Lyon decided to make an overnight march to Wilson’s Creek and hit the enemy at dawn, relying on surprise to offset the Confederate advantage in numbers. Just before dark on August 9, he was visited in his tent by Colonel Sigel. The colonel wanted to take a column on a wide sweep to the south and come in on the Confederate right flank and rear while Lyon with the main force was striking from the north against the Confederate left. Lyon agreed and gave Sigel 1,200 men and a battery of artillery.
Making a tour of his encampment, Lyon briefly addressed his troops. He told them to hold their fire until the enemy got close and to aim low to counter the recoil of their muskets. Above all, they were not to be frightened: “It is no part of a soldier’s duty to get scared.” Shortly after dark, Sigel marched out at the head of his column. Lyon swung into the saddle of his gray stallion and followed with the bulk of the army. In theory, he should have had more than 4,000 men left after Sigel’s departure; in fact, sickness and the necessity of posting a guard detachment in Springfield left Lyon with a main force of only about 3,600 men. The night was humid and oppressive, and about midnight it began to rain.
Wilson’s Creek was an abysmal place to fight a battle. The creek, curving west and south toward the James River, passed between steeply rising bluffs and tall hills cut by ravines. The Confederate encampments were strung out for approximately two miles on either side of the point where Wilson’s Creek was intersected by the main road from Springfield. On the west side of the creek, from which Lyon’s forces were approaching, there arose a 150-foot spur of land that would soon become known as Bloody Hill. The hill overlooked a wilderness of rambling streams, rocky outcroppings and heavy growths of brush and scrub oak. The area in which the two armies would clash was cramped-barely 520 yards long by 175 yards wide.
Approaching this terrain, Lyon was favored by a stroke of luck. It was raining hard, and the Confederate commanders had placed their pickets and foragers under shelter at midnight so they could keep their ammunition dry. As a result, the Confederates failed to detect Sigel’s stealthy flanking movement, and they did not discover Lyon’s columns until shortly after dawn.
As soon as Lyon saw that he was detected, he deployed his troops, threw out skirmishers and advanced at the double up the northern slope of Bloody Hill, toward a plateau where a 600-man Confederate detachment waited. The Confederates, who were armed with shotguns, could not stand up to the rifled muskets of Lyon’s troops. They fell back first to the crest of the hill and then to its southern slope.
To the south, Sigel’s men waited behind a screen of dense woods, their guns trained on the encampment of a Confederate regiment from Arkansas that lay only 500 yards away. At the boom of guns to the north, Sigel’s artillery opened up. The surprised Arkansas troops found shells bursting among their cook fires and “literally ran out from under” the barrage, as one of them put it.
Price was sharing a breakfast of soggy corn bread and tough beef with Thomas Snead, who had left the Governor’s staff and was now a colonel serving as Price’s adjutant. McCulloch and another officer joined them. They had all started eating when a Missourian galloped up, shouting that Lyon was within a mile of the camp. McCulloch, still convinced the Missourians were panicky amateurs, snapped, “That’s not true!” Then a shell came screaming into the camp from the north, and in a minute they heard Sigel’s fire to the south. Price ran to his horse to meet Lyon’s attack, while McCulloch took charge of the threat to the south.
The battle thus joined was a nightmare of blundering maneuver. On the southern slope of Bloody Hill, the two armies struggled clumsily and savagely to gain control of the summit. The opposing lines were less than 300 yards apart, but the scrub concealed them from each other. For hours on end, Thomas Snead wrote, “the lines would approach again and again within less than fifty yards of each other and then, after delivering a deadly fire, each would fall back a few paces to reform and reload, only to advance again, and again renew this strange battle in the woods.” What haunted him most was “the deep silence which now and then fell upon the smoking field” while “the two armies, unseen of each other, lay but a few yards apart, gathering strength to grapple again in the death struggle for Missouri.”
Lyon’s men, hearing the firing to the south die away, waited with increasing anxiety for Sigel’s men to sweep up the south slope of Bloody Hill and take the Confederates from the rear. But Sigel was in trouble. After his original surprise attack had overwhelmed the Confederate encampments in front of him, he had continued circling to his right, across an open meadow, until he had moved nearly three quarters of the way around the Confederate army. At this point, he was intercepted by McCulloch, who had hurriedly formed a force from elements of the 1st Arkansas Mounted Riflemen and the 3rd Louisiana Infantry, including the well-known Pelican Rifles.
Sigel then learned at great cost that neither side had standard uniform colors this early in the War. He saw a mass of gray-clad men approaching and mistook them for the men of the 1st Iowa Infantry, who wore gray. He passed the word along his line not to fire and sent out a corporal to verify the identity of the approaching troops.
Seeing this man come near, McCulloch asked him which outfit he was with. “Sigel’s regiment,” replied the corporal-and then, as if realizing the situation, raised his rifle to fire at McCulloch. Before he could pull the trigger, Corporal Henry Gentles of the Pelican Rifles shot him dead. McCulloch swiveled in his saddle and shouted to the Pelicans’ commanding officer, “Captain, take your company up and give them hell!”
As the Confederates charged in a howling frontal attack, Arkansas and Missouri batteries on the hills to the east and west opened fire, enfilading Sigel’s lines and spreading what he described as “confusion and frightful consternation.” The Federal soldiers broke and ran, leaving behind five cannon. Sigel managed to get back to Springfield with a small escort.
Now the whole Confederate army turned on Lyon’s depleted force. “The engagement at once became general and almost inconceivably fierce along the entire line,” recalled Major J. M. Schofield, Lyon’s chief of staff. Men fought blindly, scarcely knowing what they were doing. Major Schofield came across one soldier loading and reloading as if in a trance and firing straight up into the air. Noticing something familiar about the screech of incoming shells, Lyon’s troops realized that the Confederates had turned Sigel’s guns on them-and that the flanking attack had failed. Over the din of battle, a Confederate commander shouted to his troops to aim for the belly; a man died slowly from such a wound, giving him time to meet his maker. Troops on both sides fell in such numbers that the Federal artillery commanders had to clear a path through the dead and wounded when they wanted to move their guns.
The fight on Bloody Hill raged for five hours. At the end of that time, the sheer weight of Confederate numbers began to tell, and the Union line seemed about to buckle. Yet the regular Federal batteries still dominated the field, breaking up every Confederate attack. While trying to rally his faltering forces, Lyon was wounded in the head and the leg by fragments from a bursting shell. He “walked on,” said a Federal officer who was near him, “waving his sword and hallooing.” But the general looked white and shaky, and the officer noticed that “suddenly blood appeared on the side of his head.” Dazed, Lyon walked a few yards toward the rear and muttered to his adjutant that he feared “the day is lost.”
Yet he roused himself again, mounted a horse and led one more charge at the head of a Kansas unit. As Lyon galloped over the crest of Bloody Hill, a bullet took him full in the chest and knocked him off his horse. His orderly, a 1st Cavalry regular named Albert Lehman, held him in his arms. “Lehman,” said the general, “I am killed.”
With Lyon’s death, the battle dwindled; both sides had fought to exhaustion. The Federals discovered that they had no officer left above the rank of major to take over the command. Slowly, the two armies disengaged; the Federals fell back toward Springfield, and the Confederates were too spent to follow. “We watched the retreating enemy through our field glasses,” recalled a Confederate general, “and were glad to see him go.”
Casualties were awesome: 1,317 for the Federal troops, of whom 258 were killed outright, and 1,336 on the Confederate side, with 281 killed. The casualty rate for the Federals was an appallingly high 27 per cent-three times that of the Confederates- but even that figure scarcely suggested the devastation of rifle fire and cannon fire delivered at point-blank range. Several infantry regiments on both sides had casualty rates as high as 33 per cent.
The battle was counted a victory for the Confederates, for they remained in possession of the field. But in time it became obvious that even if Lyon had lost a battle he had accomplished much of what he set out to do. His aggressive pursuit of Price had driven the Missouri Confederates into the hinterlands, kept them off-balance and left Unionists free to consolidate their position. In the wake of Lyon’s seizure of Jefferson City, a Unionist convention had met to declare state offices vacant and to appoint a loyal governor and other state officials. That put the machinery of government back in Union hands, and the centers of population and industry remained under Federal control.