Lexington's Battle of the Hemp Bales
The first year of the Civil War in Missouri began with the Unionists quickly gaining the upper hand. By the end of June, the pro-Southern governor and members of the cabinet and legislature had been driven into exile and a provisional pro-Union government had been created to rule the state. The tide turned on Aug. 10, 1861, when a Union army was defeated at the bloody Battle of Wilson's Creek near Springfield. This set the stage for a rebel offensive into the heart of the Missouri River valley. In late August, the commander of the pro-Southern state guard forces, Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, set his 7,000 men in motion. Their objective was the prosperous and strongly pro-Southern Missouri River town of Lexington. While Price was advancing on Lexington, a body of 2,700 Federals under the command of Col. James A. Mulligan had fortified themselves inside the grounds of the Masonic College on the northern end of town.
The siege ended on the third day in a dramatic and unusual way. The Southerners had discovered a quantity of hemp bales in a nearby warehouse and arranged these bales in a line on the west side of the Union entrenchments. They then began rolling the bales ever closer to the line of trenches. The panicked Federals unleashed their artillery into the moving breastwork, but their cannon balls had little effect on the dense bales. By early afternoon, the snakelike line of bales had advanced close enough to the Union trenches for a charge, and the defenders of that sector engaged in a brief but bloody hand-to-hand fight before being driven back into their entrenchments. By now, Mulligan and most of his officers were wounded and he realized that the time for surrender had come.
The casualty count from the Battle of Lexington was 25 killed and 75 wounded on Price's side, while the Federals had 39 killed and 120 wounded. Price did experience some immediate gains from the battle. He captured five artillery pieces, 3,000 rifles, and 750 horses, all of which were highly beneficial to his under-equipped army. Beyond that, he returned some $900,000 that the Federals had looted from the local bank - and, he became a hero throughout the South. But his long-term gains were less significant.
In response to the defeat at Lexington, the Union commander in Missouri, Gen. John C. Fremont, mounted a massive force to drive Price from Missouri. In the face of this threat, Price had little choice but to retreat back to southwest Missouri. Lexington and the Missouri River Valley once again returned to Union control.
(Text courtesy of The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site)
The Second Battle of Lexington
Lexington was known as a center for Quantrill's Raiders during the war. Two months after the Civil War ended, many of these guerrilla fighters who had refused to honor the cease-fire finally decided to take advantage of the special Federal amnesty that was declared for such forces and turn themselves in at Lexington. While riding into town, reportedly under a white flag, they were fired upon by Union soldiers from the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry, and Jesse James was severely wounded in the right lung. Some credit this event as a major contributing factor to his post-war career as a legendary bank robber. It is likely not a coincidence that the James-Younger Gang targeted the Alexander Mitchell bank in Lexington for the second daylight bank robbery in United States history. In December 1866, Archie Clement, an accomplice of the James brothers and perhaps the most notorious of all the guerrilla fighters, terrorized the town and was shot from his horse and killed by a sniper perched in the second floor of the Courthouse.
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