Rebels in Missouri Decide to Attack; Rebels in Western Virginia Think Twice

Sunday, August 4, 1861

The morning broke over the Rebel camp at Crane Creek, Missouri with all the uncertainty that two tactical losses could bring. The Rebel force of 10,000 was actually two forces. The Confederates, commanded by General Ben McCulloch, consisted of two brigades of roughly 5,000 well-trained men from Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. The remainder of the force consisted of the Missouri State Guards under General Sterling Price. These men were poorly armed (if at all), poorly trained and, after losing two small skirmishes, the scorn of Confederate McCulloch.

Union forces, under General Nathaniel Lyon, were only 5,600 strong, but neither Rebel force could defeat them on their own. Both the Confederates and the Missouri State Guard had joined forces in late July and were moving towards General Lyon and Springfield on Wire Road.

Though his troops had been routed at Dug Springs and beaten back the next day near Curran Post Office, General Price urged General McCulloch to attack with both forces. The entire Union force was immediately before them, Price thought correctly, though even if that were true, McCulloch refused to budge. Price apparently tried to pull rank on McCulloch, stating that he was a brigadier-general in the Mexican War (McCulloch was but a captain).

The behavior of the Missouri State Guard in the past two days may not have dampened Price’s spirits, but it infuriated McCulloch. Though he had been the de facto commander of all Rebel forces in the area, Price was still very much in full command of the Missouri State Guard.

That afternoon, a message arrived from Confederate General Leonidas Polk in Memphis. General Gideon Pillow was advancing into southeastern Missouri with 12,000 men near New Madrid. In time, this might immediately cut off Lyon’s supplies and reinforcements. After a time, it may even trap the Union Army of the West between Pillow and McCulloch. There was no backing away now, McCulloch had to advance.

Price allowed McCulloch to give orders directly to the Missouri State Guard commanders, giving him actual command of the entire Rebel force. McCulloch decided that they would march at midnight. Knowing that Lyon was only a few miles away, he hoped to surprise him before dawn by simultaneously striking both Union flanks as well as their front. With everything certain, the Confederate army moved forward.1

General Lyon’s Union Army of the West, however, was no longer a few miles in front of the Rebels. That morning, Lyon summed up his situation in a letter to Western Department Commander, General John Fremont. Still not sure that all of McCulloch’s and Price’s forces had combined, he feared being cut off from Springfield by a Rebel force from the west. The terms of enlistment for several of his regiments were soon up. Their departure would dwindle his force to 3,500.

“Prudence seems now to indicate the necessity of withdrawing, if possible, from the country,” wrote Lyon, “and falling upon either Saint Louis or Kansas.”2

With that, Lyon’s army turned back towards Springfield, marching all day through humid, sticky sun, finally finding relief for the night near Terrell Creek, a tributary to Wilson’s Creek.3

Fremont, finally understanding that Lyon might just be in trouble, ordered that “Montgomery’s force [the 3rd Kansas at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas] join General Lyon’s command at Springfield, Missouri, immediately.”4


Davis Tries to Charm Beauregard

A few days prior, the Davis administration had been blamed for mishandling provisions sent to the victorious army encamped near Manassas. The commander of the recent battle, General P.G.T. Beauregard, had written a letter detailing his disgust and it was read to the Confederate Congress. It was also leaked to the press.

Davis, while angry, played the diplomat as well as he could. In Beauregard’s letter, he had stated that the reason his army wasn’t at this moment besieging Washington was due to lack of provisions. After assuring that the government was doing everything they could to supply the army’s needs, Davis seemed to console his general. “I think you are unjust to yourself in putting your failure to pursue the enemy to Washington to the account of short supplies of subsistence and transportation.” wrote Davis, who added, “it would have been extremely hazardous to have done more than was performed.” 5

Nearly a week would pass before Beauregard would reply.


Plans Develop in Western Virginia

In western Virginia, General Robert E. Lee had established his field headquarters at Huntersville. He was acting in the capacity of an advisor for the coming campaign, though he technically had no command over Generals Loring, Wise or Floyd, each leading mostly independent commands in the area.

Lee had written to General Wise the day before asking if he and his rival, General Floyd, could combine forces and keep the Union army from advancing farther into the heart of the state.

Wise, who wrote from White Sulphur Springs, replied that he was informed that the Union troops were ordered to advance no farther than their present camp at Gauley Bridge. Nevertheless, parts of his force were holding the mountain passes the Union army would use to attack. He complained that the residents of the Kanawha Valley (from where he had just retreated) were loyal to the Union and worse than the Union army itself. The Confederate victory at Manassas, however, had demoralized them.

He speculated that Union General Cox at Gauley Bridge would turn north to join forces with General Rosecrans at Huttonsville and Cheat Mountain. If so, both he and Floyd could fall upon them from the rear. Wise could do nothing now. He needed a week or ten days to rest his command.6

Wise, however, was mistaken. Union General Rosecrans had ordered Cox at Gauley Bridge to fortify his position and hold it until he, along with 5,000 men, could reinforce him from Clarksburg. He hoped to be there within a month.7

  1. Bloody Hill by Brooksher, as well as Wilson’s Creek by Piston & Hatcher. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p47-48. []
  3. Wilson’s Creek by Piston & Hatcher. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p425. []
  5. Letter from Jefferson Davis to General Beauregard, August 4, 1861. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p768-770. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p552. []
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Rebels in Missouri Decide to Attack; Rebels in Western Virginia Think Twice by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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