One of the first major battles of the American Civil War was the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, also known as the Battle of Oak Hills, and, as one of the first major battles of the Civil War, it received quite a bit of publicity nationwide. It was definitely the first major battle in the theater of war known as the Trans-Mississippi Theater. As such, if you are looking for battles that occurred in the state of Missouri, you must seek out the volumes of the Official Record of the Rebellion that deal with the “Trans-Mississippi states.” You will find the Missouri history buried in those volumes.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, the state of Missouri was a front-line state in the struggle between the Union and the Confederacy. Both sides were determined to seize control of Missouri and, as such, fights occurred in Missouri at a time when much of the nation was recruiting and training troops for future battles. Thus, the operations of Missouri probably received a more generous public reporting than the fights deserved.
In early August 1861, Confederate forces under the command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCullough and Missouri State Guard troops, who were pro-Southern, and were under the command of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, approached Springfield, Missouri. At the time Springfield was defended by Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyons Army of the West. At approximately 5 p.m. on August 10, 1861, Gen. Lyons and his Union troops attacked the Confederate forces at Wilson’s Creek. The Union forces were deployed into two columns, Gen. Lyons commanded one column and Col. Franz Siegel commanded the second column.
The initial Union attack was successful and the troops seized some high ground on the battlefield. The Confederates were forced to counterattack three different times during the day; however, the Confederates failed to break through. When Gen. Lyons was killed during the battle, Major Samuel D. Sturgis assumed command of the Union forces. The battle ended when the Union forces withdrew in a general retreat. Major Sturgis had pulled his troops from the battlefield because he realized his men were exhausted and were lacking in munitions. The Confederate forces were too disorganized and ill-equipped to pursue the retreating federal forces. And so, the battle ended.
The union forces during the battle numbered approximately 5,430 men of whom 258 men were killed with 873 men wounded and 186 union men were listed as missing in action. The Confederate side had a total strength of approximately 12,120. They suffered the loss of 277 men killed, 945 men wounded and had approximately ten men missing. Despite the low numbers of manpower and casualties involved in this action, the battle somehow received the title of the “Bull Run of the West.” This was a reference to the large scale battle known as the First Battle of Bull Run which was fought near Manassas Junction, Virginia on July 21, 1861. Each side had about 18,000 men there and it also ended in a Confederate victory.
Following their defeat at Wilson’s Creek, Major Sturgis ordered a general retreat from Springfield with the intention of going to the Union Army fort in Rolla, Missouri. The preparations for the retreat were begun the night of the tenth and at daybreak on the eleventh the troops were on the march to the Gasconade River. Before crossing this river, Sturgis received information that the river ford could not be passed well and that a strong force of enemy was moving from the south, the West Plains, Missouri area, towards Waynesville, to cut off their retreat. Sturgis was also aware of the fact that his military force would need a considerable amount of time to cross the Roubidoux River as well as Little and Big Piney River’s if he used what was called the old road to go to Rolla. The old road ran through Waynesville, Missouri.
There was a certain amount of chaos involved in the Union retreat. Although Col. Franz Siegel was the ranking able bodied, Union Army Commander, Major Sturgis seemed to have given the orders for the actual retreat. But Col. Siegel appeared to have given many orders during the retreat. In his battle report, Col. Siegel stated that in order to avoid difficulties and to give his troops an opportunity to rest, he directed the troops who were stationed at Lebanon, Missouri, to advance via the newly created northern road passing locations named as Eight Point and Humboldt (Crocker, Missouri). Col. Siegel terminated their march opposite the mouth of the Little Piney River where, in case the river ford was not passable, the wagon train could be sent by Vienna and Lynch to the mouth of the Gasconade River. There, the troops could ford the river at the mouth of the Little Piney to reinforce Rolla. In order to bring over the heavy artillery pieces, the ferryboat from the Big Piney River Crossing was hauled down the Gasconade to the mouth of the Little Piney River.
Having passed safely through Pulaski County, the Union troops arrived in Rolla, Missouri, and went into a Garrison detail there. Then they began building up their strength for the next fight in Missouri. The Union troops retreating from Springfield brought along the body of their commanding officer Gen. Nathaniel Lyon. They also brought with them $250,000 they had removed from a bank in the Springfield area in order to prevent the Confederate forces from seizing the money. In the end, the retreat from Wilson’s Creek through Pulaski County was a difficult and time-consuming affair that received virtually no publicity and is almost unknown locally. You have to dig carefully into the battle reports found in the Official Record of the Rebellion to document this story.