Saturday, August 10, 1861
Just as dawn was breaking over the Ozark valley of Wilson’s Creek, the two columns of the Union Army of the West shook themselves from an uneasy sleep. They were within a couple of miles of the unsuspecting Confederates, encamped around the creek. In an attempt to throw off the Rebels, Lyon decided not to use the main road (Wire Road) directly south from Springfield, but instead swung left and then south to approach his enemy from the northwest.
The Confederates, who neglected to throw out advance pickets, had no idea that most of the Union Army was to the front and that a portion of it was about to fall on their rear. Not only were they unsuspecting, but when the first reports of a large force of Union infantry, artillery and cavalry moving to attack came in to Confederate General Ben McCulloch, he dismissed them.
General Rains, in the most northerly Confederate position, had sent word that the Yankees were pouring over the hill to his front and ordered his cavalry to try and slow them down. The Union regiments, led by Lyon, brushed them aside and crested Oak Hill.
General Franz Sigel, commanding a detachment of 1,200 Union soldiers, had moved around the Rebels’ right flank and planted a battery of artillery opposite Lyon’s advance. The Rebels were essentially caught in the middle.
Focusing on the Union regiments cresting Oak Hill to the northeast, Generals Sterling Price and Ben McCulloch quickly ordered their men to fall in and advance. Answering the Union artillery, the Rebel cannons bellowed, raining shot and shell over their enemies.
Lyon’s advance halted on the crest of what would soon be named “Bloody Hill.” He was waiting to hear of General Sigel’s advance from the South. This lull gave the Confederates time to form their brigades and step forward.
General Sigel advanced, taking up a position on the Wire Road, hoping to catch any Rebels thrown back by Lyon’s attack, which he thought was succeeding.
Hearing Sigel’s guns, Lyon figured his plan was working and he advanced his entire force. Already formed up, Rebels under General Price, hidden in the underbrush, were lying in wait for them. As the advancing Union troops slowly came into the range of the Confederate rifles, a smattering of musket fire erupted. The farther down the hill they marched, the louder and more vicious the firing became, until it was a deafening roar punctuated only with the dying screams of men on both sides.
For awhile, both lines pounded away at each other, unmoving. Then, as the morning wore on, Lyon’s men began to give way to subtle Confederate advances. With each retreat, however, they would reform and retake their lost ground.
General Lyon, atop his horse, was steadying his wavering men, who were buckling under the weight of yet another Rebel attack. Nearby, an artillery shell exploded, killing Lyon’s horse and wounding the General in the leg. Seemingly unmoved, Lyon waved his sword and walked forward. He took off his hat as blood trickled down his face. Stunned, he stopped.
The Rebel charge had eased, but help from Sigel’s 1,200 men was sorely needed. A Colonel asked Lyon if he had heard from Sigel. Lyon quietly shook his bloodied head and walked slowly behind the lines to sit down and contemplate what to do next.
On the Wire Road, Sigel’s men were surprised by a large force of Rebels, at first, thought to be fellow Union troops. The Confederates, led by General McCulloch, were upon Sigel before he could order his men to fire. The Union forces were scattered to the south, leaving their artillery in Rebel hands. Victorious, McCulloch moved north to support General Price, still slugging away at General Lyon’s Union troops on Bloody Hill.
A despondent and wounded General Lyon was urged to attack, pressing the advantage of the lull in the fighting. Major Sturgis, his second-in-command, offered the General his horse. At first, he refused, sending Sturgis to rally his men, but soon he was mounted again and ready to lead the charge down the hill. Fighting erupted suddenly all across the front and Lyon seemed to take this as a cue to charge.
Leading an Iowa regiment over the crest of the hill, Lyon was struck in the chest by a Confederate ball. He stopped his horse and was helped to the ground by his orderly, Private Albert Lehman. As his lungs filled with blood, his last breath gurgled, “Lehman, I am killed.”
Lyon’s death placed Major Sturgis in charge of the entire Army. The question foremost on his mind was the location of Sigel. Without the extra men he would bring, they would have to retreat. Another Rebel charge commenced all along the line, but the worn out Union troops held their ground.
That was, however, the last charge they could withstand. With Sigel nowhere in sight and their ammunition running dangerously low, one more attack could annihilate the army. Sturgis ordered a general retreat back to Springfield.
Rebel Generals Price and McCulloch were preparing for another attack when they received word that the Union army was in full retreat. They rode to the crest of Bloody Hill and saw the Yankees retiring in good order to the north. Though victorious, McCulloch, for now, refused to follow. They had been caught by surprise and suffered greatly for it with 1,184 (257 killed, 900 wounded, 27 missing).
Major Sturgis and his Union Army of the West limped back into Springfield by five o’clock that afternoon. Towards evening, Sturgis received word that General Sigel was alive and had found his way back to Springfield. He relinquished command to the General, and all of the senior officers met at Lyon’s old headquarters to discuss their next move.
With their bold leader dead, their Army in tatters and the Confederates poised to attack the next morning, the only choice remaining was to retreat to Rolla, 110 miles northeast. It was finished. They would gather their men and march at two o’clock in the morning.
The day had been lost. The Army of the West had suffered a total of 1,317 casualties (258 killed, 873 wounded and 186 missing).1
- Account taken from a variety of sources, including Bloody Hill by Brooksher, Wilson’s Creek by Piston & Hatcher, plus the Official Records. [↩]