The Battle of Wilson’s Creek

The First Battle of Bull Run, which was fought near Manassas, Virginia, inaugurated the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. Weeks later, the first major battle of the Western Theater would occur on the banks of a creek in Missouri: Wilson’s Creek. The battle resulted in another Confederate victory and the first death of a Union general in the war. It also served as foreshadowing to the Confederacy; showing it that the Union was going to make a vigorous effort to prevent any other states from joining the Confederacy.

At the head of the western Union army was John Frémont, the frontiersman, nicknamed the Pathfinder, and early Republican politician. At the outbreak of the war, he returned from France to America and offered his services to the military, which President Abraham Lincoln accepted. He was a bold, decisive leader but was unproven as a commander of troops  in the scale of the Western Theater. Union troops fighting the Confederates near Wilson’s Creek would be his first major test as a commander, and the result would only lessen his chances of being a leader in the Union army for the remainder of the war.

General John Frémont. Artist Unknown.

Frémont joined Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon in southwest Missouri to command approximately 6,000 Union soldiers and prepared to take on a Confederate force that actually numbered around 12,000 but was supposed to number around 20,000.[i] Despite doubly outnumbering the Union men, many of the Confederates had no uniforms, no tents, and a substantial number of Confederates had no arms. Those Confederates bearing arms had “shotguns or 1812-style flintlocks,” leaving them at a disadvantage against their Union counterparts, who had just received a luxury that would have left any Confederate envious: new shoes.[ii]

General Lyon, sensing a Confederate attack from the south, retreated northwest, which prompted Confederate Brigadier General Ben McCulloch to camp near Wilson’s Creek and draw up plans for an attack.[iii] Lyon was not going to allow a Confederate force he supposed to be triplicate of his troops to attack and planned his own attack to break the Confederate line with a two-pronged attack: Lyon would bring his troops for a direct strike to the Confederate line while Colonel Franz Sigel—with his infantry, cavalry, and artillery—would strike the rear of the Confederate line, a plan that was designed to envelope and slaughter the Confederates.[iv]

Map of the Battlefield for the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

At dawn the following day, Lyon’s men heard a roar and observed a flash “like summer lightning on the far horizon,” assuring them that Sigel had completed his northward thrust from the south.[v] To apply the second prong of the attack, Lyon ordered his men forward. The Confederates, “tousle-haired, half asleep, and badly frightened,” arose and while some prepared to fight, others ran “right out of the war.”[vi] Undeterred, McCulloch and his men formed a line of resistance, comprised of Arkansans, Louisianans, Texans, and Missourians, which met the attack from both directions.[vii] Given the Confederates’ use of the flintlocks and muzzle-loading rifles, the rhythm of the attack consisted of a regiment walking to the firing line, shooting their loaded rounds, reloading, delivering the next rounds, and then dissolving to allow the next regiment to deliver its volley.[viii] The sound of Western Theater fighting did not match the Eastern Theater, which was characterized by the Confederates belting out a rebel yell over the din of battle: neither side in the Western Theater made any noise at all; leaving the roar and crash of musketry to drown its participants.[ix]

General Nathaniel Lyon.

Although Sigel’s men on the flank of the Confederate line had the advantage of surprise, the shock of battle cut both ways, and his men broke and fled before achieving a breakthrough to meet Lyon’s men and roll up the separated Confederates.[x] The Confederates would see the first sign of success as they gathered in thicker clusters and broke through on the eastern side.[xi] As to the men on the western end of the line, Lyon rode behind them and shouted encouragement, but just as he sought to rally them, three bullets struck him; and then his horse was shot and killed.[xii] He muttered, “I fear the day is lost” but mounted another horse and made his way to the front to rally an advance through the Confederate line.[xiii] As he was pushing toward a breakthrough, a bullet struck his heart and caused him to fall to the ground.[xiv] His men, seeing their leader struck, fled and did not stop. They ran past fallen Kansan, Missourian, and Iowan men lying dead in their new shoes and continued onto Springfield.[xv]

Depiction of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

Just as with the Battle of Bull Run, the Confederates could not form a column to pursue the fleeing Union men and to further capitalize on their victory. Frémont and his men sat back in Union territory and sought to consolidate power: he ordered that any unauthorized person found under arms north of the line between Fort Leavenworth and Cape Girardeau would be court martialed and sentenced to death.[xvi] He also ordered that all Missourians who were “proved to have taken an active part with their enemies in the field” were to have personal and real property confiscated, and also, “their slaves, if any they have, are hereby declared freemen.”[xvii] From Washington, President Lincoln contacted Frémont informing him that he ought to withdraw the emancipation edict as well as avoid creating a man-for-man execution chain with the Confederacy.[xviii] Accordingly, Frémont followed orders.

Anxious to redeem himself, Frémont assembled five divisions consisting of 38,000 men and pursued nearby Confederate General Sterling Price with the hope of overwhelming him and then taking New Orleans from the Confederacy. President Lincoln did not want to risk any further embarrassment at the hands of Frémont, however: he sent two orders on October 28, 1861; one relieving Frémont and the second appointing General David Hunter in Frémont’s stead.[xix] On November 1, 1861, a captain disguised as a farmer brought the orders to Frémont’s camp.[xx] He waited to see Frémont himself to deliver the orders, and after waiting for hours, he handed the orders to the general. Frémont read the orders, frowned, and asked, “Sir, how did you get admission into my lines?”[xxi]

General Frémont viewed his last chance for redemption as attacking the Confederates led by Price. However, Price had already fallen back beyond Frémont’s reach by that point, closing any hope for salvation.[xxii] Frémont addressed his men: “Soldiers! I regret to leave you,” and he set out for St. Louis, where he reunited with his wife Jessie Benton Frémont.[xxiii] His wife commented on her husband’s relief from duty: “Oh, if my husband had only been more positive! But he never did assert himself enough. That was his greatest fault.”[xxiv]

The Battle of Wilson’s Creek both inaugurated the Western Theater of war and introduced its differing style of warfare. The Confederates enjoyed a second victory but were equally unable to capitalize on their victory and to push into Union territory. As much as Frémont, the Pathfinder, sought to make a name for himself by winning a battle and then by emancipating the slaves, he placed himself in a position of obscurity for much of the remainder of the war.

[i] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 90-91.

[ii] See id. at 91, 94.

[iii] See id. at 92.

[iv] See id.

[v] See id.

[vi] See id. at 93.

[vii] See id.

[viii] See id.

[ix] See id. at 93-94.

[x] See id. at 94.

[xi] See id.

[xii] See id.

[xiii] See id.

[xiv] See id.

[xv] See id.

[xvi] See id. at 95.

[xvii] See id.

[xviii] See id. at 96.

[xix] See id. at 98.

[xx] See id.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] See id. at 99.

[xxiii] See id.

[xxiv] See id.


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