Monday, November 19, 2007

Wilson's Creek - postscript

The Confederate tactical triumph at Wilson’s Creek, General Nathaniel Lyon Lyon’s death and the subsequent Union withdrawal to Rolla, coupled with the federal fiasco at 1st Manassas in the east, forced the North into a more serious attitude towards planning, supplying and fighting the war.

The Union reinforced Missouri with soldiers and weapons during the ensuing fall and winter; the Confederacy rested on its post-battle laurels and applied scarce resources in other places. The exiled pro-Confederate state government voted to secede and sent delegates to Richmond, but Missouri remained firmly in the Union.

Many of the soldiers at Wilson's Creek ‘saw the elephant’ for the first time. The regulars, who typically look down on volunteer soldiers, found the volunteers at Wilson's Creek battling courageously, if unskillfully. Well-directed cannon fire proved decisive at key moments. Cavalry was less useful in the stand-up fighting – the infantry of both sides determined the outcome. Green soldiers lead by inexperienced officers fought for six bloody hours. Wilson’s Creek recorded some of the highest casualty rates of the Civil War. Nearly 1 in 4 Union troops and 1 in 8 Confederates were casualties.

Most of the volunteer regiments are low-numbered, filled with the most enthusiastic of those enlisting early in the conflict. Some of these regiments, the 1st Kansas, 3rd Arkansas, 1st Missouri and 3rd Louisiana, will form a veteran backbone for nearby operations over the next 3½ years and meet on future fields of battle.

The Union order of battle reveals names familiar to the Civil War buff: Sigel, Schofield, Osterhaus, Sturgis, Granger, Gilbert, Herron, Stanley, and Steele went on to Union high command.

Lyon’s plan was innovative and bold. Like Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville two years later, he found himself outnumbered more than two to one with an aggressive, offensive-minded opponent. His choices were to attack or withdraw. He did both – with difficult tactics. He divided his forces into two columns - using one to hold the enemy in place and the other to sweep around his flank.

The Confederates were initially surprised but soon recovered and, mixing Missouri militia and Confederate volunteer troops, withstood the flank attack and Lyon’s assault. Sigel's flanking force was routed, Lyon was killed and the Yankee Army began to withdraw to Rolla the next day.

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