|View single post by David White|
|Posted: Tue Oct 14th, 2008 09:39 pm||
Before heading to the Wilson’s Creek Battlefield Park, I stopped at the stop and rob you store next to my motel in Springfield to obtain a bottle of water and some bug spray. I was amazed that gas prices were only $3.33 for premium. While talking to the clerk I learned that part of the reason is the low tax on gasoline. He said the price only got above $4 dollars once and only briefly last summer. He however attributed the low price of gasoline to the overall economic depression of the area. I was starting to appreciate what we have in Texas, sure we’ve been hurt by the economy too, but probably not as bad as some of these areas in the Ozarks. The clerk told me that he and his manager were both graduates with master’s degrees and work in the convenience store was the best job they could find in the area. I was shocked when he said that police officers covet their jobs because they pay more than police work.
I Was at Wilson’s Creek when it opened that morning. The park already had a steady stream of visitors but other than a dozen or less other visitors, I had the “battlefield” to myself as the other visitors were there for walking, running, bike riding or horse riding purposes. Wilson’s Creek has to be the most horse friendly Civil War Park I’ve ever seen, they provide parking just for horse trailers and the local riders do seem to use and enjoy it.
I loved the battlefield, it is small and not that many official stops but there are numerous trails throughout the park that connect the various sites and it is quite picturesque. At first I planned to walk them all because the weather was perfect, sunny and in the low 70s. But decided that was not practical if I wanted to start Pea Ridge that afternoon. But I did walk most of it and certainly walked to all of the locations of major historical significance.
The first stop and trail is for the Gibson farm and Mill where the initial contact between Union and Confederate forces took place just west of Wilson’s Creek itself on the northern spur of Bloody Hill. Camped in that area were the cavalry forces of General James Rain’s Missouri State Guard. Rains sent a warning to the overall Confederate commander Ben McCullough, but because Rains had, in McCullough’s opinion, cried wolf earlier in the month, he ignored this initial warning. Acoustic shadows would play a key role in this early battle of the war and that had an effect as the battle began and later in the battle. The trail takes you to the mill site and the farm site of the Gibsons. At the mill the west bank is steep as it climbs up Bloody Hill and the creek, which is nearly fordable throughout the park, is quite deep here. Evidence of the sluices Gibson dug to funnel water to his mill are still clearly visible. The Gibsons were quite wealthy for the area from their mill business which was the primary commerce center for all the local farmers and for their large acreage of farm land. The local farmers were for the most part Unionists (ironically southern Missouri was pro-Union and northern Missouri was mostly secessionists) but they were still supplying the Confederate Army camped in their little area of bounty, mostly through impressments.
In between the first two stops I walked the advance of Joseph Plummer and his regular battalion through the Ray’s cornfield. For those not familiar with Wilson’ Creek and Pea Ridge, both battles are prime examples of audacious plans to perform a double envelopment of the enemy from front and rear, with overly ambitious goals that were pulled off just enough to make historians go “what-if” they had scaled back the effort or had done a little more to pull it off? In the case of Lyon at Wilson’s Creek, he was really outnumbered but still audacious enough to attack, hoping surprise would carry the day and it nearly did. Lyon divided his force into two with Franz Sigel going all the way around the enemy to attack from the rear (south) and Lyon would attack at the sound of the guns from Sigel toward the south. But Lyon then further subdivided his little force and sent Plummer in search of the Confederate right flank near the Ray House and to protect his own left flank. The problem was Lyon and Plummer could not readily support each other due to Wilson’s Creek, especially the deep part being between them. So now, an outnumbered but still audacious Lyon was split into three forces with his more numerous opponents between them. The Ray Cornfield is still planted with corn so what I saw as I advanced through the cornfield is what Plummer’s men saw.
The second stop describes the plight of the local families even more, as it is at the Ray House. This home was the post office and Butterfield Stage stop on the Wire Road. Ray was the postmaster for the area and sat on his front porch watching the battle unfold in his corn field while his family hid in the cellar. As Plummer’s men entered the Ray’s cornfield, McCullough finally realized he had a problem. To his credit he kept his head and ordered the men who would be the unquestioned shock troops of the day, the 3rd Louisiana and the 1st and 2nd Mounted Arkansas Rifles, to the edge of the Ray Cornfield where they surprised and disrupted Plummer’s advance. The Wire Road is quite evident as it goes past the Ray House as it heads north to Jefferson City and south and west to California.
Based on the recommendation of my tour book I did not go to the east overlook as they said it was only a good view in the winter time. But I did hike the trails to Price’s HQ, McCullough’s HQ and the Pulaski Battery Site. At Price’s HQ site the original Edward’s cabin is gone, but they moved the post-war cabin of the same man to the site, so it may not be the original but the construction is said to be the same. Standing in front of the cabin it is easy to see why the Confederates chose the location, a nice flat open prairie with plenty of water about. Behind and to the left of the cabin is the southeast spur of Bloody Hill and I could imagine members of the Missouri State Guard fleeing into the flat prairie announcing to a startled Price and McCullough that the Yankees were atop Bloody Hill, only to have the artillery shortly begin to play over the Confederates in their camps brewing their morning coffee and preparing their breakfast. The Pulaski Battery Site indicates where that Arkansas battery was positioned so it could fire on the Federal troops in the Ray cornfield and atop Bloody Hill. The brother versus brother story of the Civil War is also told through this battery’s story. Called the Totten Battery before the war it was named for its battery commander James Totten. But when the war came, Totten cast his lot with the Union and was in command of the 2nd US battery. In anger, the Arkansas men changed the battery’s name to the Pulaski Battery. During the battle, Totten on Bloody Hill and his old battery exchanged several rounds and one of Totten’s shots ripped the arm off of one of his former lieutenants, Omar Weaver
The tour then goes to the second and final position for Franz Sigel and his enveloping force (the first position is off the park proper but one of the horse trails goes to it). The final position is astride the Wire Road and about 200 yards south of the Wire Road ford on Wilson’s Creek. Unfortunately for Federal partisans, Sigel set up his one battery of artillery on the crest of the embankment from the creek and except for two regiments flanking this battery, his little force remained in column formation behind the battery on the road. Sigel’s men were actually supposed to open the battle from the south but the acoustic shadows prevented both Lyon and McCullough from realizing his presence leading to inaction by both. From his final position, it was possible for an attacking unit to remain sheltered by the embankment to the creek until they were about 40 yards away from Sigel’s’ Battery and that is exactly what happened. After driving Plummer off in the Ray Cornfield, McCullough turned his Louisiana and Arkansas shock troops about face and marched them the ¾ of a mile to the Wilson’s Creek ford on the Wire Road and attacked Sigel’s force, driving them in a rout from the battlefield. Sigel had lost his nerve a mere half a mile from reuniting with Lyon’s men on bloody Hill.
The next three stops interpret the ultimate fighting of the battle on Bloody Hill. The first is the battery position for the Missouri State Guard Guibor battery showing its position half way up the slope of Bloody Hill. The next to last stop is actually Bloody Hill where a tremendous view of the whole battlefield is available. The site of Totten’s Battery is marked by cannon. The trail takes you to the Lyon monument which implies that this is the site where Lyon was killed. But in reality, according to the tour book I bought, it is the site where his horse was found dead after the battle and the site of Lyon’s second of three wounds that day. According the tour book, his third and fatal wound probably occurred on the park road near the actual tour stop. The terrain on top of Bloody Hill reminded me so much of my favorite hiking trails in the Texas hill country, the same prairie grass, scrub oaks, cedar trees, prickly pear and stony ground. The only difference was they don’t have mesquite trees in Missouri. The Bloody Hill trail then takes you to the overlook where you may see the opposite view observed from the Edward’s cabin. The trail winds back to the parking lot past the sinkhole but except for marking it on the park map, there is nothing telling visitors that this was a battlefield burial site at one time. In fact, if the guide book had not told me to look for it, I might have missed it. The sinkhole accounts for most of the ghost stories associated with Wilson’s Creek. The bodies were hastily buried in the sinkhole after the battle and removed to the Springfield National Cemetery after the war. The final stop is at the rear of Bloody Hill and makes a complete circle of the battle figuratively and literally, as the stop talks about Lyon’s force’s advance to Bloody Hill and his retreat from it. On the slope of this open field, you may see the camping site of Rain’s cavalry, which sustained the first combat contact of the day.
From the battlefield I drove across the road to the former Tom Sweeny Museum. It is now in the hands of the NPS and your admission to the park gets you in here too. I spent an hour and a half looking at this wonderful collection that emphasizes the war on the Mississippi and the Trans-Mississippi. It is a must see and quite a handsome collection, but not as big as the Texas Civil War museum as I pointed out in my day one narrative, despite the Sweeny’s claim of being the biggest trans-Mississippi Civil War Museum.
From there, it was on to Pea Ridge where I arrived an hour and a half before closing time. My intention was to view the Visitor Center displays and movie and head to my hotel for the night. But the ranger suggested that since this was Sunday that I should go to stop 8, the Elkhorn Tavern, and see it that day because it would be closed and locked up on Monday and besides they had rangers dressed up in period costume today and not tomorrow. I decided to take that advice. For some reason I asked, “What happens if you aren’t out of the park by 5 p.m.?” She replied, “They lock the gates on you and you can’t get out.”
So I proceeded down the park road pushing the 25 MPH speed limit to maximize my time but quickly got behind a man and a woman on a Harley going about 15 miles an hour. Of course they seemed to get angry I was right on their tail but they were not stopping at the tour stops and not going any faster. Finally between stops three and four they pull over and I whipped around them and they both gave me the one fingered salute and he said, “Hey *******, are you here to see the battlefield or not?” I thought it was ironic.
I finally make it to the Elkhorn Tavern site with an hour to spare. After looking at the inside of the tavern and trying to engage the reenactors in conversation I walked outside (apparently I am not as interesting as the 20 something young lady they were talking to). I still had 45 minutes, so I decided I still had time to hike the one major hiking trial in the park located at that site. But I was about to find out I discombobulated myself. There are two trails at the site, one is a one mile nature trail the other is the three mile historic trail. I took the historic trial thinking it was only a mile.
The historic trail heads from the Tavern going north on the Wire Road it takes you past the position where Peter Osterhaus set up his batteries to defend the edge of the plateau that Elkhorn Tavern sits on. From there the trail goes down into a ravine where the tanyard foundation sits. This spot is only two miles from Missouri state line and it is where Sterling Price formed his men on his right for battle after executing Earl Van Dorn’s overly ambitious double envelopment plan. This plan was similar to Lyon’s at Wilson’s Creek but in Van Dorn’s case, the march was a winter march with almost no rations. The horrible road network had also not allowed the ammunition wagons to keep up with the army. I checked my watch, it was 4:30, I estimated I had walked a half a mile, so I only needed to walk the loop trail another half mile to get back to my car—no problem.
The trail then takes you down the line of the MSG and over the area it advanced as it attacked Osterhaus and drove them toward the tavern. For those who have never been there but have been to King’s Mountain in South Carolina, that is what the slope and terrain made me think of as I climbed the hill back to the tavern. After twenty minutes, I was sure I had walked at least a mile through the dense forest and there was no indication or feeling that I was getting back to the Elkhorn Tavern. I also knew the trail was supposed to hook up with the historic Huntsville Road before it turned back to the Tavern, which sat at the junction of the historic Wire and Huntsville Roads. With 10 minutes to go until closing time, I proceeded to run the last 1.5 miles of the trail much of it up hill. At 5:10, I finally made it back to the tavern. A ranger was there in a Gator cart and she said, “Is that your red car?” I was real apologetic and said I had no idea the trail was three miles long. She smiled and said don’t worry about it; still it was an embarrassing and exhausting way to end the day.
Last edited on Tue Oct 14th, 2008 09:55 pm by David White