"Far better that the blood of every man, woman, and child should flow than defy the Federal government. This means war!" With these harsh words spoken by U.S. Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon at the Planter's Hotel in St. Louis, the Civil War in the state of Missouri began in earnest. Stunned by Lyon's uncompromising (and perhaps unbalanced) behavior, Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and militia general Sterling Price immediately left for Jefferson City to try and piece together a defense of the state.
General Lyon, ever aggressive, immediately planned an ambitious offensive that would secure Missouri for the Federal government. Unlike Governor Jackson, Lyon had available about 10,000 well-armed and trained troops (mostly taken from the sizable German population) sworn into Federal service. Additionally, a significant force of regular troops and artillery bolstered Lyon's command.. Similarly, a brigade-sized force of regulars and Kansans under Major Samuel Sturgis was assembling in Kansas at Ft. Leavenworth. The fledgling Missouri state forces were in deep trouble right from the start.
While a Federal invasion loomed, the state assembly quickly passed legislation creating the Missouri State Guard (MSG) and releasing funds for its supplies and equipage. The man chosen to command the MSG was former governor and Mexican War veteran Sterling Price. The MSG was organized into 9 divisions commanded by prominent Missourians appointed by the governor. The term division was a geographic designation rather than an indication of the size of the units, which varied greatly in numbers and degree of organization. Pro-Southern sentiment in the state of Missouri was centered in the cotton and hemp-growing region called Little Dixie, comprised of the west-central counties bordering the Missouri River. With the passing of the legislation, State Guard camps sprung up all over the state. Two of the most important were located along the Missouri River at Lexington and Boonville. Nearly all the guardsmen who arrived at the new camps were miserably armed and completely raw.
Lyon recognized that immediate action would likely catch the Missouri State Guard in a disorganized state. Therefore, he proposed an invasion of Missouri on three widely separated fronts. A brigade-sized force under Lyon's personal command would move by steamboat up the Missouri River and capture the state capital at Jefferson City. Sturgis's wing would move southeast into Missouri from Ft. Leavenworth. At the same time, Brig. Gen. Thomas Sweeny would transfer his men by rail from St. Louis to Rolla after which he would strike out for southwestern Missouri to cut off any State forces that might escape Lyon and Sturgis. It was a bold and risky plan, but, if successful, it would allow the vast majority of the state to fall under Federal control.
Governor Jackson realized the weakness of his position and, knowing General Lyon to be aggressive, decided to trade space for time. This would force the abandonment of the state capital. The Guard artillery under Brig. Gen. Mosby Monroe Parsons was quickly moved to the south out of harm's way and the forces yet assembled were prepared for a retreat to SW Missouri. But now the governor had a serious political problem. Retreating without a major effort to defend Little Dixie would likely cause thousands of Guardsmen to abandon the colors and go home. Additionally, untold thousands of potential recruits would be stranded in northern Missouri if the river crossings became federally controlled. Unfortunately for Jackson and Price, they had no choice but to retreat. Camp Bacon east of Boonville was ordered held until the last possible moment in order to maintain the presence in Little Dixie needed to rally support to the Governor's cause.
For Lyon, the trip upriver from St. Louis by steamboat was rapid and uneventful. The capital was taken without a fight and two days later the boats were nearing the State Guard camps at Boonville. A suitable landing place was found several miles east of the town. By 8 am on June 17 most of the troops were ashore and winding their way up the bluffs. Their objective was to defeat the force of Rebels at Camp Bacon and capture the armory just east of town.
At the Adams house and farm four miles east of Boonville, Lyon's 1100 men met the 750 Guardsmen who had advanced to meet them. What was meant to be a delaying action on the part of the Southerners became a rout. The "Boonville Races" had shown Lyon just how weak the State Guard really was. The untrained, ill-disciplined, and poorly armed Guardsmen were no match for Lyon's well-trained and armed Federals. The Missourians would need an extended period of organization and training before they could meet the Federals on equal terms. After Boonville, the retreat to SW Missouri was begun in earnest. There, the Federal supply lines would be stretched to the limit and the Missourians could link up with Confederate forces in NW Arkansas for a counteroffensive.
During the retreat, it became apparent that sentiment for the Southern cause was still high as thousands of new recruits flocked to the colors. Unfortunately, most arrived without weapons of any kind! As the column approached Carthage from the north, it encountered a small Federal force of two regiments under the command of Col. Franz Sigel.
Sigel, in temporary command of Sweeny's wing in the area around Springfield, had learned of the approach of a large force of MSG under Governor Jackson. With thoughts of glory, Sigel rashly advanced northward to intercept the Guard. Eight miles north of Carthage, the Federals deployed for battle but found themselves outnumbered almost four to one. The Federal commander immediately saw the necessity of retreat. In one of his rare good efforts, Sigel conducted a masterful fighting withdrawal, retreating the 8 miles between his position and Carthage while in the process fording several creeks and a river before reaching safety. With Sigel out of the way, the State Guard was now free to link up with Confederate forces from Arkansas under Brig. Gen. Ben McCulloch.
After Carthage, the action switched to the town of Springfield. Springfield, largely Unionist in sentiment, was the most important town in SW Missouri. After occupying the town, Lyon began to enlist the citizens into Home Guard units. Unfortunately for Lyon, his army was at the end of its logistical rope and could advance no further. Even worse, General Fremont (commanding the Missouri Department) not only refused repeated requests for reinforcements but ordered elsewhere badly needed troops, leaving the Springfield army weak and exposed. Lyon was ordered to retreat but felt he could not do so without a fight. The combined State Guard and Confederate force currently camped south of town at Wilson's Creek was so superior in cavalry that a fighting retreat would likely result in disaster. According to Lyon, a spoiling attack was needed to rock the Rebels back on their heels and give the Federal army the opportunity to make an unhindered retreat northeast to Rolla. Yielding to the determination of General Sigel, Lyon agreed to a two-pronged attack. While Lyon attacked the enemy camps frontally, Sigel would take a brigade on a circuitous flanking march and hit them simultaneously in the rear.
The Southern forces at Wilson's Creek were rent with dissension. McCulloch and Price did not get along and the Confederates were disdainful of the fighting ability of the Missourians. Nonetheless, the combined army was a formidable force. The MSG was camped west of the creek below an imposing height later known as Bloody Hill. The Confederate infantry was east of the creek and the cavalry camps were located in the fields to the south.
During the night of August 9, the Union army quietly moved out of its lines at Springfield and marched toward the enemy camps at Wilson's Creek. At dawn, Lyon's wing made contact with Southern cavalry north of Bloody Hill. To the south, Sigel had positioned his artillery atop the heights east of the creek and commenced bombarding the Southern cavalry camps. The cannon fire was highly successful and the cavalry was completely routed.
At the battle's north end, Lyon was able to push forward and capture Bloody Hill. He could go no further however as he was buffeted by wave after wave of Southern assaults. A small force of regulars under Capt. Joseph Plummer was sent by Lyon across the creek to cover the Federal left flank but it was quickly routed by Confederate troops.
Meanwhile, back on the southern front, Sigel advanced to a small creek at the base of Bloody Hill. Disaster struck when approaching Southern troops were mistaken as friendlies. These troops attacked and quickly routed Sigel's brigade. Lyon was now on his own.
As morning turned to midday, the Federal army atop Bloody Hill, though holding valiantly, was becoming increasingly hard pressed. While inspiring his troops to even greater efforts, General Lyon was killed. Command devolved upon Major Sturgis and he elected to retreat. The exhausted Southerners did not pursue.