Wilson's Creek Battlefield
by John Dunn
photography by Chris Dunn
(Click on the thumbnails for larger photos. Be advised a few of them are somewhat large.)
Maj. Gen. Sterling Price & the Missouri National Guard from the painting "Don't Yield an Inch" by Andy Thomas.
On November 11, 2002, Veteran's Day, my brother Chris and I took a trip to the Wilson's Creek National Battlefield. It was arguably the last day of decent weather this year and it seemed a good way to observe the day we honor our Nation's veterans. On August 10, 1861, the Battle of Wilson's Creek was fought ("a mean fought fight" according to one contemporary) that turned red the waters of Wilson's Creek. The battle was a Rebel victory but ultimately resulted in Missouri remaining outside the Confederacy.
I live near enough to Springfield, Missouri that the battlefield is a mere ten minute drive from where I live, yet I have not seen this place since I was a kid! I decided it was time to correct this oversight. My brother, a skilled photographer, came with me and captured these photos (except of course for the scans of paintings) for your enjoyment.
Please note that the point of this work is neither to assume a political opinion of the events of the Civil War or to attempt any sort of historical thesis, a subject on which I am an armchair scholar at best. History buffs can do their own research on the particulars of the battle. I wrote this article for my own enjoyment and to bring you a photographic view of this bit of Ozarks history. A lot of the ladies and gentlemen who frequent the bulletin boards of www.milesfortis.com and www.sixgunner.com and elsewhere are themselves informal scholars of American history and of the Civil War in particular, yet don't have reason or opportunity to visit Missouri very often.
Therefore this article is for you. Enjoy our photo journal of our visit to Wilson's Creek Battlefield and make of it what you will. For a better view of it click here to visit the official Wilson's Creek Battlefield website courtesy of the US Department of the Interior. They've done an outstanding job of preserving this historic site.
THE PARK ITSELF.
Finding the park itself is easy. Once you get to the Greene County area just make your way James River Expressway and follow the big brown Park Department signs. Click on the attached map for some assistance. The drive itself makes for a relaxing country ride during an Ozarks autumn. The temperature was in the lower 60s, and while the wind was making itself felt that day it wasn't so bad as to keep people away from the park.
The folks who work here are kind and helpful. They cheerfully answered any questions we had, and from the lady at the main counter in the visitor's center to the park rangers themselves (one of whom was even kind enough to ring up the souvenirs I bought at their gift shop) they make sure you enjoy your stay. Be advised however that metal detectors and souvenir-hunting on the grounds themselves are strictly prohibited.
The visitor's center itself, pictured here, is undergoing some construction to add a large library dedicated to Civil War historical research. You can see the orange "Do Not Cross" fencing across the incomplete areas. Inside you will find a small but comfortable amphitheatre that shows an informational 13-minute film that explains the events leading up to the battle, numerous displays of artifacts (including an outstanding display of General Price's engraved, ivory-handled Colt revolver) and an impressive fiber-optic live-action display on a realistic, high-tech 3-D topographical recreation of how the battle itself played out.
The main tour itself consists of a slow, winding drive around the park. There are numerous places to pull off the road and walk to one of the important sites. For that matter, hike or ride horseback on one of the several trails if you like, including along the original historical Old Wire Road that connected Springfield, Missouri with Fort Smith, Arkansas via telegraph.
You can easily take an entire day slowly driving from site to site. Picnic facilities and clean restrooms are provided near the Visitor's Center and admission is $3.00 per person or $5.00 per carload. This buys you a brass token that will let you through the electric gate. If you're a frequent visitor, a year-round pass can be had for $15.00.
BEGINNING THE TOUR.
The first stop along the tour is the Ray House, pictured below and on the left. It was constructed sometime around 1852 and is the best preserved structure in the park. It was from here that John Ray watched the battle commence from his front porch as Federal troops and Missouri volunteers charged back and forth across his corn field. Before long Union troops had commandeered the place for use as a field hospital. The house quickly filled up with wounded Union soldiers who eventually overflowed onto the porch and into the front lawn.
Even the furnishings of the old house have been preserved. Through the windows you can see a spinning wheel for making cloth, original furniture, even place settings at the dining room table next to the old fireplace. Across the front lawn and just into the edge of his corn field (and across the tour road) are the still-standing remains of Mr. Ray's spring house. This was his well as well as a cool, convenient place to store perishables such as eggs and butter. Mr. Ray, his wife and children carried buckets of water from here (the two photos on the left) to the doctors who tended the wounded. I have to say the place had a rather eerie feel to it, as though you could still sense the grim purpose it was put to.
Small addition (since I was obliquely involved) by the webmaster, who is also a line technician for Southwestern Bell Telephone: The Ray house was completely restored in 1983. I put the phone line in for the contractor's trailer. We had to run lines overhead, through trees and attaching to any available existing utility pole as any form of excavation entailed the need for a Federal permit, archaeology survey and an on-site forensic archaeologist, just in case we dug up a Minie' ball. --Miles
There was almost no one else there at the time Chris and I were taking photographs. This seemed to lend a surreal feeling to the place as though we'd just walked into a ghost town. The Ray family had a slave, the children's "aunt", who had a small cabin behind the house itself, but it and the old chicken house are long gone, long since destroyed by artillery fire from a high point overlooking the cornfield. The house was untouched...and it was here that the body of Union commander Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon was brought when he fell in battle. Having already been wounded twice, he stayed in the fray until a Confederate musket ball struck him in the chest and shot him off his horse.
Several artillery pieces have been preserved and secured down on concrete bases in their original battery positions. My brother got quite a few photographs of them that turned out quite well. Here they are, in no particular order. This first one is the Pulaski, Arkansas battery. It consists of one surviving piece. This Confederate artillery position was all that stood between the respected Major General Sterling Price (commander of the Confederate forces and nicknamed "Old Pap") and a sneak attack by General Lyon's advance from the north, a maneuver he tried unsuccessfully to coordinate with Colonel Sigel's artillery from the south (see below).
Because of the rainy weather the Confederate forces had scrapped plans to press on, fearing their black powder ammunition would get wet. Oddly, when the Confederate forces resumed their camp along the banks of Wilson's Creek, they had not reset their pickets. This allowed the Union forces to creep up without warning in the early hours of August 10, 1861. The Confederate artillerymen saw them coming however from their position above a gulch near the creek itself and opened fire, buying time for the Confederate infantry to form into line of battle and repel Lyon's advance.
Here Captain Henry Guibor dueled with Union artillery on the crest of "Bloody Hill". Despite his bombardments and three Confederate attacks through the fields the Union line held. On the fourth assault he saw that the Federals had abandoned the crest and were withdrawing.
Colonel Sigel's third and final position in his northerly advance is pictured here. He was trying to coordinate his attack of the Confederate rear with Lyon's advance from the north. Poor communications made this difficult and the maneuver was largely unsuccessful. German-born Franz Sigel was colonel of the 3rd Missouri Infantry and took part in the capture of Camp Jackson in May, 1861. Here his force was outnumbered and his retreat helped ensure a Southern victory.
Throughout the battle General Lyon's 4200-man command held the high ground which eventually became known as Bloody Hill. When Chris and I visited the place the Park Service had recently completed a controlled burn of the area to remove weeds and undergrowth. The ground was left blackened and stunted, again leaving an eerie feeling as though "this just happened yesterday." By early morning August 10 1861 white smoke from the black powder guns covered the entire south slope. There were over 1700 Union and Confederate casualties, among them General Lyon himself.
Not far from here is a stone marker placed here in 1928 denoting the very spot where he was killed. It reads as follows: "At or Near this spot fell Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, born Ashford, Conn., 1818 graduated U.S. Military Academy, 1841. Commander of the South, who, on this field, died for the right as God gave them to see the right. 1928."
Despite this honor, the history I've read records Lyon as a reactionary and a butcher of peaceful Native Americans. He was "Captain Lyon" till an overzealous, pro-Union Missouri congressman named Francis P. Blair pulled some strings to get him promoted straight to Brigadier General and ordered him to pursue the fleeing, Southern sympathizing Missouri governor and his forces. Not far away is a sinkhole where 30 Union soldiers were hastily buried (photos, right).
Wilson's Creek itself is a quiet, peaceful waterway that winds its way through the park. Confederate forces were camped up and down both sides of it just before the battle. Gen. Price's HQ was situated nearby (see below). At first glance it looks like a nice place to fish out of or camp next to, but this would be a bad idea. The battlefield is a few short miles from Springfield's local waste water treatment facility and Wilson's Creek flows not far past it. Signs proclaiming the water is hazardous to humans are found at the tour road entrance by the token-gate and on the bridge over the creek itself. It's definitely look-but-don't-touch.
The scenery does make for some beautiful photography, but you have to be careful with that observation when you remember what happened here along these banks 141 years ago. At least one chronicler described how the waters ran red with the blood of dead men.
Not far from the old iron-and-plank bridge where these photos were taken was the next stopping point along the tour trail: the original position of Sterling Price's headquarters. It sits a short ways north of Sharp's Cornfield from where Colonel Sigel's infantry and artillery advance came. An old man named Edwards had a small cabin there and this was commandeered as General Price's field HQ. The original cabin is long gone but the old chap who's home it was had a similar abode farther up the creek, so to give an impression of what the spot may have originally looked like the park service uprooted the second cabin and set it down on the spot where the first one had sat. We captured the image in the photo to the right.
I hope the reader will not feel that I'm trivializing the history of the battle by adding this last part but I'd like to pay some respect to the neat-o-rama gift shop at the park's Visitor's Center. Of immediate interest are the historical books they have for sale that I'd not seen in any "ordinary" book shop. Quite a selection was available, from historical diatribes (of varying degrees of objectivity of course) to collections of letters and journals written by soldiers who had actually fought there. Naturally there was a focus on books that described the Battle of Wilson's Creek itself, such as the one I bought, but one could also find all sorts of overall material on the War itself.
Then there are the souvenirs. :-) Allow me to show you my favorite one: the reproduction of a Civil War era poker deck. Per the advertisement on the box, the cards have "full-length court figures; decks used during the Civil War did not have corner indices." A sample of the numerical cards is pictured above on the left. A pair of informational cards inside the box provides some detail about early American playing cards. Originally card-playing was illegal in America and considered an uncouth way to pass the time. Decks of cards persisted in the hands of soldiers and gentlemen anyway. The featured box (pictured right) has a reproduction of the original two-cent proprietary tax stamps valid from 1862-1871. The cancellation date on the facsimile is June 2, 1864. The author supposes that the governmental powers that be, having decided that poker-playing and card game ownership couldn't be prevented, gave up making them a moral stigma and just decided to tax them instead.
These cards, originally printed by L. I. Cohen of New York, NY, were advertised as having an "ivory-surfaced finish" and continued to be sold during the 1860s. The original Ace of Spades, seen in the above photo, was a blue spade with an eagle beneath 13 stars and the name "L. I. Cohen" on the bottom. This $6.00 tourist's delight reproduces the original Ace plus includes a more traditional one (seen in the "Dead Man's Hand", above) for ease of play. The court cards in this photo are full-length figures; you can tell the Kings and Jacks apart by observing that the Kings have a beard, yet the Jacks all stand on some sort of wall or foundation.
Interested parties can find these cards as well as other, more esoteric reproduction card games at the distributor's website by clicking here.
One more souvenir went home with me: for the princely sum of $1.50 I took home a crinkly, artificially-aged map of the battlefields of the Civil War. The "parchment" map, suitable for wall-mounting, has all the battlefield sites marked in red in chronological order. I imagine most folks reading this who have ever visited an Americana-style gift shop has already seen one of these, but just for completion's sake I'll include a couple of scans of it here anyway. Be advised they are somewhat large and may take a minute or two to download on a slow connection. The whole surface of this "campaign map" is a wonderful crackly parchment yellow but under the bright lamp of my image scanner this is only evident in the edges of each image.
This was a fun and informative trip to see an important part of American history and it was practically in my own back yard. I will probably pay another visit in the springtime to walk the trails that we didn't have time for on this visit; the pictures I've shown you here certainly do not cover the entire site. Any historical or visual errors are purely my own and are of no fault of the US Park Service. I hope you enjoyed this photo essay.
The Battle of Wilson's Creek, artist unknown. General Lyon is killed while astride his horse.
visitors since website crashed AUG 2003. Publish date was 24 Nov 2002.