Bloody Hill

The Battle of Wilson’s Creek (called Oak Hills by the Southerners) was fought ten miles southwest of Springfield, Missouri on August 10, 1861. Named for the stream that crosses the area where the battle took place, it was a bitter struggle between Union and Southern forces for control of Missouri in the first year of the Civil War. https://www.nps.gov/wicr/learn/historyculture/brief-account-of-the-battle.htm

Last September, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the Springfield, MO area. The trip included a stop at the Wilson’s Creek Battlefield.

Wilson’s Creek was the first large battle in the Western Theatre of the Civil War. At stake was which way the State of Missouri, (a slave state) would go in the conflict.

Union Captain Nathaniel Lyon was promoted to General and given the task of keeping the state in the Union or at least prevent it from joining the Confederacy. The Missouri State Guard was pro-Confederate and led by General Sterling Price. The guard was numerous but poorly armed.

Lyon gathered what regiments he could. He had some US Regulars, both infantry and cavalry, drawn from points west, some Union Kansas and Iowa regiments as well as St. Louis German Regiments led by General Franz Sigel.

The Confederates on the others hand had Price’s Missouri State Guard, Arkansas State Guard (having crossed the border), Texas\Kansas cavalry and Louisiana Confederates all under General Ben McCulloch.

Lyon hated the Confederates with a vengeance so it tended to cloud his military judgment. When it became apparent that the Confederates vastly outnumbered the Union forces in Missouri Lyon was ordered to fall back to his base by General Fremont, in order to gather more forces.

Lyon, anxious to get at the Confederates disobeyed the order and instead listened to a plan suggested by General Sigel. Sigel suggested taking the Confederates by surprise with a double envelopment. Given all that could go wrong, including the element of surprise (the Confederates had a. lot of cavalry to serve as scouts) Lyon went along with it.

The basic idea was for Sigel to flank march, take the Confederates by surprise and push on until he linked up with Lyon’s main force. Surprisingly, Sigel initially succeeded, driving in much of the Confederate Cavalry and taking their camps. However, due to a sound anomaly, Lyon had no idea that Sigel was successful and Sigel had no idea that Lyon had not yet attacked. To make matters worse, Sigel paused in his pursuit giving the Surprised McCulloch (who commanded all the Confederate forces) time to organize a counter attack against Sigel, which in time, was very successful.

Meanwhile, McCulloch and Price realized that Lyon had taken possession of the high ground that would be forever known as Bloody Hill. Price with the bulk of the Missouri State Guard tried three times to take the hill only to be driven back. General Lyon, who was incredibly brave, was killed in the last assault. His successor realizing that things looked back organized a withdrawal. Except for some of the Missouri State Guard who did pursue the Union forces basically got away after one hec of a fight. Lyon became one of the North’s early heroes.

I did extensive reading on the battle since we visited. My primary source was William Garrett Pston and Richard W. Hatcher’s excellent (very detailed ) Wllson’s Creek, University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

The Wilson’s Creek Battlefield is only ten miles from Springfield, Missouri, but far away enough from the city so that much of the battlefield is as it was in August of 1861.

There is an excellent visitor center run by the park service with interesting displays that tell the story as well as a great book store which of course I spent a nice sum at. Here are a few of the pics I took. Note that we walked the battlefield on a very hot September day and frankly, much of the terrain looks the same. There was a lot of high brush, rocks here and there, scrubby looking trees, a stream and all and all had the “middle of no where” look to it.

Recently, with a friend, I had the opportunity to reproduce the battle as a table top war-game. In our game, the Confederates under my command failed to drive the Union forces from Bloody Hill. In fact, Union counter attacks nearly gave the Union the victory until fairly late in the game when the tide was reversed. Games are judged by how many units are lost and the score stood at 6-5 (Confederates) when it was agreed an outright victory was not possible for either side. I declared a draw with a hat’s off to a vigorous Union defense.

I try to include as many details as I can in our simulations. Like the original battle, the Missouri State Guard was ill-armed and the US Regulars were somewhat of an elite that early in the war. Here’s some pics of the action:

2 comments on “Bloody Hill

  1. I’m sending this post to my friend Pete in the UK, who loves our Civil War history. Good job, Bruce!

    • Thank you sir. It was a lot of fun walking the battlefield, reading the book and then doing a game simulation. (Not to mention painting and organizing the figures)

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