The Battle of Wilson's Creek — the First Battle West of the Mississippi River

August 10, 1861

The Battle of Wilson's Creek was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America on August 10, 1861. It was the first major battle of the Civil War fought west of the Mississippi River. During the battle, General Nathaniel Lyon (USA), was killed, contributing to the Confederate victory.

General Nathaniel Lyon, USA, Civil War, NPS

During the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Confederate soldiers killed the Union commander, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. Image Source: National Park Service.

Battle of Wilson’s Creek History

Tenuous Neutrality in Missouri

When the American Civil War began, sympathies in the border state of Missouri were greatly divided. Although many Missourians favored remaining in the Union, Governor Claiborne Jackson was a strong proponent of secession.

Despite his secessionist leanings, Jackson declared his support for the Union and affirmed Missouri’s neutrality by agreeing to the terms of the Price-Harney Truce on May 12, 1861.

Lyon and Price Fight for Control of Missouri

When President Abraham Lincoln requested 75,000 troops from Missouri to take up arms against the Confederacy, Jackson withdrew his support for neutrality. A subsequent meeting between Jackson and Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon failed to resolve the matter.

Instead, Lyon’s Army of the West and the Missouri State Guard, commanded by former Missouri Governor Sterling Price, engaged in a series of minor battles during the summer of 1861 for control of the state.

General Sterling K. Price, CSA, Civil War
General Sterling Price (CSA). Image Source: Libary of Congress.

McCulloch Takes Command of Confederate Forces in Missouri

By mid-June, after the Battle of Boonville, Lyon’s army had driven Price’s forces into the southwestern corner of Missouri, where they received reinforcements from other southern states. Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch commanded the newly formed, combined Confederate force.

Lyon Takes the Offensive

Rather than stand by and watch McCulloch’s army continue to grow, Lyon decided to go on the offensive. On August 9, 1861, he led approximately 5,400 Union soldiers out of Springfield, Missouri to assault over 11,000 Confederates encamped near Wilson’s Creek, approximately twelve miles southwest of the city.

August 10, 1861 — Surprise Attack Near Wilson’s Creek

Lyon’s surprise attack, on the morning of August 10, caught the Confederates off guard. The Federals initially drove the Confederates back, but the Southerners eventually formed battle lines and halted the Union’s advance.

Battle of Wilson's Creek, 1861, Lyon's 1st Iowa Regiment
This illustration depicts the charge of Lyon’s 1st Iowa Regiment at the Battle of Wison’s Creek. Image Source: Frank Leslie’s Scenes and Portraits of the Civil War, 1894.

Federals Withdraw Following Lyon’s death

The Confederates launched three counterattacks during the day, but despite being outnumbered over two-to-one, the Federals held their ground.

During the battle, Confederates killed Lyon and Major Samuel D. Sturgis took command of the Union army. As the day progressed, the exhausted Federals ran low on ammunition, so Sturgis ordered a retreat to Springfield.

The exhausted Confederates did not pursue.

Battle of Wilson's Creek, 1861, Lyon Shot, LOC
This illustration depicts General Lyon being shot during the battle. Image Source: Libary of Congress.

Battle of Wilson’s Creek Outcome and Aftermath

The Confederate victory at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek buoyed secessionist sympathies in Missouri and emboldened the Confederates to launch an offensive to regain control of northern Missouri.

Secessionists formed a government and formally joined the Confederate cause, but they failed to garner the support of most Missourians.

After Union victories at the Battle of Fredericktown (October 21, 1861) and the Battle of Springfield (October 25, 1861), Jackson, Price, and their unofficial Confederate government abandoned the state.

Casualties at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek were fairly even. The Union army suffered approximately 1,300 casualties, including 285 killed. The Confederate army suffered about 1,200 casualties, including 277 killed.

One Union casualty was possibly a drummer boy from Tennessee, named Eddie, who was only 12 or 13 years old at the time.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Wilson's Creek — the First Battle West of the Mississippi River
  • Date August 10, 1861
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Wilson's Creek
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 15, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 16, 2024