The Battle of Wilson's Creek:

The Civil War's First Major Battle Fought in the West

While actually a Union defeat, the fighting helped keep Missouri in the Union. What followed was years of bloody guerilla warfare.

Sunday, August 31 2008 10:24   Missouri
Ten miles southwest of Springfield, Missouri, just off Farm Road 182 near where it intersects Missouri Highway ZZ, you'll find the entrance to Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, one of the nation's lesser known Civil War battlefields.

Think of Wilson's Creek as a hidden, or at least highly overlooked gem of American history that not only offers a window into the early phase of the Civil War, but a glimpse at the political and economic struggles many Missourians faced at the time.

Operated by the National Parks Service, Wilson's Creek sees maybe 200,000 visitors each year. Contrast that with Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, 1.6 million, or Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield in Georgia, around 1.3 million visitors each year. The number of visitors Wilson's Creek receives, however, should not be used as a measuring stick of its importance.

Putting it in perspective, Wilson's Creek was the first major Civil War battle in the West, the second major battle of the war (right after the first battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861), and the place where the Union Army saw the first combat death of one of its generals, Nathaniel Lyon. While ending up as a Confederate victory, the battle actually helped keep Missouri part of the Union, a major triumph for President Lincoln and his generals.

Named for the stream that crosses the area where the battle took place (roughly 5,400 Union troops against 12,000 Confederates), much of the Wilson's Creek battlefield remains unchanged from that bloody day on Aug. 10, 1861 when the fighting took place, and aside from trees and other vegetation is in near pristine condition.

There's plenty for you to see and experience. Wilson's Creek National Battlefield consists of just over 1,900 acres that is publicly owned (another 463 acres is privately owned) and contains roughly 75 percent of the actual battlefield. The setting can be enjoyed by auto tour, walkers, runners, cyclists and even equestrians.

Along with the actual battlefield, Wilson's Creek preserves 27 historic structures including the Ray House, the place where General Lyon finally succumbed to his wounds, and which also was used as a Confederate field hospital during and after the battle.

You'll also find the Civil War Museum (formerly known as the Sweeny Museum, a truly remarkable collection of Civil War artifacts), and the John K. and Ruth L. Hulston Library, which contains more than 5,500 volumes focusing on the Civil War and the Trans-Mississippi Theatre.

Stop first at the Visitor's Center where you can get an overview of the battlefield, see selected exhibits, pick up a brochure to help guide you, and if you have time, watch a 13-minute film about the fighting.

The self-guided auto tour follows a 4.9-mile paved route that includes eight interpretive battlefield stops that explain significant points. You can also walk or bicycle the route.

There are five walking trails ranging in length from one-quarter to three-quarters of a mile, including one that takes you to Bloody Hill, the scene of the fiercest fighting. A seven-mile trail system for horseback riding and hiking is accessible from the tour road.

At the end of the day on Aug. 10, 1861, many had died on both sides-1,317 for the Union, 1,222 for the Confederacy. Nearly out of ammunition, Union forces withdrew to Springfield, while Confederate forces remained in the state until driven into Arkansas in early 1862 by federal troops.

But the battle for Wilson's Creek (the Confederates called in the battle of Oak Hills) was only the start of fighting in Missouri. Over the next three and a half years the state would see heavy, sometimes bloody, guerilla fighting and much civilian distress.


Operating Schedule

The battlefield is open daily, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Visitor Center hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Park (tour road) hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.

Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Note: the Civil War Museum is closed December through February.

Contact Information

Wilson's Creek National Battlefield

6424 West Farm Road 182
Republic, MO 65738-9514
Park Headquarters
417-732-2662, ext. 227

Web Site:


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