On Saturday, Aug. 10, 1861, 154 years ago, the woods and corn fields along Wilson's Creek in southwest Missouri were ringing with the sounds of battle. The booms of cannons and rifles, the pitiful screams of the wounded and dying, the terrified neighing of horses -- it was surely a scene straight out of Dante's Inferno.
But on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015, the only sounds were the steady buzz of cicadas, the call of birds and the wind gently whispering through the leaves overhead as I walked along the trails that weave from site to site at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, southwest of Springfield, Mo.
The first major Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River, the battle marked the beginning of the Civil War in Missouri. It was considered a Confederate victory, but the southern troops weren't able to capitalize on the victory. Early the next year, in March 1862, the Union troops won a decisive victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge, in northwest Arkansas. That Union victory quashed Confederate hopes of occupying Missouri, although battles, skirmishes and raids, mostly guerilla warfare, continued in Missouri for more than three years.
The battles of Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge, although smaller in scale than Gettysburg or Shiloh, were crucial to the outcome of the war. A seven-mile driving tour of the battlefield, with stops to read the signage and ponder the events, will help visitors understand what happened here and why it mattered.
The battle was shocking to both sides in sheer carnage -- 1,317 losses for the Union troops and 1,222 for the Confederates, coming to almost 25 percent of the troops. In addition, Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, a West Point graduate, was killed, becoming the first Union general to die in battle in the Civil War.
The place to begin is in the Visitors Center, where recently renovated displays tell the story of this battle and the region's involvement in the Civil War. Take time to watch the 27-minute video; it will enable you to better understand what you will then see on the tour. There are maps, exhibits and a library, as well as a bookstore and gift shop.
Along the driving route, you will see the restored house of the John Ray family, on whose farm the battle raged. The house is furnished with period decor and is open for special programs. Other stops include the site of a grist mill, a springhouse, a cabin, sinkholes, several cannons, rail fences, and the creek itself. The 1,947 acre site is laced with trails that are open for hiking, cycling and horseback riding.
For more information about Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, visit www.nps.gov/wicr or call the park at 417-732-2662. There is an admission fee. The park is open daily; closed Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.
The battlefield, which is managed by the National Park Service, is east of Republic and southwest of Springfield. From I-44, take Exit 70 south and follow MM to ZZ, turn right on ZZ and go to park. There is an admission fee.
If time allows, plan to visit both Wilson's Creek and its sister park, Pea Ridge, about 2 hours away in northwest Arkansas. For information about Pea Ridge National Military Park, visit www.nps.gov/peri or call 479-451-8122.