Southwest Missouri hosts a great deal of rich history, including more Civil War history than we realized. While visiting in the Springfield or Branson area, plan to spend at least half a day, if not more, at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.
In case you need to brush up on your Civil War history (as I always do), Wilson’s Creek was the site of the second major battle of the war fought west of the Mississippi River, on August 10, 1861. It was significant in several ways: it was one of the fiercest, ugliest battles according to war historians, and it marked the death of the first Union general in battle, Nathaniel Lyon. Lyon’s death the Union’s defeat at Wilson’s Creek led President Lincoln to send reinforcements to Missouri, thus securing the state for the Union.
The visitor’s center is small, with only a short hall of exhibits, but does have an excellent 28-minute film running continuously that depicts the battle and the days leading up to it. Directed by Ken Burns, it’s well-worth your time. It’s here you can pick up the information needed for the self-guided auto tour as well. Designed much like the Gettysburg Pennsylvania driving tour, albeit on a much smaller scale, the Wilson’s Creek driving tour is 4.9 miles of paved road with stops along the way to see important points of the battle. (You’ll see once you set out why it’s crucial to view the film first.)
There are multiple stops along the tour, but the highlights include the Ray House homestead, which became a temporary field hospital. Stand on the front porch where John Ray allegedly watched the battle rage in his cornfield, then walk to the view point to see the Ray spring house where they drew cool water for wounded soldiers. Further on, see the Edwards Cabin, which served as General Price’s headquarters (it was here he was interrupted while eating breakfast to the sound of Union cannons), and Bloody Hill, where 4,200 of Lyon’s men held high ground, holding off the Confederacy before their commander lost his life (along with 1,700 soldiers).
The grounds are beautiful and somewhat sacred-feeling, but a nice feature are the many walking trails criss-crossing the landscape. With one stop in the car, we could walk between several batteries and the Edwards Cabin, for instance, with views of Bloody Hill to boot.
These trails often connect to the Wire Road (a small dirt road) that troops originally marched along. All trails have clear signposts, and most are no more than 1/2 mile from site to site. Families can do as much or little walking as desired. In several places, trails and even the road cross Wilson’s Creek.
The Visitors Center is open 8 am to 5 pm, seven days a week. The Battlefield Tour Road is open 8 am to 5 pm in winter, and until 7 pm in spring and 9 pm in summer.
Entry to the park is $5 per adult, or $10 total per car load. Because this is a National Park site, be sure to get your National Park Passport stamped!
There are no food services, but in nice weather, families can absolutely picnic along the Battlefield Tour Road, or at the Visitor’s Center.
Reading on Wilson’s Creek and other historic sites:
It’s always a great idea to read up on historic sites before planning a trip. When you do, you often find that there are additional sites nearby that also may be worthy of a visit. A great way to research a historic trip is with a travel guide that focuses on history in a particular region, as opposed to with a history book that may not tie sites together in an itinerary. Before leaving to see Southern Missouri, I had the chance to read through The Big Divide: A Travel Guide, which focuses on the Missouri-Kansas border region. Thanks to its section on Springfield, I learned there’s a national Civil War cemetery near Wilson’s Creek.
The battlefield is located at 6424 West Farm Road 182, in Republic, Missouri. From I-44, take Exit 70 south to MO-ZZ. Turn right on ZZ to the park.