The Bull Run of the West

“Better, sir, far better, that the blood of every man, woman, and child within the limits of the state should flow, than that she should defy the federal government,” swore Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyon to Missouri governor and Confederate sympathizer Claiborne Fox Jackson during negotiations to prevent the state from joining the Confederacy.

His next words, “this means war,” were put into action after Jackson publicly declared for the Confederacy. Following a few skirmishes in June and July, Union and Confederate factions met at first light on Aug. 10, 1861, at Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, for what would ultimately be a Southern victory by default.

Lyon’s army struck the first blow, forcing the Confederates to retreat from high ground, which later would be called “Bloody Hill.” The Confederates then launched three counterattacks, but the Union line still held.  However, the Southern army did manage to rout Union Col. Franz Sigel’s column, forcing the soldiers, many of whom were German, to flee for their lives. With this, the battle shifted in the South’s favor. Lyon had also been shot during the battle, becoming the first Union general to be killed in Civil War combat.

Although their lines remained unbroken, Union forces were exhausted and running low on ammunition. These and other considerations caused their new commander, Major Samuel D. Sturgis, to order his troops to withdraw, leaving the field to their enemy.

Sometimes called the “Bull Run of the West,” the Battle of Wilson’s Creek was the first major battle of the Western Theater of the American Civil War.

Soon to be on view in the Library’s new exhibition, “The Civil War in America,” opening Nov. 12, is a rare color German lithograph — never before placed on public display — that depicts the battle in which Lyon was killed. Translated, the caption says:

The battle began in the morning of August 14 and ended in the evening with the defeat of the Union troops. According to official reports, the Union losses totaled 800 dead and wounded. The Union troops made an orderly retreat to Rolla. Unfortunately General Lyon met his death. Eight-thousand men from the North and 23,000 from the South are said to have come under fire. The Confederates (who are in rebellion against the United States) reportedly suffered heavy losses. Generals Price and McCulloch fell in battle.”

(Maj. Gen. Sterling Price commanded the Missouri State Guard, which joined forces with Confederate forces lead by Brig. Gen. Benjamin McCulloch; both generals survived the battle.)

Europeans following the events of the American Civil War especially noted the formation of regiments comprising their countrymen. An estimated 1.3 million Germans alone lived in the North and the South during the Civil War and up to 216,000 served under the Union, while 18,000 wore Confederate gray. The firm of Oehmigke & Riemschneider based in Neuruppin, Germany, produced popular prints of Civil War battles. This image depicts the death of General Lyon at the Battle of Springfield (Wilson’s Creek) in Missouri, on August 10, 1861. Lyon’s command included several regiments of German volunteers and the battle was important news in Neuruppin.

The title of the image, “Die Schlacht bei Springfield in Nord Amerika” (The Battle of Springfield in North America), might be a source of confusion. According to Margaret Wagner, author of “The Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War,” the battle depicted in this rare lithograph is most commonly known as the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Since the battle occurred fairly close to Springfield, however, one alternative name for the engagement (and the name used by the German lithographers) is the Battle of Springfield.

Make sure to check back next Wednesday for another spotlight on other items from “The Civil War in America.” Until then, you can read a bit about them and the exhibition here.

One Comment

  1. Joan Stack
    November 28, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Interesting image! Thanks so much for posting it.

    I’ve been working on early images of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek that appeared in illustrated newspapers in 1861. The German lithograph seems derived from an illustration in the Aug. 24 issue of “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.” If you are interested in this research, e-mail me, and I can send you my paper.

    One caveat: the description of Lyon’s meeting with Gov. Jackson and Gen. Price that opens the blog entry comes from Thomas Snead’s 1886 account of the meeting some 25 years after the event. Snead was a confederate apologist and an aid to both Jackson and Price. He had a vested interest in implying that Lyon and the federals initiated aggression in Missouri.

    In 1861, however, many blamed GOV. JACKSON for starting the fight (he committed the first act of war by burning federal railroad bridges after his meeting with Lyon). On June 12, 1861, as you rightly point out, the governor made a public proclamation which some called a declaration of war. He asked Missourians to “defend” the state against the federals. Since Snead is the only source for the often repeated Lyon “quote” —“This means war,” I have my doubts about whether the Union general (who believed he was dutifully defending Missouri against a traitorous governor) ever uttered those words.

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