Though most history textbooks claim the American Civil War lasted four years, folks in Missouri might object. In many respects, the war began along the Missouri-Kansas border in 1854 when border ruffians crossed into Kansas and launched a battle for the expansion of slavery, a full seven years before the Civil War began.
When the textbook-war erupted, Missouri’s citizens were bitterly divided between pro-Union and pro-Confederate factions. Government officials desperately searched for a compromise measure, something along the lines of the negotiated Kentucky-style neutrality that might spare its citizens from taking arms against one another. But talks broke off. Union and Confederate forces moved into position.
Today marks the 146th anniversary of a significant battle in Missouri.
Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyon commanded 6,200 men at Springfield in southwest Missouri. His men were undersupplied, far from their supply lines, and anxious for their 90-day enlistment time to expire.
A Confederate force, with nearly twice as many men, opposed them. Lyon weighed his options. Instead of retreating in the face of superior forces, Lyon did the unthinkable—he divided his forces and launched a surprise attack on the Confederate camp at Wilson’s Creek, about ten miles south of Springfield.
Lyon sent 1,200 men under Gen. Franz Sigel to attack the Confederate rear, while he and the remaining 4,200 men assaulted the Rebel front. Though the assault certainly took the Rebels by surprise, a critical error turned the tide. Gen. Sigel mistook an approaching Louisiana regiment for Union forces. The Louisianans opened fire, effectively routing Sigel’s men.
Now, with Sigel’s men out of the picture, the Rebels were able to concentrate their fire on Lyon’s men in the front. The Confederate response was devastating. Not only was Lyon killed, but his Union forces were forced to retreat. Each side suffered about 1,200 casualties.
Though the Battle of Wilson’s Creek is not a well-known military engagement, the battle represents a significant victory for the Confederacy. Union forces withdrew some 100 miles northward to Rolla. In the wake of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, southern and western Missouri were now open to Confederate invasion.
Missouri proved to be a contentious battle-ground throughout the war. “Although peripheral to the principal military campaigns of the war, Missouri suffered more than any other state from raids, skirmishes, and guerilla actions, leaving a postwar legacy of violence and outlawry in which ‘the terrible grudges of neighbor against neighbor created in the guerilla conflict’ persisted for decades,” writes a historian.