The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was fought on August 10, 1861, the culmination of a two-month-long campaign across mid- and southern Missouri. The battle itself was fought between the Army of the West under Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and the Western Army under overall command of Brig. Gen. Ben McCulloch. Both armies were coalition forces, consisting of multiple forces. For the Army of the West, Lyon united Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas volunteers with U.S. Army Regulars. McCulloch’s Western Army was made up of the Missouri State Guard, the Arkansas State Troops, and Confederate volunteers from Texas and Arkansas.
The campaign itself began following a series of controversial events that split a more-neutral Missouri into arguably the war’s most divided state. The Missouri Constitutional Convention had voted that Missouri did not have a viable reason to secede; however, if the Federal government stepped on the rights of Missourians, the state could vote to leave the Union. In mid-April, the Liberty Arsenal in Liberty, Missouri was seized by secessionists. Less than one month later, in May, shots were fired from a column of U.S. Army volunteers under Capt. Nathaniel Lyon into a crowd of hostile civilians in St. Louis. Lyon had captured state militia at Camp Jackson to prevent the capture of the St. Louis Arsenal. In total, 28 were killed and over 75 wounded. Camp Jackson forced every Missourian to choose a side.
Just days after Camp Jackson, the General Assembly passed the Military Bill, which granted sweeping powers to pro-secessionist Governor Claiborne Jackson and created the Missouri State Guard – a state sanctioned defense force. This force was placed under the command of former Missouri Governor, Mexican War hero, and conditional Unionist Sterling Price.
By mid-June, Lyon (now, brigadier general) had declared his intention to intervene in Missouri’s affairs and lead an army to oust the governor and pro-secessionist forces from the state. On June 13, the 1861 Missouri Campaign had begun. Lyon divided his forces in two (one to Jefferson City via the Missouri River and the other down the Southwestern Branch of the Pacific Railroad to Springfield) to envelop the retreating Missouri State Guard. Lyon was also able to easily defeat a detachment of the Missouri State Guard at Boonville on June 17. Over the course of the two-month-long campaign, Lyon secured much of Missouri’s rail and water ways, as well as successfully capturing Jefferson City.
In the meantime, as Jackson’s government abandoned the capital, the Missouri State Guard fell back to the southwestern corner of the state. By early July, a Confederate brigade and the Arkansas State Troops joined Price’s forces, creating a coalition army named the Western Army. Following the defeat of a Federal detachment at Carthage, Missouri, Lyon’s forces, along with Maj. Samuel Sturgis’ Regulars moved from central Missouri to Springfield. Springfield remained the headquarters of the Army of the West.
As the armies grew closer together in July until early August, they each deployed scouts and probing expeditions to learn the size and location of the enemy. Just days before the battle, the Western Army – now under command of McCulloch – settled in the Wilson Creek valley, 12 miles southwest of Springfield. The night of August 9, both armies determined to attack the other at dawn the next day. Due to a thunderstorm, though, McCulloch called off his attack. But, Lyon did not.
At 5:00am on August 10, 1861, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek had begun.
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