Monday, December 3, 2007

Lexington - the battle of the hemp bales

After the battle of Wilson's Creek on August 10, 1861, General Sterling Price slowly marchs the Missouri State Guard north. At Dry Wood Creek he brushs aside Kansas militia lead by Jims Lane and Montgomery. His destination is Lexington, the wealthy little town on the Missouri River that had served as an embarkation point for border ruffians during the days of bleeding Kansas.

Lexington contains a Masonic college, large houses, a columned courthouse and sturdy bank filled with gold. It also bases a Union force of about 2800 men lead by Colonel James A. Mulligan.

Alerted to Price's advance, Mulligan was ordered from Jefferson City by John C. Fremont, head of the Department of the West. Mulligan moved slowly west searching for Price's vanguard. After 9 days, he arrived in Lexington and was joined by Colonel Thomas A. Marshall with a regiment of Illinois cavalry and 350 Missouri militia. Other forces commanded by John Pope and Samuel Sturgis are on the way.

On September 11, Price's lead regiments appears in front of Lexington. After being chased southwest across Missouri, winning a skirmish at Carthage and the battle of Wilson's Creek and marching north, the Missouri State Guard is a veteran, disciplined, if not a crack, force of 12,000.

Price camps on the fairgrounds, deploys the Guard's 16 artillery pieces and exchanges rounds with Mulligan's 5 cannon. As more Guard regiments arrive, the federal position is slowly surrounded. Mulligan, already low on food, depends on the river for his water supply.

On the 18th, Price's extends a skirmish line along the river bank, cutting the Union troops off from the water and completely encircling them. Their entrenchments on the college's high ground are yet formidable.

Price's men capture a three-story hospital building . Realizing it provides an excellent view into his position, Mulligan launches a counter-attack and retakes it. A Confederate counter-counter-attack secures the position for good and denies the federals their desparately needed water supply in the scorching weather.

On the 19th, Price tightens his lines and continues a slow exchange of artillery. The heat and lack of water in the defending camp are his allies.

The well-protected US position must be approached across open fields. Discovering a warehouse full of large hemp bales in the town on the 20th, Price has them carted to the river, soaked and then brought to the front line. Soon a long movable breastwork moves is levered toward the Union line from the west. The slow, steady advance is sometimes interrupted as a cannon ball sends a hemp bale tumbling, but the soaked bales stop a bullet and refuse to burn. A brief, hand-to-hand attack from the defenses fails to halt the Guard's advance.

Hungry, and now thirsty, a number of defenders show the white flag. Mulligan refuses to acknowledge them. Finally, he calls for a vote of his officers - they vote 4-2 to surrender.

On September 20, the Union forces stack arms and march out of their trenches. Prics allows them to keep their side arms, personal property and horses. Price hosts Mulligan and his officers at a champagne dinner that evening, and toasts their valor.

Price captures 1000 horses, 100 wagons, 5 cannon and 3000 muskets which aid in supplying his troops. Pope and Sturgis, in separate columns are less than 15 miles away and unaware of Mulligan's predicament.

Price's Missouri State Guard lost about 100 killed and wounded; in addition to the captured, Mulligan counted 160 battle losses.

On the heels of the debacle in the east at Bull Run, and the Confederate victory and death of General Lyon at Wilson's Creek, the battle of Lexington and the loss of some 3300 men was another blow to the Union cause.

End note: The Lexington courthouse still contains an artillery shell fragment in it's portico.

End note: Col. Mulligan was exchanged in October, returned to Chicago and received as a hero. Given command of the 23rd Illinois and charge of Camp Douglas, a prisoner-of-war camp, he reformed the poor management system at the camp and granted the prisoners much more humane treatment than had his predecessor.

In June 1962, he and his regiment moved to Maryland for field service and played a small role at Antietam. Ordered to western Virginia they spent two years warding off guerilla raids, ambushes, and night attacks.

In July 1864 the 23rd moved into the Valley of Virginia. They helped turn back Confederate General Jubal Early's attack on Washington. Fighting under General Philip Sheridan, the 23rd met Early's troops at Winchester.

Here Colonel Mulligan was shot from his horse, and when his men offered to carry him from the field, he rebuked, "Lay me down and save the flag!" He was captured where he fell and died two days later in Confederate hands. The position of his fatal wounding is now marked on the battlefield.


Carl W said...

Price's finest moment? BTW, one of the best anecdotes to come out of this was at the Union hospital. Blod loss brings on a terrible thirst, and there was at least one incident where the hospital staff was horrified when a soldier grabbed the bloody bowl a surgeon was washing up in after an amputation.... and started drinking it down!!

Carl [ornre]

HankC said...

Thanks, Carl. Good to see you. We plan to be in northern Virginia for Christmas.

Shortly after the cease-fire, Price asked why the US flag was still flying. Mulligan replied that his Irish regiment had nailed the flag to the pole. Amused, Price asked if the Irish had a band and asked that they play a few tunes before stacking arms.