Repairing the Disaster at Lexington

Major General John C. Fremont’s Federal Department of the West consisted of nearly 40,000 officers and men in Missouri. However, they were scattered at various posts throughout the state and, just as President Abraham Lincoln had predicted, Fremont’s declaration of martial law and slave emancipation had incited the Missouri State Guards and guerrillas into stepping up their attacks on the Federals.

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant commanded the District of Southeast Missouri, which also included southern Illinois and western Kentucky. Grant learned from “a negro man (who) tells a very straight story” that partisans were gathering at New Madrid, Missouri, and prepared to confront them. However, he quickly changed plans and occupied Paducah, Kentucky, instead. Grant could do little else because Fremont pulled two regiments from his command in response to an urgent call from Washington to send reinforcements east.

To the west, Unionist Kansans led by Colonel James H. Lane operated along the Kansas-Missouri border. Lane’s Jayhawkers burned the Missouri town of Osceola and committed other depredations that gained no military advantage. They only continued the brutal combat that had taken place along the border before the war began, when Missourians and southerners fought to make Kansas a slave state and northern abolitionists fought to make it free.

In northern Missouri, Federals under Colonel Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president) clashed with Missourians in the Boonville area, while a force under Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis pulled back from Rolla to St. Charles. Fremont sent Brigadier General John Pope, commanding another Federal force in the region, to Iowa to recruit more volunteers.

Fremont’s failure to effectively coordinate the movements of Davis, Sturgis, and Pope allowed a large Missouri partisan force under Martin Green to operate around Florida and then escape pursuit. It also helped lead to the fall of Lexington. Pope learned of the dire situation at Lexington while en route to Iowa and informed Fremont that he would send reinforcements there, “presuming from General Sturgis’ dispatches that there is imminent want of troops in Lexington.” However, Fremont instructed Pope to continue recruiting efforts in Iowa, and none of the other nearby Federal forces could reach the town in time.

Despite all this, Fremont favorably reported to Washington on September 23 that his forces were “gathering around the enemy.” General-in-Chief Winfield Scott replied, “The President is glad that you are hastening to the scene of action. His words are, ‘He expects you to repair the disaster at Lexington without loss of time.’” Fremont then set about to retake southwestern Missouri from Major General Sterling “Pap” Price and his Missouri State Guards.

Fremont organized his department into five divisions, to be commanded by Major General David Hunter and Brigadier Generals Franz Sigel, Justus McKinstry, Alexander Asboth, and John Pope. Pope, who was still recruiting volunteers in Iowa, comprised the army’s right wing with two regiments at Boonville. Hunter was to command the left wing, but Fremont did not designate which regiments would report directly to Hunter or where their headquarters would be. Hunter himself was at Jefferson City while one of his regiments was at Rolla, 65 miles south. Bringing those Federals to Jefferson City would allow Confederates west of Rolla to operate with impunity. Repositioning all the elements of the Army of the West caused numerous logistical problems for Fremont.

Gens John C. Fremont and Sterling Price | Image Credit:

Meanwhile, Price was still at Lexington when he received word that the Confederates under Generals Gideon Pillow and William Hardee had withdrawn from southeastern Missouri. Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, whose Confederates had joined forces with Price to defeat the Federals at Wilson’s Creek in August, had already returned to Arkansas. This left Price isolated at Lexington, where word soon arrived that Fremont was headed that way. He therefore began abandoning the town as September ended.

General Albert Sidney Johnston, the new commander of Confederate Department Number 2 (i.e., the Western Theater), had his sights set on Missouri as part of a bigger picture that also included Arkansas and Kentucky. Johnston ordered McCulloch “to muster into service as many armed regiments of Arkansas and Missouri troops” as possible. Johnston also ordered Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson to lead his Missouri State Guards to the “vicinity of Farmington, on the route to Saint Louis” to “relieve the pressure of the Federal forces on General Price… and if possible to embarrass their movements by cutting their Ironton Railroad.” Thompson quickly dispatched troops to destroy railroad bridges around Charleston and Birds Point by month’s end.


  • 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.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.

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