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Battle of Wilson's Creek

April 2024
4min read


E.F. Ware Memoir

Secessionists and Unionists both claimed the border state of Missouri, although the state had refused to secede. Three significant clashes took place there in mid-1861, the bloodiest of them occurring on August 10 near Springfield. Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon split his 5,400 Union force, one column attacking 11,000 Confederates under Gen. Ben McCulloch and Maj. Gen. Sterling Price from the north, the other from the south. Harness maker and 1st Iowa Infantry private E. F. Ware described the action.

In a short time as it began to grow a little light we heard a gun fire. In a short time two or three more. Then some regular troops were detailed as skirmishers, and circled around to our left. In a short time we found that the enemy were alive and active. Our regiment was ordered to go in a direction to the left, and to take a position on a low ridge; the enemy in straggling numbers were shooting at us from the ridge. The skirmishers fell back. As we marched up the hill, it came in my way to step over one of the skirmishers who was shot right in front of us. He was a blue-eyed, blonde, fine-looking young man, with a light mustache, who writhed around upon the ground in agony. While I was walking past, I asked him where he was shot, but he seemed unable to comprehend or answer, and perhaps in the noise heard nothing. As we started up the ridge a yell broke from our lines that was kept up with more or less accent and with slight intermissions for six hours. We took a position on the ridge, and the country seemed alive on both our right and left. Wilson’s creek was in our front, with an easy descending hillside and a broad meadow before us, in which about five acres of Confederate wagons were parked, axle to axle. The hills bore some scattering oaks, and an occasional bush, but we could see clearly, because the fires had kept the undergrowth eaten out, and the soil was flinty and poor. Since that time a large portion of the country has been covered with a very dense thicket of small oaks. But in those days the few trees were rather large, scrawling, and straggling, and everything could be distinctly seen under them all around. Across the creek, which was not very far, perhaps about a third of a mile, a battery of artillery made a specialty of our ranks, opening out thunderously. We all lay down on the ground, and for some time the shells, round shot and canister were playing ?closely over our heads. Some few of the canister fell into our ranks. They were coarse cast-iron balls, about an inch to an inch and a half in diameter. Where they struck in the ground the boys hunted for them with their hands. The shells were shrapnels, being filled with leaden balls run together with sulphur. Our company did not have much to do for a while in the way of shooting; we simply laid down on the ridge and watched the battery in front of us.

From The Lyon Campaign in Missouri by E. F. Ware (Crane & Company 1907).


Woodruff Account

Captain William Woodruff

During the battle, one of the Union lines crumpled under relentless Confederate charges. When Union commander Nathaniel Lyon died from a shot to the head, the Union army broke and retreated, leaving a large swathe of Missouri under secessionist control. Capt. William Woodruff, who operated an artillery battery that helped turn the battle in favor of the Confederates, wrote about the experience in his memoirs.

Early in the action, the Missouri cavalry regiment of Colonel Graves reported, in support of the battery. The colonel was requested to take position on our flanks and rear, if he approved. A considerable force of the enemy was observed in the cornfield near one-half mile immediately north of our position. Foreseeing that it was intended to attack our position and dislodge us, the appearance and position of this force, regulars, infantry, cavalry and a battery, was quickly reported to General McCulloch, who speedily opposed it with McRae’s battalion, part of the Third Louisiana, and, I think, Flanagin’s regiment, all under Colonel McIntosh. They had to pass under the fire of our guns, stationed at a higher level, to reach the enemy. With the rest of the Third Louisiana regiment, General McCulloch, in a little while, moved rapidly to the west or southwest. Our infantry line being formed, and the threatened attack from the hill north checked, our fire was thereafter directed where it could be advantageously used without injury to our own troops, sometimes at the opposing battery, at others against the assaults of the enemy on the hill to the northwest, in support of Colonel McIntosh, and after in support of our infantry line on the enemy, when the latter was uncovered. About 9 a. m., Colonel Gratiot’s Third Arkansas reported in support, and was requested to take the position vacated by Graves’ Missouri cavalry. An hour later the Third Arkansas, Colonel Gratiot, passed down the hill to the left of our position, directed by General Pearce, and crossed the creek, and in a little while went into action. Observing a Federal regiment, uniformed in gray, advancing in fine order to meet Gratiot, and having an excellent opportunity to enfilade it while Gratiot was uncovered, we opened on it with the effect of breaking its beautiful line and scattering it its full length, to the depth of a company front or more, when Gratiot met and dispersed it gallantly. The enemy commenced falling back about noon, to the northwest, in good order, their rear covered by artillery and cavalry. We opened on the retreating force, which gave our artillery antagonists opportunity to send a few spiteful shots at us in return.

From With the Light Guns in ’61–’65: Reminiscences of Eleven Arkansas, Missouri and Texas Light Batteries, in the Civil War (Central Printing Company, 1903).


Battlefield Song

Even early in the war, soldiers complained about the food provided by military contractors, rewriting the song “Hard Times, Come Again No More” to reflect their disdain for the rock-hard biscuits known as hardtack.

Let us close our game of poker,

take our tin cups in our hand,

As we all stand by the cook's tent door

As dried mummies of hard crackers are handed to each man.

O, hard tack, come again no more!


From a New York Herald story excerpted in the September 21, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

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