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American fortnight: Battle of Wilson’s Creek

Before we launch into the first American Civil War battle to take a general’s life we should probably do a little historical recap here…sort of like “Last week on…” except 150 years late.

“Don’t Yield an Inch”-Andy Thomas (Springfield Greene County Library District)

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (see also here) , when Jefferson’s government bought the Louisiana territory* from the French  had given the growing United States not only access to the most useful of ports New Orleans (because of its position on the M-I-double S-I-double S-I-double P-I), but also some problems. Debates over whether Napoleon was legally in a position to go around flogging bits of land that he probably didn’t own, and certainly Britain and Spain were under the impression that they had a say, ran parallel with discussion about whether French people, Spanish people and free black people could handle democracy. The Louisiana territory morphed over time into Missouri Territory, and, after break offs into separate states,  in 1821 the state of Missouri was born.

St Genevieve, Missouri

Missouri, though in the midwest, from its origins as part of the Louisiana territory has long been culturally part of the south. Or more accurately The South, and one of the things that distinguished north from south was slavery. The South regarded slavery as not only normal, but essential to their economy and the best way of life for the slaves. Whereas the Union states of the north had long advocated if not entire equality between black and white, slavery was definitely Not On. Though slavery was not the only issue that led to the American Civil War it was, probably, the biggest contributing factor.

Missouri was, along with Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, a border state, that is it did not declare secession prior to the start of the Civil War. Missouri and Kentucky were in a particularly unusual position having both pro-union and pro-confederate governments at once…

In this position Missouri had stated it would remain neutral during the conflict. However, Union leaders became concerned that Missouri was imminently going to become a fully confederate state and sought to protect it. Whilst at the same time Missouri itself was making efforts to prevent attacks from either side.

Increasing presence of both union and confederate troops led, on 10 August 1861, to the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

The Union forces, led by Nathaniel Lyon, attacked the confederate camp in the early hours of the morning, with expectations of the early attack working to their advantage. However, the confederate forces, commanded by Sterling Price responded.

Sterling Price

Nathaniel Lyon


Whilst the second part of the union force, were confused by the similarity in uniforms of Louisiana (which were confederate) to Iowa (which were union) and did not realise their mistake until they met Benjamin McCulloch’s men too late.  For the Union the battle not only represented a loss of battle, but also their first loss of a senior commander, as Nathaniel Lyon was killed.

Benjamin McCulloch

* Louisiana Territory comprised: Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, parts of North and South Dakota, northeastern New Mexico, north Texas, the parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado that were east of the Continental Divide, and Minnesota and Louisiana to the west of the Mississippi AND Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada.

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