Excerpted and edited from my 2008 MA paper:
By all accounts, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek was a furious engagement in which citizen soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder, faced each other at close range, and fired deadly volleys of lead into each other. The fight for Bloody Hill, the focal point of the battle, raged for more than five hours. Despite repeated attempts by the secessionist forces to dislodge the Union Army from the hill, Union lines could not be broken. Neither side could gain an advantage, but ammunition was running low. Following the death of Lyon, Major Samuel Sturgis assumed command, and under his orders during a lull in the fighting, the Federals retreated to Springfield, leaving the enemy in control of the field, but unable or unwilling to follow in pursuit. At Springfield, Sturgis relinquished command to Colonel Franz Sigel, who outranked him, and under Sigel’s orders the Union Army further retreated to Rolla. The Union retreat allowed the Confederates to occupy Springfield unopposed the next day.
Sturgis’ official post-battle report dated August 20, 1861, gave no indication of how he perceived the significance of the outcome. He praised the gallantry of his men, and claimed they retreated due to a lack of ammunition and water, believing they still faced an enemy that numbered 20,000 men to their less than 4,000. Other Union officers offered similar assessments, praising their men and each other. Captain Frederick Steele stated:
I commanded the rear guard on the retreat towards Springfield, but saw nothing of the enemy; it was evident that he had been severely punished.
Second Lieutenant John V. Dubois reported:
We were not followed by the enemy, who had, I think, been driven from the field.
The only dire note of concern was sounded by Sigel. In his report of August 12, 1861, Sigel wrote:
Once in possession of Springfield, the enemy will be able to raise the southwest of the State against us, add a great number of men to his army, make Springfield a great depot, and continue his operations towards Rolla, and probably also towards the Missouri River (Jefferson City).
On the secessionist side, Missouri State Guard commander, Sterling Price claimed:
The brilliant victory thus achieved upon this hard-fought field was won only by the most determined bravery and distinguished gallantry of the combined armies, which fought nobly side-by-side in defense of their common rights and liberties with as much courage and constancy as were ever exhibited upon any battle-field.
Confederate General Benjamin McCulloch also claimed “a great victory over the enemy.” Captain James McIntosh wrote to his troops:
The general commanding takes great pleasure in announcing to the army under his command the signal victory it has just gained. Soldiers of Louisiana, of Arkansas, of Missouri, and of Texas, nobly have you sustained yourselves! Shoulder to shoulder you have met the enemy and driven him before you…The opposing force, composed mostly of the old Regular Army of the North, have thrown themselves upon you, confident of victory, but by great gallantry and determined courage you have entirely routed it with great slaughter.
On August 28, 1861, the Confederate War Department sent McCulloch a congratulatory letter in which it stated the battle would “be mentioned in accents of gratitude not only in Missouri, probably liberated by your arms, but throughout the entire Confederacy…” In the North, on December 24, 1861, the United States Congress passed a joint resolution thanking Lyon and his Army for their “victory against overwhelming numbers,” and, in “recognition of the eminent and patriotic services of the late Brigadier-General Nathaniel Lyon,” Congress promised: “The country to whose service he devoted his life will guard and preserve his fame as a part of its own glory.”
In the days after the battle most Northern newspapers declared a Union victory at Wilson’s Creek, while Southern newspapers boasted of a Confederate victory. “The victory of the Union force under General Lyon was brilliant and overwhelming,” gushed the Topeka Kansas State Record. “Never has a greater victory crowned the efforts of the friends of Liberty and Equal Rights,” boasted Colonel John Hughes of the Missouri State Guard in the Liberty [Missouri] Tribune.
As early as 1863, Northerners published monographs declaring Wilson’s Creek a victory – or at least something close to a victory. Typical is the following, written by John S. C. Abbott in 1863:
Thus ended the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. In its results it may surely be counted as a victory, for it secured the safety of the army which thus could be attained. The enemy was thwarted entirely in his plans, and his baggage-train was fired and destroyed. The foe, admonished by the terrific blows they had received, did not venture to interfere with the retirement of the Unionists.
The fact that the Union Army was able to retreat unmolested was, and would be, frequently cited as proof of a Union victory.
The focus on the issue of who won the battle in these wartime accounts is understandable. Success on the battlefield often meant stronger popular political support at home for each cause. Furthermore, as some studies have shown, issues of personal and community honor were at stake, particularly in the first year of the war.
In the years after the war, as Americans struggled to reconcile, interpretations of the war’s meaning had profound impacts on the shape of post-war society and political power. In Missouri, Radicals clashed with Conservatives over the civil and political rights of both former rebels and African-Americans. Consciously or unconsciously, accounts of the battle of Wilson’s Creek written during these years contributed to this struggle over the memory and meaning of the war.
In 1883 one of the first comprehensive published accounts of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek appeared. Authorship of the slim volume was ascribed to Return Holcombe and W. S. Adams, though historians believe the manuscript was largely the work of Holcombe. Holcombe clearly portrayed Wilson’s Creek as a Confederate victory, despite the fact that Price and McCulloch did not pursue the retreating Federals. He wrote:
The news of the battle of Wilson’s Creek was received with great joy throughout the Southern Confederacy and everywhere that the Confederate cause had sympathizers, and the event did much for that cause in Missouri, by stimulating recruiting and causing many an undecided individual to come down off the fence and stand on the Southern side.”
The Holcombe and Adams account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek was followed in 1886 by the publication of a book that had far reaching influence on the historic interpretation of the battle. Written by Thomas L. Snead, The Fight For Missouri: From the Election of Lincoln to the Death of Lyon, may be the first published narrative which proclaimed that Wilson’s Creek was the battle that saved Missouri for the Union, though not in those exact words. Snead’s description of Lyon influenced public perceptions of the Union hero well into the twentieth century. The book, however, was not without controversy. Although the book was praised by some Union and Confederate veterans as “non-partisan,” “comprehensive,” “impartial,” and “fair,” many other former Confederates considered it to be too generous in its treatment of the Union opposition. Also critical, though from the opposite perspective, the national Union veterans association, the Grand Army of the Republic, “attempted to have Snead’s writings removed from the public schools because they did not think that he was impartial.”
Snead had been intimately involved with the Confederate war effort. Trained as a lawyer in Virginia, he had moved to St. Louisin 1851. A slave owner and a Democrat, Snead became editor of the St. Louis Bulletin, and became active in Missouri’s political affairs, earnestly supporting states’ rights and the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party. As events in Missouri became increasingly tense in early 1861 following the election of Lincoln, Snead moved to Jefferson City, where Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson commissioned him as his military aide. Jackson was also a large plantation and slave owner, and had strong Southern sympathies.
Jackson and Snead worked hand in hand to effect the secession of Missourifrom the Union. Snead was present at the Planters’ House meeting on June 11, 1861. Snead thereafter accompanied Governor Jackson, as Lyon and his Federal army chased the elected state government from the capitol at Jefferson City. He was with Jackson at the battles of Booneville and Carthage, and when Jackson relinquished his command of the state militia to General Price, Snead accepted the post of chief of ordnance under Price. This meant that he was present at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
Snead came to be a great admirer and champion of Price, and to detest McCulloch, whom he felt had squandered opportunities in Missouri by not cooperating with Price, and because McCulloch had shown such disdain for the valor of Missourians. As for Lyon, Snead wrote that he “had not fought and died in vain.” Snead believed Lyon’s actions since he had arrived in Missouri until his death at Wilson’s Creek, gave the Unionists the time needed to take control of the state’s government and resources, which were “used to sustain the Union and crush the South.” He concluded:
All this had been done while Lyon was boldly confronting the overwhelming strength of Price and McCulloch. Had he abandoned Springfield instead, and opened to Price a pathway to the Missouri; had he not been willing to die for the freedom of the negro, and for the preservation of the Union, none of these things would have been done. By wisely planning, by boldly doing, and by bravely dying, he had won the fight for Missouri.
Snead’s praise would almost certainly ring true, were it not for the uncomfortable facts that Wilson’s Creek was not a clear cut victory for the Union Army and the Federals did abandon Springfield, albeit after the battle. Nevertheless, promoters of the idea of a federal military park at the site of the battle would use Snead’s “unbiased” testimony to accord Wilson’s Creek a historic significance that some historians deny. In addition, beginning in 1982, Snead’s words would be used prominently in the interpretive film shown to thousands of visitors to Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. Interestingly, in 1897, a report from the Committee on Military Affairs to Congress used the interpretation that the battle had saved Missouri for the Union to justify the detail of Army units to participate in the Wilson’s Creek reunion that year. Whether or not the committee was influenced by Snead’s interpretation is unknown, but it definitively stated:
So stubbornly did he [Lyon] and his devoted command contest the ground fought over that the victors were unable to pursue their advantage, and it is truthfully said that the result of the battle was to save the great State of Missouri to the Union.
In November 1884, Century magazine began publishing the most renowned series of soldier’s recollections of the war, and in 1888, issued a four volume collection of these articles titled Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. In his article, William Wherry, Lyon’s aide-de-camp, praised the “unabated ardor and impetuosity [of] the Confederates.” Pearce, who had commanded the Arkansas troops, wrote that upon their arrival at the crest of Bloody Hill and discovering the Federals had retreated:
We watched the retreating enemy through our field glasses, and were glad to see them go.
Nevertheless, both continued to disagree over which side actually won. Wherry wrote:
Our troops continued to send a galling fire into the disorganized masses as they fled, until they disappeared, and the battle was ended.
At about this time (11:30 A.M.) the first line of battle before us gave way. Our boys charged the second line with a yell, and were soon in possession of the field, the enemy slowly withdrawing toward Springfield. This hour decided the contest and won for us the day. It was in our front here, as was afterward made known, that the brave commander of the Federal forces, General Lyon, was killed, gallantly leading his men to what he and they supposed was victory, but which proved (it may be because they were deprived of his enthusiastic leadership) disastrous defeat.
Note the praise for Lyon.
None of the accounts published in Battles and Leaders, not even one contributed by Snead, claimed that Wilson’s Creek saved Missouri for the Union.
Two more published accounts of the battle appeared during the reunion years. Both written by Union veterans, they are, as might be expected, partisan in nature. In 1890, Wiley Britton authored The Civil War on the Border: Volume I, 1861-1862. Britton explained Price and McCulloch’s failure to pursue the retreating Federal army after the battle at Wilson’s Creek thus: “The combined Southern forces were really defeated on the field, and were not at all anxious to renew the conflict.” Yet, at a later point in his narrative, Britton stated that the Union army was defeated at Wilson’s Creek. As a result of the defeat, there were no Federal troops in western Missouri, leaving the way free for Confederate forces to occupy that portion of the state and greatly increase recruitment. McCulloch, however, refused to take advantage of the situation and cooperate with Price in his venture north to Lexington.
John McElroy, in The Struggle for Missouri, published in 1909, generally agreed with Britton’s interpretation of Wilson’s Creek. “Dedicated to the Union Men of Missouri,” his narrative was indicative of the difficulty in explaining the results of the battle without fully admitting a Confederate victory, but may be an accurate description nonetheless:
The moral effect of the battle was prodigious on both sides. The Union troops were conscious of having met overwhelming forces and fought them to a stand-still, if not actual defeat. Every man felt himself a victor as he left the field, and only retreated because the exigencies of the situation rendered that the most politic move.
It was consequently a great encouragement to the Union sentiment everywhere, and did much to retrieve the humiliation of Bull Run. The Confederates naturally made the most of the fact that they had been left masters of the field, and they dilated extensively upon the killing of Gen. Lyon and the crushing defeat they had administered upon Sigel, with capture of prisoners, guns, and flags. They used this to so good purpose as to greatly stimulate the secession spirit throughout the State.
Significantly, McElroy’s narrative concluded, not with the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, but with the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas in March of 1862. He wrote of Pea Ridge: “At the conclusion of the battle Missouri was as firmly anchored to the Union as her neighbors, Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas.”
 U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 3 (1881; repr.Harrisburg,PA: Historical Times, Inc.,1985), 69.
 Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, 100.
 Quoted in William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 319.
 John S. C. Abbott, The History of the Civil War in America; Comprising a Full and Impartial Account of the Progress of the Rebellion, of the Various Naval and Military Engagements, of the Heroic Deeds Performed by Armies and Individuals, of the Touching Scenes in the Field, the Camp, the Hospital, and the Cabin, Volume I (Chicago, Illinois: O.F. Gibbs, 1863), 274.
 Regarding the role of courage and honor in soldier’s motivations in the Civil War in general, see Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: The Free Press, 1987). Regarding the role of courage and honor in soldier’s motivations at Wilson’s Creek, see Piston and Hatcher, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It.
 William E. Parrish, A History of Missouri: Volume III 1860-1875 (Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 1973), 116-169.
 Return I. Holcombe and W.S. Adams, An Account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek or Oak Hills (1883; repr.,Springfield,Missouri: Greene County Historical Society Independent Printing Co, 1998).
 Holcombe and Adams, An Account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek or Oak Hills, 74.
 Thomas L. Snead, The Fight For Missouri: From the Election of Lincoln to the Death of Lyon (1886; repr.,Independence,Missouri: Two Trails Publishing, 1997).
 Robert E. Miller, “Proud Confederate: Thomas Lowndes Snead of Missouri,” Missouri Historical Review, Volume 79, No. 2 (1985), 188-189.
 Miller, “Proud Confederate,” 174.
 Snead, The Fight For Missouri, 302.
 House Committee on Military Affairs, Wilson Creek Reunion, Springfield, MO. 54th Cong., 2d Sess., 1897, H. Rep. 2870.
 Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1888; repr., New York: Thomas Yoseloff, Inc., 1956).
 William Wherry, “Wilson’s Creek, and the Death of Lyon,” in Battles and Leaders Vol. I, 296.
 N.B. Pearce, “Arkansas Troops in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek,” in Battles and Leaders Vol. I, 303.
 Wherry, “Wilson’s Creek, and the Death of Lyon,” in Battles and Leaders Vol. I, 297.
 Pearce, “Arkansas Troops in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek,” in Battles and Leaders Vol. I, 303.
 Wiley Britton, The Civil War on the Border: Volume I, 1861-1862 (1899; repr.,Ottawa,Kansas: Kansas Heritage Press, 1994).
 John McElroy, The Struggle for Missouri (WashingtonD.C.: The National Tribune Co., 1909).
 McElroy’s declaration that “every man” fighting for theUnion“felt himself a victor” may have been a bit of an exaggeration. It seems unlikely Sigel’s troops, who had been scattered and driven from the field by McCulloch’s Louisianans, felt victorious.
 McElroy, The Struggle for Missouri, 180.