Sunday, September 18

This Week in The Civil War: Sunday, Sept. 18

The Battle of Lexington

Who would have thought large hemp bales could sway the outcome of a battle? The Battle of Lexington rages on early this week in September 1861. Secessionist forces under Maj. Gen. Sterling Price are fighting madly to seize the pro-southern Missouri River town of Lexington. Strains of "Dixie" waft from a military band as the fighters, their ranks swelled by recruits pouring in from the countryside, bombard some 3,000 Unionists hunkered down on the grounds of a Masonic college at the north end of Lexington. By now, besieged Unionists are running out of water, trapped in their defenses in the late summer heat. On the third day, the siege ends dramatically: Southern fighters take some 130 large hemp bales on Sept. 20, 1861, and line them up opposite the Union breastworks and begin pushing the bales ever closer to the rival side. Unionists pound the moving line of hemp bales with cannons and rifle shot but the bales have been soaked with water and fail to catch fire. Secessionists — hiding three men behind each bale — nudge the bales forward in snakelike lines until they are close. They then charge the federal defenders. Hand-to-hand fighting ensues but it's quickly over and the Union forces surrender. About 65 deaths are reported and many dozens wounded. A newspaper dispatch published afterward in the New Hampshire Sentinel lauded the outnumbered federal forces under Col. James A. Mulligan for a brave fight: "Col. Mulligan was at last compelled to yield to a force eight times his own number, after fifty-one hours of fighting, without a drop of water." Missouri's Union commander, Major Gen. John Fremont, will eventually respond to the defeat by mounting a 38,000-strong force that eventually drives Price and his band from the state later in the war. Lexington will eventually return to Union control.

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