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A Layman's Guide To: Wilson's Creek National Battlefield
Many years ago,
When I was oh so much younger my mother took me to Wilson's Creek near Springfield, Missouri. I had no idea what it was but soon learned it was a location where one of the first battles of the Civil War took place. I was young, around ten or eleven but was interested in history even then. I cannot say why she took me there; for some reason searching for family history seems to be the guiding principle. I recall a lot of walking down paths that were not much more than cleared sections in the woods; standing over a sign or plaque that told of a battle taking place in the field in front of us; and a sinkhole in some woods. Not much more can I dredge from a memory over forty years old.
Now that we have moved and are exploring our new backyard, I find things of interest for us to do as a family that we may or may not have known of before coming here. Wilson's Creek is a good example of that process of discovery.
I knew of it, yet had not been to it in over four decades. So, a little excursion was planned and we set off on an adventure.
It is funny how we can learn that which we knew of, yet did not know of. And to learn that which we did not know we did not know. Our trip is a perfect example of this.
For example, we learned the reason for my mother's trip here all those years ago. It was in search of a family history. There is a farm and a set of fields here that bear the name of my father's family. It is too soon to know if these people, hidden in history, are truly related. My mother never said anything about them so I have to wonder if they are not. I know several families with our last name who are no relation to us so I won't be too surprised to find we are not, but the prospect of delving further into our family history pulls at me. Thus far nothing has come from it but it has only been 24 hours for me. Time will tell.
Steve Cottrell is a former high school teacher and author of several paperbacks on regional Civil War history. Through the reenactment hobby, he has participated as an extra in several films including the Academy Award winning epic, "Glory" and the Emmy Award winning television miniseries, "North & South." He and his son Grant also participated in the action scenes for the acclaimed National Park Service film, "Thunder in the Ozarks," shown everyday to visitors at beautiful Pea Ridge National Military Park in Arkansas.
The battle along Wilson's Creek was the second major battle of the young war between the states, and the first west of the Mississippi River. It involved a Missouri governor who was also a member of Congress, and was the site of the first Union general to die in the Civil War.
The park consists of an almost five mile loop one can drive, with specific stops along the way which detail locations and points of interest for the visitor. One begins at the Visitor's Center which contains a gift shop, library and information for the visitor which will make their trip much more enjoyable. The fee is nominal to enter the park proper along the road. $10 per car. One can purchase an annual permit for $20 or a permit that allows entry into any National Park for $80.
Within the center the gift shop has a multitude of items to garner your attention. Most similar shops I have been to display variations of the same tourist items available anywhere, designed exclusively to part you and your money. Not here; there are specific items that are available for both the casual tourist and one requiring a more in depth item. I was pleased to see a book authored by a former co-worker, one Steve Cottrell of Carthage. Steve and I worked together some thirty years ago and I knew of his deep interest in the battlefields in the area which date to the Civil War. At one time, I even had a cannonball I had found as a child while searching for bobwire (that's barbed wire to those not in the know) with my grandpa. I took it to work and showed it to him. Excitement was evident in his eyes as I told him where I had found it. Seems it was in a location he had heard of, where a minor skirmish took place but he had never been able to pinpoint it. I never did hear if it panned out for him.
Other items include pocket watches, books, mockups of ammunition from the time period, wooden flintlock and percussion guns used in the war, maps, hats and just about anything else time specific to the war.
August 10, 1861
The officers involved in the battle included Brig. General Benjamin McCulloch, Major Sterling Price and Brig. General Nicholas Bartlett Pearce on the Confederate side, and Brig. General Nathaniel Lyon, Colonel Franz Sigel and Major Samuel Sturgis on the Union side. Commencing early in the morning, the battle lasted for five hours, and saw 1,317 Union soldiers lost and an additional 1,222 Rebel soldiers die. Over 2,500 men lost their lives in a five hour battle.
The park has set up eight specific locations one can visit, each containing a plaque or sign at the minimum and a house left over from a time gone away as a maximum. First up is Gibson's house site and mill, both gone but not forgotten. The house can be experienced to a degree via the basement, or cellar that remains as part of a dig that began in the mid 1960's. The ditch which had carried the water to the mill can still be seen some 160 years after its creation. Moving along one comes to the Ray homesite and orchard. This house can be entered and visited at times and the orchard, while replanted, displays the scene of a portion of the battle which took place in and around the home that day. It was here that homeowner John Ray watched as the battle raged both in his orchard and in his cornfield. His wife, nine children and a slave named Aunt Rhoda hid in the home's cellar during the battle. Across the way stands the springhouse for the home and shows just how far one had to walk in order to get water for the home itself.
Moving on you come to the East Battlefield Overlook complete with descriptions of the battle. Looking southwest you can see a small house standing alone in a field. We wanted to go see it but determined it would be better visited later in the tour.
Mistake. It is easier to get to from stop 3 than stop 5. From stop 5 we had to cross a stream that ran over the road. We had to take off our shoes and wade through cold water (actually it felt pretty good!) and continue on. It amazed me to see just how small this home was. No more than 12' x 20' at the most, fireplace along one wall with a hearth hook to cook from, and a hideyhole beneath for storing someone or thing when needed.
There are a couple of authentic cannons at both stop four and five. They looked similar to what my old cannonball would have been shot from so were very interesting to me. Stop six and seven are next, with seven being termed Bloody Hill. General Lyon and a total of 1,700 men were killed in this location alone. This is where the sinkhole I remembered is at; where 30 Union soldiers were buried during the fighting.
Stop eight, the final stop on the loop is ironically where the first shots were fired around 5:00 AM that fateful day.
The park has a system whereby one can listen to events of the battle described for them by someone on a cell phone. I found this to be a nice touch, and created a different means of discovering the park itself.The number is (417) 521-0055. Follows the direction to hear the descriptions of the park.
Occasionally there may be battle recreations and/or shooting demonstrations detailing the weapons of the day for the visitor.
One of the terms I have repeatedly heard over the years about this horrible war was "brother against brother". It was literally true in this battle. Joseph Shelby and his step-brother Cary Gratz fought on opposite sides in this battle.
Gratz was killed.
It is interesting to discover the meaning behind...
When I first learned the names of the local elementary schools in town they were names; nothing more. But my trip to Wilson's Creek brought them alive in a way I never imagined. Price, Lyon, Schofield, McCullough and Sweeney are all named for officers from both sides involved in the battle which took place just east of town. Additionally, the town of Battlefield itself is named in recognition of the battlefield in the park. I love it when one can learn about something and know why it is the way it is.
History calls to us through names, places, any number of things we may see on a daily basis. We need but hear the call and search for the answer. So many go blithely along, ignorant of all that does not concern us. But we fail to notice that which stands before us, begging our attention to remember, recall, know.
If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.