Yesterday as I perused my Twitter feed (@Hoghighlander for those who want to follow for more great history content!), the anniversary of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek was trending. Many of the historians, bloggers, and podcasters I follow were posting about the battle, outcomes, significance in the American Civil War, and the central character that died while leading the Union Army, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. Some Civil War historians have overlooked this small battle (small from a military statistics perspective when compared to Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, Stones River, and others). However, the significance lies more with the impact it has on the Midwest and the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Missouri was precariously situated between free and slave state supporters and there was a race to tip the balance and solidly secure the state. On August 10, 1861, Confederate soldiers from Arkansas, Louisiana, and the Missouri State Guard (pro-Confederate Missouri soldiers) commanded by Sterling Price and Benjamin McCullough were attacked by a smaller Union army led by Nathaniel Lyon and Franz Sigel. The fierce fighting carried on for eight hours, but early on, a bullet ripped through Lyon’s chest, killing him almost instantly. By 4:00 pm, Union forces pulled from the battlefield and left the nearby town of Springfield to the Confederate army. However, due to the losses the Confederate army suffered at Wilson’s Creek, Price and McCullough were split on how to proceed. Price wanted to pursue the Union further north, but McCullough wanted to remain close to Arkansas to maintain supply lines. Springfield would occasionally shift allegiance, but Lyon’s determined stand would later cement Missouri for the Union.
This post isn’t about the battle itself (for a great discussion on the background, action, and aftermath of Wilson’s Creek, listen to this wonderful podcast from the Civil War Breakfast Club: Battle of Wilson’s Creek-CWBC. Instead I wanted to explain why I love visiting this battlefield, now a National Park. The park was created in 1960 with a small visitors center and some museum displays. While the park only preserves 1,750 acres, there’s a lot of natural and historic beauty in those acres. I was born in Springfield, Missouri, less than 15 miles from the battlefield and it was one of the first national parks I ever visited as a child. My fiery history passion was stoked by frequent visits, gift shop coloring books, re-enactments, and moonlight tours where actors portrayed various personalities in the battle’s aftermath. It didn’t dawn on me until high school that the actor playing the Union chaplain was my high school history teacher, Mr. Elkins, who works part-time for the National Park Service (lucky dog).
The museum underwent some amazing updates recently; new exhibits, historical items, an upgraded fiber optic map of the battle (that was my favorite attraction as a kid and it still is today), and an expanded Civil War research library. Anyone who wants to research the Trans-Mississippi Theater and the war in Missouri must find visit this library and take advantage of all the resources it offers. Upon passing through the gate, you come up to the first Confederate encampment and the small farm buildings run by the Sharps and Rays who were the local families when the battle broke out. The stunning rolling hills of corn and wheat are quite a sight in the fall. As a kid, I often imagined the two sides thrashing one another, even when I came to see historical re-enactments. The billowing smoke and bayonets shining in the hot August sun, it’s hard to forget such an impression.
The Ray House is only original building on the battlefield featuring much of what would have been in the house. In fact the bed frame in there now is the same that was used to lay out General Lyon’s body. The house was used as a field hospital treating both Union and Confederate troops, and during the fight, the family hid in an underground cellar. The house is a popular place for tours and is the centerpiece of their moonlight tours. When you walk through there and see people in period dress, bloody rags laying everywhere and screaming men trying desperately to get rid of the pain, you feel as if you were right there in the thick of it. You’re transported back to that warm humid evening of August 10, 1861.
What really draws me to Wilson’s Creek are the vast ranges of fields and forests that look so well maintained. Underneath it all is a bloody historical narrative though. Missouri witnessed intensely savage fighting during the war years with bands of roaming guerrillas and bushwackers slashing each other. The social and political divisions here ripped families apart and vendettas scarred relationships for decades after. To be a farmer in Missouri back then was an almost riskier occupation than a Union or Confederate soldier; you didn’t know if you would die today or by who’s hand.
Finally, as you wind around the one-way roads, you make your way up steep elevation. Whenever I rode my bike, this was a struggle and ended up with me dismounting and just pushing the bike up the hill. But to the Civil War aficionado, this is the climax of visiting Wilson’s Creek; Bloody Hill. The bulk of Lyon’s army was situated on the hill controlling the high ground. They repelled four separate Confederate assaults and artillery pounded on their positions, trying to dislodge the Union from their position. Lyon himself led one charge which cost him his life unfortunately. Today a concrete marker stands in the spot where veterans say his fell.
Every few years, park employees or visitors find artifacts in the battlefield grounds. Stories are still popping up about who had ancestors that fought or died at the battle. In a recent discovery, I learned that my 5x great-grandfather Presley Beal was responsible for building a makeshift coffin for General Lyon in order to transport his body back to its final resting place in Connecticut. Who would have known? My Wilson’s Creek connection just got stronger. Even now that I live in St. Louis, I still try to visit the battlefield whenever possible. The draw is undeniable. The scenery is beautiful, the history is rich, and the people who keep it open for public enjoyment are the most endearing and educated history keepers I know. Wilson’s Creek will always hold a special place in my heart as I continue to travel the country seeing historic places. No matter how far I go, I’ll always know right where to come back; to a small, winding creek in southwest Missouri where the birds sing, the wheat shines, and the soil gives up the dead and tells a story of our nation’s struggle and reconstruction.
For more information about the battlefield and park, visit the NPS website: Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield