Battle of Wilson's Creek

From Academic Kids


The Battle of Wilson's Creek, also known as the Battle of Oak Hills or the First Battle of Springfield, was a battle in the American Civil War that occurred near Springfield, Missouri. It was the first major battle west of the Mississippi River and is sometimes called the Bull Run of the West.


Events Leading Up to the Battle

When war broke out in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for troops from the states to support the Union's cause. Missouri was asked to send four regiments, but Governor Claiborne F. Jackson was a Southern sympathizer and refused the request. Instead, Jackson summoned the Missouri State Guard to seize the arsenal at St. Louis for the Confederacy. His plan was stopped by the newly appointed commander of the arsenal and the 2nd Infantry, Captain Nathaniel Lyon. Lyon was an abolitionist and had secret plans of his own for the arsenal, using its contents to arm a Radical Republican paramilitary organization called the Wide Awakes. Lyon secretly had most of the arsenal's weapons moved to Illinois, captured the State Guard's camp, and marched them as prisoners through St. Louis inciting the St. Louis Massacre. The action drew great protests from Missourians and representatives of the City of St. Louis petitioned Lincoln for Lyon's dismissal. Lyon, however, was politically connected to Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. Blair arranged for his promotion to Brigadier General and saw that he was given command of the Army of the West from Gen. William S. Harney, a moderate.

In June 1861, Lyon personally met with Jackson in an attempt to resolve their differences in a "gentlemanly" manner. The conference proved futile with Lyon storming out of the room and declaring that war was on. Lyon moved up the Missouri River to capture the state capital at Jefferson City. The State Guard retreated with the state legislature to southwest Missouri. Lyon installed an unelected pro-Union state government In Jefferson City and moved southwest as well.

The Armies Meet

By July 13, 1861, Lyon's army was encamped at the city of Springfield in southwest Missouri and consisted of approximately 6,000 men. His force was composed of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Missouri Infantry, the 1st Iowa Infantry, the 1st and 2nd Kansas Infantry, several companies of Regular Army infantry and cavalry, and three batteries of artillery.

By the end of July 1861, the Missouri State Guard was camped about 75 miles (120 km) southwest of Springfield and had been reinforced by Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch and Brigadier General N. Bart Pearce, making the Confederate force over 12,000 strong. They formed plans to attack Springfield, but Lyon marched out of the city on August 1 in an attempt to surprise the Southern forces. The armies' vanguards skirmished at Dug Springs on August 2. The Union vanguard emerged as the victors, but Lyon learned he was outnumbered more than 2 to 1 and retreated back to Springfield. McCulloch, now in command of the Confederate army, gave chase. By August 6 the Confederate army was encamped at Wilson's Creek ten miles (16 km) southwest of the city.

Outnumbered, Lyon planned to withdraw to Rolla in the north to reinforce and resupply, but not before launching a surprise attack on the Confederate camp to delay pursuit. Colonel Franz Sigel, Lyon's second-in-command, developed an aggressive strategy to split the Union force. He proposed to lead 1,200 men in a flanking maneuver while the main body under Lyon struck from the north. Lyon approved, and the Union army marched out of Springfield on the rainy night of August 9, leaving about 1,000 men to protect supplies and cover the retreat. The success of the strategem was dependent on the element of surprise. Ironically enough, McCulloch was also planning a surprise attack on the city but the rain caused him to cancel his plan.

The Battle of Wilson's Creek

At about 5:00 a.m., at first light on the morning of August 10, the Union force attacked. The Confederates were initially caught completely by surprise. Lyon's force overran the Confederate camps and took the high ground at the crest of a ridge which would become known as Bloody Hill. Early Union hopes for a rout were dashed when the artillery of the Pulaski Arkansas Battery came online and checked the advance, which gave Price's infantry time and cover to organize lines on the south slope of the hill.

Sigel's plan was initially successful and his flank routed the Confederate cavalry, but collapsed when McCulloch's force counterattacked at the Sharp farm. Uniforms had not yet been standardized so early in the war, and McCulloch's men were wearing uniforms similar to Sigel's. The Union soldiers believed McCulloch's approaching lines were Union reinforcements, and did not recognize them as the enemy until it was too late. The flank was utterly devastated by the counterattack, and Sigel and his men fled the field. Legend has it that Sigel himself ran all the way back to Springfield.

With the rout of Sigel's flank, the momentum of the battle shifted in the Confederates' favor. Lyon, already shot twice, became the first Union general to be killed in the war--he was shot in the heart on Bloody Hill at about 9:30 a.m. while dramatically rallying his men for a countercharge. Major Samuel Sturgis assumed command of the Union army. While still in a defensible position atop the hill, Union supplies were low and morale was worsening. By 11:00 a.m., the Union forces had been through three Confederate charges. Ammunition and men were nearly exhausted, and Sturgis retreated rather than risk a fourth Confederate attack.


The casualties were about equal on both sides: 1,317 Union and 1,222 Confederate. Though the Confederates won the field, as Lyon had hoped they were unable to pursue the retreating Union army to Rolla. The Confederate army eventually moved north through Missouri, but lacked the strength to take the cities necessary for political leverage. Missouri remained under Union control.

The site of the battle was designated as a National Battlefield on December 16, 1970. The National Park Service operates a visitor's center featuring a museum, a thirteen-minute film, a six-minute fiberoptic battle map presentation, and a Civil War research library open to the public. Living history programs depicting soldier life, cavalry drills, musket firing, artillery demonstrations, period medicine, and period clothing are generally held on Sunday afternoons Memorial Day through Labor Day.

With the exception of the vegetation and the addition of interpretive hiking trails and a self-guided auto tour route, the 1,750 acre (7 km²) battlefield has changed little from its historic setting, allowing visitors to experience the battlefield in nearly pristine condition. The home of the Ray family, which served as a Confederate field hospital during the battle, has been preserved and restored and is open periodically throughout the summer with Park Service interpreters dressed in period clothing.

Wilson's Creek National Battlefield

Free online book - Battle of Wilson's Creek (


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