BATTLE OF LEXINGTON I – SEPTEMBER 13-20, 1861
(a.k.a. Battle of the Hemp Bales)
At 9 o’clock on the morning of the 18th the enemy were seen approaching. The Confederate force had been increased to 18,000 men with 16 pieces of cannon. They came as one dark moving mass. Our earthworks covered an area of about eighteen acres, surrounded by a ditch, and protected in front by what were called “confusion pits,” and by mines. Our men stood firm behind the breastworks, none trembled or paled, and a solemn silence prevailed. The enemy opened a terrible fire with their cannon on all sides, which we answered with determination and spirit. Our spies had brought intelligence, and had all agreed that it was the intention of the enemy to make a grand rush, overwhelm us, and bury us in the trenches of Lexington.
At noon, word was brought that the enemy had taken the hospital. We had not fortified that; it was situated outside the entrenchments, and I had supposed that the little white flag was sufficient protection for the wounded and dying soldiers who had finished their service and were powerless for harm. The hospital contained our chaplain, our surgeon, and a number of wounded. The enemy took it without opposition, filled it with their sharp-shooters, and from every window, every door, from the scuttles in the roof, poured right into our entrenchments a deadly drift of lead. A company of the Home Guards, then a company of the Missouri 14th, were ordered to retake the hospital, but refused. The Montgomery Guards, a company of the Irish Brigade, was then ordered out. Their captain admonished them to uphold the gallant name they bore, and the order was given to charge. The distance across the plain from the entrenchments to the hospital was about eighty yards. They started; at first quick, then double-quick, then on a run, then faster. Still the deadly fire poured into their ranks. But on they went; a wild line of steel, and, what is better than steel, irresistible human will. They reached the hospital, burst open the door, without shot or shout, until they encountered the enemy within, whom they hurled out and sent flying down the hill.
Our surgeon was held by the enemy, although we had released the Confederate surgeon on his mere pledge that he was such. It was a horrible thing to see those brave fellows, mangled and wounded, without skillful hands to bind their ghastly wounds; and Captain David P. Moriarty, who had been a physician in civil life, was ordered to lay aside his sword and go into the hospital. He went, and through all the siege worked among the wounded with no other instrument than a razor. Our supply of water had given out and the scenes in the hospital were fearful to witness, wounded men suffering agonies from thirst and in their frenzy wrestling for the water in which the wounded had been bathed. On the morning of the 19th the firing was resumed, and continued all day. Our officers had told the men that if they could hold out until the 19th we should certainly be reinforced, and all through that day the men watched anxiously for the appearance of the friendly flag under which aid was to reach them, and listened eagerly for the sound of friendly cannon. But they looked and listened in vain, and all day long they fought without water, their parched lips cracking, their tongues swollen, and the blood running down their chins when they bit their cartridges and the saltpeter entered their blistered lips.
The morning of the 20th broke, but no reinforcements had come, and still the men fought on. The enemy appeared that day with an artifice which was destined to overreach us and secure to them the possession of our entrenchments. They had constructed a movable breastwork of hemp bales, rolled them before their lines up the hill, and advanced under this cover. All our efforts could not retard the advance of these bales. Heated shot were fired with the hope of setting them on fire, but they had been soaked and would not burn. Thus for hours the fight continued. Our cartridges were now nearly used up, many of our brave fellows had fallen. At 3 o’clock an orderly came, saying that the enemy had sent a flag of truce. With the flag came a note from General Price, asking “why the firing had ceased.” I returned it, with the reply written on the back, “General, I hardly know, unless you have surrendered.” He at once took pains to assure me that this was not the case. I then discovered that the major of another regiment, in spite of orders, had raised a white flag.
Our ammunition was about gone. We were out of rations, and had been without water for days, and many of the men felt like giving up the post, which it seemed impossible to hold longer. They were ordered back to the breastworks, and told to use up all their powder, then defend themselves as best they could, but to hold their place. A council of war was held and the question of surrender was put to the officers, and a ballot was taken, only two out of six votes being cast in favor of fighting on. Then the flag of truce was sent out with our surrender. [Source article: “The Siege of Lexington,” by Col. James A. Mulligan, in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 1 Century Co., 1887: 307-313.]
Stamp Location: Battle of Lexington State Historic Site Visitor’s Center, when staff available.
GPS: 39.189431, -93.879712
Chamber of Commerce: www.historiclexington.com
Address: 1101 Delaware St., Lexington, Mo. 64067
Phone Number: 660-259-4654
BOOK ARTICLES ON THE SIEGE OF LEXINGTON
Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 1. “The Siege of Lexington, Mo.”Century Co., 1887: p. 307-313.
Pollard, Edward A. The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. “The Siege of Lexington, Mo.” E. B. Treat, 1866: p. 164-167.
OFFICIAL AFTER ACTION REPORTS OF THE BATTLE OF LEXINGTON
The War of the Rebellion: the Official Records, Series 1, Volume 3; pages 171-193.[Link to Page 171]
MAGAZINE ARTICLES ABOUT THE SIEGE OF LEXINGTON
Carter, R. C. “A Short Sketch of my Experiences during the First Stages of the Civil War.” np, nd. (approx. 1862) The State Historical Society of Missouri (C2911)
Grover, George S. “The Civil War in Missouri,” Missouri Historical Review, Volume 08 Issue 1, October 1913: p. 1-28.
Snyder, J. F. “The Capture of Lexington,” Missouri Historical Review, Volume 07 Issue 1, October 1912: p. 1-9.
NEWSPAPER ARTICLES ON THE SIEGE OF LEXINGTON
Sep 20, 1861 New York Tribune “Important From Missouri–Reported Fight at Lexington” [Summary: Gen Price sent word to Col. Mulligan at Lexington to Surrender. He would not. Price attacked but was repulsed. Mulligan will hold Lexington until reinforcements arrive.]
Sep 23, 1861 New York Tribune “Highly Important From Missouri–Determined Resistance of Col. Mulligan” [Summary: Mulligan and his whole command at Lexington surrendered to Price on Friday morning. The siege continued from Monday and the men were without water all Thursday and Friday. They were compelled to yield to superior numbers. The Federal loss is estimated to be 800-900, Rebel loss at 3,000-4,000.]
Sep 24, 1861 Missouri Republican “Surrender of Lexington Confirmed” [Summary: The Republican gives its report on the fall of Lexington. Henry Bradburn, who belonged to Col. Mulligan’s command arrived in St. Louis this morning and confirmed the surrender.]
Sep 24, 1861 New York Tribune “The Fall of Lexington” [Summary: The news of the surrender of Col. Mulligan is confirmed, and Lexington is in full possession of the rebels under Price. Wonders why Gen. Lane, Gen. Pope, Gen. Sturgis, or others were not able to reinforce or relieve Mulligan. As a strategic point, it’s loss is serious to the Federal cause.]
Sep 25, 1861 Missouri Republican “Letters from the Capital” [Summary: Correspondent J. H. B. says the actual loss at Lexington is trifling compared to the moral effect in Missouri–the renewed hope and strength it gives to the secession movement. If Mulligan and his men only had water, they would have fought Price to the end. Speculates what the rebel movements will be next.]
Sep 25, 1861 New York Tribune “The Siege of Lexington” [Summary: This account is furnished to the Republican by Henry Bradburn, one of Col. Mulligan’s soldiers. Rebels steal a quarter of a million dollars in gold. Loss on rebels side is estimated at not less than 1,000.]
Sep 25, 1861 New York Tribune “The War for the Union–Gen. Fremont and the Rebels In Lexington” [Summary: Fremont said he is about to march in person upon the victorious rebels from St. Louis. The Administration is not disposed to make hasty judgment on him.]
Sep 26, 1861 New York Tribune “From Missouri–Col. Mulligan’s Men Sent to Hannibal–Price Gets a Large Amount of Money–Losses at Lexington Exaggerated” [Summary: Additional particulars and corrections from Col. Mulligan’s men. Total loss of Mulligan’s men was not over 150, and that of the rebels, not more than 300. About one million, five hundred thousand dollars, in specie, was secured by Price after being buried by Col. Mulligan to preserve it. McCulloch is rapidly marching to join Price with a well-armed and disciplined force.]
Sep 26, 1861 New York Tribune “Military Failures” [Summary: The Tribune says it is not condemning Fremont, just questioning why there have been military failures. Urges that the whole matter of Lexington be subject to a Military tribunal.]
Sep 27, 1861 Liberty (MO) Tribune “Memorabilia of the War” [Summary: Praises the State Troops’ victory at Lexington.]
Sep 27, 1861 Liberty (MO) Tribune “The Siege of Lexington!” [Summary: Confederate Col. J. T. Hughes gives a brief summary of the fight in Lexington, including stats. Vows that the “Government of the State Missouri will be re-established, and our poor oppressed people shall be free once more.” “We are treating our Federal friends very kindly and humanely. They will be kindly provided for, and well treated in all respects.”
Sep 28, 1861 New York Tribune “The Defense of Lexington–Vivid Account of the Siege” [Summary: The Chicago Tribune published a very thorough description of the Siege at Lexington, MO, from Col. Mulligan’s first occupation on Sept. 1 to his surrender.]
Sep 30, 1861 New York Tribune “From Missouri” [Summary: Officers held prisoner at Lexington release upon oath. Price’s troops have devastated the country in a circuit of twenty miles. Jackson and his traveling Legislature passed an ordinance of secession. Next they were working on an act to confiscate property belonging to persons opposed to the Southern Confederacy.]
Oct 1, 1861 Missouri Republican “The War Upon Fremont” [Summary: Editorial says the Black Republican papers in the North are waging war on Fremont–the very papers which praised his appointment. They charge him with neglecting to send reinforcements to Lyon at Springfield and Mulligan at Lexington. The Republican asks if it was prudent for Lyon to move at that time with the knowledge that there were no troops in Springfield to send. In the case of Lexington, the President called Fremont to send five regiments elsewhere, even though Missouri had more hard fighting than any other state at that time. The papers that are complaining against Fremont have not sent any troops to Washington.]
Oct 1, 1861 New York Tribune “War For the Union-Case of Gen. Fremont” [Summary: Congressman Morris Davis from Pennsylvania arrived in New York from St. Louis where he spend weeks with Fremont. Mr. Davis declares the reports of exclusiveness grossly exaggerated, as are nearly all the injurious reports which have been made public. Gen Fremont had not, up to a week or two ago at all events, more than one-half the force the public supposed he had. Davis tells how Fremont was forced to send troops elsewhere on orders from the government. One difficulty in reinforcing Lexington was that McCulloch was known to be advancing upon Jefferson City, the possession of the capital being the chief aim of the Rebels. Fremont had to keep troops there.]
Oct 2, 1861 Missouri Republican “General Fremont” [Summary: Article from the Springfield Journal says the vast newspaper press has been quick to condemn Fremont. The Journal refrains from doing so until all the facts are in. Let there be an inquiry into what went wrong at Lexington and find out who is to blame. The knowledge that “someone has blundered” is not sufficient to condemn and disgrace Fremont. Let us have the facts first and judgment afterward.]
Oct 3, 1861 Missouri Republican “Gen. Fremont’s Purchases” [Summary: Article from the NY Tribune wishes to refrain from passing judgment on Fremont’s management in Missouri. However, it says Gen. Ripley’s report accusing Fremont of paying outrageous prices for certain arms does not have all the facts. Were these arms really available at cheaper prices and with the expediency in which he needed them? And wouldn’t the extra cost be justified if he had saved Lexington?]
Oct 3, 1861 New York Tribune “The Situation” [Summary: Correspondent writes about the three things necessary to strike a successful blow at the rebels, two of which have been accomplished. The third is two embolden the rebels enough so they stay in one large group. The mere fall of Lexington will prove decidedly favorable to the Union cause from a military point of view, if it causes the rebels to remain in one compact body and meet the Union troops in decisive battle.]
Oct 9, 1861 Missouri Democrat “Rebel Accounts–Tom Harris’ Report of the Part He Took in the Battle of Lexington” [Summary: After-action report of the Battle of Lexington from Confederate Brigadier-General Thomas Harris.]
Oct 18, 1861 Liberty (MO) Tribune “Letter from Gov. Robinson” [Summary” Kansas Governor Robinson responds to a speech by Sen. James Lane published in the Liberty Tribune. Robinson wants to show that Lane has not uttered a word of truth since he was elected to the Senate. Robinson claims he has not thrown any obstacles in the way to raise regiments, not has he tried to break up any of Lane’s. “Gen. Lane has done all in his power to prevent the raising of troops for U. S. service by the State authorities, unless he could dictate the terms and manner of raising them.” In regards to Missouri, Robinson questions why Lane did not relieve Col. Mulligan at Lexington when urged to do so and pursue Jackson when he had the opportunity.]
Oct 21, 1861 Missouri Democrat “Fremont and His Difficulties” [Summary: Editorial recounts some of the battles of the last three months, concluding that failure was due to underestimating the enemy. Answers questions, such as, Why doesn’t Fremont pursue Price’s army of 80,00 with 10,000 men and ten days rations? Why did Fremont allow Lexington to be taken? The Democrat believes personal enemies of Fremont, who wanted him to fail put obstacles in front of him so he would not carry out his plan. Due to lack of confidence in him, his supplies and transportation were stopped at a critical time. The paper still expresses utmost confidence that Fremont will be successful.]
Oct 29, 1861 Missouri Democrat “Major Frank White’s Official Report of the Recapture of Lexington, &c”
Nov 1, 1861 New York Tribune “The Latest War News” [Summary: Fremont, with a portion of his army is at Springfield, MO; Gives the loss of Fremont’s bodyguard after recent charge at Springfield. Major White, who led in the recapture of Lexington and who became a prisoner, was rescued by the Greene County Home Guards.]
Nov 8, 1861 Missouri Republican “Exchange of the Lexington and Camp Jackson Prisoners” [Summary: Terms of the agreement and lists prisoners exchanged.]
Nov 26, 1861 New York Tribune “Fremont’s Campaign in Missouri” [Summary: Lengthy and detailed editorial gives a history of Fremont’s campaign in Missouri from the time he arrived at St. Louis on July 27. The loss of Lexington has given rise to much criticism, and more than any other event has prepared the public to agree with Fremont’s removal. The writer believes if the public knew the facts, it would exonerate Fremont.]
Aug 8, 1885 Missouri Republican “Tales of the War: Guibor’s Battery Service in 1861” [Summary: Capt. W. P. Barlow, who was a lieutenant in Guibor’s battery, writes a description of the early service of that organization. This article (Part 2) picks up after the Battle of Oak Hills (Wilson’s Creek) to its reorganization after the Siege on Lexington.]
Mar 3, 1887 National Tribune “Missouri in 1861 III: Military Operations During the Early Winter” [Summary: Written by Maj-Gen. John Pope. Part 3: Fall of Lexington; a long-range battle; preparing to fight an enemy 50 miles away.]