Wilson’s Creek: The First “Big” Campaign

Just before a holiday break in college, one of the Sergeant-Majors assigned to my ROTC detachment asked about my plans.  Of course I was headed home.  So he asked how far I’d drive.  I responded the time to drive from Fulton, Missouri to Kennett was just over five hours, any way you go.  “Five hours!  No way!  I can be well the other side of Kansas City in five hours!”  Yep, Missouri is a big state.

Even today with multi-lane highways, if you drive the routes used by General Nathaniel Lyon’s columns across Missouri in the summer of 1861, you’ll put a lot of miles on the tires.  From St. Louis to Springfield is just over 200 miles (trust me, I know every concrete slab on that stretch of I-44).  Springfield is 130 miles from the state capital in Jefferson City.  And 170 miles from Kansas City.

From the Confederate perspective, General Ben McCulloch’s troops moved from as far as Texas.  The main supply route from Fort Smith, Arkansas ran north about 175 miles into southwest Missouri, through the Boston Mountains which are the most rugged in the Ozarks.  All told the area of operations for the Wilson’s Creek campaign spanned an area roughly 250 miles  by 300 miles.

Heck, McDowell only had to cover 30 miles (avoiding rush hour traffic of course) from Arlington to Manassas.  McClellan’s forces covered about 130 to 150 miles through western Virginia in the summer of 1861, although over some of the most formidable mountains east of the Mississippi.

So the armies in Missouri had to cover extra ground.  What’s the big deal?  Well unlike northern Virginia, or even arguably western Virginia, Missouri lacked transportation infrastructure preferable for campaigning.  Yet from May through July 1861 the sparring forces traversed the southern half of the state (and a good portion of the northern half for good measure), ending up concentrated in the vicinity of Springfield.

And “sparring forces” is perhaps the best way to explain the arrayed body of men.  Missouri State Guard, under Sterling Price, were not technically Confederate.  And the proper Confederate force, McCulloch’s command, lacked uniformity.  Federal forces included regulars, volunteers, and home guards.  All told some 18,000 troops in the southwest corner of Missouri.   Perhaps half that on the field at Manassas, but still an impressive gathering.

Many historians question Lyon’s tactical judgement, considering his actions clouded by a personal vendetta against the secessionists.  That certainly has merit.  But I think we must give him credit for managing several columns moving across vast distances with limited resources.  Simply concentrating over 5000 men at Springfield by late July was an achievement in itself.

The politics of the border state added even more challenges to Lyon.  Just prior to launching the campaign, Lyon had driven out, practically as a coup d’etat, the elected state government (although I would offer Governor Claiborne F. Jackson was not and innocent victim as some might cast him today).   Now a large portion of Lyon’s Army of the West were Franz Sigel’s Germans, representing a voting block with political clout.  And although Lyon embarked upon his Missouri operations reporting for all practical purposes directly to the president, by late July 1861 he was under the command of General John C. Fremont.   As if that were not enough, Lyon had the pending discharge of many 90-day volunteers looming as the calender flipped to August.

McCulloch certainly acted passively during the early days of August 1861, only yielding to Price’s prodding for an offensive on August 9 (ironically).  But McCulloch faced significant logistical constraints limiting movements of the Western Army.  Even more significant were the political challenges facing McCulloch.  Price’s Missouri State Guard, while clearly allied to the Confederate cause, didn’t have to respond to McCulloch’s orders.  McCulloch’s priority mission at the time was to secure the Indian Territories and cultivate relations with the relocated tribes.  Neither of which was fully served by an offensive into Missouri.  All this above and beyond the typical squabbles over date of rank.

When Lyon’s troops began their march out of Springfield in the afternoon of this day (August 9) in 1861, they were acting out the last chapters – and bloody they were – of a long campaign.  While the number of troops engaged was significantly less than those engaged at Manassas, the geographic and political scope of the Wilson’s Creek campaign rivaled some of those conducted later in the war.  And I am grossly over-simplifying those aspects of the campaign in this meager post (for those seeking more, I’d suggest Ed Bearss’ work on the subject or the recently released book by William Piston and Richard Hatcher.)

So far more than just the first big battle in the west, Wilson’s Creek was indeed the first big campaign of the war.