The Siege of Lexingtion, Missouri, was yet another case of Missourians alone against the Feds. This engagement has also become known as "The Battle of the Hemp Bales," since some ingenious Missouri State Guardsman thought of soaking hemp bales in the Missouri River to form not only fire-proof but movable "breastworks." After a week long siege, General Price and his gallant band of patriotic Missourians who composed the Missouri State Guard, captured the Federal forces under General James A. Mulligan, a thousand horses, a hundred wagons, five pieces of artillery, three thousand muskets, and the much needed commissary. The last three days of the siege, September 18-20, are commonly referred to as the Battle of Lexington.
"The Lexington of 1776 when our fathers fought against the hirelings of George III, is equalled by the Lexington of 1861, when their children fought the hirelings of the bloated despot who presides at Washington."
The following two letters from the war were printed in the March 8, 1902 edition of the Lexington Intelligencer of Lexington, Missouri.
Lexington, Mo., Sept. 16, 1861
I wrote from Fort Scott giving an account of two skirmishes we had, one at the fort and the other some six miles off. We were approaching the fort with out main force and were six miles only from it when a message from Gov. Jackson directed Gen. Price to go immediately to Warrensburg. We made forced marches, traveled night and day - but reached Warrensburg six hours after the enemy had left. We immediately pushed off to Lexington and reached that place on Tuesday evening. The sun was about two hours high as we were going into town. The enemy was posted on the right side of the road in a cornfield and on the left of an orchard. We drove them from their positions in a few minutes; they fell back upon other positions from which we drove them, one after the other, till they were in their fortifications. We cannonaded the seminary till dark, when our army was withdrawn to the fairground. The enemy have fortified around the college by digging a deep and wide ditch and throwing the dirt on the inside, making a high bank. In the skirmish on Tuesday evening we lost several men, I do not know how many.
This is Monday morning. We have remained here within two miles of town since Tuesday evening. The enemy have been burning the town day and night, and everyone is asking why we do not go through with the battle. We have been here long enough for the enemy to get reinforced from St. Louis.
It rained all day Saturday and we could not fight; it is raining again this morning. We are all in suspense and the men are grumbling on account of the delay.
The federals have robbed nearly every house in the county. They have taken thousands of dollars. There has been a perfect reign of terror inaugurated in this county. They have shot at citizens on their farms, pursuing their peaceful avocations - they have insulted women.
Gov. Jackson joined us the other day below Warrensburg. He reports that he has made every arrangement with the confederate government.
Gen. Albert Johnston, of Salt Lake notoriety, will take command of the forces in Missouri. I shall hail his arrival as the dawn of a new and brighter day. We have never had any discipline - have scarcely the organization of an effective mob. We make forced marches to reach the enemy, and when we get within a few miles come to a halt for several days. If Johnston does not come soon we will be routed and the last hope of Missouri will fade away. Price is a brave man, exposes himself in battle, but is lacking in generalship.
Ben McCullough has gone back to Arkansas. Jeff Davis ought to remove him immediately.
I will write you again in a few days if I go through the fight all right.
W. S. Hyde
Lexington, Mo., Sept. 25, 1861
My last letter gave an account of our operations up to Wednesday. In this I will try and give an account of what has taken place since that time. Last Wednesday morning - after a delay of five days since our first skirmish in Lexington - the army was put in motion for a general assault upon the enemy's works. We marched up the river and then came down to get between the fortifications and the river. We met the enemy's advance and drove it back in a few minutes. Gen. Slack's division moved down the river and captured the steamer Clarabell and two steam ferry boats. The boats were laden with coffee, salt, sugar, molasses, etc. We succeeded in establishing ourselves between the fortifications and the river on Wednesday. Wednesday night the enemy made two desperate efforts to drive our men from their positions, but were repulsed. Thursday a scattering fire was kept up throughout the day; and that night the enemy were allowed till 12 o'clock to remove their wounded into town. As soon as the time was out our cannon opened with vigor which was continued at intervals until day. Friday morning found our men on all sides of the enemy's works. A sharp fire was kept until near twelve o'clock. Whenever a fellow would show his head above the embankment two or more shots were fired at him. About twelve o'clock our men, who had rolled baled hemp up to the embankment, commenced a heavy fire which lasted about three hours; our batteries all opened at the same time. The enemy ran up a flag of truce and asked to know on what terms they could surrender. Gen. Price demanded an unconditional surrender, which was made. We have 4,000 federal prisoners and their arms, 6 six pound cannon, all their tents, wagons, etc. We bagged the whole concern. There was about a fourth of our men in the engagement, the balance were placed around in works and held in reserve so as to cut-off any attempt at retreat. We had a grand time hauling down the stars and stripes that floated from the college roof. We lost very few men killed and wounded. The enemy had about 130 killed. Col. White and Col. Smith were both killed. I will send the official reports as soon as they are published. Until then I cannot give the particulars. Clark's division was held in reserve and was not in the fight. I fired some five or six shots on Friday morning at their heads as they would show them above the bank. We are camped three and a half miles from town. We left camp on Wednesday morning after breakfast and stayed away until 8 o'clock on Friday night. Slept on the bare ground two nights without blankets and many of us without coats. Our food (two meals a day) was cooked in camp and sent to us.
The enemy's fortifications were made around the Masonic college and embraced five acres. Deep and wide ditches were dug on the outside and the dirt thrown up five or six feet high. They also had inside ditches and embankments. The ground in front of the outside ditch was mined and powder placed underneath to blow our men up when they made a charge. We attacked them in the rear, however, and all their schemes failed. The federals burned fifteen or twenty of the finest houses in town between our first attack on Thursday evening and the following Monday. They have nearly ruined this town and county by their robberies.
We need some more blankets and quilts. We are cold every night. If you have a chance to send us some bacon it would be very acceptable. I may come home for a few days as we will probably stay here two weeks. I believe the Supreme Ruler is on our side. We have to fight murderers and thieves, and have always whipped them and always will.
W. S. Hyde
The following two letters from the war front were printed in the October 10, 1861 edition of the Democratic Herald of Louisiana, Missouri. From the contents of the letters, both were written by anonymous soldiers of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Division, Missouri State Guard. Grayson may be the editor of the Democratic Herald.
In Camp, near Lexington, Mo.
September 22, 1861
Dear Grayson: - Col. Hull's Regiment, composed of Clark's, Bankhead's, Jamison's, H---'s, T. M. Carter's, Geo. Carter's and Moseley's companies from St. Charles, Lincoln and Pike, reached this place after a forced march on Monday night - rested Tuesday, and on Wednesday morning opened fire on the Federal army, about 4,000 strong, entrenched around the College building. Their position was naturally a strong one which they had greatly strengthened by ditches, mines, &c. Green and Hull's regiments was ordered to storm the hill between the river and their redoubts. After a sharp conflict of two hours the eminence was gained - their hospital taken and the whole encampment entirely surrounded. Their whole force seemed directed at the commands of Hull and Green and the column which held the hospital. Their sortees were frequent and fierce during the day and at dusk they made one desperate charge, 2,000 headed by the celebrated Col. Mulligan of the Irish Brigade - our boys were cool and collected and met the shock like veterans - the columns were in a few feet of each other and for twenty minutes the fire was terrific. During the night they made three charges and were as many times repulsed. A running fire of small arms and now and then the heavy boom of the artillery continued almost without intermission until Thursday night, when they asked permission to bury their dead - in an hour the signal gun announced the cessation of peace.
Friday morning hemp bales were rolled from the brow of the hill towards their redoubts until within fifty yards of their breastworks, and then commenced a conflict intensely severe. Col. Marshall's Illinois cavalry, six hundred, made one grand charge at the breastworks - our rifles opened upon them first and many a plumed warrior fell from his charger - as they advanced the muskets opened and still they came "terrible as an army with banners," but when the shot guns loaded with buckshot opened, human endurance seemed at an end, they wavered and finally fled in confusion, rallied time and again and renewed the assault, but it was all in vain, they were in combat with men who fought for their homes and firesides and at three o'clock the white flag was raised. At six o'clock P.M., the "stars and stripes" were lowered and the blue flag of the State and the Confederate flags were raised from the College building, and thirty-five hundred Federal soldiers marched out and laid down their arms. You can form no idea of the joy of this people at the result. For months they have been subjected to all manner of outrages and wrong from the Federal army. Their beautiful city has not only been pillaged and robbed but a portion of it burnt. We have taken a world of stores, two steamboats, one loaded with salt and sugar and other provisions, 3,300 prisoners, 3,700 stand of arms, 1,200 sabres, 7 cannon, 2 mortars, 1500 horses, 126 wagons, $150,, $750,000 in notes stolen from the Farmers Bank by the Federals. Their loss in killed and wounded is five or six hundred - but I have no time to enumerate all that we took, its value is immense. Our loss is small, our killed is forty-two and thirty-seven wounded - it will seem strange that the number killed should exceed the wounded; this is accounted for by the fact that our men fired from behind trees and hemp bales and their heads alone were exposed. None of the Pike boys were killed; Walker of Clark's company, from Lincoln county, fell early in the action. Lieut. John W. Mason fell mortally wounded just before the close of the battle and died in great agony last night, he was a gallant fellow. Our gallant young Colonel Hull was struck by a grape shot about the close of the engagement and was born from the field, when the command devolved upon Major Dorsey who did his whole duty gloriously. Hull's wound are by no means serious and he will soon be at the head of his regiment again. Dashing Dick Wells, of Troy, received a flesh wound in the arm. Captain Moseley, of Fulton, as brave a man as ever fired a gun, fell from a minnie ball in the shoulder, but he will do well. Young Pritchett, from Hickory Grove, was shot through the heart and died almost instantly, there was never a purer man or a better soldier. But I cannot mention all individually who were hurt in this battle which lasted for fifty-six hours, terminated so gloriously for the State Guards.
The Lexington of 1776 when our fathers fought against the hirelings of George III, is equalled by the Lexington of 1861, when their children fought the hirelings of the bloated despot who presides at Washington. Captain McNultre, who recruited in Pike county this summer, was taken and delivered his sword to Capt. Arche Bankhead. He is a gentleman and a gallant soldier and if the Home Guards, God save the mark, of Pike could only know in what ineffable scorn he holds their conduct they would blush for themselves. Col. White of the Federal army is among the killed, and the notorious B. W. Grover, of Johnson county, is mortally wounded. Price has a splendid army here encamped, amounting fully to 25,000 men, although only about 5,000 to 6,000 men took any part in the battle. What his movements will be of course I cannot tell, except this, that he has force enough at his command to sweep the whole State with the besom of destruction. One of our batteries was managed by Emmett McDonald. Col. Burbridge is here, just transferred from Clark's to Harris' Division, and looks every inch a soldier. Troops are flocking to us every day, and I suppose a forward movement will be made very soon. Gen. Price restored the stolen money to the vaults of the Bank, although in June last this same Bank refused him the loan of &50,000. The pickets reported Thursday while the battle raged the approach of Gen. Sturgis with 1200 men. Price crossed the river with 2,000 men, but hearing of his approach they beat a full retreat, throwing away 240 tents and scattering their baggage on the road which Price brought back with him.
But I have written enough, let it suffice that we have achieved a great victory, let is gladden the hearts of all our friends to know that our boys, men and officers, have gloriously and nobly done their whole duty. Missourians gained upon this battle field their title deeds to unflinching courage and daring. I had forgot to say that Captain Asa James with a gallant band of Spencer boys is here and was in the fight. Young Collins is slightly wounded in the hand. I will write again.
Camp near Lexington, Mo.
September 22, 1861
Dear Friend: I must write you a short letter. Our regiment formed a junction with Gen. Harris' and Green's commands, numbering about 3,000, at Glasgow. On Sunday last we were ordered on a forced march to support Price's division at this place, which we reached Monday night, and found he had driven the enemy from the Fair Grounds some four miles out of town, killing about 30 or 40 and wounding a good many more. We rested until Wednesday morning at six o'clock, when we were ordered into action. Our division under Harris approached the city from the South, Clark and Rives from the East, and Parsons from the West. At 81/2 o'clock we met a portion of the enemy and the battle commenced. In two hours we had driven them from the city into their entrenchments on College Hill, killing twenty or thirty, with a loss on our side of only two or three killed and a very few wounded. The hottest work now begun, and that you may understand the difficulties we surmounted, I must give you the position of the enemy. College Hill is one-half of a mile from Lexington, and much the highest point in the neighborhood. The ascent is very steep and only accessible on two side to cannon or waggons. The top is level and on it is situated the college and boarding house, two large brick buildings about thirty yards apart, around each building was an embankment and ditch that could not be passed without ladders. On the outside, some ten steps off, were murderous powder mines communicating with the buildings by hidden trails. There were also other embankments on the brow of the hill. With 3,000 men, having seven pieces of cannon and two mortars, and behind such fortifications it was no easy thing for us to cope, situated as we were. To have taken them by storm must have cost us at least one third of our entire command, if not more. We therefore adopted a slower but better plan. Stationing sharp-shooters behind trees, stumps and bushes to pick off the enemy whenever they showed their heads, the rest of us advanced by crawling and running and dragging after us rails and logs. In this way, by the middle of the day Thursday our division had erected a tolerably secure fortification within about one hundred and fifty yards from their entrenchments. In the meantime we had stood three severe charges from the enemy, made on us during the night, in each of which we drove them back with considerable loss on their side. The old shot-guns telling well whenever they came into range. We lay in the trenches all of Thursday night, although it was raining hard and some of us were without blankets. On Friday morning we rolled up from town about two hundred bales of hemp and also two cannon. We then began advancing steadily, rolling the bales before us amid a perfect storm of grape and minnie balls, the enemy having concentrated the most of their force against us. By 12 o'clock we had advanced in this way to within fifty yards, near enough for our shot guns to become effective, and silenced their cannon. Finding that another advance would bring us up to their entrenchments where we would have slayed the last one, they hoisted the white flag.
It is conceded on all sides that Harris' division did the hardest fighting - while , without boasting, I can say that Hull's regiment was foremost in the fight and rolled the first bales. Lieut. Colonel Hull was slightly wounded Friday at noon while gallantly leading his men to the charge. The command then devolved on Major Dorsey, who nobly led us on to victory. Since the battle Col. Burbridge has been transferred to our command, the other officers remaining as they were. Although our forces around the town numbered about 30,000, there were not more than 4,000 actively engaged. I annex a list of the killed and wounded:
Federal forces, killed 174 - wounded 236. We captured 3,300 men - 3,700 stand of arms - 1,200 sabres - 7 cannon - 2 mortars, 800 horses, 126 wagons, and returned $900,000 Missouri money, which had been stolen from the Lexington Bank.
State forces, killed 42, wounded 37, and of this number our regiment lost about half. Three cheers for our boys, who although inexperienced, fought like veterans! and another three for the brave officers who lead them!!
Reminiscence of Lexington
The following is from the September 19, 1897 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Today is the anniversary of one of the three days of the battle of Lexington, which will perhaps forever be regarded as one of the most important engagements fought in Missouri during the war. Thirty-six years ago today Gen. Mulligan, at the head of about 3500 brave men, was making a desperate effort to withstand the furious assaults of the Confederate forces under Gen. Sterling Price. The battle of Lexington presents features in military operations without a parallel in history. Here the future chronicler of events will find movements not easily understood. The victors acted as if they had been vanquished. Gen. Price, at the head of the greatest Confederate army ever assembled west of the Mississippi River, no sooner received Gen. Mulligan's sword than he at once commenced a hurried retreat toward the famine-stricken districts of Southwest Missouri and the barren hills of Arkansas. To a soldier it looks as if the victory at Lexington would have offered to the commander of a great army just the opportunity that would have made his heart leap for joy. Fremont, undecided as to the plans of his enemy, having failed to reenforce Mulligan, was slowly moving his army out of St. Louis with his divisions widely separated Even the privates in the Confederate army expected that they would at once be led against Fremont. Never during the whole war was a better opportunity offered for attacking and defeating an army in detail. After all, Mulligan's defeat was a Union victory. It developed the plans of the Confederate generals and gave Fremont time to mobilize and strengthen that fine army which, under his successor, struck the final and fatal blow at Pea Ridge.
Although Gen. Price had a large army at Lexington, the battle was really fought between the Union forces and Gen. Tom Harris' brigade of Northeast Missouri boys, occasionally assisted by small detachments. Gen. Tom Harris was a graduate of West Point, where he obtained his education in the same class with Gen. Grant. Curiously enough, they had faced each other in their first battle of the war early in the summer near Florida, in Monroe County, Mo. Gen. Harris' fame as a soldier rested upon his short campaign as a filibusterer in Central America, under Walker, "the gray-eyed man of destiny". He had recruited his brigade in Northeast Missouri, and early in September he had captured the steamboat Sunshine at Glasgow, and crossed the Missouri River. A few days later he joined the main army under Gen. Price within sight of Lexington. For some reason he did move upon the enemy's works for several days. Fremont had ample time to have reenforced Mulligan, and there was nothing to have prevented Mulligan from blowing up the place and crossing the river. The brave officer doubtless felt that he could hold out and keep Gen. Price engaged until Fremont drove a human wedge between us and our General's beloved Arkansas. He did very nearly succeed in doing that very thing, but critics of the campaign will doubtless insist that Gen. Fremont's matched horses, his European princes and his oriental caravan moved very slow. He certainly moved fast enough for us.
The battle commenced on the morning of the 18th of September, after we had sat for more than a week within cannon shot of the enemy's lines, watching them strengthening their works, and in every way preparing to give us a warm reception. Gen. Harris rode up to McDonald's fine regiment and said: "Soldiers, I give you the advance this morning, and I trust to God that you will prove worthy of it." The ball opened with an artillery duel. Our battery of two guns occupied a position in the streets of the town. The federal batteries replied with such vigor that our engineers sought a more favorable position; and the infantry column penetrated between the river and the enemy's works, capturing two steamboats on the march. Gen. Harris rode at the head of the column, and when we came within sight of the enemy's lines he directed Green's and McDonald's regiments to ascend the heights. It was evidently the intention of the General to carry the place by assault, but when we came within range of the enemy we were met with such a galling fire of musketry, grape and shells that the Confederate line wavered and began to stagger backward. Gen. Harris, who was watching the movement, at once dismounted from his horse and came up the hill, and there, under a shower of minie balls that were singing as if 10,000 devils were frying meat, he coolly surveyed the enemy's position, and finding the earthworks stronger than he anticipated, he ordered us to lie down in line. While he was shaking hands with a group of officers, all of whom were standing perfectly erect, though a storm of bullets were in the air, and shot and shell were plowing up the earth, a blaze of fire belched from the windows of a two-story brick house which we had mistaken for a hospital. Other regiments were at that moment gaining the line, and when we became so suddenly and surely notified of the fact that the brick house was full of Federal infantry our men sprang to their feet and carried the place at the muzzle of their arms in a few moments. It proved to be an outwork of the Union fortification, and one that Gen. Mulligan seemingly desired to hold at any cost. The Federals brought several pieces of artillery to bear on our position, and under cover of a shower of grape and canister a column of infantry charged us with fixed bayonets and drove us out of the building. This house is known as the Anderson house. Instantly our line was reformed and being led by such brave officers as Green, Porter, McCullough and Lieut. Joe Neil, we returned to the charge and once more planted our colors on the walls of the building, where they remained during the remainder of the battle.
About that time it was reported along the lines that Gen. Price had said that he would stay there three days to save the life of one Missourian. We all loved him as a father and regarded him as a great General, and though the soldiers were inclined to think that the place ought to be carried by storm, they settled down to siege work without complaining.
So far the battle had been a bloody one, and both sides had fought with desperation. The Missourians of Harris' brigade were receiving their first baptism of fire and they had displayed that valor which afterwards distinguished them upon so many crimson fields. The idea of making another assault was abandoned, and we at once commenced the construction of a line of breastworks on the crest of the bluff within easy rifle shot of the enemy's works. Here nearly all the fighting took place during the next two nights and days. A line of skirmishers deployed in front of our works, operating from behind trees and destroying the enemy as he exposed his head. During every moment of the next forty-eight hours there was a constant firing on this part of the field. At intervals of every few hours the enemy tried our mettle by massing infantry and artillery against us, and then the very earth trembled beneath the roar of the cannon and the rattle of musketry. These terrible duels occurred very frequently during the first night, and as the lines were close together our loss in killed and wounded was severe. As the whole intention of the enemy appeared to be directed against our brigade, occupying a position between their works and the river, we concluded that they either desired to force a passage to the water for the purpose of slaking their thirst or else they were preparing to make an effort to cut their way through our line and march away. The brigade received but slight reinforcements, though we knew that there were at least 25,000 Confederate soldiers on the field and in camp who were scarcely exposed to the enemy's fire. The boys certainly displayed remarkable fortitude in remaining in the trenches for three days and two nights exposed to a constant shower of minie balls, grape and canister. Drenched with rain and only getting such food as was handed to them while under fire, they never complained, and it was seldom that a man asked to be relieved.
On the third day, about 2 o'clock in the evening, two or three soldiers who had been to the river for the purpose of filling their canteens noticed a warehouse full of hemp bales, and they rolled one of these bales upon the hill for the purpose of strengthening a weak place in our works. Other soldiers, observing the effectiveness of the new material, rolled more hemp bales out of the warehouse and placed them on the lower breastworks. After a few moments whole companies could be seen rolling these hemp bales up on the hill. Officers were helping, but issuing few orders. They did not need any. That is just the way it all happened, and no officer is at all entitled to the credit of planning or suggesting the famous moveable breastworks. Somehow this secure protection against the enemy's shot increased the confidence of the troops, and the firing grew hotter. Several sharpshooters who were operating from behind trees noticed the hemp bales, and they procured one and rolled it forward. The firing steadily increased, and the enthusiasm of the troops rose to a pitch of frenzy. They began to cheer and talk of making an assault. Without orders the whole line of hemp bales began to bounce over the works, and while the shot was plowing up the earth and stripping the trees of their limbs this line moved rapidly forward, rolling the hemp bales in front. The artillery companies, anxious to be in the struggle, performed a prodigy by dragging one of their guns up the bluff and joining the line. In a few moment we were right up against the enemy, and could easily hear the federal officers giving orders. They had reinforced their line with artillery and dismounted cavalry. We recognized the popping of their revolvers. Occasionally we could see the tall form of Gen. Mulligan himself towering above the earthworks swinging his sword and cheering his men. On our side such brave men as Col. Porter, Gen. Martin Green, Capt. McCullough and Lieut. Joe Neil stood erect and never stooped to get the protection of a hemp bale. One brave Major sprang upon a hemp bale and shouted, "Over boys, and at them." He fell back at my feet with blood streaming from his face. When we were close enough to have thrown our hats over the enemy's works a white flag suddenly appeared, and we were glad to see it. The terms of surrender were very soon arranged, and we marched in and took possession of the enemy's works. The federal soldiers, black with smoke and looking haggard, instantly began asking us for water. We handed them our canteens as we passed them drawn up in line for the purpose of stacking their arms. The fort presented a sickening scene. The dead had not been buried, and their wounded were lying in the trenches begging for water. Dead horses were everywhere, and the wounded ones appealed to us with a sigh as we passed them. Never during the war did soldiers fight with more fortitude and gallantry on both sides than on the field of Lexington.
The prisoners were paroled and allowed to cross the Missouri River. Gen. Mulligan remained with us several weeks, rather as a guest than a prisoner of war, for the purpose of completing the terms of surrender. We understood that he was to be exchanged for Gen. Frost, who had surrendered at Camp Jackson, near St. Louis, some months before. Lieut. Dan Lanius accompanied Gen. Mulligan back to the Union lines, acting as exchange officer. These two brave soldiers became very much attached to each other, and, curiously enough, they were both slain in battle about the same time - Mulligan in front of Richmond and Lanius on the heights of Helena. Thus ended the famous battle of Lexington. Today many of the old veterans are gathered there, mingling the blue and gray, looking at the various localities crimsoned with the heroic blood thirty-six years ago, and [I] should like to be there to grasp the hands of comrades and of those foeman whose gallantry was never surpassed by any troops that we faced during the whole war.
T. A. FAGAN
Return to list of Featured Battles