Bat,

Capt. Gordon Granger,
Acting Adjutant- General, Army of the West.

Sources:

Campaign for Wilson’s Creek by Jeffrey L. Patrick

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

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 M. Wherry. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I, edited by Clarence C. Clough and Robert Underwood

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

The Wilson’s Creek Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour by George E. Knapp


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