Boonville to Wilson’s Creek
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Lyon wasted little time in chasing Jackson and Price across the state. Federal forces captured Jefferson City on June 15, with little resistance from the Missouri State Guard. Lyon caught up with Jackson (who had taken command of the MSG while Price recuperated from an illness) on June 17, just outside of Boonville, and routed the small MSG force that tried to delay the federals. Casualties were light on both sides, but the small victory had a major consequence - the victory at Boonville secured the bulk of the Missouri River Valley in central and eastern Missouri for the federals. Jackson continued his retreat to Cowskin Prairie in the extreme southwest corner of Missouri, where he reunited with Price. The two hoped to train and equip the MSG into a real fighting force capable of ejecting federal forces from the state. They just needed some breathing space.
Lyon attempted a pincer movement to destroy the Missouri State Guard before it received reinforcements from Arkansas and the rest of Missouri. This attempt failed when Franz Sigel, a German immigrant and politician-turned-Union colonel (and soon to be promoted to brigadier general on August 7), unsuccessfully attacked the MSG outside of Carthage on July 5. Although this was a minor battle, it gave Confederate-leaning Missourians their first good news of the conflict. Sigel retreated and joined Lyon’s federal force at Springfield. Price and Jackson used the breather gained by the victory at Carthage to equip and train the Missouri State Guard to turn it into a disciplined fighting force.
Another advantage gained from the victory at Carthage was that Confederate forces in Arkansas, led by Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, a former Texas Ranger, were now closer to the MSG than were Lyon’s federals. When the MSG and Confederate forces combined, they more than doubled Lyon’s men. The allied MSG-Confederate force, co-commanded by Price and McCulloch, moved northeast toward Springfield and set the stage for battle.
Lyon’s Army of the West attacked the larger MSG-Confederate force at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10. Lyon allowed Sigel to talk him into a bold plan that called for splitting his already-smaller force in two and attacking the allied force in front and in the flank. The plan was extremely risky and needed a lot of moving parts to fit together seamlessly for it to work. It did work initially, as Lyon’s early morning attack surprised both Price and McCulloch, who rallied their men to defend against the pugnacious Lyon.
The Union offensive depended entirely on Sigel, who commanded the federal flanking force. But Sigel was not up to the challenge. His attack started well, but Sigel failed to place skirmishers in front of his force to inform him of enemy movements ahead of his troops. That negligence turned into disaster when his units mistook the Confederate 3rd Louisiana regiment for the Union 1st Iowa regiment (unfortunately, the Iowa soldiers wore grey, causing the confusion), the 3rd Louisiana launched a devastating assault that chased Sigel and his men from the field. To make matters worse, Sigel so hastily left the field that he neglected to inform Lyon or anyone else of his failed mission. The Federals atop Bloody Hill now faced the combined might of the Missouri State Guard and the Confederate forces.
The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was over, and the casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) were shockingly high.
Lyon’s untimely death at mid-morning, during the fight on Bloody Hill, left Major Samuel Sturgis in command of the remainder of the Army of the West. He decided that with no news from Sigel, with casualties mounting, and with supplies running out, the federals had to leave the field. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was over, and the casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) were shockingly high: over 1,300 for the Federals and over 1,200 for the MSG-CSA force. Lyon’s death left the federals leaderless for the immediate future, as they fell back to Rolla.
Lyon, who just two months before had promised to see every Missourian dead rather than side with the Confederacy, ironically became the first Union general to die in the war. Furthermore, the MSG now controlled large sections of the interior of Missouri, especially the southwest portion of the state. Due to personal animosity between Price and McCulloch, the latter took his Confederate forces back into Arkansas. Without McCulloch, Price could not threaten St. Louis, but that did not prevent the man, known affectionately by his soldiers as “Old Pap,” from taking the war to the federals.
Siege of Lexington; Federal Change of Command
Listen to historian Terry Beckenbaugh describing the first year of the Civil War in Missouri at the Kansas City Public Library.
After Wilson’s Creek, Price took the Missouri State Guard north of the Missouri River and captured Lexington, Missouri. The Battle of t he Hemp Bales, as that fight became known, proved to be the high point of the war for Price and the MSG, and while not a disastrous setback for the Union war effort in Missouri, it did force the Lincoln administration to make some kind of change in the West. On November 9, Lincoln replaced Department of the Missouri commander Major General John C. Frémont with West Point graduate Major General Henry W. Halleck. Halleck, in turn, appointed another West Pointer, Brigadier General Samuel Ryan Curtis to be in charge of the remnants of Lyon’s Army of the West and the new federal recruits in training at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. Curtis christened this force the Army of the Southwest. The new year of 1862 promised to see crucial military activity in the Missouri and Kansas region.
Castel, Albert E. Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.
Gerteis, Louis. The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2012.
Gerteis, Louis S. Civil War St. Louis. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Parrish, William E. Turbulent Partnership: Missouri and the Union, 1861-1865. Columbia: The University of Missouri Press, 1963.
Piston, William Garrett and Richard W. Hatcher III. Wilson's Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.