Artillery played a prevalent part in this early battle of the Civil War. The hardest fighting of the day took place in the meat of today's auto-tour, somewhat on a line between Stop 7 (the Bloody Hill) and Stop 3 (the East Overlook). With no cannon foundries in the south, every captured gun was an enormous prize.
Those persons crossing Wilson's Creek on the tour road will merely pass a pleasant stream, a serene place befitting the several joggers you're certain to encounter. To get a battlefield view of the creek though, you'll have to trace the historic track of the Old Wire Road, which also takes you past the Edwards Cabin (Price's headquarters) on its rude supports.
The Visitor Center is generally the best stopping place for another national park or battlefield tour. Though limited in its publications, the visitor center at Wilson's Creek will discuss anything about the battle or the progress of the Civil War in Missouri with whomever might ask.
Built in 1852, the Ray House is the main surviving structure associated with the battlefield. Before the war it was a "flag stop" on the Butterfield Overland Stage route (which brought nearby Springfield into prominence -- see my Springfield page). During the battle it served mainly as a Confederate hospital and also for a short time afterward, though dying Union general Lyons was brought here also at the end of the fighting.
At the foot of the hill in front of the Ray House, you can see a small stone structure that resembles a primitive oven. Though not resting on or near Wilson's Creek, the structure pooled water in a natural recess, providing the family's drinking water. Today, along with the actual house, the spring house is the only other surviving structure on the battlefield.
Stop 3 on the auto tour pinpoints the location of an Arkansas battery that halted the Union advance coming from the west on what was known as Bloody Hill. The artillery from here kept up a hot fire throughout the battle. The spot also marks (or nearly marks) the position of CSA General Price's headquarters. The point today occupies a woody ridge in the northwest of the battlefield, much as it did in 1861 (therefore the bad shadows).
The worst fighting at Wilson's Creek occurred to the west of the stream at a prominence later to be known as "Bloody Hill." The hill is due west of the Ray House, lies at almost an equal distance from Wilson's Creek, and sits at almost the same elevation. 4,000 Union men under Gen. Lyons held this high ground against repeated attacks, but at the end of the fighting, over 1,700 Union and Confederate soldiers had be killed or wounded here. Among the fatalities was Gen. Lyons.
The Visitor Center is open every day 8 - 5. It has a small museum with exhibits about the battle, a thirteen minute film (always a good deal at a NPS site), and a bookstore. There was supposed to be a fiber optics map program but it wasn't in operation when we were there. It had been sent to be repaired. The rangers said it was one of the most popular of the exhibits there. Also in the Visitor's Center is a research library which is open Tuesday to Saturday
We found out when we visited the Visitor's center that there is a 4.9 mile paved tour road. There are eight interpretive stops at significant points to the battle. There are five walking trails off the tour road for individual exploration, varying in length from one-fourth of a mile to three-fourths of a mile. Only automobiles, buses, walkers, bikers and horseback riders are allowed on this road, and bikes are only allowed on the road, not on the trails.
The tour around the battlefield is short (just under 5 miles), but offers a number of things to stop, see, and hike to. When you enter the park, you need to go to the visitor center to purchase a token that will open the gate to the one-way road. Take your time and obey the speed limits...it's not a long drive, and there are a number of rangers in the park. Overall, there are 8 defined stops, some of which I will highlight here, and there are several trail options you can hike if you want to stretch your legs.
The visitor center has some neat displays, restrooms, and a small gift shop, so it's best to start here in any case!
The first stop after going through the gate is a trailhead for a fairly easy 1 mile loop trek into the woods. You start by hiking through a field, and quickly start walking along Wilson's creek. The trail is flat and pleasant. Eventually, there are makers that show the site of farmer John Gibson's home and mill. The Gibson's were caught in the middle of the battle, but survived, and moved on after the war. The actual home site is an archeological site with some background on how it was discovered. This is a nice, peaceful walk to start your tour.
The second stop is this house that the Confederates used as a hospital during the battle. A Confederate Colonel died in the house during the battle. You can also see a small stone building in the distance where water came from for the Ray household (it's still intact from the war.) While you can't enter the house, you can stand on the porch and check out the home through the windows.
From the parking lot at stop 3, it's time for another modest hike, although this one does have a few elevation changes to it. You start down a trail that has a short, steep hill at the end that crosses Wire Road. From there, you can climb up a short, steep hill to see the Arkansas battery - where the confederates fired upon Bloody Hill to slow the union advance. Scramble back down the hill and head south, and you can cross Wilson's Creek to find General Price's Headquarters, which were in another family's front yard. Once you catch your breath, you can head back up the hill (1/4 mile) to get back to the parking lot.
We ran into a few rangers who mentioned there were deer running around throughout the park that morning. We hadn't seen any until we hit stop 5 (Siegel's Final Position.) There, as we looked across the cornfields, we saw a giant buck in the distance. We quietly watched for a while, before he got spooked and took off to the woods. The deer are another reason to be sure to pay attention to your speeds! There are a number of blind curves that you will go around in the park.
Perhaps the most significant stop in the park. It was here that the Union held the high ground throughout most of the battle. About 75% of the battle's casualties took place around the hill. As you leave your car, you can take a 1 mile trail to see some of the markers in the area. This includes several cannon Battery, a sinkhole where approximately 30 Union soldiers were buried, and the spot where General Lyon was mortally wounded. While there is a modest elevation change, the slope is quite gradual. A very impressive and interesting trail, it shouldn't be missed.
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