Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Civil War in Missouri: Battle of Wilson's Creek

This painting by the famous Civil War illustrator Kurz and Allison, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, was done c1893. It's not entirely accurate but it looks nice.

On this day 150 years ago, a major battle was fought at Wilsons' Creek southwest of Springfield. This battle has been covered in numerous places and two excellent blogs, Civil War Daily Gazette and Seven Score and Ten, posted on it today. There's no need to rehash their good coverage, so I'll talk instead about the psychological effect of the battle and its place in my Civil War novel.

This was the first major battle west of the Mississippi. While skirmishing had been going on since Bleeding Kansas started in 1854, and there had been a few small battles such as at Carthage and Athens, the fight at Wilson's Creek was something else entirely. About 5,500 Union troops fought about 12,000 Confederates. Each side lost well over a thousand men killed, wounded, or missing. The two armies were literally decimated. It was a major wake-up call to everyone in Missouri that the war had come to their state with a vengeance.

In A Fine Likeness, Jimmy and his friends, who have never seen a real battle and instead fight as bushwhackers, talk to a Confederate veteran who lost his leg. Doug, the veteran, tells them about what it was like to be at the Battle of Oak Hills, as the rebels called it.

"I joined up when Price was camped down at Cowskin Prairie in the autumn of ‘61, way down near the Arkansas line. You should have seen it, thousands of Missourians all gathered together. Half of us didn’t have guns. I saw men join up with nothing more than a knife tucked in their boot, but we were ready for anything. I had a musket, so that got me in the thick of it when the time came.”

“And it got pretty thick, from what I hear,” Hugh said.

“Sure did. We headed out with our whole army to take back Missouri, along with a bunch of Arkansans, Texans, and Louisianans. Those Texans all had fine horses and knives as long as your forearm. Good guns, too. The night before the Yanks attacked we camped down by Wilson’s Creek, with Oak Hill just to the north of us.”

“That the one everybody calls Bloody Hill?” Jimmy asked.

“The same. Good reason for it too. Early the next morning I went to fetch water down at the creek while my friends cooked up breakfast, and all of a sudden a whole mob of men came running through our camp.”

“Federals?” the Kid asked.

“No,” Doug smiled, looking embarrassed, “our own side. Lyon and his Federals hit our north camp, and sent them running all the way into our main one. That’s how we first knew he was coming. Don’t seem more than a minute later cannon started booming to the north and south. They had us surrounded, Lyon and his men running up Oak Hill while that Dutchman General Sigel came at us from the other side.”

“I heard the Louisiana regiment made short work of him,” Hugh laughed.

“That they did, but I didn’t see it. I ran to my own regiment and got orders to head up Oak Hill and push Lyon off of it. That hill towered over our camp, and if he kept it, he’d have himself a turkey shoot. We already had enough Yankee shells landing in our tents to keep it pretty hot. That hill was absolutely covered in scrub, though. Couldn’t see more than fifty feet.”

“Just our kind of fighting,” the Kid said.

“Good for bushwhacking,” Doug said, “but hard going when you’re in a proper battle. Half the time I couldn’t even see the Yankees; I was just shooting at the smoke from their muskets. I could see General Price, though. He rode a big white horse up and down our line, encouraging us and waving his hat over his head. We begged him to get back, but he wouldn’t hear of it.”

“He’s the bravest general Missouri has,” Albert declared.

“Darned right, but I got to hand it to Lyon, he rode right out in front too. Even went after Price once. I think he wanted to challenge him to a duel, but his staff pulled him back. Well, like I said we were all hiding in the brush, taking potshots at one another, when Price ordered us forward. We scrambled up that hill and got peppered with bullets, then scrambled right back down again. Then the Federals charged and we gave them a dose of the same medicine. Just seesawed like that all morning. Price got wounded in the side, I saw the blood with my own eyes, but he kept right on riding up and down our lines to encourage us. Then Lyon fell, and the Louisianans joined us after wrecking Sigel’s force. Now we had our whole army up there and the Feds didn’t have a prayer of holding it.”

“They ain’t going to hold Missouri neither!” Morgan shouted. “Not with Price and the cavaliers of the brush ganging up on them.”

“Sure won’t,” Doug said. “We had them and we knew it. They knew it too, and started moving back. We got all eager and rushed forward, and I’m afraid I got too far ahead and a bullet hit me square in the leg bone.”

“That’s a real shame, brother, but you did your duty,” Jimmy said softly, thinking of the graze that militia captain gave him.

An inch to the right and I’d be missing an arm, Jimmy thought, and shivered.

“I don’t mind so much,” Doug slumped a little in his chair. “It’s too bad I couldn’t have seen the end of the battle, though, and kept fighting with Price. I’d be marching into Missouri right now.”

“But you were there. Nobody can take that from you,” Jimmy said.

And I’m here, helping Price win the war, Jimmy thought with pride.

“Yeah, I was there,” Doug said, his eyes growing distant. “Don’t remember much of the rest of it. Next thing I knew I was being dragged down the hill. I blacked out and woke up when the surgeon started sawing off my leg. Went out of my head with fever for a week after that. And now I just sit and carve canes and yokes to sell. Can’t do no farming, can’t do much of nothing.”


  1. Hi, Sean. I saw your comment at Alex Cavanaugh's blog and came over to meet you. I love history. Your upcoming Civil War novel sounds good.

    You said at Alex's you want to get more followers. I'm now a follower. One way to get more is to go into a blog such as Alex's, see who has made comments/who is following, go into THEIR blog and leave a comment and follow. And thus you build up a following.

    Hope this "advice" helps. BTW, I lived in Ft. Leonard Wood Missouri in 1962, newly married; it was the Berlin Wall Crisis. I'm also VERY interested in Missouri history as my Mormon ancestors were very much a part of it.
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

  2. p.s. I kept looking for your follow button. It just wasn't there. I scrolled some more, and it came up. Now it has disappeared again (from my screen anyway). This is Blogger. The past 3 or 4 months, a lot of people have been having trouble with Blogger, which is one reason why I had someone help me set up a WordPress blog. For now, I'll have to bookmark your site and hope when I come in again the Follow icon will appear and I'll be able to officially follow.

  3. Hi Sean,
    History, especially regional history, is so fascinating. There is so much about Missouri I don't know.
    Everytime I'm in the Springfield area I promise myself I'll check out the Wilson's Creek Battleground. One of these days I really will.

  4. Sean, in case you didn't see my reply, I've never seen a site that lists all of the blogfests. I'm announcing my next one on Friday, but it may not be your style. You just have to look for blogfests listed in blogger's sidebars.

  5. Hi Anne,

    Yeah, that followers button disappears sometimes. Not sure why. Thanks for following!
    I make the rounds of the blog fairly regularly, but until a month ago it was under my Midlist Writer moniker. Now I'm pumping this new blog.
    Ft. Leonard Wood, eh? I went down there once to hear General Colin Powell speak.


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