Major General Sterling “Pap” Price’s Missouri State Guards, numbering about 10,000 men, closed in on the Federals defending Lexington, the largest commercial city between St. Louis and Kansas City. The defenders consisted of 3,500 men of the 23rd Illinois “Irish Brigade” and the predominantly German Home Guard under Colonel James Mulligan. By dawn on September 19, Price’s Missourians had surrounded the Federal earthwork and cut off both their water supply and escape route. If they were not reinforced immediately, Mulligan would be forced to surrender.
Major General John C. Fremont, commanding the Federal Department of the West from St. Louis, had ordered Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis to march 1,000 troops to Mulligan’s aid. Price countered by sending a detachment of 3,000 men under Colonel Mosby Parsons to block them. The forces clashed about 15 miles north of Lexington, with Sturgis falling back before superior numbers. Mulligan could expect no help from Sturgis. Fremont had also ordered Brigadier General John Pope to send aid, but Pope had not yet received those orders. Mulligan, unaware that Sturgis had been turned back, continued holding out.
Price’s Missourians evacuated the 1,000 or so residents from Lexington and resumed their artillery bombardment on the Federal works. The cannonade combined with the hot weather and lack of water started to take its toll on the besieged Federals. By this time, Price had nearly 18,000 men surrounding them. They advanced around 8 a.m., pushing hemp bales in front of them to protect against enemy fire. Colonel John T. Hughes wrote that “these portable hemp-bales were extended, like the wings of a partridge net, so as to cover and protect several hundred men at a time, and a most terrible and galling and deadly fire was kept up from them upon the works of the enemy by my men.”
The Federals, demoralized by thirst and overwhelming numbers, offered only a token resistance. They tried setting the bales on fire with heated round shot, but the Missourians had soaked them in water. Price’s advance ended at nightfall, at which time the men and their movable breastworks were “very near to the enemy’s intrenchments.”
Firing resumed on the morning of the 20th. Many local volunteers had joined Price’s Missourians, write “only such provisions as they could pick up on the roadside as they moved along.” But they were still better off than Mulligan’s Federals, who were running out of ammunition and growing increasingly thirsty. 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 the Missourians and their hemp bales drew closer.
While Mulligan was still determined to hold out, it was soon “evident that the fight must soon cease.” White flags started rising from the Federal work, and Mulligan called a meeting of his officers. The Federals were out of water, cut off from the town wells and the Missouri River, which had also been their only escape route. Food and ammunition were also dangerously low. Convinced that Fremont would not help them, the subordinates voted to surrender. Mulligan finally agreed.
The Federal commander dispatched a messenger to ask Price for terms. Price demanded unconditional surrender, after which the men would be paroled and sent home, while 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 replied, “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 guns. 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, coupled with the Federal defeat at Wilson’s Creek in August, worsened the plummeting morale of Unionist Missourians. According to John Pope, the defeats “had a great and most unfortunate effect in Missouri, both as encouraging the Confederates and discouraging the Union men.” They also added to the growing skepticism of Fremont’s fitness to command, as he had failed to reinforce Mulligan despite having 38,000 troops stationed around his St. Louis headquarters.
Price’s victory sparked celebrations among Missouri secessionists in the short-term. But in the long term, it did little to help the secessionist cause. Thousands of volunteers had flocked to join in driving the Federals out of Lexington, but when it was over, most of them went back home, thinking their duty was done. And Price could expect no help from Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, whose Confederate army had returned to Arkansas after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. The Federals still outnumbered the secessionists in the state, and their presence would only grow stronger as time went on.
- Cozzens, Peter, The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth. The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Schultz, Fred L. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.