The Union Retreat in Missouri; Floyd Sets the Controls for the Heart of the State

Sunday, August 11, 1861

The Battle of Wilson’s Creek had been lost and Union General Nathaniel Lyons had been killed leading a charge. The Union army retired back to Springfield and resolved to retreat east towards Rolla, 110 miles to the east. Though Major Samuel Sturgis took command on the field after Lyon’s death, the senior officer in the Army of the West was General Franz Sigel. The march was scheduled to begin at two o’clock in the morning, but that hour found Sigel and his men fast asleep.

Time was of the essence and the entire army was now waiting upon Sigel and his Germans. Finally, two hours late, the first Union troops left Springfield. The last would not vacate the city until after six o’clock.

Most Union officers expected the Confederates, commanded by General Ben McCulloch, to attack at dawn. As the sun rose over Springfield this Sunday, the Rebels remained in their camps on the battlefield, now surrounded by the dead and the dying of both armies. General McCulloch, unsure of what the Union force was planning, sent the 3rd Texas Cavalry north to reconnoiter the small city.

Springfield was, of course, abandoned. Word was sent back to McCulloch and he prepared to relocate not only his army, but the wounded of both sides, to Springfield. Throughout the day, the town was turned into a gigantic hospital, while the 10,000 or so Confederates encamped around its outskirts.

During the battle, the Rebels had captured a number of Union prisoners. They were released with McCulloch saying that he would “rather fight them than feed them.”1

Meanwhile, General Sigel’s Union army had stepped off early and, to put as much distance between them and the Confederates as possible, was in the middle of a march that would end thirty-two miles east of Springfield. There were two roads leading from Springfield to Rolla – the high, mountain road and the low, valley road. The valley road [which later became Route 66] was the faster, better road, but was also more populated by secessionist Missourians who felled trees and tore up bridges all along it. For the first day of the march, it appears that the Union force took the valley road, stopping near Niangua for the night.

With Sigel at the helm, and his own brigade of Germans leading the column, the mood of the rest of the men turned sour. This move to Rolla was looking more and more like a flight. As they marched along, the men called for Sigel’s removal and for Major Sturgis to take command. Even many of the officers took up the call. By the time they reached their camp, the whole army seemed to be in an uproar.2

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General Floyd Assumes Command of the Army of the Kanawha

The rivalry between Confederate Generals Floyd and Wise, both operating near the Kanawha Valley in western Virginia, was causing great irritation to all involved. General Floyd, encamped with his portion of the Army of the Kanawha a few miles west of Lewisburg, wished to advance and retake the ground recently lost by General Wise, who understandably wished to rest and outfit his men after the long retreat from Charleston, over 100 miles to the west. General Robert E. Lee, headquartered nearly 70 miles north at Valley Mountain, just wanted both Generals to get along well enough to combine their forces.

On the surface, everyone seemed to be agreeable. General Wise, at White Sulphur Springs, fourteen or so miles west of Floyd, had sent forward two pieces of artillery and 500 cavalry troopers with the promise of more when they could be made ready.

Throughout a long letter to General Lee, detailing speculations on the latest Union troop movements, Wise seemed to think that he was very much in charge. He propounded his own ideas of how to check the Federals and even went as far as to request rations for General Floyd’s men.

Whatever idea of independent command Wise may have been entertaining, however, was put to rest that evening when he received a dispatch from Lee dated August 8th. Wise had petitioned Lee to allow him and Floyd to operate independently. Lee thought that a horrible idea since the Union forces could easily destroy each small force in turn. With orders to cooperate fully with each other, General Wise was obliged to make nice with General Floyd.

Union forces were reported at Fayetteville, Gauley Bridge and Summersville, in all, 7,000 strong. When healthy, the Army of the Kanawha, the combined forces of Wise and Floyd, would total roughly 5,500. Such a force, if properly led, could hold back the Federal advance.

At least, that is what General Floyd wrote to President Davis, informing him at the same time that he (Floyd) was assuming command of the Army of the Kanawha. Floyd complained to the President that there was “great disorganization amongst the men under General Wise’s command,” but he would do what he could to “remedy the evil.”

His own plan of attack was to meet the enemy at Summersville, stopping the junction of more Union forces. The Federals at Gualey Bridge would be cut off and “at our mercy.”

With that, Floyd distributed a General Order to his men informing them that he was in charge of the entire army. Perhaps he thought that would end the power struggle, but maybe even he wasn’t that hopeful.3



  1. Bloody Hill by Brooksher. []
  2. The Lyon campaign in Missouri by Eugene Fitch Ware, 1907. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p778-781. []
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The Union Retreat in Missouri; Floyd Sets the Controls for the Heart of the State by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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