Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield: Civil War on the Family Farm

John Ray stood in his cornfield watching the nightmarish scene unfold before him, the rest of his family crouched in the farmhouse cellar. Cannon booms resonated in the usually quiet setting. Soldiers’ cries pierced the hot, humid summer Ozark air as bloody bodies fell. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek, in which 1,317 Union Soldiers and 1,222 Confederate soldiers lost their lives, is considered the first significant Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River. John Ray’s farmhouse is the only original structure that still stands today. It is one of the eight interpretive stops at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in Springfield, Missouri.


Battle of Wilson’s Creek

For four days in August Confederates camped in the area of Wilson’s Creek, planning to attack the Union Army in Springfield on August 10. But when rain fell that morning, they postponed the attack. Unknown to them, the Union Army planned their own attack on the Confederate camp. The Union closed in on the Confederates from two directions, and a bloody battle ensued for five hours.

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General Lyon, who led the Union soldiers in the battle, lost his life, and the Union retreated to Springfield. Although the Union lost the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, named for the creek that runs through the area, Missouri remained under Union control, which was the ultimate goal.

Wilson's Creek
Wilson’s Creek

Touring Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

Begin by watching the orientation film and browsing displays in the Visitor Center for an overview of Civil War events leading up to the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Pick up a park guide and map while you’re there.

visitor centerYou can drive, bike or walk the 4.9 mile paved loop through the battlefield. We drove the main trail and hiked a few of the five walking trails along the route. Walking trails range from .25 to .75 mile.

Wilson's Creek Battlefield loop trailPlacards at the eight interpretive stops tell the story of the battle and of the people who lived in the area. Just reading the stories paints the picture enough to give you an eerie feeling. It’s hard to believe that this serene setting was once the site of a bloody battle.

battlefieldWalking trails will get you up closer to sites like the ruins of the mill and house of the John Gibson family, whose property was badly damaged during the battle. Today, all that’s left is the foundation.  You can also hike to the building that served as Confederate Major General Sterling Price’s headquarters while waiting to attack the Union Army. Walk a little farther up the trail, and you’ll be at Bloody Hill, where most of the fighting took place.

Price headquarters
View of Price’s headquarters from Bloody Hill

John Ray house

A docent was on hand in the John Ray house during our visit, so we were able to go inside and learn more about the home and the Ray family.

John Ray houseBesides farming, John Ray was the Wilson Township Postmaster, and his home also served as the post office. Because of his postmaster position, Ray took a neutral stand on the war even though he owned a slaves, a woman they called Aunt Rhoda and her children.

When the battle ensued, Ray’s wife Roxanna, their children, Aunt Rhoda and her children, and a mailman went down into the cellar, while John Ray stood outside and watched the battle. Their home was the only structure in the area that wasn’t damaged by the battle.

Entrance to the cellar in the John Ray house
Entrance to the cellar in the John Ray house

When the battle ended and the family emerged from the cellar, they found their home being used as a hospital and immediately pitched in to help. The children also helped by carrying  buckets of water from the springhouse to the home.


Although the Ray home was saved, the family’s chickens and crops were lost to hungry soldiers.

If you visit Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield:

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, located about 12 miles southwest of downtown Springfield, Missouri, is open daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Hours vary by season. Check the website for hours, maps and admission fees.


We stayed at the Hotel Vandivort during our visit to Springfield. Find the best deal, compare prices, and read what other travelers have to say at TripAdvisor


Disclosures: Our visit to Springfield, Missouri, was hosted by the Springfield Missouri Convention and Visitors Bureau. Our visit to Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield was complimentary, but any opinions expressed in this post are my own.
This article contains an affiliate link. If you book a room through the link, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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6 thoughts on “Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield: Civil War on the Family Farm

  • August 22, 2016 at 5:34 pm

    Wow, Connie! What a fascinating story, and so well told! I have a keen interest in Civil War history, and this is a battlefield I now hope to visit some day.

    • August 24, 2016 at 8:32 am

      I knew for years that the battlefield existed in Springfield, but I had no idea the extent of its size or historical significance. It’s well worth visiting, Penny.

  • December 27, 2018 at 1:17 pm

    What units were involved? Union & Confederate? My great grandfather (Wisconsin Calvary) may have been involved.

  • September 12, 2019 at 4:26 pm

    I’ve been to Wilson’s Creek many time. It is one of my favorite local places to go. Fall and winter seasons are the best because the park is mostly void of any living soul other than staff and park officers. You can really spend some quiet time out there taking it all in. However, you may want to check ahead of time to find out when Ray’s house is open if you want to go inside.

    Here’s a bit more history too.
    General Nathaniel Lyon was the first Union general to be killed in battle. There exist video footage of two Confederate soldiers discussing the battle at Wilson’s Creek. They also witnessed Lyon’s death. Lyon was knocked from his horse and fought to the death. One of the soldiers on film said, “The bravest man I ever saw was General Lyon…He picked up rocks and fought with thousands of men around him…John Morgan shot him dead with an old fashioned horse pistol.”
    I won’t post link, but if you Google, “Octogenarian club outtakes” Look for the dot edu link, should be first result.

    I personally find the area fascinating and surreal. I think anyone who loves history, especially American and Civil War history owes it to themselves to visit this historic battlefield.
    By the way, nice pics you’ve posted too.

    • September 12, 2019 at 4:57 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing the additional information about Wilson’s Creek, Joshua. Very interesting!


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