The threat to the union in Missouri was particularly acute in 1861. Its position on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and its manpower and natural resources made this western state vital to the Union. Most Missourians wished to remain neutral, but the governor, Claiborne F. Jackson, was a Southern sympathizer who planned to cooperate with the Confederacy’s struggle for independence.
Within months of Abraham Lincoln’s election, rival militias had formed in the state. Into this explosive situation stepped Nathaniel Lyon, a Union Army Captain and stern abolitionist assigned to the Federal Arsenal in St. Louis. Quickly promoted to Brigadier General, Lyon easily secured the surrender of a pro-Confederate Missouri militia unit just outside the city at Camp Jackson. He then led an army into Jefferson City and installed a pro-Union government. The battle for Missouri was beginning to boil. In June, Lyon began his campaign to secure Missouri for the Union and drive the newly created pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard out of the state. Tension mounted and the agony of civil war weighed heavily on the people of Missouri.
By the second week of July 1861, Lyon and his troops were camped in Springfield, while Major General Sterling Price drilled his Missouri State Guard soldiers 75 miles to the southwest. Price was joined by Confederate Generals Ben McCulloch and Nicholas Pearce, and they made plans to capture Lyon’s army and regain control of the state. By the end of July, the armies had worked their way closer to a clash, skirmishing at Dug Springs and gaining information about the opposing forces. Although Lyon knew he was outnumbered, he marched his troops out of Springfield on August 9, toward Wilson’s Creek, where the Confederates were camped. His plan called for Colonel Franz Sigel to flank the Southern army from the south, while the rest of his forces attacked from the north. Surprise was necessary for his plan to succeed. In the meantime, the Confederate leaders had also planned a surprise attack on the Federal troops, but rain caused the operation to be cancelled.
Lyon’s strategy did catch the Southerners off guard, driving them back and allowing the Federals to occupy “Bloody Hill.” On a broiling hot August 10, 1861, ten miles southwest of Springfield, the first important battle after Bull Run erupted. The two armies—more than 12,000 Confederates and 5,400 Federals—fought fiercely in the fields and on the hills bordering Wilson’s Creek. Six hours of intense fighting left extremely high casualties on the battlefield. Lyon had ignored the odds, attacking even though his troops were greatly outnumbered. Sigel’s flanking maneuver, initially successful, collapsed when he confused the 3rd Louisiana for Federal troops wearing gray and allowed them to approach within firing range. During the brutal fighting, Lyon, who had already been wounded twice, was killed by a bullet to the chest while leading a countercharge. With their general dead and ammunition running low, the Federal forces under Major Samuel Sturgis retreated to Springfield and later to Rolla. Also low on ammunition and exhausted from the day’s fighting, the Confederates remained on the battlefield to bury the dead and care for the wounded. Although the Southerners were victorious, they did not pursue the northern troops.
The Union Army lost 24 percent of its command in the battle—killed, wounded, captured, or missing—while the Confederate losses totaled 12 percent. On Bloody Hill, where the heaviest fighting took place, there were over 1,700 casualties—20 percent of the men who had fought on the hill. Blow by blow, bullet by bullet, history proved that green volunteer troops on both sides could fight bravely, proudly, and strongly for the cause in which they believed so deeply.
After the southern victory at Wilson’s Creek, Major General Sterling Price led his Missourians north to Lexington, Missouri, and another victory. But by March 1862, a defeat at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, had turned the tide against the Confederacy’s hope of holding Missouri. Thousands of Federal soldiers moved into Missouri and held it for the Union. Although Lyon’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, historians believe that he saved Missouri for the Union. Along with the battle of Pea Ridge, this was one of the two most important Civil War battles fought west of the Mississippi.
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 embroiled in guerrilla warfare conducted by marauding raiders who looted and destroyed any military or civilian resources that could aid the enemy. By the end of the war in 1865, Missouri had proved to be one of the most fought over states, ranking third in the number of Civil War battles and skirmishes.