A Pristine Cultural Landscape: Wilson's Creek National Battlefield

Mar 21, 2016

Situated on some 2000 acres in southwestern Greene County, just outside the city limits of Republic, is the site of one of the most important early battles of the Civil War: the Battle of Wilson's Creek, August 10, 1861. It was, in fact, the first important Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi, in the so-called "Trans-Mississippi Theater" of operations.  On this Sense of Community program we're visiting the National Park Service site at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield.

The park's Superintendent, Ted Hillmer, gives various reasons why this plot of land is so important. "This is the only National Battlefield in the state of Missouri--I think that means something. The reason for that, I believe, and what Congress has stated (when authorizing the site as a National Park), is that it's the first (major) battle west of the Mississippi.  A lot of us known about the eastern campaigns of the Civil War--and that's all right. But there was something fought on the other side of the Mississippi River too. It was important to (Abraham) Lincoln that (Missouri) stay part of the Union... and how do you do that? Well, you've got to send soldiers here to do that. It was the first battle in which a Civil War Union general was killed in action, and that was General (Nathaniel) Lyon. Is that significant? I think so.  And the Union used (Lyon's) funeral as a tool to recruit Union soldiers."

While the Confederate forces won the Battle of Wilson's Creek--they held the land when the battle was over--it was extremely costly to both sides in terms of casualties and loss of life.  But interest in visiting and touring the site began surprisingly early--even before the war was over in 1865, according to Wilson's Creek National Battlefield Librarian Jeff Patrick. "It may seem odd," he says, "but actually soldiers during the War came to the Battlefield to see where the battle took place.  So while the (Civil) War was still going on it became a tourist attraction mere weeks after the battle, when Union soldiers came back into this area in October and November of 1861."

Later on there were reunions in the Springfield area to commemorate the battle, attended by both former Union and Confederate soldiers, says Jeff Patrick. "Veterans and their families came out here in great numbers, particularly in 1883 and 1897--those are the two big reunion years here at the Battlefield. But even apart from those two major reunions, soldiers would come out here individually, again with their families, and show them where they fought."

Certainly to locals the Wilson's Creek battle site has always been of great importance.  To the general public?  Not so much.  The Trans-Mississippi Theater in general was largely unknown to most Americans, who were more familiar with the eastern battles such as Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietum, Harper's Ferry, or Gettysburg. It took nearly a century before the Wilson's Creek site became a National Park, through the efforts of area business leaders like John Hulston, Lester Cox, M. Graham Clark and others.  Jeff Patrick calls them "the driving forces behind establishing this as a National park, preserving it as a Historic Site. And even so, it took a fair amount of persuasion to get this through Congress. Pea Ridge National Military Park (in Arkansas) had already been established.  Some Congressmen were saying, 'You already have a battlefield in the Trans-Mississippi Theater, just 75 miles from Wilson's Creek!  Why do you need Wilson's Creek?"

Congress was finally convinced of the site's historical importance, and Wilson's Creek National Battlefield was officially established in 1960.  The park's offerings were modest in the beginning, says park administrator Ted Hillmer. "There wasn't much here to begin with.  There was a lookout area with a platform, and there were two trailers over here on the west side of ZZ Highway.  And that was basically it for about 25 years (until the mid-1980s). And that was with probably five or six people, the National Park Service staff.  Today we have a Visitor's Center; we have a tour road; the Ray House, of course, was here at that time too, but we didn't own that (yet); probably the finest artifact collection in the United States for the Trans-Mississippi (Theater)--that's right here in Republic, Missouri. We have one of the best 'cultural landscapes' in the United States to preserve a battlefield. I think it's very pristine, and we have at least 80 percent of the actual land mass that the battle was fought on--that's rare in itself." (The other 20 percent is on privately-owned land that the National Park Service could conceivably buy--if the owners are ever willing to sell.)

By "cultural landscape," Ted means keeping the battlefield site looking as original as possible by clearing out tree and brush growth, to maintain, at least partially, the "open savannah" terrain upon which the battle was fought--about 18 trees per acre, says Ted Hillmer. So they do carely-monitored prescribed burns on occasion.

In all there are eight tour stops along the paved road that traverses the 2,020 acre property. And on the morning I visited there were numerous area residents bringing their children to the Battlefield for the first time. Jennifer Brushwood of Republic moved to the area from Indiana, and says she and her family "drove past here a couple of times but never stopped.  And I thought it would be something good (to do).  I just didn't realize there was such a rich history right here. So it's been a good experience."  Meanwhile, Jerry Campbell and his family live in Buffalo, MO--his son is a 4th-grader who is "interested in the Civil War. And that was probably the last time I came, when we took our school field trip here." "So you came as a kid yourself," I said.  "I did, I did," he replied. "I think I was more interested in just the events--now it's more of the history that I'm probably interested in." Asked what he hoped his son would take away from the visit, Jerry said, "probably, what it took to make our nation the way it is now, and the things that he can now do--and learn about."

If you'd like more information on Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, call (417) 732-2662 or visit http://www.nps.gov/wicr.