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1st Battle of Lexington

Still wanting to secure Missouri even after their victory at Wilson’s Creek a month earlier, the Confederate General Sterling Price moved his troops to the Union garrison in Lexington. Under the combined force of Sterling and Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch, the Missouri State Guard (MSG), moved to attack what was then considered a foreign country – Missouri, still part of the U.S.

For their own part, the Union started moving into Lexington on the 8th with Colonel James A. Mulligan with his 23rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry and – prior to that, even – the 1st Illinois Cavalry and the Missouri Home Guards. Two days later Major Robert T. Van Horn’s brought two companies of the Missouri Battalion followed by Colonel Everett Peabody’s 13th Missouri arrived. Immediately on the 11th, Colonel Mulligan had his men digging fortifications all around College Hill, home of the Masonic College. This would become their headquarters.

The following day, the MSG arrived and shortly thereafter skirmishes broke out. One attempt was made on Mulligan’s fortifications by General Price, but it failed. Following this, both sides retreated to regroup.

Most of the Union wanted to abandon Lexington, but Colonel Mulligan overruled them, determining to stand their ground. Meanwhile, on MSG leaders wanted to surround the Union army.

Nothing else happened, however, until September 18th, when General Price received much-needed supplies and men. The fighting began that morning.

At 9 am, College Hill was hit with an artillery bombardment. Following this, “Price ordered his men to capture the Anderson House, a prominent three-story, brick structure that lay just outside of Union lines” (Source). The Union had been using Anderson House as a hospital, but this didn’t stop the Confederates from taking it. They used it mainly to launch small-arms fires at the Union.

Mulligan, of course, saw the attack of the hospital as breaking the rules of war. So, he sent his Company B of the 23rd Illinois to recapture Anderson House. Led by George Henry Palmer of Company G (who won a Medal of Honor for this escapade), Company B not only recaptured the house, but executed three MSG soldiers.

[Below: Anderson House]

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From there, General Price ordered that the house be re-retaken! The MSG attacked once again, driving out the Union – this time for good. This secured, Confederates went on to capture a steamship full of Union supplies, a raid led by Colonel Ben Rivers of the State Guard.

With Colonel Mulligan’s men successfully encircled, Major General John C. Frémont from the Union Department of the West ordered detachments from Missouri and Kansas to come relieve the Lexington contingent. However, they were unsuccessful in breaking the MSG’s lines.

Meanwhile, Mulligan’s men, not only surrounded but cut off from all water supplies, were desperately trying to dig for water. But unsuccessful seemed to be the word of the day. They were coming up bone dry no matter where they dug.

But then, on the evening of the 19th, MSG Brigadier General Thomas Harris came up with the concept of using hemp bales as a moving fortification. Dipping the bales in water to prevent them from catching fire, MSG rolled them ever closer to College Hill, slowly but surely encircling the Union until they were powerless. Panicking, the Union continuously fired artillery, but it was useless against the soaked hemp bales. It was looking absolutely hopeless for Colonel Mulligan’s men.

Despite this, the State Guard attempted one more attack the next morning. It was a bloody hand-to-hand that followed, resulting in MSG being driven back. Even given their small victory, most of Mulligan’s men were wounded. It was time for surrender, whether or not Mulligan liked it.

A white flag eventually appeared, though not by the hand of Mulligan. When asked if he was willing to surrender, Mulligan blustered, claiming that he thought Price was the one surrendering! Much confusion needed to be sorted out and, once that was figured out, a vote was taken. 6-2, the vote was to surrender. Though Mulligan was still against it.

With the Union surrender, the MSG gained supplies and a whopping $900,000 from the Lexington Bank. Despite this and the land gained, Price had no possible way of feeding all the men in MSG. So, he was forced to move back to the corner of the state, anyways.

During the battle, the Confederates suffered 25 deaths and 72 wounded while the Union suffered 39 deaths and 120 wounded.

[Below: Lexington Courthouse with cannonball hole]

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Up Next:

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff

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