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Chapter 7:

  • Battle of oak Hill in Missouri
  • -- the Confederates under Price and McCulloch are surprised, but prove victorious -- death of the Federal General Lyon, and promotion of General Fremont -- Misunderstanding between Southern Generals -- cruel devastation of the country by Federal troops -- character of Fremont -- siege and capture of Lexington by Price -- immense booty.

The scene of action now shifts to Missouri, and, as before, I am able to give authentic details of the events that took place in that State, having received the following letter descriptive of the battles of “Oak Hill” and “Lexington:”

Dear Tom: My last letter informed you that, after the action of Carthage, the small commands of Price, McCulloch, and Pearce were on their way to Cowskin Prairie, in order to recruit and organize. We had not remained in this wilderness of a place many days when information was brought that Lyon and Sturgis had suddenly ceased their pursuit, bewildered by the unexpected discomfiture of Sigel at Carthage. After a halt, Lyon, Sigel, and others formed a junction at Springfield, where they numbered some twelve or fifteen thousand men, well armed, disciplined, and counting among them a heavy force of U. S. regulars of all arms. In the mean time we our. selves were receiving reenforcements, and in a few days could count upwards of nine thousand, under the command of General Price; of these, however, thousands had no arms whatever, and had to depend entirely on chance for their future supply.

Not only were we deficient in weapons, but when the march on Springfield commenced our commissary and quartermaster's departments, but recently organized, proved very indifferent, and it was seldom the men drew full rations. They made up for all deficiencies, however, by laying violent hands on every thing that came within reach, appropriating large quantities of green corn, and eating it. They also extensively patronized the various corn-cribs on their several routes, and, shelling the corn, [61] pounded it between rocks until reduced to powder, and then made bread. Hogs were plentiful, as also beef cattle; and farmers, being friendly to our cause, willingly sold all things for Confederate paper, so that it much relieved the commissariat, and eased the line of march. Ben McCulloch, with his small column, led the way; Pearce of Arkansas followed; and last came the hero and patriot, Sterling Price, with his ragged, half-fed, and ill-armed band of Missourians.

After many days of toilsome travel, we approached a point thirty miles south of Springfield, where it was reported Lyon and Sigel were encamped on hills beside the road. We halted until the next morning, and then, cautiously advancing, found that the enemy had decamped and gone in the direction of Springfield. Their strength we could not ascertain with precision, but they were said to number at least ten thousand men, well armed, well drilled, and counting thousands of “regulars” among them. They also had a strong force of cavalry, and some twenty pieces of artillery-Totten's battery being considered one of the best in the old Federal army. Our effective force amounted to about five thousand ill-armed, badly drilled men, and some six thousand horsemen, who were, for politeness' sake, called cavalry; but they had not a particle of discipline among them; they had been drilled to serve on foot, and were armed with every imaginable weapon; their horses, too, were little better than skeletons.

Finding that the enemy had fallen back the day previous before our advance-guard, we hurried forward in pursuit; but after a march of some twenty miles, the men were completely broken down from fatigue and the want of proper supplies. On the tenth of August we camped at Wilson's Creek, about ten miles south of Springfield, and the whole country was scoured for provisions. Whatever the fields produced was instantly appropriated, and many of us thanked Providence for the abundance of green corn. Ben McCulloch had halted his advance on the right of the road, assisted by Pearce, while Price was on the left of it; and thoughtless of danger — in fact, never dreaming of Lyon being in the vicinity at all-threw out no pickets; or if any were in advance, they were few indeed. In the evening little was thought of but amusement: [62] most of the boys were dancing and kicking up their heels until a late hour, as lively as if the enemy were a thousand miles away. But hardly had the sun risen, when the sharp report of firearms on our right and rear awoke every one, and the word passed from mouth to mouth: “They are here! fall in, fall in! we are surprised! quick! quick! we are surrounded! fall in! fall in!” McCulloch was surprised, as none will venture to deny, and before his line was formed, loud drumming in Price's command convinced him that we were all alike in a precarious condition. Sigel, in fact, was attacking our right and rear with great vigor, and his shot and shell were bouncing into our camps and throwing every thing into confusion.

When our men had recovered from their excitement and formed line, it was found that Sigel had already advanced some distance, while Lyon, hearing that Sigel was fairly engaged, pushed the centre and left with great energy. Totten's battery was admirably posted on an eminence, and ploughed up the ground in our front. Yet there old Price, our gallant commander, rode up and down the line, with white hair streaming in the wind, cheering, forming, and encouraging his ragged musketeers, who, by their incessant discharges and their accurate aim, stopped Lyon's advance, and equalized the fight in the centre and left, while McCulloch was stemming the storm on the right and rear. Observing the destructive effect of the fire of Sigel's guns, McCulloch, determined to make a bold dash, and, if possible, silence them. Collecting a few Louisianians, he rushed to the right and rear, and found one of our batteries already engaged in that quarter. Some confusion was caused by the accuracy of our fire, taking advantage of which, McCulloch dashed forward with his companies, and before the enemy could recover from their astonishment, five guns fell into our hands, and other forces instantly following up the movement, our irregular horse dashed in upon them with a terrific yell, discharging their shot-guns, rifles, and revolvers, at short distance, captured their sixth and last piece, and began cutting and slashing about them with the wildest fury. Sigel was totally routed! His infantry, opposed to ours, were not better than Dutchmen usually are; and their flight was expedited by artillery, which hammered away at them, dropping [63] shell into every little group, and clearing our whole front in that direction.

But while the battle progressed in our favor on the right, Lyon was pushing Price with great vigor in the centre and left. Our men stood manfully to their guns against the accurate and deadly fire of the Federal “regulars,” but their loss was considerable, for the enemy occupied a hill, and every advance upon them was opposed by discharges from their whole force. At length, owing to the success of our right, Price was reenforced both with men and artillery; perceiving which, it was obvious to Lyon that nothing short of desperate courage could turn the tide now setting against him. Rallying his forces in a gallant manner, he rode to their front, and waving a handkerchief, cheered them on, making himself a conspicuous mark for our musketeers. He had been wounded in the leg early in the day, but rode to the rear, had it dressed, and laughingly observed that “all was going on well,” and “he'd turn up trumps before night.” As our men advanced up the hill against the masses of infantry launched against them, Lyon (whom I recognized, on the field, having frequently seen him in St. Louis) was riding, hastily from point to point, cheering and leading his men; but when we reached the top of the hill he was not to be seen, and I concluded he must have fallen by one of the many muskets that were pointed at him.

On reaching the brow of the hill, we found the enemy strongly posted, and apparently determined to make a stout resistance. We cheered, and made a rush for the. guns, but masses of their infantry came forward and protected the retreat; and it was not until our whole force was collected and hurled at this point, that they finally gave way, and left the field in great confusion. Having secured the field, the wildest excitement and howling ensued; our cavalry were sent forward to follow them up, but little was effected. We captured many prisoners and arms, besides ammunition and stores. We pursued the enemy several miles, and then returning to camp, made ourselves comfortable on the good things which had fallen to our lot. The body of poor Lyon was found among the dead, and was decently coffined and sent to Springfield for interment. It was discovered that two small buckshot had [64] penetrated, one above, and another below, the left nipple: death must have been almost instantaneous.1

In this action, we captured six cannon, many wagons, a quantity of stores, and five or six hundred stand of arms. Our loss was estimated at two hundred and fifty killed, and one thousand wounded and missing; of these Price claims to have lost one hundred and fifty killed, and five hundred wounded. The loss of the Federals in killed, wounded, and prisoners, was about two thousand. Of the battle-field I can say little, except that our safety was due to the impetuosity and valor of our men, as both Sigel and Lyon crept upon us during night, and took up commanding positions, from which the latter was driven with much difficulty, and not until after an obstinate and bloody fight. We ought to thank God that things turned out so favorably for us, as the most sanguine could never-have anticipated such a complete overthrow of the enemy.

When our troops had fully rested themselves,. and the various departments were reduced to a better system of daily routine, it was the desire of Price to move on with the whole army towards the Upper Missouri, seize the enemy's stores, supply the unarmed with weapons, and, if need be, procure them upon the battle-field, ere the foe could recover from his late defeat, and mature fresh plans. As one reason, I ought to mention that information was constantly reaching us that Fremont, the new Federal Commander-in-Chief, was actively [65] engaged in forming a large army in St. Louis, and, having unlimited funds and supplies, was likely to take the field in great strength. The desire of Price, however, did not meet with the approval of General McCulloch, who wished to fall back. on the frontier of Arkansas, and allow the enemy to weary themselves in hunting for him. Price was patriotic enough to waive every personal consideration, but in this case his judgment was against concession, and as the State had not then “formally” seceded, he held no commission under the Confederate seal, and, was not bound to obey McCulloch. Accordingly, finding there was no prospect of arriving at unanimity, either in sentiment or action, he pushed forward alone towards the Missouri, and was everywhere hailed as the chief and father of all. You never saw such patriotism as was displayed on every hand; and although, at best, we were a poor undrilled body of adventurers living upon the public, and trusting to heaven for supplies, our regiments and brigades were animated with a burning enthusiasm for action, and an unbounded confidence in our leader, which were enough to carry us through any enterprise.

Everywhere, as we proceeded, signs were multiplied of the wanton waste and recklessness of the Dutch dastards and Northern fanatics in the pay of Fremont. He was the most ultra abolitionist who could be found, and Frank Blair pointed him out as “of the right stripe” --the “coming man” --“one who would put the war upon a proper footing! seize and confiscate the property of all who dared oppose the ruling system of Northern Government,” etc. Truly the barbarities of our enemies are beyond all description. All law-save military law — is suspended, banks robbed of specie, wealthy men “.compelled” to contribute largely for the wholesale destruction of friends and relatives, to say nothing of their political rights; prisons full in every city where their rule is paramount; Habeas Corpus laughed at, dwellings seized, property confiscated, negroes sold and carried away, farms destroyed, cattle driven off, barns, houses, burned before their owners' eyes, while mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters, are insulted and disgraced, and oftentimes murdered. All this is true. God forbid I should exaggerate; and were I willing to do so, things are so bad they could not be painted worse, with all the coloring in the world. Our whole [66] march to this place has presented harrowing sights-widows, wives, children, and the aged, standing houseless by the wayside, their homes in flames and ruins, “because the rebels are coming, and it is a military necessity!”

You will not ask if they are Missourians who have done these things; you know the character of our fellowcountry-men too well. These destroyers are the valiant German and Dutch heroes of Sigel, runaways from battle-fields, who show their paltry spite to helpless little ones, whose fathers and brothers are fighting for freedom of thought, word, and action. Heaven forbid that the name of Missourians should be placed on such a record! Yet there are ambitious leaders among them, who riot in devastation, and care not who perish, so they may rule. A German republic or empire is their dream, and already their general is assuming all the trumpery and airs of foreign courts — already he travels in state, has a German bodyguard, tricked out in what appears to be the cast-off finery of a third-class theatrical wardrobe. When he travels on the river, an entire steamboat is not more than sufficient to accommodate the majesty of Fremont; guards pace before his door night and day; servants in gay livery hand around catawba on silver waiters; grooms and orderlies flit about like poor imitations of the same class of servants in German cities, while the ruling language of the court is very low Dutch, redolent of lager-beer and schnapps But to return to the true object of this hurried letter.

From those constantly arriving in camp, it was ascertained beyond a doubt that Fremont was strongly fortifying all important cities on the Missouri River, to serve as a safe base of operations, whence supplies could be easily transported into the interior by wagon-trains or boats. Lexington, held by Colonel Mulligan and a heavy force, was known to be strongly fortified, and being on high ground, it commanded all approaches from the interior, while the river was kept open for the transit of any number of troops from St. Louis. Price determined to march forward and attack it, but was informed that large bands of outlaws from Kansas, under General Jim Lane and others, were devastating the whole country on his left flank, and threatened to get in his rear. Suddenly diverging from his proper [67] route, Price sent Rains and Parsons up in that direction, with a small force of determined men; and so secretly was the expedition conducted, that they unexpectedly came upon Lane at a creek called Drywood, and after. a confused fight of some hours, drove the enemy from the field, pushed forward to their headquarters at Fort Scott, and captured it, with every thing intact. Joining the column under Price again, our army of five thousand effectives and five guns pushed forward towards Lexington, and arrived in the vicinity on the thirteenth of September.

Our “irregular” horse (for I can call them nothing else) did good service in scouring the country for supplies, and keeping the enemy within the lines of the town, and although frequently invited to combat, the noble Yankees remained quietly within their chain of breastworks, and refused every offer. By the eighteenth, our ammunition-wagons and artillery had arrived, and the infantry being sufficiently rested, Price broke up his encampment at the Fair Grounds, several miles from town, and advanced against the city. The Fair Grounds, I may tell you, would have proved an admirable position for us had the enemy ventured to attack; indeed, it was surmised that, upon hearing of our appearance at Lexington, Fremont would have collected his available force in St. Louis, and coming up in boats, reenforced Mulligan, and chased us out of the country.

Our General was aware of the strength of the city, and made his dispositions accordingly. He knew there were Several steamboats under the bluff, and that the enemy's supply of water depended entirely upon the river. An assault was out of the question, as the college buildings and other strong edifices had been converted into forts, and mounted with guns which swept every approach. Our men knew, however, that there were immense supplies of all kinds in the place, including cannon, horses, wagons, ambulances, thousands of small-arms, important state documents, and much specie, which had been robbed from banks throughout the country; and as some thought the officers were too slow and careful in approaching through the outskirts, they resolved to charge the enemy's line of intrenchments placed higher up in town. They made the trial, and suffered considerably, and were then satisfied that cautious measures were the best. Rains's force moved forward, and [68] without much opposition occupied a good position north-north-east of the breastworks, and with two batteries maintained an effective and destructive fire upon them, from which there was no escape; Parsons moved up south-south-west, and was also favorably posted; each of these brigades having supports-within call, should the enemy sally down from the hill, and attempt to dislodge them from their hastily-constructed field-works. A heavy body of sharpshooters, thrown out in front, were ready to harass and cut off the gunners, and all such as might appear in sight carrying water from the river or the wells. By these operations gradual approach was made upon the foe, who lost every hour from the deadly accuracy of our skirmishers, and made several attempts to dislodge them, without success.

While these events were transpiring at Lexington, Price received word (September eighteenth) that General D. R. Atcheson (formerly President of the United States Senate) and Colonel Saunders were coming down the north bank of the river to support him. Having reached a point twenty-five miles above the city, two thousand of this force crossed with Saunders, Atcheson being left in charge of the remainder. General Jim Lane, however, was also approaching in the same direction with a heavy force of his Kansas ‘Jayhawkers’ to reenforce Mulligan in Lexington, and, finding Atcheson with so small a force, vigorously attacked him. The Missourians knew these ‘Jayhawkers’ of old, in many a border fight, and, taking to the woods, they maintained such a murderous fire that Lane was soon routed, with a loss of more than two hundred, while Atcheson lost but ten! The Missourians then effected a junction with Price, and instilled new ardor into the whole army.

Lane was defeated, but now it was known that Sturgis was approaching, also, on the north bank, his object being to cross over and assist Mulligan, with over fifteen hundred cavalry. To accomplish this, he depended upon the ferry-boats for transportation; but these boats, lying snugly under the bluff, Price determined to capture, at whatever cost, particularly as a large steamboat also lying there was reported to contain considerable quantities of stores. Directing Colonel Rives to this point, that officer carefully approached from the west, along the river's edge, partly within view of the fortifications, and [69] effected the important capture in gallant style, removing the vessels beyond reach of destruction. Mulligan saw the manoeuvre when too late, but opened a vigorous fire upon the party, and as many men fell, on account of the enemy's possession of a house on top of the bluff, several companies were detailed to attack it. Although advancing under a deadly fire from musketry and artillery, the Missourians took the house in gallant style, but not without loss; nor were they allowed to hold it with impunity. As this house was within one hundred and fifty yards of his main works, and could be made to command them, Mulligan collected a strong force, sallied forth, and retook it, slaughtering its captors without mercy: not one man was spared. Still the enemy were not allowed to retain possession; our forces, having attacked and carried the high grounds to the north, so pounded the house from this position that it was soon vacated as untenable.

Thus we were gaining ground on all sides, and the enemy's position becoming more and more circumscribed every hour; while our artillery, moving upon conquered positions, blazed away right and left, sweeping every thing before them. Mulligan's position, however, was still a strong one, and he could have held out for a long time, but, being completely cut off from water, his men were failing in strength every hour. Hearing that Sturgis was fast approaching the north ferry landing, Price got up steam on his captured boats, and transported a strong force over to that side, under Parsons, who managed the enterprise so warily, that Sturgis barely escaped capture; his whole command retreated in the wildest disorder, leaving hundreds of tents, camp equipage, and large stores behind, untouched.

Since the first opening skirmishes on the thirteenth, we had gradually worked our way through the town; but real business, as I have said, commenced on the eighteenth, and this with great success on every hand. It now being the twentieth, over fifty hours of incessant fire had been maintained on both sides, the loss of the enemy being very considerable. Seeing his boats captured, and that Lane and Sturgis, instead of fighting their way to him, had “ skedaddled” in all directions, Mulligan showed evident signs of yielding, and it must be remembered [70] that he found it impossible to obtain water for his men, who were on constant duty night and day. At the same time, fearful of Fremont's or some other officer's arrival to raise the siege, our men redoubled their efforts, and maintained a heavy fire from every point, the result of which was that Mulligan hoisted a white flag on his works towards four P. M. on the twentieth. Firing then ceased, and loud, deafening yells from all points of the compass informed me that the brave Mulligan had unconditionally surrendered.

When the Federals stacked arms, and marched out, we found that we had captured four thousand effectives, rank and file, half a dozen colonels, one hundred and twenty commissioned officers, several stands of colors and brass bands, two mortars, five rifled guns, over four thousand stand of arms, scores of sabres, lots of cavalry and wagon harness, eight hundred horses, numerous wagons, mules ambulances, and medical outfits; immense supplies of every description; much clothing, shoes, tents, ammunition, and camp utensils, together with about one million dollars stolen from various banks, which we instantly returned. Mulligan's sword was politely returned to him by Price with a “neat speech,” and all the prisoners being paroled, were immediately sent North on their way rejoicing. Such jubilation was visible in every camp as I will not attempt to describe, although, from your description of Manassas, I suppose one scene is very much like another in this respect. My left arm was wounded in the assault on the bluff, and has caused me much suffering; but to keep my promise I have partly written and partly dictated this scrawl, so that you may form some idea of our doings. The mails between us are few and far between, but I look for a letter from you every days Love to all your boys and any old friends, for I suppose you meet old schoolmates every day in various regiments. I do not know how long Price will remain here, but, judging from reports and Fremont's uneasiness in St. Louis, suspect Price will be again moving, heaven only knows where, in a few days.

Yours always, Polk.

1 Major-General Nathaniel Lyon was a Connecticut Yankee of the abolition type; not more than forty-five years of age, small in stature, wiry, active, with dark hair and complexion, small black eyes; fond of military pomp, but an excellent, though restless, and ambitious officer. He entered the United States army as Second Lieutenant, July first, 1841; was made Captain by brevet, August twentieth, 1847; and arrived in St. Louis in April, 1861, having been sent from his post far in the South-West to stand a court-martial on the charge of peculation. His great activity in aiding the suppression of Southern feeling in St. Louis endeared him to the abolitionists; he seized the arsenal, erected defences round the city, disarmed the Camp Jackson Southern sympathizers, and rapidly rose from the rank of captain to that of Major-General in two months. His cruelty to all suspected of Southern sentiment, and in the administration of affairs, will long be remembered by all who had the misfortune to live under his brief and arbitrary rule. But his bravery was undoubted, and had his troops imitated his reckless daring, events might have proved very unfavorable to us in Missouri. His body was interred by us in a metallic coffin at Springfield, but subsequently given to his friends, who removed it north to Connecticut, where it now reposes beneath a costly monument.

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Sterling Price (25)
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