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Friday, May 6, 2016

Battlefield Dispatches No. 283: 'Battle of the Hemp Bales'

Friday, September 23, 2011

On Sept. 20, 1861, Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, commanding a large army comprised of the Missouri State Guard, accepted the surrender of the Union "Missourians" who had occupied the city and surrounding hills of Lexington, Mo.

In addition to being called the Battle of Lexington, this engagement is called the Battle of the Hemp Bales because the attacking Confederates became very creative and used portable bales of hemp to form a movable breastwork, or fortification, that sheltered them from enemy fire as they advanced toward the "Union" lines.

The following "after action report" by Gen. Price has been edited from the complete report that is located in Series I, Vol. 3 of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Pages 185 -- 188.

"Headquarters Missouri State Guard, Camp Wallace, Lexington, Mo., Sept. 21, 1861.

I have the honor to submit to your Excellency (Hon. C.F. Jackson, governor of Missouri) the following report of the action which terminated on the 20th, instant with the surrender of the United States forces and property at this place to the army under my command:

After chastising the marauding armies of Lane and Montgomery and driving them out of the state and after compelling them to abandon Fort Scott, as detailed in my last report, I continued my march toward this point with an army increasing hourly in numbers and enthusiasm.

About daybreak on the morning of Sept.13, a sharp skirmish took place between our pickets and the enemy's outposts (at Lexington). This threatened to become general. Being unwilling, however, to risk a doubtful engagement, when a short delay would make success certain, I fell back two to three miles and awaited the arrival of my infantry and artillery. These having come up, we advanced upon the town, driving the enemy's pickets until we came within a short distance of the city itself. Here, the enemy attempted to make a stand, but they were speedily driven from every position and forced to take shelter within (their) entrenchments.

We then took position within easy range of the college, which building they had strongly fortified and open upon them a brisk fire from Bledsoe's Battery, which in the absence of Capt. Bledsoe, who had been wounded at Big Dry Wood Creek, was gallantly commanded by Capt. Emmett McDonald and by Parson's Battery, under the skillful command of Capt. Guibor.

Finding after sunset that our ammunition, most of which had been left behind on the march from Springfield, was nearly exhausted and my men, thousands of whom had not eaten a particle in 34 hours, required rest and food, I withdrew to the fair ground and encamped there. My ammunition wagons having been received, I again moved into town on Wednesday, the 18th instant, and began the final attack on the enemy's works!

Shortly after entering the city on the 18th Col. Rives, who commanded the 4th Division in the absence of Gen. Slack, led his regiment and Col. Hughes along the (Missouri) River bank to a point immediately beneath and west of the (enemy's) fortifications.

Col. Rives, in order to cut off the enemy's means of escape, proceeded down the bank of the river to capture a steamboat which was lying just under their guns. Just at this moment, a heavy fire was opened upon him from Col. Anderson's large dwelling house on the summit of the bluffs, which the enemy was occupying as a hospital and upon which a white flag was flying.

Several companies of Gen. Harris' command and the gallant soldiers of the 4th Division, who won upon so many battlefields the proud distinction of always being among the bravest of the brave, immediately rushed upon and captured the place. The important position thus secured was within 125 yards of the enemies' entrenchments.

A company from colonel Hughes' regiment then took possession of the (steam)boats, one of which was richly freighted with valuable stores.

On the morning of the 20th instant, I caused a number of hemp bales to be transported to the river heights, where moveable breastworks were speedily constructed out of them by Gens. Harris and McBride, Col. Rives and Maj. Winston and their respective commands. Capt. Kelly's battery was ordered at the same time to the position occupied by Gen. Harris' force and quickly opened a very effective fire, under the direction of its gallant captain, upon the enemy. These demonstrations, and particularly the continued advance of the hempen breastworks, which were as efficient as the cotton bales of New Orleans, quickly attracted the attention and excited the alarm of the enemy, who made daring attempts to drive us back. They were, however, repulsed in every instance by the unflinching courage and fixed determination of our men.

In these desperate encounters the veterans of McBride's and Slack's divisions fully sustained their proud reputation while Col. Martin Green and his command and Col. Boyd and Maj. Winston and their commands, proved themselves worthy to fight side by side of the men who had their courage and valor won imperishable honor in the bloody battle of Springfield.

After 2 o'clock in the afternoon of the 20th and after 52 hours of continuous firing, a white flag was displayed by the enemy on that part of the works nearest Col. Green's position and shortly afterwards another was displayed opposite to Col. Rives. I immediately ordered a cessation of all firing on our part and sent forward one of my staff officers to ascertain the object of the flag and to open negotiations with the enemy, if such should be their desire. It was finally after some delay, agreed by Col. Marshall and the officers associated with him for that purpose by Col. Mulligan, that the United States forces should lay down their arms and surrender themselves as prisoners of war to this army. These terms having been made known, were ratified by me and immediately carried into effect.

Our entire loss in this series of engagements amounts to 25 killed and 72 wounded. The enemy's loss was much greater. The visible fruits of this almost bloodless victory are very great, about 3,500 prisoners, among whom are Cols. Mulligan, Marshall, Peabody, White and Grover, Maj. Van Horn and 118 other commissioned officers, five pieces of artillery and two mortars, over 3,000 stands of infantry arms, a large number of sabers, about 750 horses, many sets of cavalry equipments, wagons, teams, and ammunition, more than $100,000 worth of commissary stores and a large amount of other property.

In addition to all of this, I obtained the restoration of the great seal of Missouri and the public records, which had been stolen from their proper custodian, and about $900,000 in money, of which the bank at this place had been robbed and which I have caused to be returned to it.

This victory has demonstrated the fitness of our citizen soldiers for the tedious operations of a siege, as well as 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 any orders to storm the fortifications. No general ever commanded a braver or better army. It is composed of the best blood and the bravest men of Missouri.

I have the honor to be, with the greatest respect, your excellency's obedient servant.

Sterling Price,

Maj.-Gen. Commanding"

Now then, some historians believe that this successful victory of the "Battle of the Hemp Bales," or Lexington, if you prefer, Sept. 20, 1861, was the high-water mark for the Confederacy in Missouri during the Civil War.

There were other Confederate expeditions into Missouri throughout the war, but it wasn't until this same Gen. Price commanded the "Confederate" Army of Missouri on a campaign in the Show-Me-State and Kansas late in September and October of 1864 that a large Confederate army came close to the Missouri River, and, of course, the war went on!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches