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Missouri In The Civil War
Vol. 9, Chapter VI
Confederate Military History

LYON LEAVES BOONEVILLE FOR THE SOUTHWEST--PRICE REINFORCED BY McCULLOCH AND PEARCE--THEY START TO THE GOVERNOR'S RESCUE---THE RENDEZVOUS AT COWSKIN PRAIRIE--THE COMBINED FORCE MOVES TOWARD SPRINGFIELD--LYON ADVANCES TO MEET THEM--THE BATTLE OF WILSON'S CREEK--DEATH OF LYON--A FRUITLESS VICTORY.

       GENERAL LYON delayed at Booneville two weeks after the capture of that place, taking every precaution to cut off communication between the Southern men on the north and south sides of the river and prevent them co-operating. Finally, having arranged things to his satisfaction, he left Col. John D. Stevenson in command of the river from St. Louis to Kansas City with orders to hold the principal towns and prevent recruits from Price's army crossing, and began his march to the southwest. He did not doubt that Sweeny had been able to crush all opposition in that section, and he went now to unite his forces and offer McCulloch and his Confederates battle. At the crossing of Grand river, south of Clinton, he formed a junction with Sturgis and his United States dragoons, and pushed forward with his united force for Springfield, not knowing that Sigel had been routed at Carthage and that the State troops were in practical possession of the country. But at the crossing of the Osage, a few miles above Osceola, he learned of Sigel's defeat. He ferried his men and trains across the river hurriedly, working day and night, and without rest marched his men twenty-seven miles without stopping. In the afternoon he halted for a few hours to feed and rest his men and horses, and then resumed his march and did not halt again until he was within thirty miles of Springfield and fifty miles from the crossing of the Osage. He marched fifty miles in hot July weather, in twenty-four hours. He then learned that Sigel was in no immediate danger, and marched to Springfield, thirty miles, in a more leisurely manner. He entered Springfield with a good deal of mediaeval display. His escort, which was composed of St. Louis German butchers, remarkable for their size and ferocious aspect, was mounted on powerful iron-gray horses and armed with big revolvers and massive swords, and thus accoutered dashed through the streets of the little town, which was held by Sweeny, with the view of overpowering the simple country people with the fierceness of their appearance.
       When General Price left Lexington he made his way direct to General McCulloch's headquarters. En route he was joined by men in squads and companies, so that when he reached Cowskin prairie, in the extreme southwestern corner of the State, he had about 1,200 men with him, though most of them were unarmed. He there learned that Gen. N. B. Pearce, a West Point graduate and an accomplished soldier, commander of the military forces of Arkansas, was near Maysville in that State with an Arkansas brigade, and leaving his men in camp on Cow. skin prairie he went there with a small escort. General Pearce received him cordially and informed him that General McCulloch had left Fort Smith, where his headquarters had been, and would reach Maysville the next day. General Pearce loaned General Price 650 muskets with which to help arm his men.
       General Price returned to Cowskin prairie, organized his men as well as he could, and placed those whom he could arm under command of Col. Alexander E. Steen, a young Missourian and West Pointer, who had a short time before resigned from the regular army. The next day General McCulloch, in advance of his troops, reached General Price's headquarters, and at once agreed to aid the Missourians. General Pearce also agreed to aid them with his Arkansas force. The next day, the 4th of July, McCulloch and Pearce entered Missouri with Churchill's mounted Confederate regiment, Gratiot's Arkansas infantry, Carroll's mounted regiment and Woodruff's battery; reached Price's camp the same day, were joined by him, and continued their march northward to rescue Governor Jackson and his party. Under the impression that the governor was pressed by Lyon on one side and Sigel on the other, McCulloch left his infantry behind, and he and Price pressed forward to his relief. On approaching Neosho, McCulloch sent Churchill with two companies to capture a company Sigel had left there. This Churchill did without firing a gun. He not only took 137 prisoners, but what was of more importance, captured 150 stand of arms and seven wagons loaded with army supplies. At the break of day on the 6th, the whole force was on the march again to Carthage, but during the day learned that the governor and his command had defeated Sigel and were en route to join them. McCulloch and Pearce with their troops then returned to Maysville, and Price, taking command of the Missourians, returned to Cowskin prairie and went to work organizing them into companies and regiments.
       Under the circumstances, this was hard work. He had no arms, no military supplies, and no money to buy any. The men never expected to be and never were paid. But men and horses had to be fed, and on Cowskin prairie there was little but green corn and poor beef upon which to feed them. Quartermaster-Gen. James Harding and Chief Commissary John Reid went to Fort Smith, and then to Little Rock and Memphis, in search of supplies, but that was a slow process. The men and horses managed to live on what the country afforded, and while General Harding was absent, Col. Edward Haren acted as quartermaster-general, and by his activity, industry and unfailing courtesy did wonders in providing the absolutely necessary supplies, and making the men contented. All of General Price's staff, except his ad-jutant-general, Colonel Henry Little, were civilians, and knew nothing of the military duties their position imposed upon them. But they were willing and learned rapidly. The Granby mines furnished lead, and Governor Jackson's forethought had provided a supply of powder. Some artillery ammunition captured served as a pattern, and the cannoneers were soon able to make the necessary ammunition for their guns. Notwithstanding the embarrassments and drawbacks, the work of organization went steadily on, and by the last of the month the State Guards assumed form and substance and became an army of 4,500 armed and 2,000 unarmed men, every one of whom was anxious to meet the enemy and retrieve the honor of the State. Still, they were a motley crowd. There was hardly a uniform among them--the insignia of even a general officer's rank usually being a stripe of some kind of colored cloth pinned to the shoulder.
       General Price left Cowskin prairie on the 25th of July, and three days later reached Cassville. There he was joined by Brigadier-General McBride with 650 armed men, which made his effective force over 5,000. General McCulloch reached Cassville the next day with his brigade, amounting to 3,200 men, nearly all armed. General Pearce was within ten miles of Cassville with his brigade of 2,500 Arkansas troops, together with two batteries, Woodruff's and Reid's. The entire force amounted to nearly 11,000 men, beside the 2,000 unarmed Missourians, who went with the army with the expectation of getting arms after a while. Price, McCulloch and Pearce each had an independent command, but they agreed upon an order of march, in conformity with which the combined forces began their advance on Springfield, fifty-two miles distant, on the last day of July. The first division, consisting of infantry under command of McCulloch, left Cassville that day. The other divisions, commanded respectively by Pearce and Steen, left the following day, and Price, without taking any command, accompanied Steen's division.
       As soon as Lyon reached Springfield he began writing and sending representatives to St. Louis and Washington demanding reinforcements. But his demands received little if any attention. General Fremont was in command of the Western department, and did not seem disposed to help him. When assured that Lyon must and would fight at Springfield, he simply replied: "If he does he will do it on his own responsibility." Lyon chafed, and abused everybody. "If it is the intention," he said, "to give up the West, let it be so; Scott will cripple us if he can." At last two regiments--Stevenson's at Booneville, and Montgomery's at Leavenworth--were ordered to report to him at Springfield. But they never reached there. It was a question with Lyon whether to fight or retreat, and the first alternative seemed to be safer than the last. His only line of retreat was to Rolla, 125 miles distant, through a broken, rugged country, with the probability that Price's and McCulloch's mounted men would be thrown in his front, while their infantry pressed him desperately in rear. Besides, to retreat was to give up all he had gained, to allow Price to return to the Missouri river with an army and to begin anew a fight for the possession of the State. He had 7,000 or 8,000 men, thoroughly armed and equipped, and he determined to risk defeat rather than turn back.
       On August 1st he learned that McCulloch, Price and Pearce were advancing on Springfield. He was deceived as to their line of march, supposing they were advancing by different routes, and determined to attack them in detail. With this view he moved out, his force consisting of nearly 6,000 men, infantry, cavalry and artillery. When he got within four or five miles of them and learned he was mistaken, he stopped and waited for them. But he was deceived again. It was the advance guard under Rains which was in front of him. The main body was in camp twelve miles back. The next day he moved to within six miles of the Southern force, but not being able to learn anything about its strength, and fearing he might be flanked, he determined to return to Springfield, which he did, reaching there the next evening.
       The united Southern forces had remained in their position during this time, and had been reinforced by Greer's Texas regiment. While the two armies were thus maneuvering and watching each other, General Price was anxious to attack, but General McCulloch declined unless Price would consent to give him the command of the combined army. At last, after a good deal of wrangling, General Price yielded, reserving to himself, however, the right to resume command of the Missourians whenever he chose. Believing that Lyon was still in front of him, McCulloch marched at midnight of August 5th, expecting to surprise and attack him at daybreak. But he soon learned that Lyon had left the day before for Springfield. He followed him until he came to Wilson's creek, where he encamped. There the army remained three days, the dispute all the time going on between Price and McCulloch, the former insisting on attacking, and the latter de-dining to do so. At last McCulloch yielded and ordered the army to be ready to move that night, August 9th, at 9 o'clock. But before that time it began to rain and the order was countermanded, chiefly because the Missourians had no cartridge boxes, but carried their ammunition in their pockets, and it was liable to be ruined if it rained hard. The troops, therefore, lay on their arms during the night, awaiting the development of events.
       Late in the afternoon of the same day, Lyon moved out of Springfield, marched about five miles west, then turned southward across the prairie, and about midnight came in sight of Rains' camp fires. He had turned McCulloch's left and was in his rear. Sigel, with two regiments of infantry, six pieces of artillery and two companies of cavalry, aggregating about 1,500 men, had made a similar movement and turned the right flank of the Confederates. He planted a battery on a small hill within 500 yards of Churchill's camp, disposed his men so as to capture every one coming or going, and waited for Lyon to begin the fight. Lyon halted in sight of Rains' camp fires until dawn and then resumed his march, with Plum-mer's regulars in advance. The Confederates had withdrawn their pickets in anticipation of moving themselves, and when the movement was abandoned had not sent them out again. Just at daylight Rains for some reason became suspicious, and sent a staff officer with a small detachment to reconnoiter. The officer soon came back in haste and informed him that the enemy were advancing in force with cavalry, artillery, and infantry, from the southwest. Rains instantly informed General Price, and formed his own command. McCulloch was at Price's quarters, and this was the first intimation either of them had that Lyon and his army were upon them. McCulloch discredited the information, and said he would go himself and see about it, but before he could mount his horse another messenger came with the information that Rains was falling back before overwhelming numbers, and at the same time came the report of Lyon's artillery, which was followed in a moment by the guns of Sigel, who had opened fire on Churchill and Greer and Brown, and was driving them in confusion out of the little valley in which they were encamped, as Lyon was driving Rains.
       Instantly McCulloch and Mcintosh mounted and galloped to take command of the Confederates on the east side of the creek, and Price, ordering his infantry and artillery to follow, rushed up Bloody Hill--a considerable eminence in the midst of the field and so named because the battle that ensued roared and broke in bloody waves around it--and took command of Cawthorn's brigade, which was falling back fighting, in the hope of holding the enemy in check until his infantry and artillery could come up. These were forming, and they came up the hill with a rush. First came Slack, with Hughes' regiment and Thornton's battalion, and formed on the left of Cawthorn; then Clark, with Burbridge's regiment, and formed on the left of Slack; then Parsons, with Kelly's regiment and Guibor's battery, and formed on the left of Clark, and on the extreme left of the line McBride took position with his two regiments. Shortly after Rives, with some dismounted men, reinforced Slack; and Weight-man, with Clarkson's and Hurst's regiments which had been encamped a mile or more away, came up at a double-quick and formed between Slack and Cawthorn. In the meantime Woodruff had taken position with his Arkansas battery on an elevated point of land overlooking the field from the east, and at the first sound of Totten's guns had opened a fire on Lyon which retarded his advance and greatly aided the Missourians in getting into position.
       The battle was now fairly set. The opposing forces were nearly equal. Price had about 3,500 men, and Lyon, deducting the 1,500 under Sigel, had about 3,500. The lines were not more than three hundred yards apart, but a heavy undergrowth of timber separated and concealed them from each other. Price's men were armed mostly with hunting rifles and shotguns, and to make them effective it was necessary that the lines should be close together. Instead of advancing, Price waited for Lyon to attack. He did not have to wait long. In a little while the order to move forward was heard, and through the brush the enemy came. When they were within close range there rang out the sharp report of a thousand rifles, the heavier report of a thousand shotguns, and crack of innumerable pistols, the roar of Guibor's guns--and the day in the field Missourians had looked forward to longingly amid the disappointments and delays of months was before them, and they resolved to die or conquer where they stood. Rough and ragged and worn, the best blood of Missouri faced the enemy in that battle line. The hand that held the musket might be awkward, but it was steady. The men might not be able to maneuver, but they could fight. When one of them fell an unarmed man stepped promptly forward to take his place and his gun. For hours the fight went on. The lines would approach to within fifty yards of each other, deliver their fire and fall back a few yards to reform and reload. It was a succession of charges followed by a succession of repulses, with solemn intervals of silence between, as each side braced itself again for the desperate struggle. It was man to man and to the death. Price would not have retreated if he could, and Lyon could not if he would. He had risked everything on the desperate chance of battle, and had to fight it out to the bitter end.
       McCulloch's and Pearce's infantry were on the east side of the creek, where McCulloch had formed the men so as to meet Sigel's attack and to protect Price's rear, posting the Third Louisiana, McIntosh's regiment and McRae's battalion within protecting distance of Woodruff's battery, which was firing across the creek. He had not more than made these dispositions when a force of the enemy appeared, moving down the creek on the eastern side with the evident intention of charging Woodruff's battery. Leaving Gratiot to support Woodruff, he ordered McIntosh, with his regiment dismounted, the Third Louisiana and McRae's battalion to meet the advancing Fed erals. They charged and drove back Plummer's battalion of regular infantry and a regiment of Home Guards, with a loss of about 100 on each side. Plummer was severely wounded.
       Sigel had not been heard from since the first dash early in the morning. He had, in fact, taken position on the Fayetteville road to intercept and capture the Confederates after Lyon had routed them. His dispositions to that end were made with military precision. His battery occupied a commanding position, his infantry extended on both sides of the road, and a company of regular cavalry was on each flank. He was quietly awaiting results. After the affair with Plummer, McCulloch went in search of him. He took his own infantry, with Rosser's and O'Kane's Missouri battalions and Bledsoe's battery. Bledsoe placed his battery so as to command the enemy's position. Reid's battery was somewhat east of Bledsoe's. The infantry advanced to the attack and Bledsoe and Reid opened at point-blank range. Sigel was taken by surprise and his men thrown into confusion, and when McCulloch and Mcintosh, with 400 of the Third Louisiana and Rosser's and O'Kane's battalions, broke through the brush and charged his battery his whole force fled, abandoning the guns, some going one way and some another. Sigel and Salomon, with about 200 of the German Home Guards and Carr's company of regular cavalry, tried to get back to Springfield by the route they came, but were attacked by Lieutenant-Colonel Major, with some mounted Missourians and Texans, and again routed. Carr and his cavalry fled precipitately. Sigel with one man reached Springfield in safety. Nearly all the rest were killed, wounded or captured. In the meantime, the main fight on Bloody Hill raged fiercely. Though hard pressed, Price had not yielded a foot of ground. Churchill, who held a position on the left of the line,dismounted his men and moved them to the center, where the need was greatest. Price then advanced Guibor's battery in line with the infantry, while Woodruff continued throwing his shells over his line into the ranks of the enemy. Still the battle was not won. Lyon was bringing up every available man for a last desperate effort. Price asked for aid, and General Pearce, with Gratiot and his Arkansas infantry, came to his assistance. In getting into position Gratiot suffered severely. His horse and his orderly's were killed, his lieutenant-colonel was dismounted, his major's arm was broken, his quartermaster was killed and his commissary badly wounded. But the regiment took the position it was ordered to take and held it, though in half an hour it lost 100 out of 500 men.
       The fighting was now furious. In the words of Schofield and Sturgis, "The engagement had become inconceivably fierce all along the entire line, the enemy appearing in front, often in three or four ranks, lying down, kneeling and standing, and the line often approaching to within thirty or forty yards, as the enemy would charge upon Totten's battery and would be driven back." General Price was painfully wounded in the side, but did not leave the field. He only said to those who were near him that if he were as slim as Lyon the bullet would not have hit him. Weightman was borne to the rear dying; Caw-thorn and his adjutant were mortally wounded; Slack was desperately wounded; Clark was shot in the leg; Col. Ben Brown was killed; Colonel Allen, of General Price's staff, was killed by the side of his chief; Colonels Burbridge, Kelly, Foster and numerous field officers were disabled. But Lyon was worse hurt than Price. He had, however, risked everything on the chance, and in the shadow of impending defeat was determined to make a supreme effort to reverse the tide that was setting strongly against him. Dismounted, he was leading his horse along his battle line, speaking words of encouragement to his men, when his horse was killed and he was wounded. He was dazed by the shock, but quickly recovered, mounted another horse, and, drawing his sword, called upon his men to follow him. A moment after a ball struck him in the breast and he fell from his horse, and in another moment was dead.
       In the pause that occurred following Lyon's death, Price was reinforced by Dockery's Arkansas regiment, a section of Reid's battery and the Third Louisiana regiment. Thus strengthened, he was better prepared to hold his ground than he had been at any time during the day. The command of the Federal army devolved on Major Sturgis. He counseled with his principal officers and they decided to retreat. The order to withdraw was given at once and promptly obeyed, Steele's battalion of regulars bringing up the rear. For five hours the fight on Bloody Hill had lasted, and the dead of both armies lay upon it in piles. When it became known that the Federals were retreating and that the day was won, a great shout of exultation and relief went up from the men who had fought there, which reached the ears of Weight man where he lay dying, and he asked those around him what it meant. "We have whipped them--they have gone," he was told. "Thank God," he said. In another moment he was dead. Of him in his report, General Price said: "Among those who fell mortally wounded on the battlefield, none deserve a dearer place in the memory of Missourians than Richard Hanson Weightman, colonel commanding the First brigade of the Second division of this army. Taking up arms at the very beginning of this unhappy contest, he had already done distinguished service at the battle of Rock Creek, where he commanded the State forces after the death of the lamented Holloway, and at Carthage, where he won un-fading laurels by the display of extraordinary coolness, courage and skill. He fell at the head of his brigade; wounded in three places, and died just as the victorious shouts of our men began to rise upon the air."
       The losses of the armies, killed, wounded and missing, were about equal. The total Federal loss was 1,317; the total Confederate loss, 1,218. In the engagement between Mcintosh and Plummer, the Federals lost 80 and the Confederates 101. In the attack on Sigel, the Confederate loss was small, but Sigel's loss was heavy--not less than 300. The loss of the Missourians on Bloody Hill was 680; the loss of the Arkansans there--Churchill's and Gratiot's regiments and Woodruff's battery--was 308. The loss of both sides on Bloody Hill was, Missourians and Arkansans, 988; Federals, 892. Well may the historian say: "Never before--considering the number engaged --had so bloody a battle been fought on American soil; seldom has a bloodier one been fought on any modern field."
       The Federals retreated to Springfield leaving the body of their dead general on the field. By order of General Price the body was identified and delivered to his friends, who came to ask for it under a flag of truce. But it was again left behind, when they abandoned Springfield, and was taken in charge of and given decent burial by Mrs. John S. Phelps, the wife of a former representative in congress from that district, then an officer in the Federal army.
       The fruits of this splendid victory were lost. As soon as it was known that the Federals were retreating, General Price urged General McCulloch to make pursuit, but McCulloch declined. The Federals had not only lost heavily in the battle, but were badly demoralized, and had a long and difficult road to travel before they could reach a point where they could hope for assistance. That point was Rolla, and the road ran through a rugged, broken country, with many streams to ford or ferry, and was already crowded with hundreds of Union refugees, with their teams and families, who were fleeing in mortal terror from Ben McCulloch and his Texans. But McCulloch refused then and afterward to make even a pretense of pursuit. So the dead were buried where they fell, and that for which they fought and died, and dying, thought they had attained, was left in the possession of the enemy. Though General Price insisted on pursuit, and had the right to resume the command of the Missourians whenever he pleased, he did not feel strong enough, and lacked the necessary ammunition to make the pursuit alone.

 This Page last updated 02/18/02

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