On August 2, 1861, a small but pivotal battle took place in the western part of Christian County at a landmark known as Dug Springs. Although largely forgotten, Dug Springs was an important milestone in the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. The maneuvering and skirmishing along the Telegraph or Wire Road near modern Clever marked the first time during the Missouri Campaign of 1861 that the Union “Army of the West” and the combined pro-Southern “Western Army” met in combat.
By late July 1861, Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon had concentrated his forces in Springfield, while Missouri State Guard Major General Sterling Price had joined forces in Cassville in a temporary alliance with Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch’s Confederate brigade and a contingent of Arkansas State Troops under Brigadier General Nicholas B. Peace.
General Lyon, leading a mixed force of U.S. Regular soldiers and volunteers from Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, knew he was outnumbered by the Southern forces in southwest Missouri, and also knew that it was unlikely that he would receive any sizable number of reinforcements. The aggressive Lyon had received false reports that McCulloch and Price had not united, however, and not one, but three enemy columns were on the march from the southwest. Hoping to strike each column in turn before they combined, and to maintain the morale of his men with the prospect of seeing action, Lyon led his 5,800 soldiers out of Springfield on August 1. After spending the first night along Wilson’s Creek, his troops advanced on the Wire Road in blistering heat and thick dust. Iowa reporter Franc Wilkie guessed the temperature was “anywhere between 1,100 and 2,000 ‘in the shade,’” and men dropped by the side of the road “as if smitten by lightning.” Water and shade were scarce, and the sun blazed like a ball of fire as the temperature rose to well over 100 degrees. “I rather enjoy respectable hot weather, such for instance as will cook an egg hard in two minutes. . .but the weather of that day was a little too much for even my ardent constitution,” Wilkie added. One early historian wrote, with perhaps no exaggeration that “five dollars was offered for a canteen of warm ditch water.” The Federals blindly probed for the enemy, moving cautiously and slowly, and on August 2, they reached Dug Springs, a welcome source of water for the parched troops.
After marching up from Cassville, McCulloch and Price’s 12,000 men had made camp along Crane Creek, only a few miles from Dug Springs. On the morning of the 2nd, Southern pickets encountered Lyon’s advance force–four companies of U.S. Regular infantry and Captain James Totten’s artillery battery. The Southerners quickly fell back before Federal artillery fire, and rejoined an advance guard of about 120 Arkansans and Missourians under Captain Americus V. Rieff. Rieff deployed his men on one side of the road and began skirmishing with the Federals. He wisely sent a courier to General McCulloch, telling him they had encountered Lyon’s entire force.
To the south, Missouri State Guard General James S. Rains was eating breakfast with his 400-man advance guard. He heard the Federal artillery fire as well, and likewise sent a message to McCulloch asking for assistance. Rains nervously finished his meal and waited for reinforcements to arrive. Finally, early that afternoon, Colonel James McIntosh, McCulloch’s adjutant, took 150 men and moved up the road to meet Rains. McIntosh reconnoitered the Union position and ordered the Missourian not to bring on a battle, but only to test the strength and position of the enemy. If attacked, McIntosh promised Rains support, then returned to camp. Lyon’s Regulars, deployed as skirmishers, were ordered not to bring on a battle either, but to hold until pressed, then fall back on the main Federal force.
About 5 P.M., Rains, perhaps stung by West Point graduate McIntosh’s dismissive tone, or perhaps in reaction to moves by the Federal skirmishers, began advancing his troops to Dug Springs. When Rains and his men came under fire from the nearby Federals, some of his Missourians fled, but the majority deployed on the opposite side of the road from Rieff and his cavalry force. Lyon’s Regulars stood firm, so Rains sent an aide across the road to Rieff, asking him to coordinate an assault on the Federals. Rieff moved forward, and the Federals began to withdraw. Just then a portion of Company C, 1st U.S. Cavalry launched a brave but reckless charge, a move that even Rieff admitted was “the most gallant act I saw during the war.” They crashed through Rieff’s command, cutting and slashing, some halting to engage in hand-to-hand combat. By firing shotguns and pistols at close quarters, Rieff’s men soon unhorsed all their attackers. On the opposite side of the road, Rains and his State Guardsmen blazed away at the Federals, apparently doing little damage.
What happened next is unclear, although it appears that the Regular Federal infantry companies began to fall back in front of Rains, so the State Guardsmen pursued. When Federal artillery (Totten’s Battery) opened up again, both the State Guard and Rieff’s troopers finally broke and fled in confusion.
McIntosh, who had not yet made it back to Crane Creek, declined to assist Rains, but did rally most of the fugitives. Although exact losses will never be known, Rieff reported, “one man partially scalped with a saber, one dead from exhaustion, one missing, never heard from, and a few slightly wounded.” State Guard casualties were probably equally light, and the Federals suffered four killed and seven wounded, all but one cavalrymen from the impetuous saber charge.
“Rains’s Scare,” as the “affair” at Dug Springs came to be called, dealt a devastating blow to the Price-McCulloch relationship. McCulloch was shocked by what he saw as the “total inefficiency” of Rains’ Missourians, who, he inaccurately reported, “were put to flight by a single cannon-shot, running in the greatest confusion, without the loss of a single man except one, who died of overheat or sun-stroke, and bringing no reliable information as to the position or force of the enemy.” The Texan had never been completely comfortable trusting his new allies—now, in their first test of arms under a unified command, he believed the State Guard had failed miserably.
Despite that fact that he had won the day at Dug Springs, and tested the mettle of part of McCulloch’s army, Lyon was troubled. The day after the skirmish, he pushed his army a few miles farther south to the little settlement of Curran. Skirmishing erupted as Lyon’s troops again moved cautiously forward. They halted for the night at a place called McCullah’s Store.
On the morning of August 4, Lyon held a council of war to chart his next course of action. He told the officers present that he believed the enemy columns were now in supporting distance of one another. Spies had told him that now about 15,000 enemy troops were only about six miles away. Worse, McCulloch’s cavalry could move behind them, cut them off from Springfield, and even capture the city. A decisive battle had not yet occurred, and even if the army pushed forward to a victory, it could not capitalize on the win and might be destroyed. On the other hand, if the Federals retreated to Springfield and made a stand there, the enemy would divide their forces to attack the city and might be defeated in detail. Just when the officers voted to fall back to Springfield, word came that the Federal pickets were under attack, and the council of war broke up.
The march back was just as disagreeable as the march out had been. The stifling heat, lack of water, fatigue, and anxiety about a possible attack on the retreating column plagued the Union soldiers, but Lyon’s men staggered back into Springfield on the morning of August 5th. McCulloch tried to catch the retreating Federals, but when he realized that his enemy would safely reach Springfield, he halted his army at Moody’s Spring, and on August 6, began shifting his forces to the valley of Wilson’s Creek.
Although the number of casualties was small compared to the losses in other battles of the Civil War, the deaths at Dug Springs were no less significant for the relatives and friends of the fallen. Perhaps the most touching death was that of John Austin Gibbons, a private in Company C of the 1st U.S. Cavalry. A native of Dubuque, Iowa, Gibbons had written his parents two weeks before Dug Springs. In his letter, he admitted, “Many sleepless nights and many tedious days have I spent thinking of you all. My suffering in body and mind has been great, but no more so than I deserved. When you receive this I am no more of this world, but gone to my long, last home, and rest assured no person can accuse me of anything dishonorable, but the earnest prayers of you all, I request.”
Gibbons’ commanding officer, David S. Stanley, composed a typical letter to his parents on August 6, noting his personal bravery, his amiable and gentle character, and the loss to his comrades. “Dear Madam,” he wrote, “let us feel proud of so brave a son, and trust that in the atonement and mercies of a savior, this brave soldier will find peace, where wars and marches are ended.” Gibbons left behind a gold watch and $25 in cash, and was left in an unmarked grave on the field.
Eight days after the skirmish at Dug Springs, officers on both sides would see many more men fall dead and wounded, and be forced to write more condolence letters, as Lyon and McCulloch clashed again along the banks of Wilson’s Creek.