Friday, August 2, 1861
The exact location and intent of the large Confederate force in southwestern Missouri perplexed General Nathaniel Lyon. Scouts had reported that the Rebels were massing at Cassville, but reports also came in from Carthage and Sarcoxie.
The morning found Lyon with his 5,800 troops at Wilson’s Creek, southwest of Springfield. They had tramped the ten miles in the August humidity the day before, stopping at a much-needed source of water. Wilson’s Creek was along the Wire Road, stretching from Springfield, southwest to Cassville and beyond.
Heading towards them on the same road, marched 10,000 Rebels under General Ben McCulloch, who had encamped the previous night at Crane Creek, while the Missouri State Guards, under General Sterling Price, brought up the rear. General James Rains and his division (which was more of a brigade with cavalry) were out in front at Curran Post Office and Dug Springs, roughly eight miles from Wilson’s Creek. Confederate scouts had reported Union forces directly in their line of march and McCulloch called for Price to hurry his men forward. McCulloch had known that the Union army was in Springfield, but along the Wire Road? How could this be?
Union scouts had also reported General Lyon’s road blocked by the enemy. Nevertheless, Lyon marched on towards Dug Springs. By mid-morning, Lyon was near the reported location of the Rebels. Not wishing to engage the enemy, Lyon decided to halt near Dug Springs.
His advance guard, made up of United States Cavalry, encountered some Rebel cavalry, but they were quickly dispersed with a single round of artillery. The advance troops (made up of several companies of infantry) pursued the retreating Rebels, but were ordered by Lyon to halt. From this position, with the Rebels masked by a thick forest, each side exchanged sporadic shots of little consequence well into the afternoon.
Confederate General Rains, in command of roughly 3,000 men, heard the firing and sent forward 400 Missouri State Guardsmen and two pieces of artillery. A scout dispatched by General McCulloch relayed orders to Rains that he was not to bring on a fight, but to determine the Union position and then fall back towards McCulloch’s force.
There was some Union movement in the woods and underbrush on the Confederate right. Fearing a flank attack, Rains decided to advance his entire force towards the main Union position. He then sent word to McCulloch that he was fully engaged. The attack, however, was only against the Union left flank, which pulled back, while the main body (still not more than a couple hundred Regulars) fired into the advancing Missouri State Guardsmen.
Simultaneously, two companies of Regulars appeared to the front of the advancing Rebels, while Union artillery, on a rise before them, blasted away. If that wasn’t already too much, Union cavalry charged into their ranks, hacking and slashing as they came. The Rebels took flight. Routed, they abandoned their position at Dug Springs and raced to McCulloch’s camp at Crane Creek.
Lyon ordered his advance guard to return to his main body and the battle was over. Casualties were scant on both sides and it achieved nothing aside from reminding Confederate General McCulloch why he distrusted the Missouri State Guard.1
- Bloody Hill by Brooksher and Wilson’s Creek by Piston and Hatcher. [↩]