Battle at the Oak Hills – Wilson’s Creek.
Almost forgotten in the war of the rebellion even in its time were the often vicious fights of the trans-Mississippi and mid-west regions. The magnificent glory of the large Eastern battles simply washed away most news even then from the majority of the press. Even the bigger battles of the southeastern lands of the western theatre, like Stones River were largely ignored by the press that was closer to the Virginia fields. But, men fought and died in the far west and did their part to win or lose the conflict, and they deserve recognition.
In 1861, as the war began along the border-states, Lincoln called for volunteers to invade and punish the rebellious states. This call infuriated many people on both sides, especially in the states that lined the border of the Mason-Dixon Line. Many people here had equal dealings with the Northerners as wells as the Southerners, and often had family members and dear friends in the rebellious states that the President was calling to be invaded. This was the way it was largely in the state of Missouri.
Lincoln ordered Missouri’s Governor, Clairborne Jackson to send 4 regiments to the federal army to be used to conquer the South’s seceded states. Jackson, a man that had strong ties to the South, refused. In fact, he not only refused, but put out a call for the Missouri State Militia to form in order to guard against Federals. This call was eagerly answered by hundreds of volunteers all the while Confederate volunteers were forming in the state and in the bordering states to the south and heading into Missouri. Jackson ordered the units to form at Camp Jackson near St. Louis where they were organized and mustered. While this was occurring, other Missourians with strong Union feelings began mustering in their own camps and rallying in barns and parlors to figure out how to keep their Governor from leading Missouri into secession. Most Missourians wanted to remain neutral in the conflict as both factions all over the state held hostility toward their neighbors and often a bloody fight ensued.
In May of 1861, Gov. Jackson planned to attack the Federal arsenal at St. Louis. Keep in mind that this was 2 months before the first battle of Bull Run in Virginia. On 10 May, 1861, the officer in command of the Federal arsenal at St. Louis, a Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, took action first and marched his pro-Union troops including some “regulars” (regular Federal army) out of the city and to Camp Jackson where they forced the camp to surrender. Lyon, a West Pointer and an old Indian fighter, was a career army man and a strong pro-Union man.
In June, Gov. Jackson and Lyons, recently promoted to Brigadier General, met to try to hash out differences. This effort proved futile however, as the attempts throughout the Nation had already proven. When that attempt to stave off strife failed, Gen. Lyons marched his force of about 7,000 men north and seized the state’s capital, Jefferson City. Gov. Jackson attempted to make a stand against this movement at Boonville, but was forced to retire. With the capital seized by pro-Union forces, and his untrained and under supplied troops still forming, Gov. Jackson marched south into the Ozarks region where the pro-Southern feelings were strongest.
Gen. Lyons next installed a pro-Union government, removing any officials in the state government that was not deemed trustworthy to remain loyal to the Union. He also mustered in more troops and began stationing them at points around the capital to secure it and the newly appointed government. And, with these duties secured, he turned his attentions south and to the forces of Gov. Jackson.
On 13 July, 1861, Gen. Lyons and his army encamped at Springfield, MO in the southwestern part of the state along the northern side of the Ozark Mts. Here he had nearly 7,000 troops, mostly of Missouri stock, but also consisting of about 300 regulars, some Iowans and some Kansans.
During this same period, the Missouri State Guard (militia) had been forming roughly 75 miles southwest of the town under command now of Major General Sterling Price. The guard now had 5,000 or so men, mostly still equipped with whatever guns and items they could bring from home or scrounge along the way. July proved to be a month when both sides in Missouri would train and muster as fast as possible in and around Springfield.
In the last week of July, more Confederate troops moved to join with the Missouri Guard, lead by Gen. Benjamin McCulloch who assumed command of the pro-Confederates in the region. Also arriving was newly formed Arkansans under command of Brigadier Gen. N. Bartlett Pearce, a West Pointer who’d had a career in the regular army.
At the same time that this happened, word would have reached both sides of the first major battle having been fought, Bull Run near Manassas, VA. This first big battle shocked the nation with the carnage nobody seemed to have expected. It had occurred on 21 July, 1861. Southern forces in the Springfield area no doubt rejoiced at the news of a great victory and of the Yankees retreating in confusion back to Washington. Lyons’ men no doubt feared for the cause of Union, and some may have deserted at the news. But, Washington and VA was a world away to these men in the Missouri hills where untamed indians still occasionally preyed upon peaceable citizens.
By the first of August, the Confederates had as many as 12,000 men encamped in the hills called locally “Oak Hills” along a meandering stream called “Wilson’s Creek” about 10 miles southwest of Springfield. Here the Confederate commanders, Gens. Ben McCulloch, Maj. Gen. Sterling Price and Gen. N. Bartlett Pearce drilled their men in various scattered camps amid the lush corn crops and orchards of families in the area such as the Ray and Gibsons among others mostly lost to time.
On 9 August, Union Gen. Lyons detached about 1,000 men to guard his base in Springfield and took the rest, about 5,500 men out to the area where he’d learned the Confederates had encamped. For whatever reason, possibly poor intelligence, or possibly from underestimating the strength or quality of the Confederates there, he was out numbered by two to one odds when he decided to assault the Confederate camps. At the same time however, Confederate Gen. McCulloch determined that he’d lead his troops to capture Lyons and Springfield. Heavy rains however that day made McCulloch decide to wait for more favorable conditions in which to use his still green troops. But during the rain, Lyons had marched.
Lyon decided to have 1,200 Missourians with Col. Franz Siegel, a German who’d until the war began been director of the St. Louis school system, assault the Confederate right by flanking south. At the same time, Lyons planned that the main body of his army would assault McCulloch’s camps head-on from the north. The assaults were to be simultaneous and a complete surprise. The surprise was given, but the timing was off.
In the early hours of the morning of 10 August, 1861 as the Confederate camps were in their morning routines, Lyons’ main body, in lines of battle, emerged from the woods and fields north of the northern most camps, occupied mainly by Confederate cavalry. The Confederate cavalry was caught off guard and retreated rapidly and in disorder through other camps just as the noise of firing could be heard. The Union troops advanced rapidly through the Confederates’ camps and soon reached the crest of a hill that dominated the area. As they reached the top of the hill, the rest of the northern camps of the Confederates were by now aware of the attack and were frantically trying to form lines of their own. Seeing the Union infantry crest the hill, the Pulaski Arkansas Battery trained its guns on the crest of the hill and opened fire. Union men now fell fast under the exploding cases bursting through and over their ranks. This action served to stop the initial assault momentum that Lyons’ men had had. It was not yet 9am.
The sound of the cannons shocked people all over the area who had probably never heard such loud noises before. Animals on the farms no doubt cackled and scurried about as the people hid in the houses or ran to the noise to see the battle. One family, the Gibsons, owned the grist mill on the Wilson’s Creek near where the northern Confederate camps were. This family, the first to see the battle, took refuge in the cellar at its beginning, listening with fright and terror to the roar of artillery and crashing of muskets just a short distance south of their house. Across the corn fields to the east was the Ray family’s house atop a hill overlooking their own springhouse and corn field. Mr. Ray and his family stood on the front porch and witnessed the Union lines crest the hill and heard the roar of the Pulaski battery hidden from their view as it pounded the Union lines. Then, this family witnessed Arkansas infantry lined up in the southern edges of their corn field and then march in ranks and files across their corn, trampling it beneath their feet toward the hill.
When the battle had commenced, the Confederate generals were eating a leisurely breakfast at Sterling Price’s headquarters about a mile south of the north camps, at the Edwards family cabin. The initial sounds of fighting escaped their ears so that when a courier raced up exclaiming that an attack was under way, they ignored him and assumed it was just another wild rumor. But a few minutes later a second courier raced up on a sweat-lathered horse exclaiming the same thing at about the time the first distant musketry could be heard and as the first of the pell-mell retreat of the northern camps began storming into view. Now each officer began shouting orders to his own staff to get their troops formed and ready as they each raced to their camps.
Still early in the morning, at about 9:30am, Gen. Lyon led his troops on the hill where his men were being assaulted not only by artillery, but now formed lines of Confederate infantry on the hill as well. Lyons, leading a company, perhaps 75 men of the 2nd Kansas regiment, was astride his horse when a Confederate bullet went completely through his chest! The mortally wounded General was witnessed by the men to slowly dismount and then collapse and die in the arms of a staff member. Lyons had earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first General the Federals would lose in the war, and to date the highest ranking officer killed in the Federal forces. Command of Lyon’s troops now passed to Maj. Samuel Sturgis, a West Pointer.
For about six hours the battle raged as the two sides pushed and shoved against each other, mostly on the hill where it began. Union guns of Guibon’s Battery and Totten’s Battery took positions on the high ground and down its face in the creek bottoms to fire against the coming Confederate cavalry and infantry, dueling with the Pulaski Arkansas battery as necessary. Artillerists on both sides became casualties not only from small arms but from incoming artillery projectiles.
After Lyons’ had fallen and his attack command had passed to Maj. Sturgis, Col. Sigel’s assault finally got under way from the southern end of the Confederate camps. This attack did surprise the Confederates who were hotly engaged on their northern front by this time, and Sturgis had initial momentum. But, with only about 1,200 men he stood little chance against several times his number of battle-aware enemy. Artillery had opened on the Confederates from Siegels’ guns and done some damage, but did more to announce the arrival of the new threat to the Confederates. Siegel advanced after the cavalry was pushed back under his artillery bombardment. His men advanced across the corn fields of a family named the Sharps. Advancing to the Wire Road, Siegel deployed his line of battle to prepare to attack the retreating cavalry as well, and, seeing the Iowans in their gray uniforms coming toward him waited crucial minutes to allow these reinforcements to arrive. Here his men were near the home of the Sharp family that no doubt cowered in the house praying for an end to the battle on their lawn and in their corn.
On the north of the field the battle for control of the hill was still raging. Men became lost from their companies as officers became confused in this their first taste of combat. Woods and the corn obscured the view of men on both sides, often allowing the combatants to pass each other briefly only to turn back and find that they were surrounded. Close fighting, often had to hand happened all over the hill and the creek bottom at its base. Cavalry formed up and made charges to break up Union infantry only to be stopped by more musketry or artillery from the hill. The entire southern slope of the hill was covered in smoke, musket flashes, and shadows of men moving through the fog of battle. The men began calling this hill by the name it has ever after been called, “Bloody Hill.”
Sigel, on the southern part of the field, had made a dreadful mistake in waiting for the gray-clad Iowans. Too late for his salvation, he learned that the gray clad Iowans were in fact Confederates that fired into his formed ranks at a close range. Sigel could not recover from the attack, and his assault was halted here. As at Bull Run in Virginia a couple of weeks earlier, uniform standards were lax and this had again caused confusion that led to changes in the battle.
As Sigel was forced to retreat after the savaging his men had received by the Confederates at the Sharp farm, the pressure was relieved on the Confederates to use more strength on the hill where Maj. Sturgis now was trying desperately to halt more assaults up the hill. By 11am, Sturgis had to make a decision and chose to retire from the field. His commanding officer was dead, his men exhausted, the flank attack by Sigel had not developed as they’d hoped, although at this time he likely was unaware of Sigel's condition, and ammunition was running low. Sturgis ordered his forces to retreat back to Springfield, and the Confederates were content to let him.
Confederates, as disorganized and confused in victory as the Federals were in defeat, as at Bull Run just a couple of weeks prior, were unable to pursue the retreating Federals to issue a knock-out blow. This allowed Sturgis to survive with his forces to fight another day. On the field, the victors and the civilians alike were confronted with a new horror of war, the clean up. Bodies were strewn all over the hillside where the Union had been stopped in their initial drive. Officers lay among their men. Wounded on both sides cried out for help. Men had sought refuge in gullies or under logs and often died there only to be located much later after the smell alerted passers by of their presence. At the Ray house, Confederate Col. Weighton had been brought mortally wounded during the battle along with scores of other wounded men. The Col. had died there in the front parlor during the fight. Later that afternoon, as more wounded began arriving at the house where Confederate surgeons had begun using the place as a field hospital wounded Union men began arriving as well. The body of Gen. Lyon also arrived and was laid at the house. All afternoon and through the night the Rays and soldiers went the 100 or so yards to the spring house at the bottom of the hill, filled buckets with the pure cool water, and brought the precious water back to the wounded at the house. The burial details had their work cut out for them. A sink hole near where Gen. Lyon had fallen was utilized as a ready-dug mass grave into which Confederates threw 30 dead Union bodies. Others were given shallow graves near where they were found. In all, there were about 700 killed left on the field. The total casualties, while not known precisely, were about equal, with the Federals losing about 1300 and the Confederates 1200 men.
The end result of this battle, named “Wilson’s Creek” by northerners and “Oak Hills” by Confederates, was that the Confederates were checked in the southwestern part of the state while pro-Union sympathizers flocked to the cause of keeping Missouri in the Union. Lyon had been killed, but his dream of keeping Missouri in the Union was realized. The civil war that occurred in Missouri was brutal. It was a true civil war where civilians often brutalized one another. So many battles and skirmishes happened in Missouri that it ranked as the state with the 3rd most fights happening within its borders after Virginia and Tennessee. In the end, Missouri never did secede although many of its people did leave to fight in Confederate forces, or remained to fight as loosely knit bands of Confederate-sympathizing guerrillas. Missourians also joined the federal forces to fight in many future battles throughout the theatre and also as guerrillas against pro-Southerners in the state. Here, brother and neighbor really did fight brother and neighbor.
The remote location of the Wilson’s Creek battlefield allowed it to survive relatively unscathed by encroachments of modern developments. In 1979 it was declared a National Battlefield Park under authority of the US National Park Service which today maintains it well. It is an easy drive southwest from Springfield, MO today and is well worth a visit.