On August 9, 1861, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon’s Union Troops were camped at Springfield, Missouri while a large Confederate force, under the command of Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, was quickly approaching, making camp at Wilson’s Creek about 12 miles southwest of Springfield.
Both sides spent the evening formulating plans to attack the other on the following day.
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek, called Oak Hills by Confederates, fought August 10, 1861, was a bitter struggle for control of Missouri in the Civil War’s first year. In fact, it was the first major battle in the West and only the second major battle of the Civil War.
About 5:00 am on the 10th, Lyon, in two columns commanded by himself and Colonel Franz Sigel, attacked the Confederates on Wilson’s Creek and the Rebel cavalry fell back away from what would become known a Bloody Hill. However, the Confederate forces soon rushed up and stabilized their positions, attacking the Union forces three different times, but failing to break through the Union line.
Lyon became the first Union General killed in combat during the battle and Major Samuel D. Sturgis replaced him.
Following the third Confederate attack, which ended about 11:00 am, the Confederates withdrew. However, Sturgis realized that his men were exhausted and his ammunition was low, so he ordered a retreat to Springfield. The Confederates were too disorganized and ill-equipped to pursue. This Confederate victory buoyed southern sympathizers in Missouri and served as a springboard for a bold thrust north that carried the Missouri State Guard as far as Lexington. Wilson’s Creek, the most significant 1861 battle in Missouri, gave the Confederates control of southwestern Missouri. However, the loss was substantial with 1,317 Union and 1,222 Confederate casualties (killed, wounded or captured).
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek marked the beginning of the Civil War in Missouri. For the next three and a half years, the state was the scene of savage and fierce fighting, mostly guerrilla warfare, with small bands of mounted raiders destroying anything military or civilian that could aid the enemy. By the time the conflict ended in the spring of 1865, Missouri had witnessed so many battles and skirmishes that it ranks as the third most fought-over state in the Nation.
Today the restless spirits of war-torn Missouri still haunt Bloody Hill. While visiting the site of this old battleground, many have reported seeing the ghostly apparitions of these long ago soldiers, hearing noises that only be described as guns and cannons, cold spots bearing no earthly explanation and, at night, the sounds of soldiers walking and talking in the nearby woods. Interestingly, more Confederate Soldiers are reported as being seen at this site than their opponent Union troops.
Recognized and maintained by the National Park Service as a National Battlefield, today the nearly pristine landscape allows visitors to experience one of the best preserved battlefields in the Nation. Complete with visitor center and museum, along with research library, living history programs, self-guided auto tour and interpretive hiking trails, Wilson’s Creek is a must stop for history buffs.
For more information see NPS Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.