Battle of Lexington: The Battle of the Hemp Bales

The Battle of Lexington occurred between September 18th and 20th, 1861. This event happened very early in the war when many of the soldiers on both sides felt that war was still an adventure to be entered with the chivalrous enthusiasm of a knight in the middle ages.
Lexington was a pro-slavery stronghold as the town residents included many wealthy hemp farmers for whom slaves were critical to their operations. Included in this group was Oliver Anderson, not a farmer but a manufacturer and distributor of hemp from his house and warehouse located on the banks of the Missouri River. That said, Lafayette County also had a large pro-union element, located in the southern part of the county around Higginsville and Concordia.
Sterling Price, a former governor of Missouri and recent convert to the Southern cause, had been placed in command of the Missouri State Guard, which was organized to fight the “federal invasion”. This Missouri State Guard struggled to get organized in the spring of 1861 and was driven to the southwest corner of the state. They rallied in the mid and late summer with victories at Carthage and Wilson’s Creek, just outside of Springfield.
Price now felt the time was right to take back the Missouri River Valley and marched his army, 7,000 strong toward Lexington. Price’s movement alarmed the Union leaders. They immediately sent Colonel James E. Mulligan and his “Irish Brigade” to Lexington. He would join five companies of German Americans already occupying the defunct, Masonic College. (more about the Masonic College in Part 2) Mulligan’s arrival brought the total number of Union troops in Lexington to 3,500. Together these groups would begin to prepare for battle by digging earthworks as protection. Mulligan was ordered to hold Lexington “at all hazards” until reinforcement arrived.
Those reinforcements would never arrive.
Price and his advance team arrived on the outskirts of Lexington on September 12th. He quickly pushed the federal soldiers back into their entrenchments and took control of the town. He would wait there for several days waiting for his ammunition wagons and reinforcements. By the first day of the battle, Price’s force numbered 12,000, outnumbering the federal soldiers four to one. By the last day of the battle, he is said to have had almost 20,000 men. This was due to the large number of southern men who had joined the army after hearing that he had the Union soldiers surrounded.
The Cliff Notes version of the battle is fairly simple, Price had the federals surrounded and kept tightening the noose around them. He had his men take hemp bales from Oliver Anderson’s warehouse located by the river and arrange them in lines on the night of the 19th. On the morning of the 20th, the federal soldiers woke to “snakelike” lines of hemp bales encircling their position and coming toward them lines slowly but surely. Inside the federal trenches, the continuous cannon and rifle fire created a scene littered with the carcasses of dead men and horses. No water was available as Price’s men had cut off all access to any freshwater sources.
The Union surrender came later that day on September 20th almost by accident when the federals raised a white flag meant to simply allow time for them to get their wounded. Price and his commanders took the flag as a full surrender. Mulligan was forced to agree when he realized that he and most of his commanders were wounded. The casualty count from the Battle of Lexington was 25 killed and 75 wounded for the Missouri State Guard, and 39 killed and 120 wounded from the Union.
There are more interesting tidbits to learn about this battle, but space prevents me from doing so in this post. Please look at the images as I have added more details there. Part two of the “Battle of Lexington” will discuss the mysterious “cannonball in the courthouse”. Don’t miss it!

Click on image to read captions

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