As the month began, Confederates controlled most of southwestern Missouri, with Major General Sterling “Pap” Price’s State Guards stationed near Springfield. Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, who had joined forces with Price to defeat the Federals at Wilson’s Creek in August, took his contingent back to Arkansas since Missouri had not yet officially joined the Confederacy. This left Price with about 7,000 men.
Advance elements of Price’s Guards skirmished with Colonel James H. Lane’s Kansas Jayhawkers on the prairie at Dry Wood Creek, some 12 miles east of Fort Scott. The Kansans retreated after losing 14 men and their herd of mules. The Missourians sustained 20 casualties. When Price learned of this clash and the subsequent abandonment of Fort Scott, he opted to threaten Lexington, about 125 miles northwest of Springfield on the Missouri River. Lexington was the largest commercial town between St. Louis and Kansas City.
Price launched his new offensive on September 10. His first objective was Warrensburg, where Federal troops were allegedly robbing banks and looting homes in accordance with the recent proclamation by Major General John C. Fremont, commanding the Federal Department of the West. Fremont had authorized Federals to seize property belonging to disloyal Missourians, including their slaves. The Missourians reached Warrensburg early on the 11th, but the Federals had already left town. Price did not pursue, instead resting his men before they resumed their march on Lexington.
A violent storm delayed the advance, but the Missourians closed in on Lexington on the 12th. Colonel James Mulligan held the town with his 23rd Illinois Infantry (dubbed the “Irish Brigade”) and a contingent of Home Guards. Mulligan had orders to push his “way through the enemy, go to Lexington, and hold it at all hazards.” In all, he had about 3,600 men and nine guns, which was less than half of Price’s approaching force.
Mulligan had just arrived on the 10th, and his men were hurrying to build defensive works atop College Hill on the campus of the Masonic College, overlooking the town and the Missouri River. To prevent secessionists from robbing the Lexington banks, he seized their money himself and had the nearly $1 million–along with the Missouri state seal–buried under his tent.
Price’s 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 advanced again, pushing the Federals back to their fortifications. These consisted of a 12-foot-by-12-foot earthwork at the college. Though outnumbered, Mulligan counted on Fremont to send reinforcements from one of the three forces stationed nearby. He received no indication that Fremont would help him, but Mulligan held out hope that his commander would come through.
Fremont quickly learned of Mulligan’s predicament. Hamilton Gamble, Missouri’s provisional Unionist governor, wrote Fremont that losing Lexington “would be a great disaster, giving control to the enemy of the upper country.” He proposed to transport 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.”
Fremont ordered Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis to send two regiments to Mulligan’s aid, with troops from St. Louis replacing them. But Davis replied that he would confront the secessionists at Boonville instead and added, “Let General Sturgis operate higher up the river and support Lexington.” Fremont then ordered Sturgis to go to Mulligan’s aid with 1,000 men. Around the same time, orders came from President Abraham Lincoln to send 5,000 troops to Washington immediately.
Meanwhile, the Missourians kept the Federals pinned in their works as Price waited for his artillery train to come up from Springfield. The rest of his force soon arrived with local volunteers, raising Price’s total force to about 10,000 men. Other Missourians rushing to reinforce Price clashed with Lane’s Kansas Jayhawkers at Blue Mills, on the northern bank of the Missouri River about 35 miles above Lexington. The Kansans ultimately withdrew, thus ensuring that Mulligan would get no help from the Kansans.
Price spent the night of the 17th preparing for an all-out assault on the besieged Federals. His artillery and ammunition arrived the next morning, and the Missourians surged forward against Mulligan’s defensive perimeter. The attackers 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 ensued, after which the Missourians charged and seized the Anderson house, a two-story brick building about 125 yards from the Federal works. The house was strategically significant because it sat atop a hill and served as a hospital. Federals had planted land mines to guard the building, but the Missourians seized it anyway, even despite the hospital flag waving from the roof. From the Anderson house, Price’s men could shoot down into the Federal works, and Mulligan reported that they “poured right into our intrenchments a deadly drift of lead.”
Mulligan motivated his Irishmen to charge 250 yards over open ground to retake the Anderson house. The German Home Guards soon joined them, and they swarmed the building, fighting from room to room. Three captured Missourians were bayoneted for attacking a hospital; both the attack and the bayoneting violated the rules of war. When thirsty Federals in the hospital began fighting over water, the Missourians surged forward again and recaptured the building. 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.
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