Totten’s Nemesis: Woodruff’s Arkansas Battery at Wilson’s Creek

The following two letters written by Captain William E. Woodruff, Jr. describe the role his four-gun battery played in the Confederate victory at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri on August 10, 1861. Woodruff and his men received much praise for their steadfast courage at the battle, their first engagement. Surgeon William A. Cantrell of the 1st Arkansas Mounted Rifles stated that Woodruff’s battery “was the mainstay of the contest and did signal service in gaining the battle. I have heard a great many speak of the execution of this battery and of the scientific manner in which his guns were handled. He held Totten’s battery in check and finally ran him off the field.” Another soldier commented that “Captain Woodruff sustained himself admirably and is a bold and gallant officer, has the praise of the whole army. He threw shot, shell, and grape on Totten’s battery to such an extent that he had to retreat. At the charge of Gratiot’s and the Louisiana regiments, Woodruff’s battery threw shot and shell that had a telling effect.”

Mention is made of Captain James Totten and his Federal battery as being Woodruff’s primary opponent at Wilson’s Creek, and Woodruff took much pride in having driven off the guns commanded by the crusty Regular. It also serves to underscore the intensely personal side of the war beyond the Mississippi River. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Captain Totten’s battery (Battery F, 2nd U.S. Light Artillery) had been assigned to guard Little Rock Arsenal in the state capital of Arkansas. It was here that Totten and Woodruff developed a close friendship. However, in early February 1861, Governor Henry M. Rector demanded that Totten surrender the Little Rock Arsenal to the state of Arkansas. Absent directions from his superiors, Captain Totten agreed to do so provided that his troops were allowed safe passage to St. Louis, which Governor Rector agreed to allow. The bloodless capture of the Arsenal proved a boon for the Arkansas state troops who secured more than 10,000 muskets (three quarters of which were old flintlocks), a quarter million cartridges and percussion caps, and even the four guns of Totten’s battery. Interestingly, two of the cannon at Little Rock were the celebrated guns used by then Captain Braxton Bragg during the Mexican War at the Battle of Buena Vista where he received the famous command from General Zachary Taylor “A little more grape, Captain Bragg.” [These guns went to Reid’s Battery and saw action at Wilson’s Creek.]

Woodruff’s Battery was armed with two 6-lb smoothbores and two 12-lb smoothbores at Wilson’s Creek and lost three men killed and one wounded, among the casualties being First Lieutenant Omer R. Weaver who is reportedly the first Arkansan killed in the war. Captain Woodruff was the son of William E. Woodruff, Sr., owner of the Arkansas State Gazette published in Little Rock. After the war, Woodruff wrote a memoir of his time in the Confederate Army entitled With the Light Guns in ’61-65: Reminiscences of Eleven Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas Light Batteries in the Civil War which can be viewed here.Woodruff followed his father into the newspaper business and passed away in 1907 in Little Rock. 

Wilson's Creek National Battlefield Artillery Demonstration

Camp on Wilson’s Creek nine miles from Springfield, Missouri

August 11, 1861

          Dear Father,

          Yesterday we fought a great battle on the ground on which I write in which our army was victorious-gloriously. Night before last we had orders to prepare for a night march on Springfield, but a rain came up and darkness and we did not go. The enemy got wind of our plans and started at 9 o’clock that night and gave us a complete surprise, commencing on Churchill’s regiment while at breakfast. Totten’s battery, six pieces with two 12-lb guns, opened on McCulloch’s headquarters. We were already harnessed and disposed for a “go in” and we “went in” against his battery for half an hour giving him gun for gun- taking the battle for ourselves until the whole army had a chance to form. My boys stood it like heroes; not a man flinched although the balls came like hail stones for all that time. Poor Omer Weaver fell like a hero with his face to the foe and died some two hours later as befits a man.  During the fight he refused to get under any shelter at all; no man ever died a more glorious death. His loss was known to all and bewailed throughout our army. God only knows how I can without him- he was the best officer of his age in the army.

          Hugh Byler had his leg shot off and is dangerously wounded. [since died] Dick Byrd got a flesh wound in the thigh but is doing well. William Currie is missing and this is our whole loss.

          Everybody gives us all the credit we are entitled to and I fear more. This is written hurriedly and merely to relieve our friends. I will write again soon. I think we will go to Springfield this evening. Our loss is about 200 killed and 300 wounded; the enemy double as many. General [Nathaniel] Lyon was killed. Every company fought gallantly, the enemy too. General Pearce behaved himself gallantly.

First Lieutenant Omer Weaver
"The best officer of his age in the army"

Camp near Springfield, Missouri

August 15, 1861

          Dear Pa,

          I have promised to give you a description and full account of the recent battle at Wilson’s Creek, but I have been so very busy since that I have really not had the time nor have I now. You will have to rely on the ready pens of those who had time to study the fight as it was progressing, and time since to record their reflections. I had none. So busy has everyone here in authority been in vindicating the truth of the history of their personal and private exploits on that memorable occasion that I have not yet (or they have not been accessible to me) been able to get the official returns of the killed, wounded, etc. I send a diagram of the fighting ground made by Bob Watkins which is very accurate. I believe he sent it to Judge Watkins or his father. Bob’s recollection of the fight is very correct and his letter no doubt is better than I can make it now. He acted with great coolness during the fight and was near me all the time except when he was sent off by me with messages to the general officers.

          I must say that my 15-year-olds Alex George and John Parks surpassed my expectations and stood to their posts like men. Anderson Mills behaved with perfect coolness; no man at the battery more so or was more useful. Green, Fred Williams, and Indeed as I said before, all did well. Hugh Byler died of his wounds and William Carver is reported missing but has since been found dead making our company loss three killed and one wounded.

Woodruff's Battery at the lower right engaged with Totten's U.S. Artillery at the upper left. The battle went well for the Federals at first, but ended in disaster with General Nathaniel Lyon's death and the rout from the field. 

          The loss on both sides has proved to be tremendous and has been growing every day. The battleground was in such position and the various corps so scattered that it was long before anything like a correct idea could be obtained and it has been growing ever since. The loss on our side including Confederate, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas forces is about 400-500 killed and 1,000-1,200 wounded. The enemy lost less than twice as many of each. Our dead have all been buried. They buried for two days and nights and then left, leaving from 250-300 to rot under the sun. Persons report the stench as intolerable.

          Our men fought like devils. The U.S. Regulars went down before our rifles and shotguns like grass and we were victorious in every single contest. Only about 6,000-8,000 of our men were in the fight. The enemy had not less than 10,000 and as the mortality proves, it was one of the hardest fought battles in recorded history. I pray that I may never have to engaged in another such. We went up to Springfield day before yesterday and finding that we could have zinc coffins made, concluded to have Lieutenant Weaver’s body disinterred. Lieutenant Brown returns with his body.


This fanciful Kurz & Allison print depicts Wilson's Creek; Confederate artillery such as Woodruff's Battery is at top center. 

P.S. Information has just been received from Springfield to the effect that Captain Totten was not in the fight- that he had peremptorily refused to take up arms against Arkansas and that consequently he had been sent to St. Louis in disgrace. I hope for my ancient love for Captain Totten that this is true, but I doubt it. I was told on the battlefield by a prisoner brought to my battery without a leading question that he was there. And afterwards I was told by a second prisoner the same thing. Lieutenant Colonel Provine of the 3rd Regiment reports a conversation had by him with one of Totten’s wounded men in which he said that “Captain Totten was mad with himself for having drilled us.” There is no doubt in the world that Totten’s battery was the one we played against and there are other witnesses to these statements. Lieutenant Morton of the Kansas regiment (a prisoner) I think told me to the same effect. It would be a pleasure to me to believe he was not there.



Letter from Surgeon William A. Cantrell, 1st Arkansas Mounted Rifles, Arkansas True Democrat (Arkansas), August 22, 1861, pg. 1; also, August 29, 1861, pg. 3

Letter from Captain William E. Woodruff, Jr., Arkansas True Democrat (Arkansas), September 5, 1861, pg. 2


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