Volume V, No. 3, Spring 1978
THE BATTLE OF WILSON CREEK
by Angela Hancock
Before dawn on the morning of August 10, 1861, Roxanna Ray stepped out on her porch steps and anxiously viewed the sky. There was going to be trouble. She could feel it in the air. And wasn't that a shot she'd just heard, a way off in the distance? She could barely see Livonia leading Olivia and John Wesley through the cornfield on the way to herd the family's horses up to the house where they'd be safe. She sighed. Livonia was only ten years old and Olivia just nine.
"I wish John wouldn't have sent them children down there to get the horses, what with all them Rebel soldiers runnin' around down there..." She sighed again and smoothed out the folds in her plain gray dress. "No use frettin' over the children now. There's work to be done. But something's going to happen. I can feel it." Roxanna worriedly looked out over the dimly lit fields and then turned back to the kitchen to help Aunt Rhoda, the Negro slave, fix breakfast.
The air was fresh and clean, but even after the cooling night's shower, it was already warm, giving promise of another hot day when the sun would rise. The children made their way to the creek.
"Oh, Livonia, we'll never get these stubborn ol' hosses to the barn. I don't see why it couldn't wait till after breakfast, anyways. Mamma's fixing some of them good biscuits, and I'm half starved."
"Just stop your bellyaching, John Wesley. You know Pa said we had to get the horses up closer to the house. Them Rebels will take anything they can git their hands on. Mr. Marley told Pa that the Confederates come to his place and took all their flour and cornmeal and their chickens! The troops can always use some good horses and you know well as I how much you like them. You reckon you want to see 'em stole? Well, all right then, get on to work. Mamma'll save some biscuits for us."
The cool clear water of Wilson Creek splashed around the horses' slender legs as Livonia and Olivia rode across to look for one of the horses. After locating the stray mare, they crossed back over to where their young brother waited with the rest of the horses.
"They're all here now," Olivia said, motioning to the six horses. "Let's get on back to the house. I'm hungry too!"
The first threads of sunlight stretched to earth, illuminating the pasture along Wilson Creek. The three children rode up the hill silently. Though the Rebel encampment was invisible to the children, they knew that Confederate troops were stationed about three-quarters of a mile down stream. As they rode around the edge of the cornfield to the house, a portion of the camp came into view.
"Look there, that's General Price's headquarters, ain't that right, Livonia?" Olivia asked, pointing to the Southern tents in the distance.
Just then the sound of gunfire to the northwest shattered the peaceful quiet of the early morning.
"What was that? Are they shootin' each other?" Seven year old John Wesley asked in a frightened voice, his dark eyes round in his small face.
"Yep, and pretty soon they're gonna be a-coming after you," Livonia teased, trying to hide the fact that she too was shaken by the sound of shots so close.
"They're gonna come get you and use you for target practice. Them Rebels can't hit the broad side of a barn without practicin' up, so they use little scrawny boys as targets." John Wesley's eyes grew enormous until Olivia began laughing.
"I'm gonna tell Mamma on you both. She says you're not 'posed to tease me. She says you're two peas in a pod and..." John Wesley sputtered angrily.
"Hush now, don't fret so, John Wesley. No need to tell Mamma. We was just funnin' with you..."
Their argument was interrupted by the sight of a soldier on horseback galloping toward them.
"You all keep quiet. Let me do the talkin'," Livonia ordered as the man halted his horse in front of them. The three children eyed him warily. They'd never been face to face with a real confederate soldier before.
Olivia guessed the soldier to be about twenty years of age. He was tall and slender, dressed in a gray uniform with a dowdy felt hat pulled over his straggly, pale hair. His eyes were tired and sad, but when he looked at little John Wesley, a smile flitted across the grim, hard lines of his tightly drawn lips. Olivia studied him as he spoke quickly to Livonia. Her fear drained away as she thought to herself, "Why, he's just lonely and as scared as we are, and I bet he's missing a little brother somewhere, the way he smiles at John Wesley."
The soldier was speaking, "Listen, now, ya'all best get up to the house. There's goin' to be fightin' here in less than ten minutes!"
"But..." Livonia gasped. "General Lyon's still in Springfield ten miles away. How can .... "
"There's no time to argue with me, miss. There's been skirmishes at the outposts ahead! Didn't you hear the shots? Get home quick." The stranger wheeled his horse around, kicked it sharply with his spurs and galloped across the pasture to spread the warning to the Sharps and other neighbors.
Without a word, the children raced their horses to the house. Andrew, their fourteen year old brother, was waiting by the gate.
"Help John Wesley take care of the horses," Livonia ordered as she rushed up the kitchen steps.
"Mammal Mammal" Olivia and Livonia called as they burst into the kitchen. Interrupting each other, they told Roxanna what had happened in the pasture. Roxanna gasped. The feeling she'd had earlier was right.
"He said there's going to be fighting right down there by the creek?"
"Yes. I reckon the Union men must've marched down from Springfield last night."
"Olivia, you stay here," she said, "and tend to the biscuits. See that they don't burn. I have to go find your father." Roxanna wiped her hands on her faded apron and hurried out the back door. She found her husband rocking the baby on the front porch while searching the quiet fields for any activity from the Rebel camp. There she repeated the rider's message.
"Are you sure that Rebel wasn't just trying to frighten the children?"
"No, John, I believe he was telling the truth. Didn't you hear the shots?"
He nodded. "You best get the children down in the cellar just in case."
He looked up at his pretty wife, his gray eyes worried, but calm as always. He was a quiet, deliberate man, not easily led to showing his emotions. Only his eyes showed that he was worried.
Roxanna grabbed the baby from his arms and called out to the barn. "Andrew,
John Wesley! Come here quickly."
Julius Short, the postmaster who stayed with the Rays, appeared in the barn doorway. "What is it, Mis' Ray? Is somethin' wrong?"
"Yes...Oh, John! Look!" Roxanna cried, pointing down to the creek. A long, dark line appeared to be moving across the ravine toward the hill accompanied by at first sporadic shots then steady firing,
John Ray had jumped up with the first shot. "Get the boys, Julius," he shouted. The troops really are moving in! Come Roxanna, get the children to the cellar."
They hurried through the house to the kitchen where the rest of the family had been seated at the breakfast table when the shots alarmed them. When told to go to the cellar, there were no protests. Two year old Marshall began crying.
"Come now, honey, we's all goin' down to the cellar to play a game is all," Aunt Rhoda said. "Grab them biscuits, 'Lizabeth, and get a move on Andy, you heard yo' papa."
Aunt Rhoda and Roxanna herded the frightened children into the dark room under the house as the sounds of gunfire increased. Roxanna lifted her skirt to start down the steps when she noticed her husband was not following. She turned, "John?" He was standing, strong hands on hips, staring out at what was fast becoming a battlefield. "John, aren't you coming? The shots are getting closer!"
John turned to face her, putting his hands on her shoulders and looking into her drawn face. "No, 'Anna, go and stay with the children. If there's going to be a battle fought here, I intend to watch it."
Roxanna tried to protest, but John was adamant. Followed by Aunt Rhoda and Julius, she entered the cellar where her eight frightened children, along with Aunt Rhoda's five, crouched in the damp, earthy cellar with the pickle jars, potato bins and crocks of morning milk. In the near-darkness, they clutched one another whenever a shot seemed closer or louder than the last.
After making certain that the cellar door was secured, John cautiously made his way around to the front of the house. He re-assumed his position in the old rocker on the wide front porch and continued looking out over Wilson Creek. The sounds were getting louder. There were shouts as the sound of gunfire blasted the early morning air that moments before had been calm and peaceful.
John watched as the dusty blue Union soldiers advanced on foot, driving the few hastily mounted Southern cavalrymen back toward their advancing regiments.
He searched the field. General Nathaniel Lyon did not seem to be present, and neither was Confederate General Sterling Price recognizable on the battlefield yet.
Shots rang out, harsh and cruel, as the Union and Confederate Armies battled on the sloping field on the opposite side of the creek from the Ray House. It was when some Union soldiers crossed the creek into the Ray cornfield that John thought, "My God, they're going to be fighting in my own front yard soon!" It was with apprehension that he watched as the surprise Union advance was met by Rebels. The Yankees seemed almost to be outnumbered two to one. A raging fight began. The Rebels found refuge behind the brush to the south of the cornfield, while some Union men took cover behind a rail fence.
Although the far side of the cornfield was perhaps half a mile away, and the creek one mile, from his high vantage point John could see and hear nearly everything that went on. He heard the sounds of two thousand rifles and the tramp of many feet. He saw men lurch when hit and fall on the ground, to be trampled or jumped over by the advancing army. At one point he heard a horse's terrible screams. A shell hit the animal in the flank, shredding its flesh, showing a gaping, bloody mass of splintered bone. Mercifully, a cavalryman shot the animal in the head. It fell to the ground, twitched a moment and was still. There were relatively few cavalrymen on the battleground, and most of them that John could see seemed to be Southerners.
John thought the use of horses in battle to be yet another of the brutish details of war. "It's bad enough to be out there shooting each other, but to drag in good horse flesh to be shot at when it was probably stole anyway is more cruel than the war itself," John thought to himself, as yet another horse and rider fell.
To his left in his neighbor Sharp's cornfield, more shots were ringing out. John could see part of that area where he knew the Southern army had been camped the past few days. He wondered how the Sharp family was faring right in the center of some fighting. Squinting his eyes he could see a portion of their house. Though he thought it must be his imagination, he saw a woman sitting on their front porch. He shook his head. It must not be. He could only hope that the Sharp's were all safely in their cellar.
What he didn't know was that Union Colonel Franz Sigel's men had been positioned there since shortly after five o'clock to shell the Southern camp. It was after six now. Sigel had been waiting for the right time to press his advantage in a pincher attack--he from the south and Lyon from the north.
In the dark cellar, a frightened silence filled the air. Although it was a large space, the children crouched near their mothers, the younger ones munching the biscuits Aunt Rhoda had grabbed from the kitchen. Elizabeth, a pretty eighteen year old, leaned against the wooden shelves, John Wesley and Olivia on either side of her. They each flinched slightly at the sound of every shot. When the battle crossed into their cornfield, barely a fourth of a mile away, the children all moved a little closer to Roxanna, who was leaning against a wooden support in the middle of the rocked-in cellar under their frame house, her skirts spread out around her, rocking the baby in her arms.
"It's all right," she murmured. "It's going to be all right. We're all safe." But her thoughts raced to her husband, seated on the front porch with no protection from the shots that seemed to be reverberating off the cellar walls around her. As the baby began to whimper, she held him closer, rocking and murmuring reassurances to him, the older children and to herself, wondering what her husband was seeing.
Price and Lyon had each arrived on the scene, and Price was fighting his way up the hill leading his men. The battle lines were established and Sigel's cannons to the south fired repeatedly, blasting the air with a terrible thunderous noise. At one point, John noticed Sigel ordering some of his Confederate prisoners to pull one of the heavy cannons up a steep rocky incline. The men strained to move it, and John could almost see the sweat roll off their faces as they labored. The smokey haze that covered the field made it more difficult for John to see what was happening. Already, the acrid smell of gunsmoke had reached him and it permeated the air that only an hour before had been fresh from the night rain.
He heard the soldiers' shots as the lines advanced and fell back again. Price's men seemed to be surrounded, with Lyon's advance from the north and Sigel behind. But the gray uniforms dominated the scene, though, dusty and bloody as they were, it was sometimes hard to tell the color of a soldier's uniform.
John looked down at his watch. Seven o'clock. The battle was getting more intense. Bodies seemed strewn everywhere across the field and more fell even as he noted this. They fell with cries, or silently, to the ground which was already , becoming rust colored with blood.
As he watched, John observed a touching scene that made his throat tighten. A young Union soldier crawled to where several bodies lay in the closest corner of the cornfield. Turning first one and then another over, at last he seemed to find what he'd been looking for. Throwing off his dirty hat, he lay his face down on the shoulder of his dead friend and wept.
The firing went on and on as the sun rose higher. The Confederates formed three lines to meet the attack, the first lying down, the second kneeling and the third standing. The shots rang out like continuous thunder, and the cries of the men were loud and clear. The August sun was already burning down, making the morning hot and sticky.
John stared through the haze, startled by the silence after two hours of gunfire and shouts. Silence.
Like the calm before a storm, John knew that something was brewing. On the battlefield a large number of Confederate soldiers were fleeing down the ridge from Lyon's troops.
Out of John's eyesight, Sigel's men blocked the Wire Road, capturing straggling Rebel soldiers who tried to flee down the road from Lyon. But Confederate General Ben McColloch soon marched down the road to charge Sigel's position. It wasn't long before Sigel's men were on the run, and Price no longer had a threat from the rear.
It was later that John 'learned exactly what fate befell Sigel and his men. After retreating from McColloch, they crossed the James River, where Confederates again attacked, killing and wounding many of them. Only Sigel and one other man escaped and made it back to Springfield much later that day.
For more than half an hour there was almost complete silence. Price seemed to be trying to re-eStablish his lines closer to Lyon. His men had only shotguns and rifles, many they had carried with them from their farms, so it was necessary to be closer to the enemy.
John observed the soldiers reloading their guns and filling their canteens at the creek. The men splashed the fresh water of Wilson Creek over their grimy whiskered faces, while the sun burned down upon their weary heads. John saw one young soldier, who seemed to be no more than a boy, collapse, exhausted, beneath the shade of a tall oak. Other men stopped by the creek to wash or bandage their wounds with strips torn from their shirts. John was shocked to see that most of the soldiers looked so young, the majority seeming to be under twenty. John thanked God that his eldest son, Andrew, was only fourteen, not old enough to be recruited into either army.
During the lull in the firing the children dared to get up and around the cellar. The smells from the pickle jars and the sight of the stone jars of honey reminded the younger children that they had had very little breakfast.
"I'm hungry, Mamma," John Wesley said. Several of the other children echoed him.
"Well, chil', just reach in there and get you some of them pickles. And we kin spread some of that honey on what's left of them biscuits. Jes' pretend like we's down here fo' fun. No need to fret." Aunt Rhoda took charge, fixing each of the children something to eat. Soon they were all contentedly munching, for the moment able to "pretend it was all fo' fun."
But Julius Short was restless. "Mis' Ray, I'd like to go join your husband. Ain't right me hidin' here in the cellar while he sits up there a-watchin'."
"I want to go, too, Mamma," Andrew exclaimed, wiping the honey from his mouth with his shirt sleeve. John Wesley echoed him and Olivia and Elizabeth stared at him in wonder.
"Why, John Wesley and Andrew, too, you-all don't want to go up there with that shootin' goin' one"
"Yes, please, Mamma, just for a look to see why it's all quiet. Please?" The boys pleaded, but Roxanna shook her head firmly.
"No, boys, it's too dangerous. Julius, please don't go up there." She looked up at the young man and he nodded, looking down into her frightened, but strong hazel eyes. But what he'd give to have a look outside!
Aunt Rhoda sat in the corner, her children huddled around her skirts. She rocked her youngest, humming an old gospel song, occasionally chiding one of the children, black or white, with, "What you cryin' 'bout? Don' you know they's fightin' fo' us out there?" She continued rocking and quietly singing while the rest of the people assembled in the cellar sat in silence.
At nine o'clock the shots began again. Lyon had drawn every available man into the fight on the hill. Price seemed to be waiting for Lyon to attack first and when he did, the clash was worse even than before it had ceased. John watched Lyon, who sat tall and brave on his iron-gray horse, courageously and conspicuously leading his men time and again towards Price's lines. First one army, then another would advance and fall back. John was watching when Lyon's horse was shot from under him and the fine beast fell to the ground. John rose from his chair, watching anxiously to see if the General would rise to his feet. It was with relief that John saw him get up. His leg was bleeding profusely, as well as was a deep gash in his forehead. But he stood, and limping only slightly, walked on, leading his men on foot. An orderly stopped him, offering brandy, but Lyon refused and pushed on toward the enemy. A horse was offered to him. At first he seemed to decline, and then he mounted. John could see Lyon sitting tall and proud, blood dripping off the heel of his boot in a steady flow, yet his bearded face showed no grimace of pain.
Swinging his dark felt hat, Lyon called to his men in a voice John could distinguish over the other battle sounds. "Come on my brave boys. I will lead you, forward!"
At the crest of the hill, Lyon's troops were ambushed. The shots roared murderously as men fell everywhere. Lyon was hit. He slowly dismounted and collapsed, dead, into his orderly's arms. John felt whatever hope he had possessed drain away. Lyon was dead! How could the Union Army hope to be victorious without a leader when they were outnumbered so greatly?
John watched as Lyon's body was carried to the rear. From the distance it seemed that his body was placed in a sheltered area near some brush and covered with a blanket.
The battle raged on. In the cellar Roxanna prayed. She did not know if John was still sitting on the porch, or if one of the shots they had heard ricocheting near the house had struck him down. She wished only that the fighting would stop so she could know if her husband was safe. She smoothed back her pale gold hair, which was pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. "I must be strong," she told herself. "It cannot last much longer."
A terrible crash and explosion sounded somewhere in the yard near the house. Elizabeth gasped involuntarily, and the baby began to wail.
"That's it, ma'am, I've got to have me a look," Julius exclaimed, rising from his place near the steps.
BefOre Roxanna could protest, he had pushed open the cellar door. There was a loud boom and the door slammed shut with the sound of splintering wood. The children screamed in terror. Julius leaped back, his face pale and stricken. Roxanna straightened up. She had bent double over the baby to protect him from the shattered crockery that had flown everywhere when some of the jars had crashed to the floor.
"It was a cannon ball, Mis', right here at the house! Are they trying' to get us, too? A cannon ball, Mis'..."
"Stop yo' babbling', Mister Julius and set down 'fore you get the chill all upset. Yo' ain't got the sense you was born with, opinion' up that door like that. No use inviting' trouble. Don't stand there looking' at me. Set down. Them soldiers just getting' tired. Not aiming ' right. It wo ' happen gain." Aunt Rhoda's sharp voice quieted Julius and soothed the others.
Roxanna looked around at each of her children. Being so long in the semi-darkness, her eyes had adjusted so she could see each one. The baby was whimpering in her arms, and toddler Marcellus rested his head on her skirts. Roxanna was aware of Elizabeth's eyes following her gaze. She looked up at her eldest daughter, who was so like her with the same pale gold hair and gentle yet strong hazel eyes. Their eyes met in understanding. They were both terribly, terribly afraid. But it was up to them not to show it.
When John heard the explosion near the cellar, he raced to the south end of the porch to see what had happened. Apparently a cannon ball had bounced off the chicken house and hit the cellar door. He was relieved to see no real damage done, but he cursed both armies for allowing such a thing to happen.
As John surveyed the damage, another uneasy silence fell over the battleground. He returned to his seat to watch Price back down the hillto regroup his men. The field was covered with bodies. It filled John with revulsion and pity and shame that his fellow men should take part in such brutish actions.
Major Samuel Sturgis had taken command after Lyon's death. His men were in sad shape. All of them were shabby, hungry and tired. They had already lost about one-fourth of their men. But they fought on and met the Confederate's most formidable attack. Their morale was low, and they were exhausted from the heat for the sun was almost directly overhead. Yet the Union lines held and the fighting went on for about thirty minutes.
Then, somewhat to John's surprise, Price ordered his men to fall back. They went to the rear, out of sight of the Union Army. John watched in amazement as Sturgis, the heavyset, bearded Union commander also seemed to be giving orders to retreat. He could not believe his eyes when he saw the Union men abandoning the battlefield.
When the Rebels, intent on continuing their attack, crested the hill and saw that the Union Army had fled, they gave cries of unbearable relief and joy. The battle was over.
The Confederates made no effort to pursue the Union army. Later, John learned that a shortage of ammunition was the cause of the Northerner's retreat, as well as the reason the Rebels did not pursue them. Probably another reason the Confederates did not follow the Yankees is that they had suffered so many terrible losses themselves.
John let his body relax. It was over, and his family was safe. He looked out over the fields, his fields, which were now stained with the blood of thousands of men and cluttered with thousands of bodies. Was his family really safe after this? Was this really the end, or just the beginning of an age where men can murder one another in once peaceful cornfields? It would never be the same here now. The memory of this battle, the sounds of shots and the cries of men would forever haunt him and his family. He sighed and rose. The sun was high in the sky now. The smokey haze was clearing and he could see the Rebel soldiers and camp followers robbing the dead and stealing guns, ammunition and anything else of worth. Tiredly he turned from the sight, not wanting to see any more
He crossed the porch and walked to the cellar, where his wife and family safely waited for him.
It was one hundred and sixteen years later that I stood on the porch of the old Ray House looking out over the now peaceful Wilson Creek battleground. A group of us had taken refuge there from the hot sun after retracing the movement of the armies on that hot August morning so like the present. Though there were many more trees and brush now, we could see Bloody Hill and almost imagine the battle raging as John Ray had seen it. I could imagine the relieved and delighted voices of the people who had been hiding in the cellar when John Ray came to tell them the battle was over and it was safe to come out. I could almost see the children running to stare unbelievedly out at the chaos in the cornfield, watching the Confederate soldiers silently and wearily regrouping, counting numbers and sending out burial details.
"Into the house, quickly," Roxanna warned her children as she spotted a small party of Confederate soldiers bringing General Lyon's body up the Wire Road in a wagon. John went to greet the delegation as Roxanna and Elizabeth prepared the bed with Roxanna's best quilt. As the men came up the wide wooden porch steps with their burden, Elizabeth turned to her mother, "But, Mother, he'll get blood all over your quilt."
"I'd be proud," Roxanna said as she straightened and looked on while the men laid Lyon's mutilated body gently down upon the bed.
As we stepped into the front room of the house where Roxanna and Elizabeth had proudly prepared the bed for the General's body, I was surprised to see that, though one hundred and twenty-five years old, the house had been preserved just as it was by the subsequent owners who were aware of its historical value. Nothing major had been changed in the house during the interceding years. Patrick Reed, the Wilson Creek Park Ranger, led the group of us through the house--Glen and Dorothy McElhaney, Clarence and Maude Howard and Comer Owen--all descendents of local families living in Wilson Creek area during the battle--and four of the Bittersweet staff.
Dorothy and Glen McElhaney knew the house and its history well, for it was Dorothy's great-grandfather, John Ray, who built the house in 1852 and watched the battle from the very spot we had stood. It was the McElhaneys who had owned the house for many years and after their marriage, Glen and Dorothy lived there several years until selling to the Park Service.
Glen had a lot to tell us about the interior of the house. "These are the original boards and they were hewn out by hand. Stand where I am to get the light just right. See these broadax marks here on the wall. Wasn't that nearly perfect? And this is supposedly one of the original windows. See how the glass is kind of grainey?"
Some of the floors were original, and the boards were believed to be pine. In one room the boards were burnt where a fireplace once was. In the Civil War days, the house had two fireplaces--one that opened on both sides into two adjoining rooms. The rock used to build the fireplaces was said to be sandstone hauled from Arkansas.
We continued through the house. The kitchen was at the back with a door leading out onto the back porch.
Aunt Rhoda's voice filtered through the house, "Olivia! Livonia! Come on out to the kitchen now. Look here at this mess all over this here room! Git th' broom, girl, and sweep up that mess over thar on th' flo'. A winder's bin blowed out. Jus' lookit this mess! Git it cleaned up so's we kin take keer of the soldiers. Livonia, run on out to th' spring and git some water fo' them soldiers. There's lots of men hurt. Git towels and bedding."
Outside we walked to the south side of the house to the cellar door. Some of us ventured down
the broken stone steps into the cool, dry refuge. It wasn't an extremely large area, with a dirt floor
and low wooden beams. Standing in that dark room I used all my senses to try to feel what the
Ray children felt when they crouched there with the newly dug potatoes, pickle jars and crocks of
milk, listening to the deafening sounds of gunfire and cannons and...death.
"Mama," John Wesley's hoarse whisper broke through the silence in the cellar. Outside the sounds of shouts and explosions were only slightly muted by the stone foundation.
"Yes?" Roxanna answered feeling for her son in the semi-darkness.
"I have to go to the outhouse." Roxanna looked around helplessly and was about to speak when Aunt Rhoda said, "Jus' go on over there in the corner, honey. Ya'all ain't wantin' to go to th' outhouse now, are ya? Ain't worth gittin' shot at, I reckon."
Roxanna smiled, grateful for her practicality. When John Wesley returned to her side, she held him close as the shots increased with a fury that sounded as though the sky were going to burst open at any moment.
"It sounds like the end of the world," Elizabeth thought. She shook her head as if to clear it of such a frightening thought. "I've got to stop thinking like that. It'll be over soon, I know it will." Elizabeth bowed her head to pray.
When I returned to the yard, squinting my eyes against the bright sunshine, the conversation was about a large tree in the back yard. Dorothy said, "My Grandma Ray [Francise Elizabeth] was supposed to have set this one out. It's supposed to be her riding switch. She was supposed to have just stuck the switch down in the ground. Whether that is true or not, I couldn't say."
The tree was approximately four feet in diameter. The Park Service had put lightning rods in it in hopes that if lightning hit it, it wouldn't fall over on the house.
Earlier in the day we had seen all the important sites of the battle as we walked over the battlefield. Comer Owen, the McElhaneys and Howards were all very interested and helpful in explaining the different places. We had met at the shelter house and spent some time looking out over the grounds and studying the maps that are provided. There are two recordings that coincide with the maps, describing the movements of the troops prior to and during the battle.
We walked over the battleground that was much more grown up in brush than it had been during the battle. The trails provided were bordered with weeds and brush on either side, and cactus grew abundantly in the rockier areas. When I saw the creek itself, I was shocked. The water was unbelievably murky and polluted. No one could possible drink from it now.
Comer Owen's grandfather, Captain Baker Owen, because he was a native of the Springfield and Wilson Creek area, had guided Sigel during the battle.
Comer bemoaned the creek's condition. He told how he used to hunt and fish in the area, until one day he shot some ducks on the creek. When his wife dressed them to cook, she had to throw them away because the meat smelled so bad. The battlefield isn't the only thing that has changed over the years.
Clarence Howard's family has lived in the area since civil War days, too, and he could remember many stories handed down to him. "A day before the battle of Wilson Creek, some of General Price's scouts came in down where their home was and told my great-grandfather and my grandfather to just stay put and not get excited, that they were just going to arrest them and have them stay in their home till the battle was over. The soldiers took their meals there and fed their horses at his home."
It was Clarence's great-great-grand-mother, Mary Hartman Montgomery Howard, whom John Ray had seen sitting on the front porch of the Sharp house where she lived at the time, watching the battle.
"Dang them Yankees, anyhow!" Mary Howard exclaimed as she watched Sigel's men attacking the Southern cavalry camp.
"Mother, please, we're almost in the middle of the fighting. You can't sit up here. Come on down to the cellar!" her son-in-law pleaded with her, looking anxiously around him at the sound of every shot. Price's men caught by surprise were hastily preparing their defense.
"Son, there ain't no Yankee bullet that can hurt me!" she said as she frowned out over the field, her jaw set and her eyes fierce. "No, I ain't afriad of no Yankee bullet. Go on down to the cellar now and let me be to watch them Yankees get more of a fight than they bargained for!" Events proved her right. She watched the Southerners fall back. Sigel and his men held the ridge to wait the retreat of the main Southern army. As she watched, blue-clad troops from Louisana marched toward Sigel's position. Believing them Union troops under Lyon, Sigel allowed them to advance. She saw them fire and scatter Sigel's men who thought they were being attacked by their own side. "Run Yankees, run!" she called in delight.
We walked on to the spot where General Lyon fell. His body had been left behind in the disorganized retreat.
"Jim! Come 'ere and lookit this! They've run off and left General Lyon's body laying here!" The soldier knelt in the shade of the tree as he called to his friend. "Can you imagine that? Runnin' off and forgettin' a general!"
The other soldier looked at the body in amazement. "Them Yankees don't know what they're doin' 'bout half the time, I believe. Well, c'mon, we got to tell somebody about this."
After being covered by the orderly whom John Ray had seen, the General's body had been put in an ambulance. But during the retreat his body was taken out to give more room for the injured men and was somehow left under the tree.
Today there is a stone marker, but long ago the spot where Lyon died was marked by a large rock pile. Some say that Elizabeth Ray had been the one to start the rock pile. But however it was started, later it was continued by different soldiers and families of soldiers who came to the reunions that were held for many years at Wilson Creek. A veteran would put his name and the date on a rock and add it to the pile. Just as the pile grew, it began to dimish until today there is nothing left. Every rock has been carried off as souvenirs.
The sun was hot as we continued across the battlefield. I was fascinated by the two cannons. I could imagine their booming shots, some bursting in air overhead and others exploding on the ground.
"Load them cannons, men! Git a move on!" The young soldier hurriedly put a charge of black gunpowder into the cannon and stood back to wait as his buddy added the wadding and jammed the bullet down into it. "I wish it wasn't so blame hot," he thought as the cannon fired and he prepared to load it again.
The Ozarks' porous limestone substructure creates many cave-ins or sink holes, so it wasn't at all unusual that there was a sink hole a few hundred yards from Bloody Hill. There the Confederate soldiers had buried seventy-two Union men four layers deep.
The battle was over. The soldier stood for a moment deep in thought. He was an officer now, since all of his immediate officers had been killed, so it was up to him to get these bodies buried, and fast. Suddenly he had an idea. "Over there, behind those trees, there's a big hole. Pile as many of these bodies there as you can and cover them up. Put rocks on top. There's plenty around here."
"But sir," one of the men started to speak. The sound of "sir" surprised him for a moment.
"Don't argue with me, soldier. Do as I said!"
Comer led us to an old dug well just below the Ray House on the Wire Road. It was covered with a wooden lid and wire piled on it to keep people and animals from falling in. After the battle several Union bodies had been dumped into it.
"C'mon, Jim, we ain't got all day. We've got orders to bury these bodies as fast as we can."
"I know, I was jus' thinkin' about them leavin' Lyon's body like that..."
"Well, it's too blame hot to stand around thinkin' about Lyon! Help me with this dead Yankee, will you?"
"What're we goin' to do with him?
We ain't got no hole dug yit."
"I'm usin' my head. See that well over there? Help me drag him over there. That's as good a grave as any."
But many Union bodies didn't have even that much burial, but lay exposed to bloat and rot, for not even the buzzards could handle all of them.
After we'd seen all the important sites on the battlefield, we ate our lunch at the park picnic tables. Dorothy remembered Wilson Creek as it was in her childhood days, "There was a little village. A few people lived there and there was a store and post office. We had a blacksmith shop and a tomato cannery, but not a bank or anything like that. We even had a flag station, where we had to flag the train down. That was the way we had our transportation into Springfield when I was a little girl."
While discussing the village of Wilson Creek, we made an all too common mistake. We referred to the town and creek as Wilson's creek. We were politely but firmly corrected. "There's no Wilson's to it," Dorothy told us. For as long as all the natives of the area can remember, it has been Wilson Creek, that is--until newcomers started coming in. Even in many history books, the name is not correctly written.
Another subject that is somewhat controversial is that of the slowness of the park development. The battleground is now Wilson Creek National Battlefield under the National Park Service. The first rangers were there in 1965, when they put up the buildings that are there now--a shelter house with maps, information and a marked battle trail, an office for rangers in a trailer and some maintenance buildings. In 1968 Congress issued the final land act, so the development of the park has been underway for just over ten years.
The people we spoke to who live in the area have mixed emotions on the subject. They are all in favor of the park, but are a little disappointed in the way things are being done.
Clarence said, "I'm afraid I'll not live to see this park developed. They keep putting off getting the funds for it."
Glen agreed, "I'm afraid there's a lot of us that won't see it developed, including me, maybe, if I live my natural life."
Comer said, "I know what I wish. I wish they'd put some of these guys we're feeding on some of it and let them make a living. How many families did they move off of there that was making a living and paying taxes?"
"I can tell you," Glen said. "There was sixteen different property holders. One reason I know is because I got the bid to take the houses and the buildings all off the park."
Comer continued, "I don't know, but to me it kinda looks silly as many people as we're feeding that they moved families out down here. I'd rather see some poor man with ambition moved on there and make a living and pay us for it. I was wanting them to make a park, but, my gosh, 2,000 acres?"
Patrick Reed, the ranger at the park was helpful in filling in details about what was being done at the park. "I'm aware that some of the local people are disappointed about how slow development of the park is going. It is a matter of not being able to get Congress to make the appropriations and we can't do very much until we get the funds for construction. Evidently they've had other priorities, but it looks pretty optimistic we'll get the funding now unless there's some economic Situation nationally."
Although the rangers have been there for thirteen years, the park is still only in its infancy. It doesn't rate as high as most historical spots, mainly because of the lack of facilities. Many people who visit national parks do so not only because of historical reasons, but for camping and recreation. Wilson Creek has no camping facilities and only a few picnic tables. In 1977 visitation was only 43,000, while most historic Civil War battlegrounds have between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors annually. Also, the park is not very well known. Soon, they hope to have signs on 1-44 which should help visitation.
There are many plans for further development of the park. One of the first would be to close the county road which runs through the park to have controlled access. At this time, the county has deeded the road to the park, but the road will not be closed for at least a year. Closing the road is necessary because there has been so much vandalism to the Ray House and other improvements.
There are plans for a new visitors center that should be in construction by October 1979. The displays in the center will be designed in units that couple together to tell the story. There will probably be an optic fiber display panel, a dome-type object nine to twelve feet in diameter reproducing the battle scenes. Moving lights will depict the simultaneous movement of the troops across the battlefield.
When the visitors center is built, the staff will be increased and there will be a resident historian. As of December 1977 the park has been separated from George Washington Carver National Monument with which they were affiliated.
"We plan to restore the grounds to their original state," Ranger Reed continued. "There are introduced plants that I don't believe were here during the Civil War, hedge trees and other shrubs that were planted in the twentieth century. We'll do the best we can to manipulate the area up on Bloody Hill so the perspective is similar to what it was like during the battle there. None of the side slopes were heavily brushed at that time, but there was a combination of both brush and clearings.
"Of course, the restoration of the Ray House is included in the funding. It will be at least partially furnished, but I'm not sure if we can get the funding to completely restore it. We will at least restore the first two rooms. We have the original bedstead and the quilt. If possible, we'll restore the kitchen area."
We had ended our tour at the Ray House and stood silently on the porch looking out over the peaceful countryside, each of us deep in his own thoughts. Years ago the Civil War had stood between the Howard, McElhaney and Owen ancestors, because some had been on one side and some for another. But now they all stood together, sharing their mutual heritage, the past conflicts having no bearing on their friendship now.
It was evening. Aunt Rhoda stood on the porch with two of her children close at her side. Back in the house, wounded lay everywhere. It resembled a military field hospital more than their home. Aunt Rhoda looked down the road, wondering where John Ray was. He had been forced to guide some Confederates to Springfield. She could only hope he was safe, for what would they do without him?
She stared out at the fields with serious, thoughtful eyes. "The world's changin', chil'en. This war is gonna change our lives fo'ever. It a terrible thing when neighbor fights neighbor, but goodwill come from it all."
She paused and looked at the sun that was disappearing slowly behind the trees where the Ray children had rounded up the horses that same morning. Her children looked up at her questioningly as she continued in a soft voice. "Yes, darlin's, good will come from this." She looked down into their young faces. "A lots of men got kilt today, and ya'll know why they did? They did it fo' us, chil'en. And fo' this country. Someday we will be free. Everybody will be free, and they'll be no more need fo' men to kill each other."
Aunt Rhoda slowly turned back into the house. Behind her the sun had set, leaving the Wilson Creek battlefield in darkness.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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