1861: Brother Against Brother


“[Warfare] might have been avoided, if forbearance and wisdom had been practiced on both sides.”

—Confederate general Robert E. Lee, February 17, 1866

Northern troops assembled for drill at Fort Richardson, a new fortification built to defend Washington, D.C. in 1861.

The Dawn of the Confederate States of America


Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his new cabinet were depicted in a lithograph assembling in Montgomery, Alabama in 1861.

In the six weeks that followed South Carolina’s secession, a half dozen more Southern states voted to leave the Union: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. By February, the seven states had agreed to send delegates to a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama to form a new government, and within days, attendees declared they had formed a provisional congress for a new nation, the Confederate States of America. The Montgomery conventioneers promptly adopted a constitution, chose former U.S. senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president, and former U.S. congressman Alexander Stephens of Georgia as vice president.

Judah P. Benjamin


In 1861, the Confederate congress appointed South Carolinian Judah P. Benjamin as Attorney General of the Confederacy—the first Jewish American cabinet member. He also served as the C.S. Secretary of State, and was President Davis’s closest friend and advisor. After the war he became a prominent attorney in Britain.

Building a Government from Scratch

Tiny Montgomery, the Confederacy’s new national capital, was soon jammed with politicians, soldiers, newspaper reporters, lobbyists, and office seekers. “Everybody who comes here wants an office,” observed the wife of a former U.S. senator. “And I thought we had left all that in Washington.”

The Confederate government modeled itself on the U.S. government, with a bicameral congress, a judiciary, and an executive branch. The Confederate Constitution resembled the U.S. Constitution, except that it limited the president and vice president to single six-year terms, prohibited tariffs on imports, promoted states’ rights, and clearly declared slavery to be legal.

An Overnight Switch

The Confederate congress also established six government departments: treasury, state, justice, war, navy, and post office—with former employees of the U.S. Post Office switching to the C.S. Post Office overnight. To create its first run of national currency, Confederate officials hired an engraving company in New York City. On February 18, 1861 in a ceremony on the front portico of the stately Alabama capitol, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the president of the Confederate States of America. A few months later, the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia.

In his inauguration speech, seen in this illustration, Confederate president Jefferson Davis stated his hope that “the beginning of our career as a Confederacy may not be obstructed by hostile opposition.”

The Lead-up to War

The conflict escalated as Southern states seceded and the North took action to preserve the Union.

1861 January 10–February 1 Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas seceded.

February 18 Jefferson Davis inaugurated president of the Confederate States of America.

March 4 Abraham Lincoln inaugurated president of the United States of America.

April 14 Fort Sumter surrendered to Confederate forces.

April 15 President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to suppress “insurrection.”

April 17 Virginia seceded.

April 19 President Lincoln ordered a naval blockade of Southern seaports.

May 6 Arkansas seceded.

May 20 North Carolina seceded.

June 8 Tennessee seceded.

July 21 Battle of First Bull Run—first major land battle of the Civil War.

Jefferson Davis: All We Ask Is to Be Left Alone


A presidential portrait of Jefferson Davis

Like Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis was born in central Kentucky in the first decade of the 19th century. There, however, the two men’s paths parted. While Lincoln traveled to the North, Davis and his family headed for the deep South. Davis grew up in Mississippi’s plantation culture, graduated from West Point, and served as an officer in the U.S. Army.

He married the daughter of future president Zachary Taylor, but she died from an illness soon after their wedding. Davis remarried, to Varina Howell of Natchez, Mississippi, pursued the planter’s life, and was elected to U.S. Congress. Davis resigned to command troops in the Mexican War, and became a war hero at the Battle of Buena Vista, which afterward helped him secure a seat from Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. In 1853, President Franklin Pierce appointed him U.S. secretary of war, but Davis returned to the Senate in 1857, rising to become the principal champion of the South, along with John C. Calhoun.

In the Rose Garden

Davis was pruning rose bushes at his Mississippi plantation in February 1861 when a courier arrived with a telegram offering him the presidency of the newly formed Confederate States. He left immediately for Montgomery and his new post. But while he defended the South and slavery, he was a reluctant secessionist. Davis spoke of being president “as a man might speak of a sentence of death,” his wife later said.

In 1845, Jefferson Davis, a widower, married Varina Howell. At 36, he was considerably older than his 19-year-old bride.

The Brockenbrough home, in Richmond, Virginia, became the Confederate president’s official residence when the Confederate capital was moved to the city.

Davis brought zeal and experience to the job. Like many Northern leaders, he considered himself to be faithful to the ideals of America’s founding fathers. In his inauguration speech, Davis called for a peaceful separation from the Union, while sounding a warning to the North: “the courage and patriotism of the people of the Confederate States will be found equal to any measures of defense which honor and security may require.”

As the Confederate president, Davis was a gifted leader of high character with a clear vision for the new nation. “All we ask is to be left alone,” he implored the North. Davis’s military experience, however, hampered his effectiveness as commander in chief. He was criticized for over-managing the affairs of subordinates and accused of being dogmatic and inflexible.

The first Confederate National Flag: the “Stars and Bars”

The Confederate battle flag: the “Starry Cross”

The Stars and Bars and the Starry cross

A Nod to the Union

During the early months of 1861, the Flag and Seal Committee of the Confederate worked to create a national flag that was red, white, and and blue in a nod to the Union’s “Stars and Stripes.”

The chosen design, adopted in March, is credited to a Prussian-born Alabama portrait artist named Nichola Marschall. But the banner looked so much like the U.S. flag that it caused confusion on the battlefield and military leaders developed the “Starry Cross” battle flag as an alternative.

Throughout the war, the Confederate congress continued to propose new versions of a national flag. The last one was adopted barely a month before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865.

Abraham Lincoln: An Unlikely President


At age 51, former U.S. congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois became the 16th president of the United States presiding over a broken nation.

Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol to a crowd of nearly 25,000 people, and security was of the utmost importance. The president-elect had received many death threats—more than 10,000 would come throughout his time as president—and it was known that secessionists sought to impede his inauguration.

“I hold myself . . . the humblest of all individuals that have ever been elevated to the presidency,” Abraham Lincoln told supporters while en route to his inauguration at the Capitol in Washington, D.C on March 4, 1861.

Certainly Lincoln had one of the most modest backgrounds of all U.S. presidents. He was born in a crude one-room cabin in Kentucky in 1809, and by age nine had witnessed the deaths of a baby brother and his mother. His father, who remarried, moved the family from one farm to another in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.

The constant uprooting meant Lincoln only received about a year of formal schooling, but he studied history, math, and other subjects on his own.

In 1830, the family moved to New Salem, Illinois, and a year later, at 22, Lincoln set out on his own. He first served a brief stint as a captain of militia in an Indian uprising known as the Black Hawk War, then worked as a storekeeper, a village postmaster, and a road surveyor. Finally, in his late 20s, Lincoln taught himself the law and was licensed to practice in Springfield, the state capital.

Dismissed as a Backwoods Rube

Lincoln prospered as an attorney and over the next twenty years he became one of the highest-paid railroad lawyers in Illinois. He married Kentucky belle Mary Todd, and together they had four sons. In 1846, he was elected to the U.S. Congress. After just one term, Lincoln returned to Illinois, first winning a seat in the state legislature, then quitting to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as a Republican. That race, against incumbent proslavery Democrat Stephen Douglas, helped Lincoln garner support that would fuel his run for the White House in 1860.

As a presidential candidate, Lincoln was considered a moderate. He was ardently committed to preserving the Union and opposed to slavery, but was willing to allow the practice in the Southern states where it existed. The views, however, did not earn him respect in the eastern political establishment. He was dismissed him as a backwoods rube whose election was a disastrous fluke, and newspapers throughout the North declared him unfit for the presidency.

Undeterred, Lincoln kept his focus on saving the Union. At his inauguration, he urged the Southern states to return to the fold, citing “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave” that united all Americans. He also issued what many Southerners took as a threat: “I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union shall be faithfully executed in all the States. . . .”

Born into a prominent slave-owning family in Kentucky, Mary Todd was a witty, vivacious Southern belle who met Abraham Lincoln while visiting a sister in Illinois. The two married in 1842.

First Fire on Fort Sumter


Based on eyewitness accounts, this 1861 color lithograph by Northern publisher Currier & Ives depicted the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

At twilight on December 26, 1860, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson issued a surprise order to the U.S. troops posted to Charleston, South Carolina: Pack up and be ready to move out in 20 minutes. Anderson was the senior U.S. Army officer in Charleston and was alarmed that the Palmetto State had seceded. He wanted to relocate his garrison to the most defensible position under his command: an army post on a small island in the middle of Charleston’s harbor known as Fort Sumter.

South Carolina officials viewed Anderson’s move as an act of war. Governor Francis Pickens officially asked federal authorities in Washington to withdraw the major and his garrison. Instead, outgoing President James Buchannan dispatched an unarmed ship, the Star of the West, to reinforce Fort Sumter. On January 9, 1861—in what was arguably the first shot of the Civil War—the Star of the West was turned back by artillery fire from South Carolina troops as it approached Charleston.

A State for a Fort

By the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March, Anderson and his men had prepared for battle and Fort Sumter had become the standoff between the North and the South. Charleston Harbor was ringed with artillery batteries manned by Confederate soldiers. President Davis insisted that no Federal soldiers could remain on Confederate land and even offered to pay to transport Anderson and his men elsewhere. But Lincoln’s cabinet was divided on whether to evacuate the fort. The president openly considered a proposal to abandon Fort Sumter if Virginia in exchange would agree to remain in the Union. “A state for a fort is not a bad business,” he declared.

Major Robert Anderson, the Northern commander of Fort Sumter, was a former instructor at West Point, where he had taught General Beauregard, the Confederate commander opposing him at Charleston.

Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, the commander of the Southern forces that bombarded Fort Sumter, considered Major Anderson to be a friend.

Major Robert Anderson, seated second from the left in the front row, and the officers who served under him at Fort Sumter

In April of 1861, Fort Sumter was a newly constructed masonry fortification built on a small island in Charleston’s harbor. It was named for Revolutionary War hero General Thomas Sumter.

After U.S. Army forces surrendered, the Confederate flag was raised over the fort’s burned-out barracks and battered ramparts.

Major Robert Anderson


As tensions mounted at Fort Sumter, unionists believed that having Major Robert Anderson, a Southerner, hold the fortress would be seen as a conciliatory gesture to the Confederates and stave off an attack. The strategy failed, but even after Anderson surrendered, he was hailed as a hero in North. He went on a tour recruiting soldiers and raising money for the Union cause.

Time to Fight or Back Down?

Southern officials examined one of the fort’s artillery pieces following the surrender.

Confederate artillery was trained on Charleston Harbor. In the distance, Fort Sumter rose above the harbor waters.

Complicating the crisis, Lincoln’s secretary of state William Henry Seward opened backdoor negotiations with the South using former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, a Confederate sympathizer, as an intermediary. Seward assured the Southern leaders that Lincoln would abandon Fort Sumter, and Confederate commander General P.G.T. Beauregard opened negotiations with Major Anderson on how to best evacuate the stronghold.

Instead of evacuating Fort Sumter, however, President Lincoln officially notified South Carolina governor Francis Wilkinson Pickens that he was dispatching a military expedition to resupply it.

Confederate leaders felt betrayed. Believing it was time to either fight or back down, President Davis ordered General Beauregard to open fire if Major Anderson refused to surrender. When a Southern delegation brought Anderson the ultimatum, the major explained that he could not surrender without orders. Solemnly, he and the Southerners shook hands and said good-bye. “If we never meet in this world again,” Anderson said, “God grant that we may meet in the next.”

Opening a Thunderous Attack

At 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861, the Confederate artillery batteries opened a thunderous attack on Fort Sumter. Across the harbor in Charleston, residents watched the bombardment from their rooftops; some wept. Anderson’s troops returned fire with Fort Sumter’s artillery, but they were outgunned. At 1:00 PM the next day, with the fort barracks ablaze and the fire threatening the nearby powder magazine, Major Anderson agreed to surrender.

Unlike the four-year bloodbath that would follow, no one on either side was killed during the fighting. The conflict’s sole death occurred on April 14, during the official surrender ceremony, when Major Anderson’s troops were firing a salute to the U.S. flag. A cannon exploded, slaying an Irish-born private named Daniel Hough. He was the first of more than 620,000 Americans who would die in the Civil War.

General P.G.T. Beauregard


Born on a Louisiana sugar plantation, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard trained as a civil engineer and served in the Mexican-American War under General Winfield Scott. He was the first Confederate brigadier general to be named in the Civil War, though he had tense relationships with his commanding officers and President Jefferson Davis. During the stand off at Fort Sumter, Beauregard sent U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson, his former instructor at West Point, cases of brandy and cigars as a gesture of respect. Anderson refused them.

Witness to War: The Diary of Mary Chestnut


Mary Boykin Chestnut was among the many Charlestonians who watched the bombardment of Fort Sumter from their rooftops, as depicted in this 1861 newspaper image.

South Carolinian Mary Boykin, above, and her husband James were active in the ruling circles of the Confederate States government. Her wartime journal entries were eventually published as A Diary from Dixie and became a classic of Civil War literature.

When Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, one of the civilians who witnessed it was South Carolinian Mary Boykin Chestnut. The daughter of a South Carolina governor, Mary was married to James Chestnut, Jr., a former U.S. senator from South Carolina who served as an aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard. Although Mary Chestnut personally despised slavery, she was devoted to the South and enthusiastically supported the Confederacy. She began keeping a diary early in the war, and continued it throughout the conflict. Her proximity to key people and events produced an extraordinary eyewitness account of the Civil War, which would be published long after her death asA Diary from Dixie. In April of 1861, she observed the bombardment of Fort Sumter from a Charleston rooftop—as reported in this excerpt from her diary:

No sleep for anybody last night. The streets were alive with soldiers, men shouting, marching, singing. . . . Today things seem to have settled down a little. One can but hope still.

Lincoln and Seward have made such silly advances and then far sillier drawings back. There may be a chance for peace, after all. Things are happening so fast. . . . Why did that green goose Anderson go into Fort Sumter? Then everything began to go wrong. . . .

April 12, 1861

I did not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms—at four—the orders are—he shall be fired upon. I count four—Saint Michael chimes. I begin to hope. At half-past four, the heaving booming of a cannon.

I sprang out of bed. And on my knees—prostrate—I prayed as I never prayed before.

There was a sound of stir all over the house—pattering of feet in the corridor—all seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop.

The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say, “waste of ammunition.”

I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay. And that the shells were roofing it over—bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate—he was to order the forts on our side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon—there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction.

The women were wild, there on the housetop. Prayers from the women and imprecations from the men, and then a shell would light up the scene. . . .”

On to Richmond!


Throughout the North, volunteers rushed to join the Federal army in response to the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

In response to the capture of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to invade the South and “suppress the insurrection.” Each state was expected to provide a quota of troops, and men poured forth to defend the Union. North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas, the four states of the upper South that were still in the Union, however, balked: They refused to supply troops to invade the Confederacy and would bar Northern armies from crossing into their territory to do so. The four rebel governments promptly seceded and joined the Confederacy, giving the new nation a total of eleven states.

In the South, President Davis called for 150,000 volunteers to defend against Northern invasion. Southerners matched the Union in its patriotic fervor, filling army units with young soldiers ready to defend their homeland.

The conscripts flooded cities and towns in North and South and were sent to huge training camps where they were organized into companies, regiments, brigades, corps, and armies. Although swelling with enthusiasm and trained on both sides by veterans of the prewar U.S. Army, the volunteers who raced to fight were amateurs.

Predicting Heavy Bloodshed

In May 1861, the Confederate congress voted to move the Confederacy’s national capital from backwater Montgomery to Richmond, Virginia, a more populous city that was also a transportation hub, major river port, and a rare Southern industrial center. Relocating the Confederate capital to Virginia guaranteed that the state would become the seat of the conflict, although almost no one in the North or the South expected the war to be long or bloody. Many naive leaders on both sides believed their side would win with a single decisive battle, and within three months. Accordingly, volunteers on both sides were issued 90-day enlistments.

It was commonly boasted in the South that “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed”—and one Southern politician famously vowed to drink it. A few thought differently. “This country will be drenched in blood,” predicted William T. Sherman, a Northerner heading a Southern military academy, “and God only knows how it will end.” Northern newspaper editorials urged President Lincoln to move quickly, capture the Confederate capital and declare victory. “On to Richmond!” became the battle cry of the Union Forces.

A patriotic lithograph encouraged Northern men to join the army in 1861.

Ready to fight for the Union, an Ohio volunteer armed with a smoothbore musket and fixed bayonet struck a fierce pose for the photographer.

New recruits to the 4th Georgian Infantry assembled beneath the Confederate National Flag in early 1861. Similar scenes occurred throughout the South.

Aware that they might never return home, many soldiers had their photo taken, sometimes alone, sometimes with their families.

General Winfield Scott’s Derided “Anaconda Plan”


General Winfield Scott’s career mirrored America’s military history. He had served in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War and also introduced U.S. troops to Napoleonic strategies.

General Winfield Scott, who in 1861 had been general-in-chief of the U.S. Army for twenty years, liked to note that he was one year older than the U.S. Constitution.

His career certainly mirrored the young country’s military history. During the War of 1812, Scott was the nation’s youngest general, leading the troops against the British. His operations in the Mexican War set a model for a generation of West Pointers. He also authored the military’s first tactics manual and its first comprehensive set of regulations. He introduced American troops to Napoleonic battle strategies.

Siding With the Union Cause

A Southerner from Virginia, Scott had chosen to stay with the Union when the nation came apart. During the Fort Sumter crisis, he had advised Lincoln to evacuate the fort as a goodwill gesture to the South and to buy time for Southern emotions to calm. The new president had ignored the advice, however, and appeared more impressed with younger, brasher commanders.

Following the Union’s defeat at Fort Sumter, Lincoln turned to Scott for advice and asked for a plan to win the war. What he received in turn ran counter to the popular opinion of the day: The war could indeed be won, but it would be long and potentially bloody.

A cartoon map illustrating General Scott’s plan, which Northern newspapers laughingly called his “Anaconda Plan.” In the end, Scott’s maligned strategy would win the war for the North.

Scott’s strategy called for a mighty naval blockade that would bottle up the entire Southern coastline on both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The operation would prevent the South from exporting cotton to finance the war and from importing weapons from Britain and France. Meanwhile, a complicated joint army-navy operation would split the Confederacy by capturing the Mississippi River from Memphis to New Orleans. Northern troops would then conquer the South piecemeal until the Confederacy was destroyed. The strategy would take years, Scott explained, but the South would eventually be squeezed to death, as if in the grip of a giant serpent.

Northern newspapers derisively dubbed it the “Anaconda Plan.” They also heaped ridicule on the old general and within a few months, General Scott retired. Four years later when the Civil War ended, it was Scott’s visionary plan that had led to Northern victory.

Early Action In Western Virginia

The war begins with small engagements.

In the summer and fall of 1861, Northern and Southern forces battled for control of the mountainous region of northwestern Virginia, which later became the state of West Virginia. Small but fierce battles were fought at Philippi, Rich Mountain, Carrick’s Ford, Carnifex Ferry, and Cheat Mountain.

Beauregard and McDowell Face Off at First Bull Run


In July of 1861, a 37,000-man Northern army lumbered out of its camp near Washington, D.C. and marched through the sweltering summer heat in fits and starts. They were amateurs, led by 42-year-old Brigadier General Irwin McDowell, who had complained to President Lincoln that his men were not ready for battle. “You are green it is true,” Lincoln replied, “but [the Confederates] are green also.”

The army’s destination was Manassas Junction, Virginia, located about 30 miles southwest, where two Southern railroads connected. There McDowell intended to battle 22,000 Confederate troops, commanded by the Southern hero of Fort Sumter, General P.G.T. Beauregard. Trailing McDowell’s army out of Washington was a parade of buggies filled with civilians, who cheerfully endured the army’s dust so they could see the Southerners thrashed.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, the Southern hero of Fort Sumter, commanded the Confederate army at Manassas, Virginia—the target of General McDowell’s Federal forces.

Brigadier General Irwin McDowell commanded Federal forces at the Battle of Bull Run. “Victory! Victory!” he shouted at one point—and too soon, events would prove otherwise.

Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston and 11,000 Southern troops reached the Bull Run battlefield in time to reinforce Confederate forces.

Bull Run Creek, which cut through the northern Virginia countryside near Manassas Junction, gave the war’s first major land battle its name.

General Irvin McDowell


Irvin McDowell had served in the Mexican-American War and been decorated for heroism after the Battle of Buena Vista. Although a career soldier, and a former West Point tactics instructor, McDowell spent much of his career prior to the war in staff roles, and he had no practical experience of higher command in combat situations until his promotion to Brigadier General in 1861. He was relieved of command following the Battle of Second Bull Run.

A Clash of Amateurs

Confederate commander Thomas Jonathan Jackson known after the Battle of First Bull Run as “Stonewall.”

At Manassas Junction, a home belonging to Judith Henry Carter was wrecked in battle.

On July 21, 1861, McDowell’s army attacked Beauregard’s force along Bull Run Creek near Manassas.

At the outset, it appeared the North with its larger force had the upper hand, but at the last minute Beauregard was reinforced by 11,000 troops who were rushed to the scene by rail. After hours of fighting, the Union suddenly slammed into a determined opposition led by Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson. A 37-year-old former instructor from the Virginia Military Academy, Jackson blasted advancing Union troops with artillery he had amassed atop the battlefield Henry Hill. “Look men!” shouted a Southern officer. “There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”

Both sides fought ferociously, but Jackson decided the outcome as Beauregard advanced his entire line. The Federal army folded in retreat, jamming the road back to Washington with wild-eyed soldiers and civilians. Although small in comparison to the bloodbaths that would follow, the 3,600 casualties of the Battle of Bull Run shocked North and South alike. The Civil War’s first major land battle had been fought—and it had ended in a spectacular Southern victory.

Captured at First Bull Run, Northern prisoners of war posed for a Southern photographer after being shipped to a makeshift prison in Charleston, South Carolina.

After the battle, on the edge of a muddy bog, crude plank headboards were erected over soldiers’ graves.

Battle of Ball’s Bluff

On October 21, 1861, approximately 1,700 Northern troops suffered a humiliating defeat by Southern forces at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, which occurred on the Virginia side of the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. The inexperienced Federal commander, Colonel Edward D. Baker, above—a close friend of President Lincoln—was killed in the battle.

A Bloody Day at Wilson’s Creek


Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon attempted to rally Northern troops at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, where he was mortally wounded. The dramatic scene was printed in Northern newspapers.

Throughout 1861, Federal and Confederate forces scrambled to control the large border state of Missouri with its important river port of St. Louis. By late summer, Southern forces had been driven into the southwestern corner of the state, near the town of Springfield. There, on August 10, 1861, Northern and Southern armies engaged in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. The battle would later become known as the Bull Run of the West.

Ragtag Soldiers, Experienced Generals

The Northerners were lead by Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, a fiery redheaded West Pointer, who launched a surprise attack against a Southern army twice its size. The ambush panicked some of the ragtag Confederates, but not their commander. Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, a former Texas Ranger and veteran of the prewar U.S. Army, brought up artillery and unleashed a devastating fire that scattered many of Lyon’s men as they were looting the Confederate camp.

On another part of the field—on a ridge that would become known as Bloody Hill—General Lyon’s attack bogged down into ferocious close-up fighting, and Lyon was trying to hold his own despite two wounds. McCulloch directed a coordinated assault on Lyon’s position, and Lyon took a third wound, this one mortal. “Lehmann, I am killed,” he stammered to an aide, then fell dead—the first Northern general killed in the war.

Both sides fell back, then the Northern army retreated from the field. The Confederates would not take control of Missouri, but, like First Bull Run in the East, the first major land battle of the West ended in a Confederate victory.

Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, commander of Federal forces at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

An illustration depicting the death of General Lyon as he charged the Confederate forces.

Confederate Brigadier General Ben McCullough—victor of the first major land battle in the war’s Western Theater.

Generals Nathaniel Lyon


And Ben McCulloch


Nathaniel Lyon had earned his reputation as a soldier through bloody fighting in California and Kansas.

Ben McCulloch had departed Tennessee for Texas with Davy Crockett, and distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War.

These two career soldiers faced off at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, where Lyon became the first Union general to be killed in action. McCulloch would fall the following year.

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