Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

Today I visited Wilson’s Creek Battlefield just outside Springfield, Missouri. I learned that Missouri saw 1,162 military engagements, only Virginia and Tennessee saw more. I never realized how contentious the issue of slavery and succession was west of the Mississippi. Below I go into more detail about Missouri prior to and during the Civil War for those interested but here I show pictures of the battlefield of one of the earliest major battles of the Civil War.

Rather than go into all the details of how the battle proceeded I am just showing the “lay of the land” of the battle. Imagine, as I did, of what it would be like to be on the field of battle here, never knowing if the enemy was marching up the other side of the hill just in front of you or if enemy combatants were moving through the corn fields. The battle was in August so the corn would have been high and the sun would have been hot.

Also, picture yourself as one of the farm owners where the battle was taking place. 17,000 troops sleeping on your land, eating your corn, eggs, vegetables, apples and butchering your pigs and chickens. The Ray family: John, his wife, nine children, their slave and a mail carrier hid in their cold storage bin under the house listening to cannonballs fall around them. Eventually the Ray house was commandeered as a Confederate field hospital. The house was saved but, according to a volunteer docent from the area, the children were so traumatized by the dead and dying they talked about it all their lives. Gibson’s mill was used as the headquarters for 2,500 Confederates.

A five mile driving trail encircles the battlefield. There are 8 points of interest, each with explanations of the battle. There are also walking trails and even horse trails. In the Visitor’s Center is a map of the battlefield that lights up indicating the progress of the battle.

In 1817 the Missouri territory wanted to become a state but the United States was embroiled in conflict over slavery. Congress wanted to maintain a balance of power between Northern and Southern States. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state (on August 10, 1821) and Maine (on March 15, 1820) to enter as a free state.

This compromise may have balanced the power in Congress but it caused problems for those living in Missouri. Even before the Civil War there was conflict between slave owners and anti-slavery proponents. Conflict between Kansas and Nebraska spilled over into Missouri and there were attacks on and murders of supporters on both sides. By 1860 the population of Missouri was mainly non-slave-holding. In 1860 a Constitutional Convention decided not to succeed from the Union and voted to support a neutral position. Newly elected Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson; however, stated Missouri should support and defend her “sister southern states”.

In St. Louis, Missouri was a major US military installation in which was stored arms, ammunition and cannons. Several Southern states had asked for their quota of arms and ammunition to be shipped from the St. Louis Arsenal to their state armories and arsenals. This was done under Buchanan’s Secretary of War, John B. Floyd. Even after those shipments there were still over 30,000 weapons left at the arsenal.

In March 1861 the Missouri Constitutional Convention of 1861 had voted to not supply weapons or men to either side if war broke out. On April 20, 1861 a pro-Confederate mob seized the only other arsenal in Missouri in Liberty, Missouri and made off with about 1000 rifles and muskets. Captain Nathaniel Lyon began enlisting Missouri Unionist Volunteers into Federal service. During the evening of April 29 Lyon had 21,000 arms from the arsenal shipped by steamer to Alton, Illinois.

Around May 1 Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson called out the Missouri Volunteer Militia (supporters of the Confederacy) for “maneuvers” about 4.5 miles from the arsenal. On May 10 Lyon surrounded the militia, which surrendered. As he was marching the militiamen through the streets of St. Louis a riot broke out. The troops opened fire on the crowd, killing 28 and wounding 90 civilians with 7 more killed later that night.

Governor Jackson and General Price (Confederate supporter) sent a secret message requesting Jefferson Davis to order a Confederate invasion to “liberate”. They told Davis that the Missouri State Guard would fight alongside the Confederate forces.

On June 11 (now) General Lyon met with Governor Jackson to discuss right of access to the interior of the state for the Federal troops. Jackson demanded the Federal troops be limited to only metropolitan St. Louis and that all pro-Unionist “Home Guard” companies in the state be disbanded. The meeting fell apart and Governor Jackson returned to Jefferson City, ordering the railroad bridges burned and prepared for war. Lyons moved troops and artillery up the Missouri River by steamboat. He captured the state capital, facing no resistance and defeated the Missouri State Guard at the Battle of Boonville on June 17, 1861. This action secured most of the key strategic parts of the state for the Union, which controlled those areas for the rest of the week.

Lyon then pursued Governor Jackson and the State Guard toward the Arkansas border. In August Lyon’s 5,000 troops met 12,000 Missouri State Guard, Confederates and Arkansas State Troops south of Springfield, Missouri at The Battle of Wilson’s Creek. The battle was confused and bloody. General Lyon was killed leading a charge late in the day and his successor, Major Schofield, concerned about low ammunition stocks withdrew toward Springfield and the exhausted Confederates did not pursue.

After the Battle of Wilson’s Creek the Arkansas and Confederate troops withdrew back to Arkansas and left General Price and the Missouri State Guard to “liberate” Missouri. Price had several skirmishes but he eventually had to withdraw due to a lack of supplies.

The St. Louis Arsenal and St. Louis remained in Federal control throughout the Civil War.