Wednesday, August 10, 2011

150 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Wilson's Creek

The battle of Wilson’s Creek, fought near Springfield, Missouri, was a vicious affair. The Union “Army of the West” suffered approximately 24.2% casualties, one of the higher percentage losses for an army during the conflict; Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, the army’s aggressive commander, was one of the killed. The Confederate “Western Army” suffered approximately 10.1% casualties at Wilson’s Creek, or Oak Hills as it is sometimes designated. The percentage of casualties at Wilson’s Creek was higher than at the battle of Bull Run fought less than a month earlier.

A couple of eyewitness accounts follow:

Eugene F. Ware, 1st Iowa Infantry:

“On the edge of the meadow toward us, and between us, was a low rail fence; the enemy rallied under the shelter of it, and, as if by some inspiration or some immediate change of orders, they broke it down in places and started for our artillery. As they got nearer to us, their own artillery ceased to fire, because it endangered them. When they got close the firing began on both sides. How long it lasted I do not know. It might have been an hour; it seemed like a week; it was probably twenty minutes. Every man was shooting as fast, on our side, as he could load, and yelling as loud as his breath would permit. Most were on the ground, some on one knee. The enemy stopped advancing. We had paper cartridges, and in loading we had to bite off the end, and every man had a big quid of paper in his mouth, from which down his chin ran the dissolved gunpowder. The other side was yelling, and if any orders were given nobody heard them. Every man assumed the responsibility of doing as much shooting as he could…

The boys were highly pleased that they had got through with the day alive, and there was no idea that the day had gone against us…We were so hoarse from yelling that we could hardly talk. The reiterated kick of ‘U. S. 1861’ made my shoulder feel as if I had the rheumatism. We did not get into Springfield until after sundown. There was absolutely no pursuit, and we felt no apprehension of danger” (Ware, The Lyon Campaign In Missouri: Being A History Of The First Iowa Infantry. Topeka, KS: Crane & Company, 1907; reprint ed., Iowa City: The Camp Pope Bookshop, 1991, p. 318-319, 327).

William Watson, 3rd Louisiana Infantry

“We soon afterwards received orders to go back to camp; the battle was over, and we had gained the victory. This announcement was received with loud cheers, and we started back to camp highly pleased with the day’s work, everyone, of course, recounting the deeds they had done—some of the boys having slain half-a-dozen generals or put a squadron of horse to flight.

When we got to our camp we found the ground torn up in some places with shot, and strewn with fragments of shells, but not much damage done. (The enemy, in their report of the battle, said they had destroyed the camp.) But there was but little to damage; one or two tents had been burned by the shells, and one or two waggons damaged, but the horses and mules and the greater part of the waggons had been got behind a hill, out of range of the shot. In our bivouac the coffee was standing over the cold fires, just as we had left it in the morning (it seemed an age since that time)… We were very hungry and tired, and soon made a hearty breakfast and dinner all in one...

Whether there was anything in the air (which was strongly impregnated with the smell of powder, as there was not a breath of wind) I do not know, but I think I enjoyed the sweetest night’s rest I ever enjoyed in my life” (Watson, Life In The Confederate Army Being The Observations of an Alien in the South During the American Civil War. London: Chapman and Hall, 1887; reprint ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995, p. 225, 228).

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