WILSON'S CREEK, AND THE DEATH OF LYON
By William M. Wherry, Sixth U. S. Infantry, Brevet Brigadier–General, U. S. V.,
at Wilson's Creek Aide-De-Camp to General Lyon.
ABOUT the middle of July, 1861, the Army of the Union in south-west Missouri, under general Nathaniel Lyon, was encamped in and near the town of Springfield, and numbered approximately 6200 men, of whom about 500 were ill-armed and undisciplined "Home Guards." The organized troops were in all 5868, in four brigades. By the 9th of August these were reduced to an aggregate of about 5300 men, with the 500 Home Guards additional. Of these troops, the 1st Iowa regiment was entitled to discharge on the 14th of August, and the 3d ant 5th Missouri, Sigel's and Salomon's at different periods, by companies, from the 9th to the 18th of August. All except the regulars had been enrolled since the attack on Sumter in April, and but little time had been possible for drill and instruction. They had been moved and marched from St. Louis and points in Kansas, taking part in several spirited but minor engagements, and were ill-provided with clothing and food, but their spirits were undaunted, and they were devoted to their leader.
The latter part of July as spent by Lyon in drilling his troops and procuring supplies, the mills in the neighborhood having been seized and employed in grinding flour for the troops. He continued to send urgent appeals to St. Louis for reenforcements.
On the 1st of August however, having received information of an advance by the enemy, in superior numbers, Lyon moved down the Fayetteville road (also known as the Cassville road) to meet and attack the largest and most advanced force, hoping to drive it back and then strike the others in detail. A lively skirmish with Price's advance-guard, under Rains, took place at Dug Springs on the 2d of August and on the 3d a more insignificant affair occurred with the rear-guard of Rains's forces at McCullah's farm, which had been his headquarters, but from which he retired without resistance. Here Lyon became convinced he was being drawn farther and farther from his base, without supplies, and he determined to fall back to Springfield, which place he reached on the 5th. During those blistering August days the men marched with bleeding feet and parched lips, Lyon himself urging forward the weary and footsore stragglers.
On the 8th a march in force was planned for the following night, to make an attack on the enemy's front at Wilson's Creek at daylight. From this intention General Lyon was dissuaded, after having called together the principal officers to receive their instructions. Many of the troops were exhausted, and all were tired; moreover, some supplies having arrived from Rolla, it was deemed wise to clothe and shoe the men as far as practicable, and to give them another day for recuperation.
On the 9th it was intended to march that evening with the whole force united, as agreed upon the 8th, and attack the enemy's left at daylight, and Lyon's staff were busied in visiting the troops and seeing that all things were in order. During the morning Colonel Sigel visited Lyon's headquarters, and had a prolonged conference the result of which was that Colonel Sigel was ordered to detach his brigade, the 3d and 5th Missouri, one six-gun battery, one company of the 1st U. S. Cavalry, under Captain Eugene A. Carr, and one company of the 2nd Dragons, under Lieutenant Charles E. Farrand, for an attack upon the enemy from the south while Lyon with the remainder of his available force should attack on the north.
The troops were put in March in the evening; those about Springfield immediately under General Lyon moving out to the west on the Little York road until joined by Stargis's command from their camps, when they turned to the south across the prairie. The head of the main column reached the point where the enemy's pickets were expected to be found, about 1 A. M., and went into bivouac. Sigel's force consisting of 1200 men and six pieces of artillery, moved four miles down the Fayetteville road, and then, making a long detour to the left by a by-road, arrived within a mile of the enemy's camp and rear at daylight.
In the vicinity of the Fayetteville road crossing, the creek acquires considerable depth, and in most places has rough, steep, and rather high banks, rendering fording difficult. On the left side the hills assume the proportion of bluffs; on the right or western bank the ground is a succession of broken ridges, at that time covered for the most part with trees and a stunted growth of scrub oaks with tense foliage, which in places became an almost impenetrable tangle. Rough ravines and deep gullies cut up the surface.
The Confederates were under command of General Ben McCulloch. On the west side of the stream, "Old Pap" Price, with his sturdy Missourians, men who in many later battles bore themselves with a valor and determination that won the plaudits of their comrades and the admiration of their foes, was holding the point south of Wilson's Creek, selected by Lyon for attack. Price's command consisted of five bodies of Missourians, under Slack, Clark, Parsons, McBride, and Rains, the last-named being encamped farther up the stream. On the bluffs on the east side of the creek were Hébert's 3d Louisiana and McIntosh's Arkansas regiment, and, farther south Pearce's brigade and two batteries, while other troops, under Greer, Churchill, and Major, were in the valley along the Fayetteville road, holding the extreme of the Confederate position.
Lyon put his troops in motion at early dawn on the 10th, and about 4 o'clock struck Rains's most advanced picket, which escaped and gave warning of the attack, of which General Price was informed just as he was about to breakfast. Captain Plummer's battalion of regular infantry was the advance, followed by Osterhaus's two companies of the 2nd Missouri Volunteers, and Totten's battery. A body of 200 mounted Home Guards was on Plummer's left.
Having reached the enemy's pickets, the infantry was deployed as skirmishers, Plummer to the left and Osterhaus to the right, and Lieutenant-Colonel Andrews, with the 1st Missouri Infantry, was brought up in support of the battery. Advancing a mile and a half and crossing a brook tributary to the creek, the Union skirmishers met and pushed the Confederate skirmishers up the slope. This disclosed a considerable force of the enemy, along a ridge perpendicular to the line of march and to the valley of the creek, which was attacked by the 1st Missouri and the 1st Kansas, assisted by Totten's battery, who drove back the Confederates on the right to the foot of the slope beyond.
Plummer on the left early became separated from the main body by a deep ravine terminating in a swampy piece of ground, beyond which lay a cornfield which he entered, encountering a large force, the main part of which was the Louisiana regiment. These troops fought with determined valor and checked Plummer's progress. DuBois's battery was moved up to a hill on the left, supported by Osterhaus's battalion, the 1st Iowa, and the 2d Kansas, and opened a deadly fire with shells upon the cornfield, with such marked effect as to throw the Confederates into disorder and enable Plummer to draw off his command in good order across the ravine.
A momentary lull occurred at this time, except on our extreme right, where Price's Missourians opposed the 1st Missouri and attempted to turn that flank, but the 2d Kansas by its timely arrival and gallant attack bore back Price's overwhelming numbers and saved the flank. Meanwhile, Totten's battery, which had been brought into action by section and by piece as the conformation of the ground would admit, performed extraordinary service. Steele's regular infantry was added to its support. Price's troops had fought with great bravery and determination, advancing and retiring two or three times before they were compelled to give way on the lower slope of the ridge they had occupied. Many times the firing was one continuous roar.
The lull enabled the enemy to re-adjust his lines and bring up fresh troops, having accomplished which, Price made a determined advance along nearly the whole of Lyon's front. He charged fiercely in lines of three or four ranks, to within thirty or forty yards, pouring in a galling fire and directing his most determined efforts against Totten's battery, for which Woodruff's, which was pitted against it, was no match at all.
Every available man of Lyon's was now brought into action and the battle raged with redoubled energy on both sides. For more than an hour the balance was about even, one side gaining ground only to give way in its turn to the advance of the other, till at last the Confederates seemed to yield, and a suspension of the fury took place.
General Lyon had bivouacked near the head of his column on the night of the 9th, sharing a rubber-coat with Major (now Major-General) John M. Schofield, his chief of staff, between two rows of corn in a field by the roadside, his other staff-officers near by. He did not seem hopeful, but was oppressed with the responsibility of his situation, with anxiety for the cause, and with sympathy for the Union people in that section, when he should retreat and leave to their fate those who could not forsake their homes. He repeatedly expressed himself as having been abandoned by his superiors. When the troops were put in motion, he went at the head of the column, and when the action opened he kept his place at the front, entering the heat of the engagement with the line, near Totten's battery. He maintained an imperturbable coolness, and his eye shone with the ardor of conflict. He directed, encouraged, and rallied his troops in person, sending his staff in all directions, and was frequently without an attendant except one or two faithful orderlies. Early in the attack while on the line to the left of Totten's battery, rallying a part of the 1st Missouri Infantry, his horse, which he was leading, was killed and he received a slight wound in the leg. Shortly afterward he was wounded in the head. He continued dismounted during the contest above described, and walking a few paces toward the rear with his chief of staff, Major Schofield, who had also lost his horse, shot under him, Lyon said, "I fear the day is lost." Schofield encouraged him to take a more hopeful view of the case, assuring him that the troops were easily rallied and were gaining confidence, and that the disorder was only -temporary, and then proceeded to another part of the line in search of a mount.
About 9 o'clock, during a brief cessation in the firing, Lyon started toward the top of the ridge, accompanied by an aide, who was urging him to accept his horse, when they met Major Sturgis and a few troopers. One of these was dismounted, and his horse was given to General Lyon. Lyon also expressed himself despondingly to Sturgis, and was by him encouraged. Sturgis proceeded to another quarter, and Lyon toward DuBois's battery.
About this time great anxiety began to be felt for the fate of Sigel's command. Shortly after Lyon's attack the sound of battle had been heard in the rear of the enemy's line. It continued but a short time, and was renewed shortly afterward for a very brief period only, when it ceased altogether. Sigel had proceeded to within a mile of the camps, and his cavalry had cut off the enemy's small parties and thus suppressed information of his coming. He then advanced his infantry toward the point where the by-road crosses the creek, his flanks supported by the cavalry on the right and dragoons on the left, four guns being placed on a hill overlooking the tents. At about 5:30 A. M., hearing the musketry on Lyon's front, he opened fire with his guns, pushing his infantry across the creek and into the lower camp, whence they had fled, overwhelmed by the suddenness of the attack. Sigel crossed his guns and pushed with infantry and artillery forward a short distance in pursuit, meeting with slight resistance. He advanced from his first position near the creek, by a road west of the deserted camp, and formed line of battle in a field between the road and the camp. Afterward he advanced to Sharp's house. The Arkansans and Texans retired to the northward, fell in with Price's Missouri line, and assisted in the fight against Lyon. Meanwhile McCulloch called upon a battalion of mounted Missourians, and upon a part of the Louisiana regiment which had been confronting Plummer in the corn-field, and with these attacked Sigel's men, who were in line at Sharp's farm, and drove them from the field. When the attack by the Confederates, from the direction of Lyon's front, was made, the confusion of Sigel's men was brought about by the enfilading fire of Reid's battery east of the creek, and by the belief that the infantry in their front were friends. Sigel went back the way he came with a part of his command, including Carr's cavalry. All but the cavalry, who were ahead, were ambuscaded and, for the most part, killed or captured; Sigel narrowly escaped capture. Colonel Salomon with 450 of the troops retreated, by a detour to the west, to the Little York road, as did also Lieutenant Farrand, with the dragoons. The latter, finding himself with his company alone forcibly detained a guide and made up teams for one gun and one caisson of the abandoned artillery. He was finally compelled to unhorse and leave the caisson, in order to put the animals to the gun. Thus by 10 o'clock Sigel was out of the fight, and the enemy could turn his whole force upon Lyon.
Meantime a body of troops was observed moving down the hill on the east bank of Wilson's Creek toward Lyon's left, and an attack by other troops from that direction was anticipated. Schofield deployed eight companies of the 1st Iowa and led them in person to repel this. They did so most gallantly after a sanguinary contest, effectually assisted by the fire from DuBois's battery, which alone drove back the column on the opposite side of the stream before it began a crossing.
Lyon, accompanied by an aide and his six or eight orderlies, followed closely the right of the Iowa regiment. After proceeding a short distance, his attention was called by the aide to a line of men drawn up on the prolongation of the left of our main line and nearly perpendicular to the 1st Iowa as it moved to the eastward. A party of horsemen came out in front of this line of the enemy and proceeded to reconnoiter. General Price and Major Emmett MacDonald (who had sworn that he would not cut his hair till the Confederacy was acknowledged) were easily recognized. General Lyon started as if to confront them, ordering his party to "draw pistols and follow" him, when the aide protested against his exposing himself to the fire of the line, which was partly concealed by the mass of dense underbrush, and asked if he should not bring up some other troops. To this Lyon assented, and directed the aide to order up the 2d Kansas. The general advanced a short distance, joining two companies of the 1st Iowa, left to protect an exposed position.
Colonel Mitchell of the 2d Kansas, near DuBois's battery, sent his lieutenant colonel, Blair, to Lyon to ask to be put in action, and the two messengers passed each other without meeting. Lyon repeated his order for the regiment to come forward. The regiment moved promptly by the flank, and as it approached Lyon he directed the two companies of Iowa troops to go forward with it, himself leading the column, swinging his hat. A murderous fire was opened from the thick brush, the 2d Kansas deployed rapidly to the front and with the two companies of the 1st Iowa swept over the hill, dislodging the enemy and driving them back into the next ravine; but while he was at the head of the column, and pretty nearly in the first fire, a ball penetrated Lyon's left breast, inflicting a mortal wound. He slowly dismounted, and as he fell into the arms of his faithful orderly, Lehmann, he exclaimed, "Lehmann, I am killed," and almost immediately expired. Colonel Mitchell was also severely wounded about the same time and removed to the rear.
Lieutenant Gustavus Schreyer and two of his men of the 2d Kansas bore the body of Lyon through the ranks, Lehmann bearing the hat and loudly bemoaning the death of his chief. In the line of file-closers the returning aide was met, who, apprehensive of the effect upon the troops, stopped the clamor of the orderly, covered the general's features with his coat, and had the body carried to a sheltered spot near DuBois's battery. Surgeon Florence M. Cornyn was found and called upon to examine the lifeless body of the dead general, and having pronounced life extinct, the aide went to seek Schofield and inform him of the calamity. He was met returning from the successful charge he had led, and at once announced that Major Sturgis should assume command, but visited the remains of Lyon on his way to find Sturgis. These were taken charge of by the aide, and conveyed to the field– hospital, where the body was placed in a wagon and carefully covered. Strict orders were given that under no circumstances was the body to be removed till the army returned to Springfield, after which the aide returned to the front to report to Major Sturgis for duty.
The engagement on different parts of the line lasted about half an hour after Lyon's death, when the Confederates gave way, and silence reigned for nearly the same length of time. Many of the senior officers having been disabled, Sturgis assumed command, and the principal officers were summoned for consultation. This council and the suspended hostilities were soon abruptly terminated by the appearance of the Confederates along our entire front, where the troops had been readjusted in more compact form and were now more determined and cooler than ever. A battery planted on a hill in the front began to use shrapnel and canister, a species of ammunition which, so far as I know, the enemy had not fired before at the troops who were with General Lyon.
DuBois's battery continued in the left supported by Osterhaus's battalion and the 1st Missouri; the 1st Iowa, 1st Kansas, and the regular infantry supported Totten's battery in the center, and the 2d Kansas held the extreme right. With unabated ardor and impetuosity the Confederates assailed this front and endeavored to gain the rear of the right flank, but Totten's battery in the center was the main point of assault. For the first time during this bloody day, the entire line maintained its position without flinching, the inexperienced volunteers vieing with the seasoned regulars in tenacity and coolness. The flash and roar were incessant, and the determined Southrons repeatedly advanced nearly to the muzzles of the pieces of their foes, only to be hurled back before the withering fire as from the blast of a furnace and to charge again with a like result.
At a moment when the contest seemed evenly balanced, except for the overwhelming numbers of the Confederates on the field, Captain Gordon Granger, noted for his daring and intrepidity, rushed to the rear and brought up the supports of DuBois's battery, hurling them upon the enemy's right flank, into which they poured a murderous, deadly volley, which created a perfect rout along the whole front. Our troops continued to send a galling fire into the disorganized masses as they fled, until they disappeared, and the battle was ended.
The order to withdraw was then given, and DuBois's battery with its supports was moved to a hill and ridge in rear to cover the movement. Before the withdrawal of the main body took place, Captain Granger and others urged remaining on the ground, but Sturgis had received information of Sigel's rout, and in view of his depleted, worn- out forces and exhausted ammunition, persisted in a return to Springfield. The infantry and artillery, as soon as Totten's disabled horses were replaced, left the scene of conflict, and, passing through the troops placed in rear, took up the march for Springfield. On reaching the Little York road, a body of horsemen was seen to the west, which proved to be Lieutenant Farrand with his dragoons, leading in a remnant of Sigel's brigade, with the one piece of artillery he had saved. In his hand he carried a captured flag, which he trailed by his side. He was received with vociferous cheering, and became for the time the admiration of all, having marched around both armies and brought his command in safe.
On reaching Springfield, Sturgis found that Sigel had arrived there half an hour earlier. Regarding him as the senior, the command was given over to him. On the following morning the army withdrew.