Peaceful Trails Meander Past Reminders of War at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield

Sep 27, 2019

Reenactors march in formation at a small arms demonstration at Wilson's Creek.
Credit Caleb Conaway

To cap off our 10-part Sense of Community series, Take It Outside, we’re hitting the trails at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, just 20 minutes from Springfield. 

Wilson’s Creek is a mix of natural beauty and history, where these lush hills met with the human horror of war. 

According to the National Park Service, the battlefield has five trails off the tour road, and they range from a quarter of a mile to three-quarters of a mile long.   Many of those trails meet up for longer hikes.

There’s also a seven mile trail used for horseback riding and hiking.  Locals refer to it as the Old Wire Road—because it’s the path telegraph messages took—and it’s more formally known as the Southwest Boundary Trail.   

That long trail starts just south of the Ray House, and it’s where horseback riders park their trailers.  Officials say the trail has some hills and moderately rugged areas. There’s a bridge that crosses Wilson’s Creek on that trail.

Connie Langum is Wilson’s Creek Battlefield’s park historian. She says the park maintains the trails, including after heavy rains.

“So, what we do, we bring in gravel from what we would call a clean source, so it’s not from a historic site at all, and redo those trails, and that’s a constant battle, not just from this past summer, with lots of rain and flooding, but that’s all the time,” Langum says.

Visitors can park their cars along the main tour road, like we did, and set out on the trailheads.

Gibson’s Mill is stop one, and there’s a trailhead there.  That loop is 0.8 miles.

Langum says a hunting ban on federal property helps wildlife flourish at Wilson’s Creek.

“This time of year you’re going to see deer and turkey," Langum explains. "They are everywhere. In fact yesterday I saw probably ten turkeys. This particular turkey, his beard was long enough for him to walk on it, so he knows where he’s safe,” she laughs.

Right now, these hills are teeming with life, in a sea of green leaves and yellow flowers. Soon, many of the colors will change with the autumn.

Langum says the park has expanded significantly since the 80s, with the Park Service adding more trails and a visitor’s center. And officials plan to add more artillery to show where certain regiments were positioned during the battle.

Visitors can expect some impressive vistas, including one near Backoff’s Battery. You can see for miles into the peaceful hills of the Ozarks.

If you go farther into the trails, you can be fooled into thinking humans have never touched this place.

But historical markers along the trail system tell otherwise. The illustrated markers tell of life in the Ozarks before and during the Civil War, and some signs point out where a mill once stood, or where a commander made his stand.

At the bottom of Bloody Hill, where the heaviest fighting of the battle took place, there’s a somber gray stone that commemorates the life of the first Union general killed in the Civil War.

The faded stone reads, "At or near this spot fell Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon." He was born in Connecticut in 1818, and he died at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

The stone commemorating the spot where General Lyon was shot at Wilson's Creek.
Credit Caleb Conaway

On the day we visited, there was a live fire demonstration featuring Civil War reenactors making up the 3rd Louisiana infantry, which fought at this site.  Time seems to be suspended as men march up and down a field in uniforms from a lost era.

After parking near the Bloody Hill trailhead, we make the demonstration in the nick of time. A row of men in gray Confederate uniforms stands at attention.

With 19th-century weapons at the ready, the soldiers enter the field, marching to a drumbeat. Right at the crowd.

Tim Trumbull is from Caldwell, Idaho, visiting his nephew in Springfield.  He stopped by Wilson’s Creek to watch the demonstration out of a curiosity for the Civil War history of the area.

“I actually had no idea of the involvement of Missouri in the Civil War, and how much it was,” Trumbull says.

The company of reenactors faces a crowd of about 50 people. These men take turns explaining who their historical counterparts are, and their roles in the battle of Wilson’s Creek. They read letters and poetry from the era, before they turn around and demonstrate what their arms are capable of.

The Louisiana 3rd reenactors let loose a volley of fire at the signal of a drum.
Credit Caleb Conaway

150 years ago, these woods and fields were swarming with men, horses, and cannons, as the Union and Confederate armies fought for control of southwest Missouri.

Today, it’s surprisingly peaceful to walk the trails surrounding Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield and on a normal day, the only sounds would be  the rustling of leaves and cicadas buzzing in the trees.