Wilson’s Creek, Missouri

October 27, 2018

As far as Civil War battles go, this one was small, although the dead, wounded, and missing would beg to differ – if they could.

After First Bull Run (also known as First Manassas), this was the largest battle fought in 1861. Many bloodier battles were to follow.

Our first stop was, of course, the visitor center, where we watched an excellent short film about the battle – including the prelude and aftermath.

Visitor Center

The visitor center has exhibits that trace Missouri history back to when it first became a state. They explain how its citizens were both staunch advocates for and against slavery. When the Civil War broke out, political and military maneuvering on both sides kept Missouri’s fate in limbo and led to the battle of Wilson’s Creek.

The visitor center had the usual displays of military uniforms, weaponry, and equipment. But one really unusual exhibit was this cow horn with a solid shot embedded in it. I don’t know if it was still attached to the cow at the time.

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Cow horn with solid shot embedded in it

The visitor center also had an electronic relief map of the battlefield and audio of the battle that walked you through the two sides’ movements before, during, and after the battle. This was a very nice accompaniment to the movie.

They had a very small gift shop – I couldn’t even find a book about the battle, which was a real surprise. What’s a book lover like me to do?

Battles involve more than men shooting at each other. Neither side just decided to fight here. Politics and strategy played key roles too. Why? Because Missouri was a Border State that was tenaciously fought over by both sides. What I learned was that more engagements – 1,162 to be exact – were fought in Missouri than in all but two other states – Virginia and Tennessee.

The first of many Union generals, Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, was killed during this battle. Gen. Lyon graduated from West Point in 1861. Twenty years later he had been promoted twice and was a captain when the Civil War started. By the time of the battle, he had been promoted to Brigadier General. One of the park rangers put it this way: Lyon may have been a general but he fought like a captain. As a captain he should have been on the front lines rallying his men. As a general he should have been farther to the rear directing regimental commanders. Would his living have changed the outcome? Maybe not, but who knows?

The park has a driving tour that requires a token that you can only get by paying the admission fee or showing them a senior pass. I love my senior pass. We got our token and headed out for the tour.

There were eight stops on the tour and we, of course, stopped at all of them. We found the cell phone audio tour very helpful and informative. At each stop there were one or more audio “chapters” to listen to. This added much needed context to what we were looking at.

While on the tour we saw two “typical” homes of the time.

The Ray house would be considered a middle class home and was used as a Confederate field hospital. Twelve people lived in this house, John and Roxanna Ray, their nine children and a mail carrier. Middle class but very crowded by today’s standards. Ray’s slave, Aunt Rhoda, and her four children occupied a cabin to the rear of the house.

Ray house

The Edwards cabin, a typical poor Missouri subsistence farmer’s home, was used as Confederate General Stirling Price’s headquarters.

Edwards cabin

The battle itself began about 5:00AM on August 10, 1861 and was over by 11:00AM. While the battle seesawed back and forth, the outcome was never really in doubt.

First, the Union troops were outnumbered by their Confederate counterparts by more than two to one (12,000 to 5,400).

Second, Gen. Lyon’s second in command, Col. Franz Sigel, convinced him to split his forces. By attacking from opposite sides of the Confederate lines they could rout the enemy before they had a chance to recover and regroup. Initially, it appeared to work. Col. Sigel attacked first and stunned his foe, which retreated in disorder. He moved slowly and cautiously toward Gen. Lyon’s forces. Too slow because this gave Confederate Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch time to regroup and initiate a counterattack. At this time in the war, neither side had standardized uniforms – no Yankee blue or Rebel gray. Col. Sigel saw a line of troops in gray and thought they were reinforcements sent by Gen. Lyon. When those troops opened fire he realized his mistake. By then it was too late. Col. Sigel’s forces were routed and fled the battlefield.

Guibor’s confederate battery

Totten’s Union battery

The remaining Confederate forces concentrated on Gen. Lyon’s Yankees who were lined up on top of what is now known as Bloody Hill. The Federal troops withstood three determined Confederate attacks. During the third attack, Gen. Lyon was shot through the heart and both lungs, dying almost instantly. His second in command, Maj. Samuel Sturgis realized their situation was hopeless and ordered a retreat.

General Lyon’s marker

Out of the more than 17,000 men engaged, more than 2,500 were killed, wounded, or missing.

Because the Confederates held the field they had the dubious honor of burying the dead. Because of the heat, stench, and the number of dead, any hole would do, even this sink hole, which was where about 30 Union soldiers were found buried. After the war they were reinterred in Union cemeteries.

Sink hole were Union soldiers were buried

As the first Union general to be killed in battle, Gen. Lyon was considered a martyr. A funeral train transported his body from St. Louis to his home town in Eastford, Connecticut. The train made numerous stops where thousands of people could view the body and mourn him.

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We took food with us to make sandwiches while touring the battlefield but forgot to check the bread. It was mold city. We made the additional error of leaving our always-with-us-except-for-today day pack at home… which had our emergency snack supply in it. So John and I munched a few potato chips and toughed it out until our touring was done. I was close to sucking peanut butter straight off the plastic knife but restrained myself and we finished all the stops on the battlefield tour. We were dangerously past the “feed Holly” stage by then so we were on a serious hunt for food. We lucked out again and found Heady’s BBQ in Republic, Missouri just a few miles from the battlefield. It was excellent BBQ at a good price and with good service (and frozen Margaritas). We opted for the platter that had a bit of everything and was meant to serve 3 or 4. It was a lot of food but we were OK with that. We had our cooler and ice pack in the car so we were all set to safely transport our leftovers. This overindulgence allowed us to enjoy excellent BBQ again the next night at home. It was touch and go there on the food for a while and even the Tums stashed in the glove box started looking good but it worked out in the end. We tucked our leftovers into the cooler and John drove while I wimped out and napped: Lots of sun, lots of wandering the museum and battlefield, lots of food… and a Margarita. It was a good day and all was well with the world.

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