Information about the Civil War Battle of Lexington, also known as the Battle of the Hemp Bales.



Source: The Siege of Lexington, MO.
Author: Colonel James A. Mulligan
Reprinted, with revision, from newspaper reports of a lecture by Colonel Mulligan, who was killed during the war.
Pages: 311-312

The morning of the 20th broke, but no reënforcements had come, and still the men fought on. The enemy appeared that day with an artifice which was destined to overreach us and secure to them the possession of our intrenchments. They had constructed a movable breastworks of hemp bales, rolled them before their lines up the hill, and advanced under this cover. All our efforts could not retard the advance of these bales. Round-shot and bullets were poured against them, but they would only rock a little and then settle back. Heated shot were fired with the hope of setting them on fire, but they had been soaked and would not burn. Thus for hours the fight continued. [see footnote] Our cartridges were now nearly used up, many of our brave fellows had fallen, and it was evident that the fight must soon cease, when at 3 o'clock an orderly came, saying that the enemy had sent a flag of truce.

There are many claimants for the credit of having first suggested the hemp-bale strategy. General Harris's official report says: "I directed the bales to be wet in the river to protect them against the casualties of fire of our troops and of the enemy, but it was soon found that the wetting so materially increased the weight as to prevent our men, in their exhausted condition, from rolling it to the crest of the hill. I then adopted the idea of wetting the hemp after it had been transported to its position."

As to the date of the use of these, which is given both by Colonel Mulligan and by Colonel Snead as the morning of the 20th, we quote the following circumstantial account from the official report of Colonel Hughes: "On the morning of the 19th, we arose from our 'bivouac' upon the hills to renew the attack. This day we continued the fighting vigorously all day, holding possession of the hospital buildings, and throwing large wings from both sides of the house, built up of bales of hemp saturated with water, to keep them from taking fire. 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. I divided my forces into reliefs and kept some three hundred of them pouring in a heavy fire incessantly upon the enemy, supplying the places of the weary with fresh troops. On the night of the 19th we enlarged and advanced our defensive works very near to the enemy's intrenchments, and at daybreak opened upon their line with most fatal effect."


Source: Southern History of the War, A monumental and detailed work, first published in 1866.
Author: Edward A. Pollard
Page: 152

The heights on the left of Anderson's house were fortified by our troops with such means as were at their command. On the morning of the 20th, General Price caused a number of hemp bales to be transported to the river heights, where movable breastworks were speedily constructed out of them. The demonstrations of the artillery, and particularly the continued advance of the hempen breastworks, attracted the attention and excited alarm of the enemy, who made many daring attempts to drive back the assailants. They were, however, repulsed in every instance by the unflinching courage and fixed determination of men fighting for their homes. The hempen breastworks, said General Price, were as efficient as the cotton bales at New Orleans. In these severe encounters, McBride's and Slack's divisions, and Colonel Martin Green and his command, and Colonel Boyd and Major Winston and their commands, were warmly Commended for their gallant conduct.
About two o'clock in the afternoon of the 20th, and after fifty-two hours of continuous fighting ,a white flag was displayed by the enemy . . .


Battle of Lexington, also known as the Battle of the Hemp Bales
Location: Lafayette County
Campaign: Operations to Control Missouri (1861)
Date(s): September 13-20, 1861
Principal Commanders: Col. James A. Mulligan [US]; Maj. Gen. Sterling Price [CS]
Forces Engaged: Garrison (approx. 3,500) [US]; Missouri State Guard (12,000) [CS]
Estimated Casualties: 1,874 total (US 1,774; CS 100)

Description: Following the victory at Wilson's Creek, the Confederate Missouri State Guard, having consolidated forces in the northern and central part of the state, marched, under the command of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, on Lexington. Col. James A. Mulligan commanded the entrenched Union garrison of about 3,500 men. Price's men first encountered Union skirmishers on September 13 south of town and pushed them back into the fortifications.

Price, having bottled the Union troops up in Lexington, decided to await his ammunition wagons, other supplies, and reinforcements before assaulting the fortifications. By the 18th, Price was ready and ordered an assault. The Missouri State Guard moved forward amidst heavy Union artillery fire and pushed the enemy back into their inner works. On the 19th, the Rebels consolidated their positions, kept the Yankees under heavy artillery fire and prepared for the final attack. Early on the morning of the 20th, Price's men advanced behind mobile breastworks, made of hemp, close enough to take the Union works at the Anderson House in a final rush. Mulligan requested surrender terms after noon, and by 2:00 pm his men had vacated their works and stacked their arms. This Unionist stronghold had fallen, further bolstering southern sentiment and consolidating Confederate control in the Missouri Valley west of Arrow Rock.

Result: Confederate victory

Historic Features

The scars of a major early Civil War battle are still visible on this 105-acre site, both on the battlefield and the nearby Anderson House. Visitors may learn the history of the "Battle of the Hemp Bales" as well as take advantage of the recreational opportunities available at this historic site, which is owned and maintained by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Visitors to Lexington today can tour the grounds of the battlefield as well as the house of Oliver Anderson, which served as a field hospital during the war. A walking tour, complete with an informational brochure, guides visitors to marked spots where features associated with the Anderson House once stood, including the garden, orchard, and summer kitchen. The walking tour also leads through remnants of the Union breastworks and trenches, which make up part of the original battlefield area. The Oliver Anderson House is open to the public, and a 45-minute tour is given for a nominal fee. Built in 1853, the house contains period pieces of furniture, many of which belonged to the Tilton Davis family, who lived in the home from 1867 to 1916. In an effort to preserve a part of history, the walls of the house still carry the scars of the battle. At the site's visitor center, a video presentation and exhibits explain the area's history and the battle. Every three years, a reenactment of the battle is held in September.

Places To Visit Nearby

Lexington is a town brimming with history. Many of the homes were constructed before the Civil War and have been well preserved. One of the oldest courthouses still in use in Missouri today stands on Main Street. A cannonball that hit the 1849 building during the Battle of Lexington remains embedded in one of the front columns. Confederate Memorial State Historic Site, located 13 miles south of Lexington near Higginsville, contains the remains of the Confederate Home of Missouri: the Confederate Memorial Park, the chapel, and the cemetery where more than 600 confederate veterans are laid to rest.


Call The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site: 660-259-4654
Call The Missouri Department of Natural Resources: 1-800-334-6946
(TDD: 1-800-379-2419)
Lexington Tourism Bureau, phone: 660-259-4711
Lexington Chamber of Commerce, phone: 660-259-3082