Opinion: Why I Love Wilson’s Creek Battlefield

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).

Split rail fencing is a common sight at Wilson’s Creek Battlefield. Many volunteers and park employees have painstakingly recreated the fences as they would have appeared back in 1861.

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 park may be small, but damn is it chock full of amazing things.

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.

The Ray House is meticulously maintained to preserve its original condition. There are some modern features like climate control to preserve the artifacts, but visitors can see what the house was like during the Civil War.

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.

The Lyon Marker sits at the bottom of Bloody Hill. While it’s quite a hike to get there, you can’t help but experience the transcendental feeling of being where men died and their remains could quite possibly be right under your feet.

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

Mi-tsi a-da-zi, Roche Jaune, the Yellowstone

‘For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People’

Those words are chiseled into history atop the Roosevelt Arch on the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Taken from the 1872 legislation establishing it as the United State’s first national park, the park’s founders and advocates took that mission statement literally in their quest to preserve the land. Theodore Roosevelt laid the arch cornerstone in 1903 and as an avid outdoors-man in the same vein as renowned naturalist John Muir, he hoped that everyone would benefit from the natural splendor and knowledge that Yellowstone had to offer. Muir was captivated by the region’s beauty:

“However orderly your excursions or aimless, again and again amid the calmest, stillest scenery you will be brought to a standstill hushed and awe-stricken before phenomena wholly new to you.”

John Muir, ‘The Atlantic, April 1898’

Today, Yellowstone National Park sees over a million visitors a year, many of them international tourists (probably not in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic taking a sledgehammer to the tourism industry). It’s one of the top ten largest parks in the National Park Service, outranked only by those in Alaska. Yellowstone is on many people’s bucket list; seeing Old Faithful, capturing pictures of the wildlife, fishing for rainbow trout, and camping in one of North America’s most beautiful square sections of nature. From when you enter and leave the park, you’ll see erupting geysers, bison, all kinds of birds, rolling green forests, and maybe even some bears. The geological formations such as the paint pots, prismatic basins, and bacterial mats are astounding with their vast range of vibrant colors and smells. In winter, these geothermal wonders are brightly contrasted with the pale white snow, illustrating the natural power and elegance of our earth.

The Paint Pots – Yellowstone features some of the most active and diverse range of geothermal features in the world. The geysers keep the area warm for local wildlife in the winter.

The history behind Yellowstone stretches back thousands of years concerning human activity. Archaeologists and anthropologists unearthed evidence of hunting and foraging by paleo-Indian tribes during the Clovis period. Later, Shoshone, Crow, and Nez Perce tribes hunted and fished in the Yellowstone region. The geysers and geothermal springs were revered by the tribes as spiritually significant landmarks, giving them a deep respect for the natural landscape and reverence for the ‘land of smoke.’ As Europeans traversed westwards, mountain men and fur trappers passed through Yellowstone and recorded their observations. Many people rejected their accounts, thinking they were delirious or mythical. John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, returned west in 1807, making him the the first European descendant to see the hot springs and geysers. ‘Fire and brimstone’ was the first thought that came to Colter’s mind as the daunting sights and sounds must have left him speechless to something unlike anything he’d seen in life.

Because Yellowstone was situated so remotely beyond the borders of the United States for most of the 19th century, it was left untouched by white pioneers. Settlers in the Washington, Oregon, and Utah territories were familiar with the landscape of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, but for most of the 19th century, it was a wild, lawless region where criminals fled and Native American tribes resisted incursions by Europeans and U.S. citizens. Independent explorers and surveyors like Jim Bridger and William Raynolds explored the mountains and valleys, but a full-scale expedition into the Yellowstone was not a high priority for federal government. The Civil War put a damper on any army expeditions as troops were occupied with fighting guerrillas and Indian tribes. Following the conflict, interest in exploring Yellowstone resumed and two major expeditions to the region became pivotal in setting aside the land for public use as a national park; the Washburn Expedition of 1870 and the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871.

Ferdinand Hayden, leader of the 1871 Yellowstone expedition. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

Ferdinand Hayden attempted an expedition eleven years prior, but poor weather and logistical mishaps forced him to abandon the mission. This second expedition though, with government sponsorship and financial support from political patrons, produced incredible scientific and artistic results. Hayden’s detailed surveys covered substantial geological findings, but that wasn’t the only goal of the expedition. Prominent figures such as William Henry Jackson (photographer), George Allen (botanist), Cyrus Thomas (entomologist and statistician) and Robert Adams Jr. (botanist and future U.S. Representative) signed onto the company to document and research the vast wilderness that remained largely untouched by modern civilization. Surveyors, photographers, and naturalists recorded intriguing finds on wild flora and fauna, and Hudson River School painter Thomas Moran delivered spectacular renderings of the landscape with his distinctive color palette and painting style. Hayden presented these findings and other reports to members of Congress and superiors in the Department of the Interior, even the White House, arguing the importance of preserving the land for public use and enjoyment. Hayden’s political connections as a result of the expedition were critical in setting in plans in motion; Congressman Henry Dawes’ son, Chester, was a member of the expedition and confirmed to his father that losing the Yellowstone to private speculators and businesses would deplete its natural resources and splendor, leaving nothing behind for the American public. Hayden’s tireless advocacy paid off in December 1871 when both a Senate and House bill was introduced simultaneously setting aside land for the purpose of creating a national park. In the report before the House Committee on Public Lands, the inspiring rhetoric capturing the majesty of the Yellowstone was seen:

 “The bill now before Congress has for its objective the withdrawal from settlement, occupancy, or sale, under the laws of the United States a tract of land fifty-five by sixty-five miles, about the sources of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, and dedicates and sets apart as a great national park or pleasure-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

-The Act of Dedication for Establishing Yellowstone National Park

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the creation of Yellowstone National Park, effectively creating the first of its kind in North America. This was different from previous legislation of public land; it was used not for commercial development, but for preserving natural resources, wildlife, and allowing people to enjoy the nature for personal fulfillment. However, not everyone was as enthusiastic about the park’s creation. Locals shared harsh criticism and openly opposed the park as it could harm their local economy dependent on logging and mining. Early land management of the park struggled with poachers, vandals, and trespassers flouting government regulations. Native American tribes shared their grievances also because they used the Yellowstone region as seasonal hunting grounds, but were now excluded from visiting the park. In the late 1870s and 1880s as Nez Perce and Shoshone tribes threatened park visitors, General Philip Sheridan authorized the building of an army post in the park which became known as Fort Yellowstone. In 1886, park management transferred from the Department of the Interior to the U.S. Army in a move that many historians argue saved the park and set the gold standard for wildlife management. Army personnel arrested poachers and with the passage of the Lacey Act, the federal government provided funding for legal enforcement and resources that allowed the Army to both protect the park and implement wildlife management programs. These same policies were adopted by the National Park Service following its creation in 1916 and on October 31st 1918, control of the park transferred from the Army to the National Park Service (NPS). The campaign hats worn by military personnel became the official headgear of the NPS Park Ranger, illustrating the park’s legacy.

Bison were on the verge of extinction in the late 19th century, but wildlife conservation efforts have replenished many bison herds, including those in Yellowstone

Yellowstone underwent substantial upgrades and changes during the Great Depression and after World War II. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed facility buildings, campgrounds, and hiking trails, along with introducing wildfire protections. In the 1950s when attendance to Yellowstone and other national parks exploded, the same facilities were revamped following their disrepair during the war. Wildlife species protection increased also when programs aimed at managing elk, bison, wolf, and bear populations were implemented under Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall. The resulting Leopold Report recommended new ways of managing animal populations for all national parks, including Yellowstone.

In 1988, a catastrophic wildfire ripped through the park and the resulting damage to wildlife, flora, and park facilities were so severe, remnants of the wildfire can still be seen today. There were a number of contributing factors to the great fire, none of which can be traced to one single source. Much of the American West and Pacific Northwest were experiencing heavy stages of drought in 1988, and infestations of mountain pine beetle were killing acres of trees. Controlled fires were already burning in the park, but a series of lightning strikes and human causes (one was traced to a discarded cigarette butt – another reason you shouldn’t smoke) resulted in large swaths of land being consumed by raging wildfires. Thousands of firefighters from across the bordering states, the NPS, U.S. Forest Service, federal emergency responders, and military personnel all took part in fighting the fires over a six month period. The fire was so big that it forced the park to close to the public for the first time in its history. When the final damage assessment was take following the fire, nearly 800,000 acres were burned, but miraculously a minuscule percentage of wildlife was killed. Many lessons were taken from these fires and wildfire management and prevention today draws heavily on the experiences of the 1988 Yellowstone fires.

Like all national parks, the wonder and amazement of Yellowstone rests with seeing it with one’s own eyes. The history is rich and complex, but nowhere near as complex as the abundant biodiversity and beauty one experiences as they traverse the park. You can’t take it all in at once because of the vastness; perhaps that’s why the basic entry fee is valid for seven days, not just one. Would you be able to see everything Yellowstone has to offer in less than 24 hours? I would argue no. There is still much to see and understand about our planet. Preserving its natural beauty as well as its history is a mission that we as humans can pass onto future generations for the same benefit and enjoyment we have today.

The Old Faithful geyser attracts the highest number of visitors in Yellowstone per day. Park officials can roughly predict when the geyser will erupt and visitors can follow a time-table, waiting to witness the magnificent display of Earth’s natural power