Battle of Lexington Involves Hemp Bales as Cover

Union Army surrenders at First Battle of Lexington after Confederates use wet bales as cover.

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The First Battle of Lexington (Missouri) was one of the strangest of the Civil War. The Union Army could have ferried the river, but waited too long. The pro-Confederate state guard could have closed in sooner, but had no gun caps, and for a week they waited.

On Wednesday morning, September 19, 1861, the Confederates had the town encircled with an iron ring. The state guard’s battery under the command of Captain Emmett MacDonald while Captain Hiram Bledsoe was recovering from a wound, was posted in front of Major A.G. Young's house. Farther out, another ring of reserves surrounded the town, and many more waited at the fairground.

Finally, the ammunition wagons arrived, and couriers arrived on winded horses from Arkansas with satchels of gun caps. The Confederate band had been sidetracked at Macpelah Cemetery, so the clear penetrating roar of "Old Sacramento" filled the air as the curtain went up, and the battle began, not for slavery, nor for secession, but for invasion.

Between the works and the orchard at the Oliver Anderson house, the Federals, commanded by Colonel James A. Mulligan, had sniper pits filled with riflemen. These were driven back and the house was taken over at noon September 18. Then in mid-afternoon the Federals made a terrific assault and after a heavy death toll, the house was recaptured.

A company had captured the Federal boats, one of which was loaded with valuable stores. Meanwhile, General McBride's and General Harris' divisions had stormed and occupied the bluff north of the Anderson house, which enabled them to harass the Federals and pin them down.

The Federals couldn't get out, nor could they get any relief from the outside. Their food was low, their water was gone, their ammunition was exhausted, and the stench from dead horses was terrible. They'd dug a well 90 feet deep, but to no avail, so they filled it with dead horses. Sharp-shooters picked off anyone who exposed themselves, and thirst-crazed horses were plunging out of control. The Federals shot many of their fine horses rather than let them fall into enemy hands.

Before sundown, the Guards under Harris came up behind a large barricade of wet hemp bales that they rolled forward and, with assistance from the bluff above, the Anderson house was recaptured. The battle raged on until Friday, the 20th. Bledsoe was back in action and commanding his battery from a rocking chair. About 2 p.m., the Federals ran out of ammunition, and one of Mulligan's men, without his permission, ran up a white flag of surrender.

At 3, an orderly came bearing a flag of truce from General Price and a note asking why the firing had ceased. Colonel Mulligan sent back a reply, saying: "General, I hardly know, unless you've surrendered." After General Price assured him that he hadn't surrendered, Mulligan learned that after running out of ammunition his troops had raised the white flag, so he had no choice but to surrender.

General Price moved his headquarters into Anderson's yard and in a roped-off circle under a tree, the surrender was accomplished.

Kathryn D. Clausen
DeLand, Florida


Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.