September 20, 1861 – The pro-secessionist Missouri State Guards captured a Federal force and a strategically important town in northwestern Missouri.
After the secessionists won the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in August, General Ben McCulloch led his contingent back to Arkansas. This left the Missouri State Guards under General (and former Missouri governor) Sterling “Pap” Price, which camped near Springfield in southwestern Missouri. On September 10, Price decided to move north and attack Federals seeking to enforce Major General John C. Fremont’s slave emancipation decree in Johnson County.
The Missourians arrived at Warrensburg the next day, but the Federals had already left town. On the 12th, Price advanced on Lexington, Missouri’s largest commercial town between St. Louis and Kansas City, on the Missouri River. About 3,600 Federals under Colonel James A. Mulligan were stationed around the Masonic College, north of town. The troops kept the Missouri state seal and nearly $1 million from town banks buried under Mulligan’s tent.
Price’s numerically superior Missourians drove back the Federal pickets and pursued them to within two and a half miles of Lexington before Price ordered a halt for the night. The next day, Price’s men pushed the Federals back to the college, where Mulligan ordered his troops to hold “at all hazards.” The Federals withdrew to their garrison, a 12-foot-by-12-foot earthwork defended by seven cannon.
Although outnumbered about two-to-one, Mulligan counted on Fremont, commanding all Federals in Missouri, to send reinforcements from one of three forces stationed nearby. Although he received no indication that Fremont would help him, Mulligan held out hope that his commander would come through.
Meanwhile, as Price paused to wait for his artillery train to arrive from Springfield, the rest of his Guards as well as local volunteers joined him, raising his total force to about 10,000 men. The Missourians fired their cannons at the Federal works while preparing to launch a full-scale attack once the main artillery train arrived.
Fremont quickly learned of Mulligan’s predicament from both his subordinates and Hamilton Gamble, Missouri’s provisional Unionist governor. Gamble wrote Fremont that losing Lexington “would be a great disaster, giving control to the enemy of the upper country.” He proposed transporting nearby Federals under Brigadier-Generals John Pope and Samuel D. Sturgis by train to Hamilton, and then march them the remaining 40 miles to Lexington. Gamble wrote, “It may be too late now, but it is worth the effort.”
Missourians rushing to reinforce Price, led by General D.R. Atchison (former president of the U.S. Senate) clashed with James H. Lane’s Jayhawkers on the northern bank of the Missouri at Blue Mills, about 35 miles above Lexington, on the 17th. The Kansans ultimately withdrew, losing 150 killed and 200 wounded; the Missourians lost five killed and 20 wounded. This ensured that Mulligan would receive no help from the Kansas Federals.
Price’s ammunition arrived on the 18th, and the Missourians attacked Mulligan’s defensive perimeter that morning. They destroyed homes and buildings in the line of fire and relocated several residents, including Mulligan’s wife. They also took up positions along the Missouri River west of town and captured the only steamboat that the Federals could use to escape.
An artillery exchange opened the engagement, followed by the Missourians charging and seizing the Anderson house, a two-story brick building about 125 yards from the Federals ramparts. The house had strategic significance because it sat atop a hill and served as a hospital. Federals has planted land mines to protect the building, but the Missourians seized it nonetheless.
The Federals took back Anderson house in a counterattack, bayoneting captured Missourians for violating the rules of war by attacking a hospital (though the bayoneting violated the rules as well). When thirsty Federals in the building began fighting over water, the Missourians surged forward again and regained Anderson house for good. Fugitive slaves found hiding in the basement were returned to their masters.
The fight ended at nightfall, with the Federals retaining their defense works but the Missourians holding Anderson house, which gave them high ground from which to fire into the Federal camps. The Missourians also controlled the water supply, as the two wells still within the Federal lines had gone dry. Mulligan would have to surrender if he did not receive reinforcements to break out of town immediately. Price awaited more ordnance while preparing for a final, decisive assault.
The Missourians resumed their artillery bombardment on the 19th, having evacuated the 1,000 or so residents from Lexington. The cannonade combined with the hot weather and lack of water to take its toll on the besieged Federals. Sturgis arrived across the Missouri River with 1,000 Federals to reinforce Mulligan, but the Missourians had seized all ferryboats, making it impossible for Sturgis to cross.
Price sent a detachment of 3,000 men to drive Sturgis’s Federals off. After a brief skirmish from across the river, Sturgis withdrew toward Kansas City. Neither Lane nor Pope received Fremont’s orders to help Mulligan. Unaware that Sturgis had been turned back, Mulligan held out until the next day.
By that time, Price had nearly 18,000 men surrounding the Federal garrison. They advanced around 8 a.m., pushing dampened hemp bales in front of them to protect against enemy fire. The Federals, demoralized by thirst and overwhelming numbers, only offered a token resistance.
Firing stopped when one of Mulligan’s officers raised a white flag. Price sent a party to ask why the firing had stopped. Mulligan, who had not been consulted before his subordinate offered to surrender, replied, “General, I hardly know, unless you have surrendered.” Price ordered the attack to resume, and as the Missourians and their hemp bales drew closer, Federal troops began waving white flags of their own.
Mulligan called a meeting of his officers. The Federals were not only out of water, but their food and ammunition supply was running dangerously low. Convinced that Fremont would not help them, the subordinates voted to surrender. Mulligan finally agreed.
The Federal commander dispatched a messenger at 2 p.m. asking Price for capitulation terms. Price answered that surrender would be unconditional; the men would be paroled and sent home, and the officers would be held as prisoners of war. He gave Mulligan 10 minutes to respond, during which time the Federals marched out of their defenses and laid down their arms.
Mulligan and his officers offered their swords to Price, who said, “You gentlemen have fought so bravely that it would be wrong to deprive you of your swords. Keep them.” A band played “Dixie” as the Federal troops marched past the Missourians.
Exiled pro-secession Missouri Governor Claiborne F. Jackson, who was with Price’s State Guards, delivered a speech to the prisoners admonishing them for invading Missouri and, noting that many of them were from Illinois, he said that “when Missouri needed troops from Illinois, she would ask for them.” Jackson then announced that they were free to go home. Only Mulligan and his wife stayed with Price as prisoners, where they were treated as respected guests.
The Missourians captured 3,441 Federals, 750 horses, 100 wagons, 3,000 muskets, and all seven artillery pieces. They seized $100,000 worth of commissary stores, and other property desperately needed by the growing number of Missourians volunteering to expel the Federals from their state. They also recovered the state seal and about $900,000 of the stolen money from the town banks. Federals sustained 159 casualties while the Confederates lost 97 (25 killed, 72 wounded). Price reported:
“This victory has demonstrated the fitness of our citizen soldiery for the tedious operations of a siege, as well as for a dashing charge. They lay for 52 hours in the open air, without tents or covering, regardless of the sun and rain, and in the very presence of a watchful and desperate foe, manfully repelling every assault and patiently awaiting my orders to storm the fortifications. No general ever commanded a braver or better army. It is composed of the best blood and bravest men of Missouri.”
The capture of Lexington worsened the plummeting morale of Unionist Missourians. It also added to the growing Fremont controversy, as many questioned his competence for failing to rescue the garrison with his 38,000 troops stationed throughout Missouri before Mulligan was compelled to surrender. However, Price’s victory did not help the secessionist cause in Missouri in the long-term, as many of the disorganized State Guards believed that their duty had been done and returned to their homes. Meanwhile, the Federal presence in the state steadily increased.
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