History of Greene County, Missouri

R. I. Holcombe, Editing Historian

Chapter 8
The Battle of Wilson's Creek—The Union or Federal Account.

Part 2
The Federals Retreat — Sigel's Part in the Flight — Surprise of the Confederate Camp — Moving Forward — All Successful So Far — In Position — A Force Seen Approaching Down the Valley — "They are Friends" — "Ah! They Shoot Against us; They make a Mistake" — "No! They are Enemies!" — Charge of the Louisiana Regiment — The Federals Retreat with Precipitation and in Confusion —Destruction of Sigel's Force — Sigel Himself Escapes, "With Two Dutch Guards and Nary Gun." — Lieut. Farrand's Account — Surgeon Melcher's Account — Sigel's Explanation — Capt. Carr's Account.


Maj. Sturgis gave the order to retreat as soon as his enemy had fallen back and enabled him to do so. Totten's battery as soon as his disabled horses could be replaced, retired with the main body of the infantry, while Capt. Steele met the feeble demonstrations of a few plucky Missouri skirmishers who had not fallen back with the main line and were picking away at the Federal right flank. The whole Federal column now moved unmolested and in tolerable order to the high open prairie east of Ross' spring and about two miles from the battle ground. The artillery and the ambulances, were brought off in safety. After making a short halt on the prairie the retreat was continued to Springfield over substantially the same route taken to the field.1

Just after the order to retire had been given, and while Sturgis was undecided whether to retreat from the field entirely or take up another position, one of Sigel's non-commissioned officers (Sergt. Froelich) arrived on a foam-covered horse and reported that Col. Sigel's brigade had been totally routed, his artillery captured, and the colonel himself either killed or taken prisoner.

On reaching the Little York road Sturgis encountered Lieut. Farrand, with his company of dragoons, one piece of artillery and a considerable portion of the 3d and 5th Missouri, all of Sigel's command, which had made their way across the country in order to unite with the main command and be saved from entire destruction. The march was resumed, but the command did not succeed in reaching Springfield until five o'clock in the evening.

Lyon's column began the attack at about 5 in the morning and it was half-past 11 when the battle ended; the main body of the troops were engaged about six hours.


It is proper now to consider the part taken by Col. Sigel and his brigade in the battle of Wilson's Creek. It has been stated that he had moved entirely around the southern end of the Confederate line of camp, and on a previous page we left him with his guns, in battery and his infantry and cavalry in line commanding the Fayetteville road, and ready to open fire as soon as the sound of Lyon's guns could be heard up the valley, nearly two miles.

At 5:30, early in the morning, the rattle of musketry was heard, apparently nearly two miles away to the northwest. "Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!" in rapid succession, went the four guns of Lieuts. Schaeffer and Schuetzenbach, as they discharged their contents into and among the tents of McCulloch's camp. A few more rounds and the Confederates abandoned their tents and retired in haste toward the northeast and northwest. This fighting was done just across the line, in Christian county, on Sharp's farm, which ran up to the county line, on which stood Mr. Sharp's house.

McCulloch's troops, infantry and cavalry, soon began to form and Sigel brought forward his entire line into and across the valley, the two companies of cavalry to the right, the artillery in the center and the infantry on the left. After a period of irregular firing for about half an hour, the Confederates retired into the woods and up the adjoining hills. The firing toward the northwest was now more distinct, and it was evident that Gen. Lyon had charged the enemy along the whole line. To give assistance to him—to be able to cooperate with him if necessary, and to drive the enemy in his own front, Sigel again advanced, this time toward the northwest, intending to attack the Confederates in the rear. [321-322]

Marching forward, Sigel struck the Cassville road, making his way through a number of cattle and horses, and arriving at an eminence, which had been used as a slaughter yard by McCulloch's men. This was on Sharp's farm and near the house. At and near Sharp's house, on the road, some of McCulloch's men who were straggling back from the fight in front came unawares on Sigel's men and were taken in. Sigel, after a brief conference with some of his officers, at once concluded that Lyon had been successful and was driving the Confederates before him. Knowing that this was the only avenue of retreat left open, and imagining that here was a grand opportunity for stopping it up and bagging several thousand "rebels," the colonel hurriedly formed his troops across the road, planting the artillery in the center on the plateau, and a regiment of infantry and a company of cavalry on either flank, and awaited the coming of what seemed to him to be the vanquished Confederates, large numbers of whom could be seen moving toward the South along the ridge of a hill about 700 yards opposite the right of the Federal right.

It was now about half past 8 o'clock, and the firing in the northwest, where Lyon was supposed to be, and where he really was fighting had almost entirely ceased. At this instant, Dr. S. H. Melcher, the assistant surgeon of Salomon's, regiment, and some of the skirmishers came back from the front where desultory firing had been going on, and reported that Lyon's men were coming up the road, for they could be seen plainly, and the gray-coated Iowa regiment plainly distinguished. At once Lieut. Col. Albert, of the 3d Missouri, and Col. Salomon, of the 5th, notified their regiments not to fire on the troops coming in this direction, for they were friends, and Sigel himself gave the same caution to the artillery.

Everybody was surprised at this unexpected turn of affairs, and the Germans of Sigel's and Salomon's regiments began jabbering away delightedly, and the color-bearers were beckoning with their flags to the advancing hosts to "come on" —when, all at once, two batteries of artillery, one on the Fayetteville road and one on the hill where it was supposed Lyon's men were in pursuit of the flying Confederates, opened with canister, shell and shrapnel, while the gray-coated troops, supposed to be the Iowans, advanced from the Fayetteville road and attacked the Federal right, and a battalion of cavalry made its appearance, apparently ready and waiting to charge!

The jabbering of the German soldiers was now something wonderful, but it had a different tone from that of a few minutes previously! It is impossible to describe the consternation and frightful confusion that resulted. So surprised and frightened were the soldiers that they could not understand these were Confederates who were firing upon them and coming rapidly forward to sweep them from the face of the earth. They hurried and skurried about crying, some in English: "It is Totten's battery!" others in German: "Sie haben gegen uns geschossen! Sie irrten sich! (They are firing against us! They make a mistake!) And then, making no effort to fight worthy of the name, they began to retreat.

The artillerymen, all of whom were recruits from the infantry, who had been but little service of any kind, could hardly be brought forward to serve their pieces, although directed by Sigel himself; the infantry would not level their guns until it was too late; indeed, they could not be made to stop running, let alone to turn and fight. Salomon cursed in German, in English, in French. Sigel threatened and bullied and coaxed. No use. As well try to stop a herd of stampeded buffaloes. Some of the artillerymen in charge brought off one piece of artillery which had not been unlimbered and put in position, and away it went, the wheels bouncing two feet from the ground and the postilions lashing their horses like race-riders.

On came McCulloch's and Price's men, the Louisiana regiment of Col. Hebert (pronounced Hebare) which had been mistaken for the 1st Iowa because of its pretty steel gray uniform, was in front, and following them were the Arkansas regiments of Dockery and Gratiot the 5th and 8d, Greer's regiment of Texas cavalry, Lieut. Col. Major's Howard and Chariton county battalion, Johnson's battalion mounted Missourians, and some other detachments. Up to the very muzzles of the cannons they came, killing the artillery horses and what artillery men were reckless enough to remain, firing fairly into the faces of the panicky Teutons and forcing them to throw themselves into the bushes, into by-roads, anywhere to escape and to scamper away as fast as their legs could carry them. The color-bearer of Sigel's own regiment was badly wounded; his substitute was killed, and the flag itself was captured by Capt. Tom Staples, a Missourian, of Arrow Rock, Saline county.

When the plateau was reached, the cannon captured and the field gained, the infantry stopped and cheered, Reid's and Bledsoe's batteries fired parting salutes into the flying blue-coats, and then, leaving the cavalry to pursue, both infantry and artillery turned about and went up to the other end of the valley to assist their brethren in that quarter, and to participate in the final triumph of the day. [324]

Away went the Germans, down to the south into Christian county, throwing away guns, cartridge boxes, even canteens—everything that hindred rapid flight,—wandering about and hiding when they could, with the Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri cavalry leaping upon them incessantly and slaying them wherever they made the least show of resistance. At Nowlin's mill, on the James, three miles from the battle-ground, it was told that, four fugitives skulked under the mill-dam and, refusing to come out, were riddled with buckshot.

The next day men Jay scattered all over the country, wounded or dead; and yet Sigel lost but comparatively few killed. Prisoners were taken in great numbers—run down by the Texas rangers and driven in like flocks of sheep, as timid now and as harmless. Sigel himself got panicky after awhile and fled for Springfield, across the country, accompanied by only two guards, giving rise to the stanza of the doggerel song sung in the Confederate camps afterwards, concerning the battle of Wilson Creek,—how,

Old Sigel fought some on that day,
But lost his army in the fray;
Then off to Springfield he did run,
With two Dutch guards, and nary gun.

At Thos. Chambers' house, four miles south of Springfield, Col. Sigel and his two guards halted and procured a drink of water, and, then rode away to Springfield, as rapidly as their jaded horses could carry them. Sigel himself arrived at Springfield with but one orderly.

Only the cavalry under Carr and Farrand, the one piece of artillery, two caissons and about 150 infantry came off in anything like order, and these followed down the wire road some miles to the west and then turned off due north and united with Sturgis' column, near the Little York road. Only four pieces of artillery were captured at the time of the charge on the hill, for those were all that were in position. The two others were in the rear. In attempt to get one of them away a wheel horse was killed and the drivers abandoned the gun, after first spiking it as best they could. The gun that was saved was first abandoned out on the Fayetteville road, and hauled off at first by hand a short distance, Capt. Flagg employing the prisoners and soldiers as artillery horses. [325]

Concerning the retreat of that portion of force which went to the westward, Lieut. Chas. E. Farrand (then of the second regular infantry) commanding the company of cavalry before mentioned, writes:

Upon finding myself with my company alone, I retired in a southerly direction, and accidentally meeting one of the guides (Mr. Crenshaw), who had been employed in taking us to the enemy's camp, I forcibly detained him until I could collect some of the troops, whom I found scattered and apparently lost. I halted my company and got quite a number together, and directed the guide to proceed to Springfield, via Little York. After proceeding a short distance we came upon one of the pieces which had been taken from Col. Sigel. Although the tongue of the limber was broken, one horse gone, and one of the remaining three badly wounded, we succeeded in moving it on. Some distance in advance of this we found a caisson, also belonging to Col. Sigel's battery. I then had with me Sergt. Bradburn, of company D, 1st cavalry, and Corporal Lewis and Private Smith, of my own company (C, 2d dragoons). My company being some distance in advance, I caused the caisson to be opened, and on discovering that it was full of ammunition I determined to take it on. I and the three men with me tried to prevail upon some of the Germans to assist us in clearing some of the wounded horses from the harness, but they would not stop. After considerable trouble, my small party succeeded in clearing the wounded horses from the harness, hitching in two more and a pair of small mules I obtained and moved on, Corporal Lewis and Private Smith driving, while Sergt. Bradburn and I led the horses. After reaching the retreating troops again I put two other men on the animals, and joined my company with my three men. Before reaching Springfield it became necessary to abandon the caisson,1 in order to hitch the animals to the piece. This was done after destroying the ammunition it contained. Lieut. Morris, adjutant of Col. Sigel's command, assisted me in procuring wagons, which we sent back on the road after the wounded.

The route of retreat taken by Lieut. Farrand and Capt. Flagg and the fragments of Sigel's command, 400 in all, was down the wire road a short distance, and then north to the Mt. Vernon road. While marching northward this body of disordered men was only within two or three miles of the entire Southern army for three or four hours. Why Generals Price and McCulloch did not send out a small force of mounted men and take prisoner every man, which could very easily have been done, is inexcusable, certainly. [326]

1 Plummer's battalion led the advance of the retreat, and came into Springfield with the drums beating, the flag flying, the men in four ranks, with all the appearance of having been merely out on drill.
2 Which was done near Mr. Robinson's.


Mention has been made of Dr. Samuel H. Melchor, who as assistant surgeon of Col. Salomon's 5th Mo. (Dr. E. C. Franklin, being surgeon), was present at the battle of Wilson's Creek with Sigel's command. To the writer hereof Dr. Melchor, now of Chicago, sends his recollections of the events of the memorable contest. As the doctor was so long identified with this county, having been surgeon at Springfield for several months, and as he is still well and favorably remembered by many of our people, his account, which, though written more than twenty-one years afterwards, is, in part here given. After narrating the preliminary movements of Sigel, substantially as heretofore given, Dr. Melcher says:

* * * Gen. Sigel soon gave the order to fire, which was responded to with rapidity, but our guns being on an elevation, and the Confederates being in a field which sloped toward the creek, the shots passed over their heads, creating a stampede, but doing little, if any, damage to life or limb. In vain I and others urged the artillerymen to depress the guns. Either from inability to understand English, or, in the excitement, thinking it was only necessary to load and fire, they kept banging away till the whole camp was deserted.

* * * The command then moved on till it reached the Fayetteville road and Sharp's house. While the command was taking position, I, with my orderly, Frank Ackoff, 5th Missouri, went into the abandoned Arkansas camp, where I found a good breakfast of coffee, biscuit and fried green corn. * * * Most of the tents were open—a musket with fixed bayonet being forced into the ground, butt up, and the flap of the tent held open by being caught in the flint lock. At that time, besides a few Confederate sick, there were in the camp Lieut. Chas. E. Farrand, in command of the dragoons, and his orderly. Half an hour later, some straggling parties from the 3d and 5th Missouri, set fire to some wagons and camp equipage.

* * * The four guns were in the front, supported by the 3d Missouri, with the cavalry and dragoons on the left in the timber. The 5th Missouri was in reserve, except Co. K, Capt. Sam'l A. Flagg, which was further in the rear, guarding some thirty or forty prisoners. [Here Dr. Melcher narrates his capture of Col. McMurtry, of Warsaw, Benton county, an officer of Price's army. Dr. Melcher still has the "Maynard" carbine which he took from McMurtry, and his sword and pistols were given to two musicians of the 5th Missouri. Later in the engagement, Col. McMurtry escaped by representing that he was a Confederate surgeon.—Compiler.] At this time, scattering shots were heard at some distance in our front, but no heavy firing. Armed men, mostly mounted, were seen moving on our right in the edge of the timber. [327]

It was smoky, and objects at a distance could not be seen very distinctly. Being at some distance in front of the command, I saw a body of men moving down the valley toward us, from the direction we last heard Gen. Lyon's guns. I rode back, and reported to Gen. Sigel that troops were coming, saying to him, "They look like the 1st Missouri." [Iowa?] They seemed moving in a column. This * * * By this time, Sigel could see them. Not seeing their colors, I suggested to Sigel that he had better show his, so that if it was our men they might not mistake us—Sigel's brigade not being in regulation uniform. Gen. Sigel turned and said: "Color-bearer, advance with yur colors, and wave them—wave them three times." As this order was being obeyed, Lieut. Farrand, with his orderly, arrived from the Arkansas camp, each bearing a rebel guidon, which they had found, and with which they rode from the right of the line, near Sharp's house, directly in front of the color-bearer of Sigel's regiment. Then there was music in the air! A battery we could not see opened with grape, making a great deal of noise as the shot struck the fence and trees, But not doing much damage, as far as observed,—except to scare the men, who hunted for cover like a flock of young partridges, suddenly disturbed. The confusion was very great, many of the men saying, "It is Totten's battery! It is Totten's battery!" The impression seemed to be general that Totten was firing into us, after seeing the rebel guidons of Farrand, as it was the common understanding that the Confederates had no grape, and these were grape shot, certainly.3

Gen. Sigel now evidently thought of retreat, as the only words I heard from him were, "Where's my guides?" [Instances of individuial cowardice among Sigel's officers are here given.] I assisted Lieut. Emile Thomas (now of St.. Louis) the only officer of his company that had the grit to stay, to reform the men. I do not know if we could have succeeded, had not a Confederate cavalry battalion suddenly appeared in our front, on the line of retreat. For a moment the two commands gazed upon each other, and then came a terrible rattle of musketry, and a great hubbub and confusion in the direction of Sigel's command, which was just around a bend in the road to our rear.

In a twinkling, men, horses, wagons, guns, all enveloped in a cloud of dust, rushed toward us, and in spite of Lieut. Thomas's utmost efforts, Company F started with all speed down the Fayetteville road toward the Confederate cavalry. The latter, seeming to think they were being charged upon, wheeled and got out of the way very quickly! The bulk of Gen. Sigel's command turned to the east and were followed by a Confederate command, that captured one gun at the creek, many prisoners, and left a considerable number of killed and wounded along the road.

Perhaps one-third of the command went southwest, and halted at the next house beyond Sharp's on the Fayetteville road, and here Dr. Smith, who was Gen. Rains' division surgeon, came up, with a long train of wagons and coaches, and was captured, but at once released on my intervention. [After this, Dr. Melcher accompanied Dr. Smith to the battlefield.] * * * The one gun that was abandoned on the Fayetteville road was really saved by Capt. Flagg, whose men drew the gun by hand till they found some horses, and the Confederate prisoners carried the ammunition in their arms. They came into Springfield the same evening, by way of Little York. [328]

3 It was not Totten's battery, but Reid's Confederate battery, from Ft. Smith, Ark. It was well supplied with grape from the Little Rock arsenal.—Compiler.

Sigel's reasons for his defeat must here be given. He states that he tried to obey his orders to attack the enemy in the rear and to cut off his retreat. This he did, but he also out off his own retreat very nearly, a circumstance he had not counted upon.

The time of service of one of his two regiments of infantry, the 5th Missouri, Salomon's, had expired some days before the battle and they had clamored to go home. On the 1st of August he had induced them to remain with the army eight days more. This latter term had expired the day before the battle. The men therefore were under no obligations to fight, except that they had marched out to do so, and when the time came suddenly remembered that "they did not have to fight." The 3d regiment, Sigel's own, was not the old 3d, that fought at Carthage; that regiment, its time having expired, had been mustered out, and the new regiment was composed of 400 new recruits and of but a few other men who had seen service. The men serving the artillery were new recruits who knew next to nothing of gunnery, and were commanded by two lieutenants whose only experience as artillerists had been in the Prussian army in a time of peace. Again it is stated that only about half of the companies were officered by men with commissions, which, Sigel says, was the fault of the three months' service.

But over all it is claimed that Sigel's complete defeat was the result of an attack by vastly superior forces, the flower of McCulloch's army, that was permitted to approach fatally near under the mistake that they were friends instead of enemies.

As explaining and detailing something of the retreat of that wing of Sigel's command which turned to the east, the following statement of Captain (now General) E. A. Carr, who, as previously stated, commanded the advance guard of Sigel's brigade, may be found of interest: [329]

At about 9 o'clock Capt. Carr received word that Sigel's infantry were in full flight and that he was to retreat with all haste. After galloping away as best he could for about a mile and a half to the rear, Carr came upon Sigel at the spring where the army had halted the first night when returning from Dug Spring some days before. After a brief consultation it was decided to move south on the Fayetteville road until there was a chance to go out and circle around the pursuing enemy and then strike for Springfield. There were then present at the spring Sigel, Carr, Lieut. Col. Albert, Carr's 56 cavalry, 200 of Sigel's' badly demoralized infantry, one piece of artillery, and two caissons. After "retiring" rather hastily for a mile or so a body of cavalry was observed in front, and Sigel sent Carr up to see the condition of affairs and report at once. Arriving at the front Carr discovered that the Confederate cavalry were coming in from the right and forming across the road, to stop the retreating Federals and send them back to the care of McCulloch's division again. Reporting at once to Sigel, that officer directed Carr to turn off at the first right-hand road, which happened to be near the point where he (Carr) then stood. Retreating along this road in a brisk walk Sigel asked Carr to march, slowly so that the footmen could keep up. Carr replied that unless they hurried forward they would be cut off at the crossing of Wilson's creek, and that the infantry ought to march as fast under the circumstances as a horse could walk. Sigel then said, "Go on, and we will keep up." On arriving at the creek, however, and looking back, Carr saw that the infantry had not kept up, but that a large body of Texas and Arkansas cavalry was moving down and would form an unpleasant junction with him in a few seconds. "To use a Westernism," says Gen. Carr, "there was no time for fooling then, and as I had waited long enough on the slow-motioned infantry to water my horses, and they were not yet in sight, I lit out for a place of safety which I soon reached, and, after waiting another while for Sigel, I went on to Springfield. I was sorry to leave Sigel behind, in the first place, but I supposed all the time he was close to me until I reached the creek, and then it would have done no good for my company to have remained and been cut to pieces also, as were Sigel and his men, who were ambuscaded and all broken up, and Sigel himself narrowly escaped." [330]

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