Saturday, August 3, 1861
The skirmish of the day before left Union General Nathaniel Lyon in a precarious situation. Having left Springfield, Missouri and the sustaining water of Wilson’s Creek to his rear, he pushed the Rebel vanguard back, clearing a path towards the next watering hole, near Curran Post Office. His 5,600 men were worn out and a night spent sleepless due to a feared Confederate counterattack helped not at all.
The Rebels, 10,000 strong, under General Ben McCulloch, occupied Crane Creek along the Wire Road, ten or so miles south of Lyon’s forces. McCulloch’s position was strong and he hoped to lure Lyon into attacking him. He threw out an advanced guard of Arkansas cavalry to draw the Union into his trap.
At dawn, Lyon advanced south along Wire Road towards water and the Rebels. Before too long, Wire Road descended into a deep valley. At the bottom of this valley, a house and a few outbuildings made up the hamlet of Curran. From this vantage point, Lyon could see a camp for several hundred Rebels. He halted for about an hour, waiting for the rest of his column to come up. The mid-morning heat quickly rose to over 100 degrees.
With his infantry, he formed several lines of battle on either side of the road. As they advanced, artillery fire scattered the Rebels in the clearing below. The woods surrounding Curran were teeming with Rebels and, though casualties were light, it took Union forces over two hours to push the Confederates back.
Taking possession of the Confederate camps, his men enjoyed the spoils of war, finding blankets, boots, saddles, weapons and various foodstuffs.1
After the previous day’s battle, Lyon lost contact with the Rebels. He would not make the same mistake again. He advanced quickly forward with a 600-man Kansas regiment in hot pursuit, while the remainder of his army trotted along at a more leisurely pace.
Lyon and his Kansas boys advanced two miles beyond Curran and took a rest near a spring. From their rear, fifty mounted soldiers came through their lines, stopping at the same spring to water their horses. The leader of the horsemen asked one of the Kansas infantrymen for a drink. As the soldier handed the officer his canteen, the officer asked, “Whose command do you belong to?”
“General Lyon’s,” the Kansas soldier replied, “Whose do you belong to?”
Coolly, the horseman finished his drink and then answered, “General McCulluch’s.”
Hearing this, Lyon, who was resting nearby, jumped to his feet. “Surrender!” he shouted to the horse soldiers, who were already mounting up. He turned to his men and yelled, “Fire!” It was, however, too late. The Rebels had already galloped well out of range.
As Lyon waited for the rest of his Army of the West to catch up, his scouts reported that they knew nothing of the main Confederate body’s position. There was a believable rumor that Rebels from Sarcoxie, forty miles to the west, were advancing. This could cut Lyon’s entire force off from Springfield, capture the city and surround his command, capturing it. He would have to retreat.
For the night, however, they would camp by the spring, unsure of where the Rebels were or when they might attack. That night, he thought of his situation. The supplies were nearly out and several of his regiments, having fulfilled their terms of enlistment, would soon be discharged, leaving him with a paltry force of 3,500. There were 10,000 Rebels before him and an unknown number possibly advancing from the west.2
General Lee Plans as Loring Sulks
After three days of travel over the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia from Monterey, General Robert E. Lee arrived at Huntersville. Lee had been sent to oversee the operation by President Davis and though he had no actual command over the forces, he wasn’t exactly a welcomed sight for General Loring. For a week, the one-armed General William Loring had been in command of the Army of the Northwest. He had left Monterey the day before Lee arrived and knew nothing of him being sent to western Virginia.3
Lee, however, was already formulating a plan. The enemy outnumbered them and could attack at any moment. With General H.R. Jackson at Monterey, Loring at Huntersville and Wise and Floyd near Lewisburg, a concerted effort needed to be made. Near the Kanawha Valley, Lee wished for Wise to unite with General Floyd’s command and retake the ground lost to the Union forces. At the very least, Wise was to not retreat farther than Lewisburg. He was also to keep Loring informed of his movements (working together was something that the generals in western Virginia had not yet tried).4
As for Loring, if he would only advance towards the Union fortifications at Cheat Mountain, forty miles north, perhaps they could open the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, the road to the coveted B&O Railroad.
While Loring had a similar idea, he had been brooding since Richmond sent Lee to watch over his shoulder. Loring had more military experience and had outranked Lee in the old army. Yet, here was Lee, giving advice and generally sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Rather than advance, Loring decided to wait for more supplies. There was nothing Lee could do.5