The Battle of Wilson's Creek, also known as the Battle of Oak Hills, was fought on August 10, 1861, near Springfield, Missouri, between Union forces and the Missouri State Guard, early in the American Civil War. It was the first major battle of the war west of the Mississippi River and is sometimes called the "Bull Run of the West."
Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon's Army of the West was camped at Springfield, Missouri, with Confederate troops under the commands of Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch approaching. On August 9, both sides formulated plans to attack the other. About 5:00 a.m. on August 10, Lyon, in two columns commanded by himself and Col. Franz Sigel, attacked the Confederates on Wilson's Creek about 12 miles southwest of Springfield. Rebel cavalry received the first blow and fell back away from Bloody Hill. Confederate forces soon rushed up and stabilized their positions.
The Confederates attacked the Union forces three times that day but failed to break through the Union line. Lyon was killed during the battle and Major Samuel D. Sturgis replaced him. Meanwhile, the Confederates had routed Sigel's column, south of Skegg's Branch. Following the third Confederate attack, which ended at 11:00 a.m., the Confederates withdrew. Sturgis realized, however, 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 Price and his Missouri State Guard as far as Lexington. In late October, a rump convention, convened by Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson, met in Neosho and passed out an ordinance of secession. Wilson's Creek, the most significant 1861 battle in Missouri, gave the Confederates control of southwestern Missouri.
At the beginning of the war, Missouri declared that it would be an "armed neutral" in the conflict and not send materials or men to either side. On April 20 a secessionist mob seized the Liberty Arsenal increasing unionist concern in the state. The neutrality was put to a major test on May 10, 1861 in what became known as the Camp Jackson Affair. Governor Claiborne F. Jackson had called out the state militia to drill on the edge of St. Louis in Lindell Grove. The governor had clandestinely obtained artillery from the Confederacy and smuggled it into the militia encampment--referred to as "Camp Jackson." Capt. Nathaniel Lyon was aware of this shipment and was concerned the militia would move on the St. Louis Arsenal. He surrounded the camp with Union troops and home guards, forcing the surrender of the militia. He then blundered by marching the militia men through the streets to the arsenal. A crowd gathered, some angry and pressing against the procession. Taunts and jostling eventually led to gunfire and many deaths, mostly civilians but also including several militia and soldiers. A day later, the Missouri General Assembly created the Missouri State Guard to defend the state from attacks from perceived enemies, either from the North or South. The governor appointed Sterling Price to be its general.
Fearing Missouri's tilt to the South, William S. Harney, the Federal commander in Missouri, struck the Price-Harney Truce on May 12, 1861, which affirmed Missouri's neutrality in the conflict. Governor Jackson declared his support for the Union. However, Harney was replaced by Lyon (who was promoted to general), and Abraham Lincoln made a specific request for Missouri troops to enter Federal service. Jackson withdrew his support. On June 12, 1861, Lyon and Jackson met in St. Louis to resolve the matter. The meeting ended with Lyon saying:
This means war. In an hour one of my officers will call for you and conduct you out of my lines.
Lyon quickly captured the capital and pursued Jackson, Price, and the now exiled state government across Missouri in skirmishes such as Battle of Boonville on June 17 followed by the Battle of Carthage on July 5, 1861. In light of the crisis, the elected delegates of the Missouri Constitutional Convention that had rejected secession in February reconvened. On July 27, the convention declared the governor's office vacant and then selected Hamilton Rowan Gamble to be the new provisional governor.
By July 13, 1861, Lyon's army was encamped at the city of Springfield, Missouri, and consisted of approximately 6,000 men. His force was composed of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Missouri Infantry, the 1st Iowa Infantry, the 1st and 2nd Kansas Infantry, several companies of Regular Army infantry and cavalry, and three batteries of artillery.
By the end of July 1861, the Missouri State Guard was camped about 75 miles (120 km) southwest of Springfield and had been reinforced by Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch and Arkansas state militia Brigadier General N. Bart Pearce, making the mixed Missouri/Arkansas/Confederate force over 12,000 strong. They developed plans to attack Springfield, but General Lyon marched out of the city on August 1 in an attempt to surprise the Southern forces. The armies' vanguards skirmished at Dug Springs on August 2. The Union force emerged as the victor, but Lyon learned he was outnumbered more than 2 to 1 and retreated back to Springfield. McCulloch, now in command of the Missourian army, gave chase. By August 6, his force was encamped at Wilson's Creek, ten miles (16 km) southwest of the city.
Outnumbered, Lyon planned to withdraw to Rolla in the north to reinforce and resupply, but not before launching a surprise attack on the Missourian camp to delay pursuit. Colonel Franz Sigel, Lyon's second-in-command, developed an aggressive strategy to split the Union force and strike McCullough in a pincer movement. He proposed to lead 1,200 men in a flanking maneuver while the main body under Lyon struck from the north. Lyon approved, and the Union army marched out of Springfield on the rainy night of August 9, leaving about 1,000 men to protect supplies and cover the retreat. The success of the stratagem was dependent on the element of surprise. McCulloch was also planning a surprise attack on the city, but the rain caused him to cancel his plan.
According to the United States Census, 1860, Christian County had a total population of 5,491 with 229 slaves in 1860 and Greene County had 13,186 with 1,668 slaves.
At about 5:00 a.m., at first light on the morning of August 10, the Union force attacked. The Missourians were caught by surprise. Lyon's force overran the enemy camps and took the high ground at the crest of a ridge which would become known as "Bloody Hill." Early Union hopes for a rout were dashed, however, when the artillery of the Pulaski Arkansas Battery unlimbered and checked the advance, which gave Price's infantry time and cover to organize lines on the south slope of the hill.
Sigel's plan was initially successful: his flank routed the Missouri cavalry but collapsed when McCulloch's force counterattacked at the Sharp farm. Uniforms had not yet been standardized so early in the war, and McCulloch's men were wearing uniforms similar to Sigel's. The Union soldiers believed McCulloch's approaching lines were Union reinforcements and did not recognize them as the enemy until it was too late. The flank was utterly devastated by the counterattack, and Sigel and his men fled the field.
With the rout of Sigel's flank, the momentum of the battle shifted in the Missourians' favor. Lyon, already shot twice, became the first Union general to be killed in the war; he was shot in the heart on Bloody Hill, at about 9:30 a.m., while rallying his men for a countercharge. Major Samuel D. Sturgis assumed command of the Union army. While still in a defensible position atop the hill, Union supplies were low and morale was worsening. By 11:00 a.m., the Union forces had already repulsed three separate Confederate charges. Ammunition and men were nearly exhausted, and Sturgis retreated rather than risk a fourth Confederate attack.
On October 30, 1861, the Missourians under Price and Jackson formally joined the Confederate cause in Neosho, Missouri. Officials passed the resolutions for Missouri secession and Jackson was named the Governor of Confederate Missouri. However, the new government never earned the favor of most of the population of Missouri, and the state remained in the Union throughout the war. What little control Price and Jackson did have was diminished in the Battle of Fredericktown on October 21 and the Battle of Springfield I on October 25 and the Confederate state government was soon forced to leave the state.
Although Price enjoyed Missouri victories, he did not have the popular support to hold the field. After 1861, he was a Confederate general and led his forces in battles in Arkansas and Mississippi. There were smaller skirmishes in Missouri until the fall of 1864 when Price returned to Missouri. However, Missouri suffered the guerrilla warfare of bushwhackers such as Quantrill's Raiders and Bloody Bill Anderson throughout the war.
The site of the battle has been protected as Wilson's Creek National Battlefield. The National Park Service operates a visitor center featuring a museum, a twenty-six minute film, a nine-minute fiber optic battle map presentation, and a Civil War research library open to the public. Living history programs depicting soldier life, cavalry drills, musket firing, artillery demonstrations, period medicine, and period clothing are generally held on Sunday afternoons Memorial Day through Labor Day.
With the exception of the vegetation and the addition of interpretive hiking trails and a self-guided auto tour route, the 1,750 acre (7 km²) battlefield has changed little from its historic setting, allowing visitors to experience the battlefield in nearly pristine condition. The home of the Ray family, which served as a Confederate field hospital during the battle, has been preserved and restored and is open periodically throughout the summer, with Park Service interpreters dressed in period clothing.