The second major Civil War battle was fought right here in Missouri at Wilson’s Creek in Springfield.
In early August of 1861, just as the smoke cleared from the fields around Virginia’s Bull Run, two armies began to concentrate in Missouri, preparing for this major battle.
The coming engagement would largely determine the fate of Missouri, a slave-holding border state, for the duration of the war.
Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon had concentrated troops in and around Springfield, at the gateway to the Ozarks in southwestern Missouri. Many of Lyon’s volunteers were nearing the end of their initial, short-term enlistments, and although Lyon begged his superiors for more troops and supplies, his pleas were denied.
Confederate troops from states west of the Mississippi River had begun arriving to reinforce Major General Sterling Price’s pro-secessionist Missouri State Guard. These Southern troops outnumbered Lyon’s army two-to-one.
Approaching Springfield, they halted and encamped on both sides of Wilson’s Creek, about 10 miles from the city. Then, while Confederate Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch, the overall Southern commander, laid the groundwork for an attack on Springfield, Lyon laid plans for a surprise attack on the Southerners.
Lyon hoped to cripple his enemy, allowing him to retreat safely to the railroad at Rolla. Lyon addressed each of his regiments as they prepared to march: “Don’t shoot until you get orders. Fire low – don’t aim higher than their knees; wait until they get close; don’t get scared; it’s no part of a soldier’s duty to get scared.”
An evening shower on August 9 prompted McCulloch to cancel his planned march on Springfield. In the meantime, Lyon’s Union army left Springfield in two columns – one under his command, the other led by Col. Franz Sigel – to attack the enemy camp from two directions.
Lyon’s column was comprised of 4,300 men from Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Sigel’s 1,100 men were all Missourians.
Stealth was the order, and the wheels of the artillery and the horses’ hooves were wrapped in blankets and burlap to muffle their sound.
Lyon’s column reached its objective at about 1 a.m. that next morning (August 10, 1861), and the men laid down to rest until dawn. Major John M. Schofield, Lyon’s chief of staff, remembered that the general was “oppressed with the responsibility of his situation, with anxiety for the cause, and the sympathy for the Union people in that section.”
Lyon appeared to have a premonition of what was to come, and he told Schofield, “I am a believer in presentiments, and I have a feeling that I can’t get rid of that I shall not survive this battle.”
He later added, “I will gladly give my life for a victory.”
Meanwhile, Sigel’s column had also arrived at its destination, and he positioned his guns overlooking the Southern cavalry encamped in farmer Joseph Sharp’s fields below. Sigel waited for the sound of Lyon’s guns to start his attack.
Fighting then erupted at 5 a.m. when Lyon’s troops encountered a small force of Missouri State Guard cavalrymen and forced them to retreat. The Confederate commanders had been caught by surprise.