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The Great Battle at Springfield.


July/August 1861

From The Missouri Democrat, Thursday, August 15, 1861.

The Great Battle at Springfield.



Gallant Bearing of our Volunteers.

The Killed and Wounded.


Generals Price and McCulloch not Killed, but unable to Pursue.

SUNDAY, Aug. 11, 1861.

Night before last a little army of fifty-two hundred men moved in two columns on a march of twelve or fifteen miles to attack a body of rebels twenty-two thousand strong. In a military point of view, the move was one of doubtful propriety, not to say absolute rashness. The larger force were, with the exception of three thousand men, well armed and equipped, and they had a very large body of cavalry. But the question of evacuating Springfield, the key of the entire Southwest, had already been discussed and settled in the negative. It was decided that the loyal citizens of Green and the surrounding counties should not have cause to say we had left them without a struggle, abandoned themselves, their families, their all, to a heartless and desperate foe, until the enemy had felt our steel and tried the mettle of our troops. That mettle proved itself worthy of the great cause in which it was engaged. The Union troops who fought and won the battle of yesterday need no higher mark, no brighter name than the laurels earned justly entitle them to. They fought like brave men, long and well.

Gen. Lyon, with the volunteers composing the Missouri First, Lieut. Col. Andrews; Iowa First, Lieut. Col. Merritt; Kansas First, Col. Deitzler; and Second, Col. Mitchell; part of the Missouri Second, under Major Osterhaus; and a detachment of twenty men from Col. Wyman’s Illinois Regiment; three or four companies of mounted Home Guards; a force of regulars about eight hundred strong, and two batteries of four and six pieces respectively, left Springfield about 8 o’clock P. M., marching slowly along until 2 A. M., when we halted for two hours, at which time Capt. Gilbert’s company of regulars and Major Osterhaus’s battalion were thrown out as skirmishers on either side of the column, and we moved forward.

Shortly after 5 o’clock a party of rebels, acting as a picket, was seen scattering over the hills to give the alarm, but a portion of our column had already penetrated far enough to cut off their route, unless they took a very circuitous one, in which case we should reach camp ahead of them. We soon came in sight of the valley in which they were encamped. A thousand tents stretching off into the distance and partially screened from view by a hill jutting into an angle of Wilson creek were before us, presenting as animated an appearance as a young city. The enemy’s camp extended from the head of the valley, overlooked on the north, east and west sides by hills and ridges two or three hundred feet in height southward about a mile, thence eastward a mile and a half, and then southward half a mile, following the windings of the creek, along whose banks the greatly sloping hills on either side afforded the most excellent camping ground.

Near the northern end of the valley lived John McNary, formerly from Indiana, who, finding the rebels within five miles, on Tuesday last, packed up his few worldly goods, took his family, and started for the good old Hoosier State, where it is not a crime to be loyal to the government under which we live. Not less than twenty or thirty families, living on farms in the vicinity, started about the same time, most of them having little or no idea where they were going, except to escape from the danger which threatened them.

The battlefield, viewed by your correspondent, where the most severe fighting was done, was along the ridges and hills on either side (mostly on the west) of the stream for the first mile mentioned above, where the creek runs in a southerly direction.

As we crossed the hill on the north, moving in a southwesterly direction, Capt. Wright, with the mounted Home Guards, was sent to the east side so as to cut off a party of rebels seen in that direction. Adjutant Hascock, with a glass, rode to the brow of the hill, where, looking down, he could see every movement of the enemy beneath him. His appearance in full view caused a great hubbub in the rebel camp, which had already been thoroughly aroused by our appearance, and camps and baggage were hastily loaded and moved toward the south. We had completely surprised them. The evidence of that fact was everywhere visible, but they had got quickly into line of battle—their clouds of cavalry were visible, and their twenty-one pieces of cannon were not long silent after ours had opened the engagement.

On the sides of the first ridge on the western side of the valley, Col. Blair’s regiment, at ten minutes after six o’clock, encountered a heavy force of infantry, not less than a full regiment, and after a severe contest they gained the summit, and the defeated rebels dispersed rapidly, going in a direction which rendered it impossible for any considerable number of them to again participate in the battle. Totten’s battery then threw a few balls as feelers, to draw out the enemy’s cannon.

Col. Blair’s regiment moved forward and were soon met by a well equipped regiment of Louisiana troops, whom, after a bitter contest of forty-five minutes, they succeeded in routing, though suffering severely themselves. Captain Lathrop’s company of rifle recruits now assisted them and together they, with Maj. Osterhaus’s men, moved up the second hill, which was considerably larger than the first, and meeting a third regiment, finally succeeded in driving them back with the assistance of Totten’s battery, and gaining the summit. In this part of the fight the gallant Missouri volunteers acted bravely, indeed, no words of praise could more than do them justice.

Of course many acts of valor were performed not witnessed by me, but among those I saw conspicuous were Captain Gratz, leading his men against overwhelming odds, and falling in death just as he had repulsed the foe, Lieutenant Murphy dashing forward ahead of the line, waving his sword high in the air, shouting onward to the almost wavering men, who gained fresh courage from the exhibition, and pushing forward, drove the enemy from the field. In this fight, many of our brave soldiers fell to rise no more, while Colonel Andrews had his horse shot from under him and was wounded himself slightly. General Lyon suffered in a similar manner, Captains Cavender, Cole and Yates, each slightly, or at least not dangerously wounded; Lieuts. Brown and Johnson, and Corporals Conant and Rogers, more or less severely wounded.

During this engagement two companies of regulars were sent to the east side of the creek to engage a force which was operating against Capt. Wright’s cavalry, sheltering themselves behind a fence. Capt. Plummer and Capt. Gilbert with their companies marched close up to the fence and delivered an effective fire, but were compelled by great odds to retire, which they did, but again renewed the attack. The enemy being largely reinforced, and having now at least three thousand men, jumped over into the corn field, nad Captain Plummer’s gallant band was imminently threatened with annihilation. They retreated rapidly, firing as they did so, when Lieut. Dubois having got his battery under headway on the hill near the Missouri volunteers, seeing the position of affairs on the opposite side of the valley, threw in the most precise manner several shells, which exploded just as they reached the dense mass of secessionists, scattering them lifeless on the ground in scores, while all wo could were glad to run for dear life.

The gallant men in Col. Blair’s regiment were now ordered back and their position taken by the Iowa First. Gen. Lyon had previously had a poor opinion of the fighting qualities of those men, formed more from supposition than upon any real failure in duty, but now the time had come for him to reverse his judgment, which he did after their first repulse of the enemy. They fought like tigers, drove the enemy back, and followed up the advantage gained for a considerable distance. Capt. Mason, Company C, was killed soon after his regiment was engaged. Lieutenant Purcell was mortally wounded. Major Porter and Col. Merritt gallantly cheering on their boys, escaped unharmed. The Kansas First and Second regiments were now ordered forward to support the right flank of the Iowa’s.

Colonel Green’s regiment of Tennessee cavalry, bearing a secession flag, now charged upon our wounded, who were partially guarded by one or two companies of infantry. Seeing the movement, Capt. Totten poured a few rounds of canister into their ranks just in time to save our sick men from being trampled to death, dispersing the rebels so completely that nothing more was seen of them during the day.

Gen. Lyon now desired the Iowa boys, whom he had found so brave, to prepare to meet the next onset of the enemy with the bayonet immediately after firing. They said, “Give us a leader and we will follow to death.” On came the enemy in overwhelming numbers, confident of victory over such a meagre force. No time could be lost to select a leader. “I will lead you,” exclaims Lyon. “Come on, brave men,” and placing himself in the van, received a fatal bullet just at the pit of the stomach which killed him instantly. The Iowas delivered their fire and the enemy retired, so there was no need of charging bayonets. Gen. Lyon’s body was carefully picked up and conveyed lifeless toward the ambulance by two of his body guard. In his death as in his life, he was the same devoted, patriotic soldier, regarding his own life as of no value if he could but rescue his country. His body has been brought hither and embalmed, for conveyance to his friends in Connecticut. There was no feeling of depression on the part of the troops at the unexpected calamity, but rather a feeling of quiet determination to revenge his death. On the Tuesday night previous he had arranged for a night attack upon the enemy, but singularly found himself delayed two hours behind the proper time for starting, by rumors of a skirmish on the prairie west of town, and the attack was postponed. Wednesday he said to me: “Well, I begin to believe our term of soldiering is about completed. I have tried earnestly to discharge my whole duty to the government, and appealed to them for reinforcements and supplies; but, alas, they do not come, and the enemy is getting the advantage of us.” He then called a council of war, at which there was nearly an unanimous voice for evacuating Springfield. Gen. Sweeny plead eloquently against such a course, declared it would be the ruin of the Union cause in that quarter of the State, and urged a battle as soon as the enemy were within striking distance. He also pointed out the loss of reputation both to the General and his officers which would follow such a step. This counsel decided the course to be pursued, and Thursday when the brigade quartermaster inquired when we were to leave Springfield, Gen. Lyon replied, “Not before we are whipped.” This was the proper course to pursue. If he retreated without a battle he would certainly have been pursued by a boastful and unpunished enemy, and very likely have his retreat entirely cut off. After being wounded he exclaimed to Maj. Schofield, “The day is lost,” but the Major said “No, General, let us try once more.” So they tried, and the General fell. It was now a little after nine o’clock, and the battle had raged with a fierceness seldom if ever equalled, for over three hours. The smoke hung like a storm cloud over the valley, a fit emblem of mourning for the departed hero. “He sleeps his last sleep, he had fought his last battle, No sound shall wake him to glory again.”

The battle raged for two hours more, the command devolving upon Maj. Sturgis. The enemy made repeated attempts to retake the heights from which they had been driven, but were gallantly repulsed each time. The Kansas regiments behaved with a bravery seldom or never equalled, forming ambuscades for the benefit of the rebels by lying flat on the ground until the enemy came near enough for them to see their eye-brows, when they would pour a deadly volley into their opponents and again remain in possession of the field. The last repulse of the enemy was the most glorious of all and was participated in by members of every regiment on the field. The enemy came fresh and deceived our men by bearing a Union flag, causing them to believe Sigel was about making a junction with our forces. Discovering the ruse just in time, our gallant boys rushed upon the enemy, who, with four cannon belching forth loud mouthed thunder, were on the point of having their efforts crowned with success, and again drove them with great loss, down the slope on the south side of the hill.

Capt. Totten’s ammunition was now nearly exhausted, and placing Dubois’s battery upon the hill at the north end of the valley, Major Sturgis ordered the ambulance to move towards town. The infantry and Totten’s full battery followed in good order and were not pursued by the enemy, who was evidently glad to be let alone.

Among the prisoners taken was a surgeon living in St. Charles county. He was immediately released, and Dr. Melcher accompanied him to the rebel generals, arranging for the return of our wagons to bring in our wounded and dead.

Lieut. Colonel Horace H. Brand, of the First Regiment, Sixth division, who commanded the rebel force at Boonville, and who said he was now acting as aid to Gen. Price, was taken prisoner early in the day.

The Illinois twenty made themselves useful by guarding the prisoners. One of them had a horse shot under him.

When Gen. Sigel, who commanded the eastern division, heard the roar of Totten’s battery, he at once attacked the enemy in his quarter, driving him a half a mile and taking possession of his camp, extending westward to the Fayetteville road. Here a terrible fire was poured into his ranks by a regiment which he had permitted to advance within a few paces of him, supposing it to be the Iowa First. His men scattered considerably, and Col. Salomon’s could not be rallied. Consequently Sigel lost five of his guns, the other being brought away by Capt. Flagg, who compelled his prisoners, some sixty in number, to draw the artillery off the field.

Our troops took some four hundred horses and about seventy prisoners, and compelled the enemy to burn nearly all of his baggage to keep it from falling into our hands.

The enemy had twenty-one pieces of cannon, and at the last twenty-six, including those taken from Sigel. They were none of them worked with precision, every shot for nearly an hour going whix twenty feet over our heads.

Our army reached Springfield in safety, and are now preparing to move toward Rolla, but with no hopes whatever of reaching there. With a baggage train five miles long to protect, it will be singular indeed, if the enemy does not prove enterprising enough to cut off a portion of it, having such a heavy force of cavalry. With two more regiments we should have driven the enemy entirely from the valley, and with a proper cavalry force, could have followed up such a victory with decisive results.

Our loss is about 200 killed and 600 or 700 wounded, while the loss of the enemy must have been double our own. Dr. Schenck, who was in the rebel camp at a late hour last evening, bringing away our wounded, reports our men comparatively few with those of the enemy, whose dead were lying thick under the trees.