Many of you have heard of the Civil War’s most famous battles, Gettysburg, Bull Run, and Shiloh. However, one that has never received the attention that is so well deserves is the Battle of Wilson Creek or Republic, Missouri, depending on your stance. This was the second largest battle, following the first Battle of Bull Run to occur once the war commenced in full. There would be battles that would far exceed it in numbers and casualties, but it was the first major battle west of the Mississippi. It was also the first civil war battle where a general perished while leading his men into battle. While the civil war had just begun, this was the end of a 10 year long struggle in the region.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 would provide the fuel to begin the real blood shed. For the states of Kansas and Missouri, the war had begun with the signature on this act. Simply stated the Kansas-Nebraska Act said that these two states could enter the Union but needed to vote on the issue of slavery. Would they be a free state or a slave state? Nebraska was not in question. It would vote free soil since it was too far north of the slave states and it had not entrenched itself in the slave system for its agricultural society.
Kansas on the other hand was partially involved in the slave system and most of all those counties were along its western Missouri border. Missouri was a border state that was most likely going to be a slave state. The sitting governor, Sterling Price, a former brigadier general wanted to side with the South, which he did when the war commenced. He did not want free soilers to surround him on three of his borders.
Anti-slavery abolitionists from the northeast were not going to allow Kansas to be a slave state. They moved to Kansas in droves and even established a town, Lawrence, for these Abolitionists to reside. When the votes would begin, men known as Missouri Border Ruffians would cross into Kansas and vote for a slave state. Alternatively, the newly arrived Yankees from the Northeast would vote free soil. Thus, the Civil War unofficially began along the border counties of Missouri and Kansas. In Lawrence, this was unacceptable. Small groups from Kansas began to raid homesteads of Missouri natives living just across the border in Kansas, and then they crossed into Missouri counties along the border. These raiders, called Jayhawkers and Red Legs, began burning out border homes. Groups of raiders in Missouri began forming together for protection from retaliation, since the raids from Kansas grew in number and violence. These Missouri raiders and bushwhackers began to defend themselves and eventually went on the offensive. At the height of their frustration and need for retaliation, they raided Lawrence on August 21, 1863, killing around 200 men and boys.
The Kansas Jayhawkers and Red Legs would have as much blood on their hands. John Brown, more widely known for his work at Harpers Ferry, took his sons to a cabin of suspected Missourians on Kansas soil, and hacked those inside to death with axes. As the war was just in its infancy, the Missouri counties along the Kansas border already looked like a war zone. The fighting killed hundreds of men, women, and children while homes and property burned out. Most of those people left alive moved to Texas or other southern states. The men left behind would form the Bushwhackers while Kansas would become know as Bleeding Kansas in congress. Out of the Bushwhackers arose names like Anderson, Quantrill, James, and Younger. Through the war and beyond these names would become infamous. Forgiveness and mercy disappeared at a young age from their way of thinking by the work of the raiders from Kansas.
On August 10, 1861, a battle erupted just south of Springfield, Missouri close to the town of Republic near Wilsons Creek. For most officers and soldiers it would mark the beginning of this war. For hundreds of soldiers on both sides, this was the end—a culmination of years of violence and chance to stand and fight head on and face to face. There would be no more midnight raids or chasing ghosts through the brush. Here they would be in the open, in droves, having a stand up fight. Many of the Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers would take part for their chosen side. After the battle, many Bushwhackers would choose to ride under a black flag for Missouri for the remainder of the war.
The battle took place four months following the first shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter. Former Governor Sterling Price formed the Missouri State Guard, which would seek to help Missouri leave the Union and join the Confederates. This was under the support of the current elected Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson. Price attempted a raid on the state armory in St Louis with the surreptitious support of Governor Jackson. Southern sympathizers who had seized it in April of that year were holding the arsenal.
The next actor in this event, was a fiery redhead who had a no-nonsense, unyielding, and uncompromising attitude. Captain Nathaniel Lyon thwarted the raid on the arsenal. Lyon was without a doubt a Union man and was not open for discussion on the matter. He also believed that Missouri was a part of the Union and it would stay that way. When others spoke of compromise, he refused to talk. He wanted a fight and he would get one soon enough. Once he retook the arsenal, onlookers killed several of the former occupants as they were marched through the town of St. Louis, which had a very German background and one that was extremely pro Union.
A chase began throughout the state of Missouri for several months. After Lyon’s success and regardless of the incident in St. Louis, Lyon now had the authority to fight. President Abraham Lincoln needed generals who would fight and Lyon appeared to be one. This chase would continue through out the sweltering and humid summer, both in and out of Missouri.
Price’s Missouri Guard who was in the lead, tried to gather recruits with whatever weapons they could muster. He also appealed to the Confederacy in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas for help. In that area was a fighting general from Texas who had gathered forces with the Arkansas State Guard, Benjamin McCulloch. The two armies would meet and make camp just east of the town of Republic on August 6, 1861, next to and along Wilson’s creek. General McCulloch would take charge of the two armies, which totaled 12,000-13,000 troops. Many armed themselves with old flintlock rifles and shotguns.
On August 9, 1861, the Union Army, under the command of Lyon and Major Samuel Sturgis, camped in Springfield, with approximately 5,000 well-armed troops. Lyon requested more recruits and when they refused, he had two choices. He could pull back, protect his army and Missouri’s fate, or attack and resolve the matter for the last time. As was his character, he decided to move out late that night and attack in the early morning hours of August 10. The opposing army under McCulloch was prepared to act on a plan to attack the Union forces camped in Springfield. They were preparing to move up the telegraph road when a light rain began and they remained in place by the creek.
Lyon continued into the night. During the night hours, he chose to split his army. One column would attack from the south and his main column would advance from the north, effectively pinning the opposing army in a large vise. The army from the south chose to stay in place.
Lyon attacked at 5:00 a.m. in the morning on August 10, 1861. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek would begin. Lyon’s troops ran into a small southern force on the west side of Wilsons Creek. The Confederates quickly retreated south toward General Price’s camp below their defensive position. This was the first engagement on what historians now call Bloody Hill. The Northern Army would crest this hill and look upon the breadth of General Price’s forces at around 6:00 a.m. Lyon could have charged if not for the fact that McCulloch had set a small battery of cannons on the east side of the stream in view of the hill. These cannons, under an officer named Pulaski, began to fire on Lyons left flank with devastating results. General Lyon would pause just long enough for Price to gather his forces.
At the southern end of the vice, the Union forces lead by Colonel Franz Sigel moved in at the sound of gunfire to the north. Sigel’s column was not long for the battle. He caught the southerners by total surprise and they began to turn and run. However, he made two major mistakes. First, he paused too long, which was a fatal error on the attack. Second, he assumed in battle. To his right he saw a group of gray-clad soldiers approaching his location. At this time in the war, the blue of the north and the gray of the south had yet to be established. The local area towns and cities that the troops came from made their own uniforms, if they had them at this time. Sigel <i>assumed</i> that the approaching soldiers were his 3rd Iowa troops—they were not. McCulloch did not pause, upon hearing the gunfire had sent the three groups including the 3rd Louisiana also dressed in gray. Within less than 40 yards of Sigel’s column they began to pour on the fire. Sigel’s column folded and many did not stop running until they reached Springfield.
By 6:30 a.m. the battle lines were drawn on Bloody Hill. This would now become a slugging match for the next few hours and the hill would earn its name. Each side tried to out flank, go around the end of the opposing force, to break the stale mate but these would also fail. Waves from both sides would meet on the hill then fall back.
During one flanking moves on the east side of the Creek, a corn farmer named John Ray arose to see two armies fighting it out in his cornfield. He would watch the battle from the porch and the house would later serve as the hospital for wounded soldiers from both sides. You can still tour the house and its rooms at the battlefield park today.
The main battle continued to rage on Bloody Hill. During the battle, General Lyon was on horseback directing his troops at the front. This practice is ill advised in warfare. He was wounded slightly by a by a fragment earlier but continued. General Lyon decided on another charge down the hill, which he would lead. He was an easy target and reeled in his saddle. Barely alive, when pulled from his horse, he told his orderly,” I am killed.” General Nathaniel Lyon was the first General in the Civil War to die on the field of battle.
At about 11:00 a.m. both sides were exhausted and a lull fell on the field. The Union Army, minus its General decided to retire from the field and return to Springfield. The Confederates would claim the victory. To be objective both sides wanted an ending. Lungs choked with black powder smoke and thirst were the big contributors to that cause.
The battle of Wilsons Creek was over. The immediate results were 1,317 Union soldiers and 1,222 confederate soldiers killed, wounded, or missing. The bigger picture was that the Confederate troops would ultimately concede Missouri, retire to Arkansas, and lose Missouri all together at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas the following March of 1862. The Union would have its border state. The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, was previously intended as an attempt to avoid war, cemented itself in place after eight years of war and untold thousands dead.