On July 7, 1861, Captain Chester Harding wrote to Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas in Washington, DC, laying out the movements of the Federal Army of the West en route to destroy Confederate General Sterling Price and Governor Claiborne Jackson’s pro-secessionist Missouri State Guard. “There are about 1,000 of the Home Guard and Rifle Battalion protecting the line of communication from Saint Louis to Springfield. As this line has become the most important one in the whole State, and as it is threatened by hostile bands,” he hastily wrote.
Just prior to writing this letter, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon established the army’s base of operations at and around the crossroads town of Springfield, Missouri, which sat along the vital Wire Road. Lyon needed to retain communication with St. Louis, the home base of the Department of the West and was already secured by Union force. He would do so by securing and guarding the Pacific Railroad line, specifically its southwestern branch. However, this line only extended from St. Louis to Rolla, making any army wanting to transport supplies or troops to Springfield have to use the Wire Road, as well. Additionally, this rail line was vulnerable to hostile irregulars and the potential of advancing Confederate troops from the southeast. For Lyon’s Army of the West, it was imperative to keep this railroad line open.
By the time these belligerents would fight it out along Wilson Creek in August 1861, the railroad boom in Missouri was just ten years old. On Independence Day of 1851, the Pacific Railroad line officially broke ground in St. Louis, marking victory over the state’s hard-fought battle to construct a railroad line from the Gateway City to the Pacific Ocean. The efforts to build this transcontinental railroad actually began in 1849, but were hindered by a major cholera epidemic and catastrophic fire in St. Louis that same year. In the year following the groundbreaking ceremony, a second line was approved to extend from the newly-established town of Franklin to the southwest corner of the state. The southwestern branch had completed its track up to Rolla in early 1861, totaling 77 miles of track. By the eve of Civil War, Missouri had over 800 miles of railroad track, a vital resource for both sides.
Between both the southwestern branch of the Pacific Railroad and the Wire Road, Lyon’s troops had a 120-mile-long supply line to protect. Knowing that supplies, telegrams, munitions, and the possibility of reinforcements would be moving along the supply line, the Army of the West’s Inspector General Thomas Sweeney took action early in the campaign to secure the line. “I left Saint Louis Sunday, June 23, with 360 men, and arrived at Rolla, the terminus of the Southwest Branch of the Pacific Railroad, the same day, where I established a depot,” he wrote, “I proceeded from that point the following day, and arrived at this place Monday, July 1, having established garrisons at various points along the route to keep my communications open.”
Not only would Federal forces have to guard the supply line from the enemy, they also had to confront the lack of a continuous railroad line from St. Louis straight to Springfield. Captain Harding described it as, “mountainous and barren.” He even suggested to Lorenzo Thomas that, “teams have to take their own forage. It is absolutely necessary that a large amount of wagon transportation should be immediately provided.” Unfortunately for Lyon, supplies and munitions could take over a week to travel 200 miles on rail and road to their position at Springfield. An Iowa soldier wrote about the logistical nightmare in receiving clothing and supplies, writing, “Springfield was 130 miles by wagon from Rolla; we were 15 miles further and needed everything. We expected to get clothing and supplies when we neared Springfield but got nothing and were worse off than ever … everything was discontent.” The necessity of railroads for an army’s line of communication and supply line was certainly shown here for the Army of the West in 1861.
Though used heavily by the army on its campaign against the Missouri State Guard and McCulloch’s command, the Pacific Railroad was also used by them on their retreat to Rolla following the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. During the evening following the battle on August 10, Maj. Samuel Sturgis, who was in command of the army after Lyon was killed in action, held a council of war to determine the army’s next move.
In the early morning of August 11, the defeated Army of the West abandoned its position at Springfield and traversed 120 miles to Rolla, where it could safely move to St. Louis. Sturgis’ army, though small in comparison to larger armies later in the war, had over 350 wagons pulling its baggage, munitions, provisions, and the wounded. When the army’s caravan reached Rolla and loaded the wounded onto train cars of the Pacific Railroad, it was the first time trains were used in the United States for battlefield evacuation. Additionally, Lyon’s body was safeguarded by the army as it was transported to Rolla, where it could be safely sent to St. Louis then home. For John C. Fremont, the Union defeat at Wilson’s Creek and the army’s vulnerable line of retreat led him to declare, “that place (Rolla) is to be held at all hazards.”
The southwestern line of the Pacific Railroad, though 77 miles in length and far from the Union supply base at Springfield, was vital to the Army of the West’s operations in southwest Missouri. Most importantly, the railroad allowed for the maintenance of communication between Lyon and St. Louis, but the lack of railroad to Springfield significantly hindered the Army of the West’s ability to receive reinforcements and supplies, as well as safely transport the wounded to St. Louis. At the expense of success for the Army of the West, Federals and Confederate forces saw firsthand the superiority of rail over wagon. By war’s end, though, both sides understood the strategic and logistical importance of rail.