Friday, August 9, 1861
There were no bugle calls on this hot August morning in Springfield, Missouri. The Union troops, camped in and around the city, expected a Confederate attack throughout the past night, but it never materialized. The day, at first, seemed like any other. The men ate and slept, played cards and kept themselves more or less busy. Some soldiers fought with each other over possession of a well, but that was soon straightened out. Hourly roll call was the only sign that this might not be an ordinary day.
The citizens of Springfield were keenly aware that a battle was imminent. Rumors abounded of General McCulloch’s Rebel army invading the town within the day, and many were packing their belongings into wagons and heading north and east.1
General Lyon, commanding the 5,600-strong Union Army of the West, was in a state of confusion. Time and time again, he requested reinforcements but, though some where en route, it was appearing they would be too little and too late. He determined that his force could withstand a frontal assault from the 12,000 Rebels but, should they attack upon one of his flanks, he was doubtful he would prevail.2
The Confederates were encamped ten miles south, along Wilson’s Creek. The previous night, Missouri State Guard General Sterling Price urged Confederate General McCulloch to attack. Unsure, McCulloch himself scouted the position, assuring Price that they would meet again that evening. McCulloch snubbed Price and, as the sun rose, was Price was still enraged.
Price bolted into General McCulloch’s tent and demanded to know when they would attack. McCulloch was noncommittal. Threatening to retake command of his Missouri troops and lead them himself into battle against Lyon, Price forced McCulloch’s hand. Though he would not yet agree to an attack, he called a meeting of his officers that afternoon.
This second meeting didn’t go any better than the first. McCulloch explained that he didn’t trust the intelligence coming from Springfield and therefore didn’t care to launch an assault against an unknown force. Also on the General’s mind was his complete lack of faith in the Missouri troops, which made up about half of his entire force.
Price, still unsatisfied, again threatened to retake command of the Missourians if McCulloch refused to advance. Not wanting to split in force, McCulloch was compelled to order a forward march for nine that night.
The orders went out and the Confederates prepared for battle. At nine, all fell in and moved north towards General Lyon and Springfield. Just as they stepped off, a summer rain began to fall. Equipped with only cloth bags for their gunpowder, McCulloch knew that a storm could render his entire army perfectly useless. A halt was called and his men rested on their arms until daybreak.
To prepare for the march, the advance Confederate pickets had been called in. Typically, when halting for the night, the pickets would have been sent back to their advanced positions. Due to some oversight, the Rebel army had no pickets watching the Union troops before them.3
During the late morning in Springfield, General Lyon met with one of his subordinates, General Franz Sigel. Lyon had devised a plan of attack, but Sigel urged him to alter it, making it a two-pronged assault. The second prong would be commanded by Sigel. Lyon agreed.
During an afternoon council of war, Lyon and Sigel explained the plan. Sigel would take 1,200 men around the flank of the Confederate camp, surprising them at dawn. Lyon would advance towards their front. Objections were made that Sigel’s force was too small and that dividing a smaller army in the face of a larger one was simply a bad idea. Lyon overruled all objections, and ordered for the march to begin at six.
Though it was slow-going, the separate marches of Lyon and Sigel silently moved towards the Rebel camp. As they wound their way south, the enemy campfires could be seen. Forgetting to send out advance pickets, the Confederates were completely unaware that the entire Union Army of the West was barely a stone’s throw away.4
As General Lyon halted his column to allow them to rest before the sun, he turned to his aid, telling him, “I am a believer in presentiments, and I have a feeling that I can’t get rid of that I shall not survive this battle.” Lyon paused and a few seconds later, added, “I will gladly give my life for a victory.”
Prisoner Exchange Would Be Lop-Sided
General Robert E. Lee had suggested a prisoner exchange in western Virginia. The Union commander at Cheat Mountain, General J.J. Reynolds, had agreed to the exchange, but had to pass it by General Rosecrans, commanding all Union troops in western Virginia.
Lee wished to exchange the Union prisoners captured at Manassas for the Confederate prisoners captured at Rich Mountain. Rosecrans had reservations. While the proposal seemed humane enough, there were some sticking points.
Sending Lee the prisoners taken in western Virginia would give him an advantage. The prisoners would know the position of the Union army. Also, Lee would benefit from the additional numbers, while the Manassas prisoners would add to Rosecrans’s force not at all.
Generally, Rosecrans was in favor of the exchange, but the difficulties may render it impossible. Meanwhile, both sides had captured two local citizens each. An exchange allowing all four noncombatants to go free was proposed.5