Major Samuel D. Sturgis Reports on the Death of General Nathaniel Lyon

Just ten days after the defeat of the Army of the West at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Major Samuel D. Sturgis wrote his official report from army headquarters at Camp Cary Gratz near Rolla, Missouri. His “baptism of fire” of the Civil War could not have been more of a nightmare for Sturgis: losing the Army’s commanding general, then having to assume command of a division-size force, and being forced to retreat from the field. A controversial figure at the time for his fiery personality, devotion to the Union, and his role in the Camp Jackson Affair that May, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon became the first Union general to die in combat. Wilson’s Creek marked the second major Federal defeat, and battle, of the war.


Photograph of a painting by Levin & Mulligan, depicting the death of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon at Wilson’s Creek. Courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.

Below, in his official report, Sturgis recalls the death of Lyon:

“Early in this engagement, while General Lyon was leading his horse along the line on the left of Captain Totten’s battery and endeavoring to rally our troops, which were at this time in considerable disorder, his horse was killed, and he received a wound in the leg and one in the head. He walked slowly a few paces to the rear and said, “I fear the day is lost.” I then dismounted one of my orderlies, and tendered the horse to the general, who at first declined, saying it was not necessary. The horse, however, was left with him, and I moved off to rally a portion of the Iowa regiment, which was beginning to break in considerable numbers.

In the mean time the general mounted, and swinging his hat in the air, called to the troops nearest him to follow. The Second Kansas, or at least a portion of it, gallantly rallied around him, headed by the brave Colonel Mitchell. In a few moments the colonel fell, severely wounded; about the same time a fatal ball was lodged in the general’s breast, and he was carried from the field a corpse. Thus gloriously fell as brave a soldier as ever drew a sword, a man whose honesty of purpose was proverbial, a noble patriot, and one who held his life as nothing when his country demanded it of him.”

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