Volume 6, Number 7, Spring 1978
The first major engagement in the American Civil War in the West -- the Battle of Wilsons Creek -left more than a few unanswered questions: Why didnt Price and McCulloch "follow up" on the withdrawing Union force? Why did McCulloch refuse to go farther into Missouri with Price and the Missouri Secessionists? Why did McCulloch and Price pick the banks of Wilsons Creek as a camp-site before attacking Lyons Union army waiting for them in Springfield? How did it happen that the two Secessionist generals, McCulloch and Price, failed to learn that Lyon was marching on them during the night of August 9th and 10th and had arrived at dawn, August 10, to begin his attack -- much to their surprise? These are but a few questions still unanswered. There are a host of others. For example: Did Lyon recklessly throw his life away leading a counter-charge in mid-battle?
Lets have another look at Wilsons Creek and see if Lyon did disobey orders.
The most important question still remaining unanswered is whether Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, the Union forces commanding general, disobeyed Major General John Charles Fremonts order to retire in the face of overwhelming odds, instead of attempting a surprise attack on the advancing Secessionists.
In his testimony before the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War some six months after Wilsons Creek Fremont maintained that he had ordered Lyon to withdraw from his position in Springfield in order to escape an attack.
What sort of an order was that? A direct order? Or a discretionary one?
Lyons own "invasion" of Missouri -- in a sense it was an invasion - had immediately followed his "Declaration of War" against the Missouri Secessionists on June 11, 1861, after a disputatious conference with the Governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, and the Commanding General of the Missouri State Guards, Sterling Price. The conference had been arranged to consider Missouris desire to reinstate the Harney - Price Agreement, an arrangement which, "hopefully," would guarantee neutrality for Missouri in the impending Civil War, (1).
In that unfriendly meeting, Lyon had flatly refused to countenance the continuation of such an agreement, and, in "declaring war" he had ordered the Missouri Governor and his Commanding General of the Missouri State Guards out of his "Federal lines" in St. Louis. Whereupon the Missourians, hurriedly burning the railroad bridges behind them, had hastened back to their capital, Jefferson City, to withdraw thence, immediately, in preparation for the formalities of secession and a prolonged armed resistance.
Two days later Lyon followed them with a substantial portion of his newly mustered Union force only to find the state capitol vacant of elected officials and the city unguarded. Lyon then moved on to Boonville, some forty miles farther westward on the Missouri River. There he first met "armed resistance" at the hands of Missouri Secessionists.
The clash which took place just outside of Boonville, Missouri, was of little moment, militarily. The main strength of the Missouri Guards had already begun their withdrawal to the far southwestern corner of the state where on the Cowskin Prairie, well out of Lyons reach, they were to organize and "train," after a fashion, and solicit help from McCullochs newly formed Confederate Army of the West then engaged in "guarding" northwest Arkansas and in soliciting help from the Indian tribes then existing on "reservations" in the land which was to become Oklahoma a half-century later.
At the time of Lyons "declaration of war" against the Missouri Secessionists, he had already become Acting Commander of the Department of the West -- with the political help of the two Blair brothers, Montgomery (Lincolns Post Master General) and Francis, a rising young Congressman -both men St. Louisans, both Unconditional Unionists, both spoiling for a war to suppress "rebellion."
But other Unionist politicians, more conservatively minded than the Blairs, had been unhappy with the vesting of Missouris safety in "Impulsive Lyons" charge. Thus they had persuaded President Lincoln to extend Major General George B. McCellans command in Western Virginia to include the "Department of the West."
A short time later McClellan, already overburdened with a growing load of responsibility, had to be excused in order to assume over-all army command in preparing the Unions defense -- and offense.
But rather than leave Lyon in charge in the "West" to continue his "war" against the Missouri Secessionists, the Missouri Conservatives persisted in their demands for Lyons replacement as Department Commander even though he was well along in his "invasion" of Missouri. By then, it had become an effort to "capture" the Missouri Guards between the north and south arms of a pincer, one arm sent westward from Springfield, the other southwestward from Jefferson City.
Brought together, two arms would "destroy" the Missouri Guards in their effort to reach a point far enough from Lyons bases to be safe for organization and training, namely, the Cowskin Prairie in the far southwestern corner of the State in what is now McDonald County.
The plan to trap the armed Missouri Secessionists, "from above and below," as they fled from central Missouri for relative safety, failed in the attempt. High water at the Grand River and Osage River crossings prevented Lyons troops and those he had ordered from Kansas from joining the southern "blade of the scissors." Meanwhile, the southern "blade" had moved from Springfield to Carthage and then turned northward to meet the moving Secessionist "army."
The "blade" fought manfully but failed to halt the Missourians. In that engagement the Union troops were greatly outnumbered and entirely without cavalry support. Consequently, the Missourians continued on their way, and the "Unions" returned to Springfield to wait for Lyon.
By mid-July Lyons delayed column had reached Springfield by moving southward unopposed from Boonville. Lyon had established something of a base in Springfield, and all of his force then waited there for support in men and munitions which Lyon had pre-arranged - he thought-before leaving St. Louis. While waiting he secured the Springfield area as best he could and spent some little time in armed reconnaissance westward from Springfield in which he himself took the lead.
Lyon had arrived in Springfield 13 July 1861; Major General John Charles Fremont "signed the book" in St. Louis twelve days later. In less than a week Fremont was rushing reinforcements to Cairo. A week later he was back at "Headquarters, Department of the West" in St. Louis.
On his arrival in Springfield Lyon continued to send his requests for support - all kinds of support -to the St. Louis headquarters but, after Fremonts arrival, it is of note that his written requests, for the most part, were militarily formal: "Adjutant General to Adjutant General." Not one request appears in the "Official Records," not one communication, "Lyon to Fremont." Lyon, however, did send one officer after another in an attempt to reach Fremont personally, but to little or no avail.
In this short interim the records show, broadly, that the Blairs were not modest in their own requests to gain Fremonts attention to Lyons need. But the Blairs, too, had little to show for their efforts -- just then.
At last, on August 6, Fremont wrote Lyon a letter and sent it by special messenger on a "special" locomotive up the South Branch of the Pacific Railroad to Col. John B. Wyman at the terminal in Rolla
with orders to move the letter on to Lyon by courier with the least possible delay. Neither the original or even a retained copy of that letter was to be found afterward.
Nevertheless, Fremont in describing the Lyon situation later to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War made that message to Lyon the basis of his contention that he had indeed ordered Lyon to withdraw.
Under repeated questioning Fremont maintained that he was fully aware of Lyons situation, and that he had definitely instructed Lyon to fall back toward Rolla and to take a defensive position where he could hold out until support would be forthcoming. (All of this appears in Fremonts testimony before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Part 3, pp. 32, 33 42 et seq.)
None of the Joint Committee seemed to attach any very great importance to the absence of a copy of that letter -- or "order," or whatever it really was. At the time of that hearing Wilsons Creek was more than six months into history, and Fremonts behavior in Missouri had already exhausted Lincolns patience, at least temporarily.
But the Joint Committee -- militant Radicals to the core -- had convened not to censure Fremonts military ineptitude, but to aggradize his small spark of generalship and thus to force President Lincoln to restore him to Active Duty. Once that was accomplished, the Committee hoped to use Fremont - something of a Radical himself - as a replacement for the "reluctant" General-in-Chief McClellan and that, again, for their own purposes.
It is not clear whether Fremont was fully aware of the ins and outs of the Committees behavior as guided by its Chairman, the redoubtable B. F. Wade. Yet, Fremont must have sensed the machinations in which he was being made to play a part. In any case, he was still playing to historys galleries, and his role, as he saw it, was to fix the blame for Wilsons Creek on Nathaniel Lyon.
For that reason Fremont avoided any reference to the fact that he was unable to present even a retained copy of the "order" he claimed to have sent to Lyon, and so the all-important missing letter remains missing to this very day even though Lyon did receive from Fremont a "letter," about noon August 9, the day before the Battle of Wilsons Creek.
In his autobiography written some thirty-six years later (1897), Lieutenant General John Mc A. Schofield, earlier, "Major" Schofield, Lyons Chief of Staff-in-the-field since Boonville, did not recount word-by-word the contents of Fremonts letter, or "order," as sent to Lyon.
Instead, Schofield wrote, "On August 9, General Lyon received a letter from General John C. Fremont, then commanding the Department, which had been forwarded to him from Rolla by Col. John B. Wyman. The letter from General Fremont to Col. Wyman (enclosing the one to General Lyon) appears among the published papers submitted by General Fremont to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in the early part of 1862, but the enclosure (to Lyon) is wanting. The original letter, with the records to which it belonged, it is presumed, have been deposited at the Headquarters of the Department in St. Louis when the Army of the West was disbanded in the later part of August, 1861. Neither the original letter nor any copy of it can now (July, 1897) be found. It can only be conjectured as to what caused General Fremont to omit a copy of the letter from the papers submitted to the committee which were at the time strongly commented upon in Congress, or what caused to be removed from the official files the original, which had again come into his possession.
General Lyons answer to this letter, given below the original draft of which was prepared by me, and is yet in my possession, shows that Fremonts letter to Lyon was dated August 6, and received on the 9th. I am not able to recall even the substance of the greater part of the letter, but the purport of that part of it which was then of vital importance is still in my memory. That purport was instructions to the effect that if Lyon was not strong enough to maintain his position as far in advance as Springfield, he should fall back toward Rolla until reinforcements should meet him," (2). (The italics are Schofields.)
The following is a copy of Lyons letter replying to General Fremont as drafted by Schofield and amended by General Lyon:
Springfield, August 9, 1861
General: I have just received your note of the 6th instant by special messenger.
I retired to this place, as I have before informed you, reaching here on the 5th. (from a "scout" to McCullahs Store). The enemy followed to within 10 miles of here. He has taken a strong position, and is recruiting his supply of horses, mules, and provisions by forays into the surrounding country; his force of mounted men enabling him to do this without annoyance from me. I find my position extremely embarassing, and am at present unable to determine whether I shall be able to maintain
my ground or be forced to retire. I can resist any attack from the front, but if the enemy moves to surround me, I must retire. I shall hold my ground as long as possible (and not) though I may, without knowing how far, endanger the safety of my entire force with its valuable material, being induced by the important considerations involved to take this step. The enemy yesterday made a show of force about five miles distant, and doubtless he had a full purpose of making an attack on me.
(Brackets and italics are Schofields).
Your Obt. Servant,
N. Lyon, B. - G
What were these "great and good" men - Lyon and Fremont -- trying to say to each other?
Schofield says that Lyon made no changes in Schofields draft until he reached the sentence beginning, "I shall hold my ground as long as possible..." Those words were left to stand, but the next two, which Schofield had written, "and not," were erased by General Lyon who substituted the last lines beginning, "though I may without knowing endanger my force." Then Schofield adds, "these last words, as substituted by Lyon, clearly express the difference of opinion which then existed between us upon the momentous question we had then been discussing for several days, namely, what action did the situation require of him as commander of that army." (3).
With the difference of opinion then existing between Lyon and his Chief or Staff, can it be assumed that there was a difference between Lyons real intentions and what he had said in his reply to Fremont? And for that reason, did Lyon decide to be as vague as possible in his reply?
Looking at it today it is plain that Lyon left his reply open at both ends. Thus, if he did retreat, it would seem later that he had had to do so out of plain necessity. If he attacked, his reply could then have been taken to mean that there was a compelling reason to open the fight.
In either event, if he happened to survive the battle -- whether he opened it or whether the Secessionists attacked him -- a defeat would have been easier to report -- and a report of victory would have been easier even than that. But here are two big "Ifs" joined together with a faint but noticeable imputation of duplicity on Lyons part. Such an innuendo is not altogether fair since it charges Lyon with events which did not happen.
One conclusion, however, seems reasonably clear: Fremont did not issue a direct, unequivocal order to Lyon to withdraw. Instead, he passed the decision to Lyon leaving him with the same problem he had had all along, namely whether "to hit, hurt, and retire, or to withdraw from Springfield and keep a safe distance between his force and his advancing enemy until support from St. Louis would settle the issue.
And here is "corroboration for this conclusion."
Twenty-six years after Wilsons Creek, Fremont himself, "took another look." In his chapter "In Command in Missouri" (Battles Leaders in the Civil War), Fremont wrote, "To any other officer in his (Lyons) situation, I should have issued preemptory orders to fall back upon the railroad at Rolla," (4).
Thus, it can hardly be said that Lyon acted in disobedience of his superior officers order to withdraw.
1. Peckham, James, General Nathaniel Lyon and Missouri, pp. 243-248. American News Company, New York, 1866; Snead, Thomas L., The Fight for Missouri, pp. 193-200. Chas. Scribners Sons, New York, 1886.
2. Schofield, Lieut. General John McA. Forty-six Years in the Army, pp. 39-40. The Century Company, New York, 1897.
3. Ibid. pp. 40-41.
4. Fremont, Maj. General John Charles, Battles and Leaders in the Civil War. Edited by Robert U.Johnson and Clarence C. Buel, "From Sumter to Shiloh" Vol. 1 p. 282, Facsimile Edition, Thomas Yoseloff, Inc., New York, 1956.
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