While many hoped that Missouri would remain neutral, loyalists of North and South brought forth conflict that promised to keep the state in turmoil. On Aug. 10, 1861, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon’s Army of the West clashed with Confederate troops commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin McCullough at the battle of Wilson’s Creek, which marked the first significant battle in the western theater.
Lyon was a controversial figure in Missouri’s early days of neutrality. Some credit him for keeping Missouri in the Union. In May 1861 at Camp Jackson, Lyon directed troops to surround and capture southern loyalists positioned at Camp Jackson. Rioting broke out resulting in Lyon’s troops firing into the crowd, killing 28 and injuring 75.
Afterwards, Lyon met with Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson, who was a strong Southern sympathizer. The two men could not reach an equitable agreement regarding the neutrality of the state. The meeting ended with Lyon declaring war on Jackson and the southern loyalists.
While Jackson and Brigadier General Sterling Price of the Missouri State Guard escaped to western Missouri, Lyon seized the towns of Jefferson City and Boonville. By late July, Lyon was in Springfield with 6,000 Union troops. Meanwhile Price and McCullough joined forces 75 miles southwest of town, bringing their numbers to 12,000.
Both sides planned to attack the other but hesitated. Lyon found out he was outnumbered two to one and planned to withdraw toward Rolla. To cover his withdrawal, Lyon launched a surprise attack against the Confederates.
Lyon and Colonel Franz Sigel attempted a pincer movement with Sigel attacking McCullough’s flank while Lyon’s main force hit the Confederates head on. McCollough answered Lyon’s attack with three assaults against Lyon’s line, failing each time to break through. As Lyon attempted to rally his forces, he was shot in the chest. As he fell mortally wounded, Major Samuel Sturgis assumed command of Lyon’s troops. Meanwhile, Sigel’s flank attack was routed with his troops retreating northward. The Confederates were too disorganized to capitalize on Lyon’s death or Sigel’s retreat, choosing instead to withdraw southward.
Lyon’s body was mistakenly left behind and found by Confederate soldiers. Lyon was buried on a Union soldier’s farm outside of Springfield. Eventually Lyon’s family brought his body back to Connecticut. Lyon was the first Union general to be killed in battle during the Civil War.
While Price wanted to pursue the Federals, McCullough worried about his supply line stretching to Arkansas. The Union army treated northward. Although both sides suffered around 1,300 casualties, Wilson’s Creek was considered a Confederate victory.
For a few months, southern loyalists controlled southwest Missouri as a base of operations. This would be short lived as southern forces were forced from the state by October 1861.