Discover Vintage America - MAY 2017
Historic Lexington charms visitors
If only those old buildings could talk! That feeling, spoken and unspoken, often hangs in the air as visitors to Lexington, MO pause to admire the historic river town's 100-plus antebellum homes, buildings and Civil War battle site.
Front view of the Anderson House at the Battle of Lexington site. (photos by ken Weyand)
Lexington (2015 population: 4,598) was nearly that size in 1861. Settled in 1822 and named the county seat of Lafayette County the following year, Lexington became the largest town west of St. Louis by the 1830s. An outfitting center for the Santa Fe Trail, it prospered as a steamboat destination with packet boats picking up hemp, coal and farm goods for markets downriver.
Steamboats also brought settlers from Kentucky and other slave-holding states. Not all Lafayette County residents owned slaves, but 1860 census data showed slaves made up a third or more of the population. In 1861, most settlers vowed allegiance to the Southern cause.
Rumblings of war
That April, two events spurred Confederate hopes and made conflict more likely: the firing on Ft. Sumter in South Carolina, and the raid on the Liberty Arsenal, a few miles to the west of Lexington. War was looming and Missouri was in the center of the drama.
Confederates fighting behind hemp bales at Lexington (Wikipedia photo from the 1887 book "Battles and Leaders of the civil War," Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, authors)
Early on, the capital at Jefferson City fell to Union forces. In May, Sterling Price, a secessionist, became commander of the Missouri State Guard. After helping defeat Union forces on August 10 in the Battle of Wilson's Creek near Springfield, Price pushed into Missouri, adding volunteers and supplies as he drove north.
Since July, Lexington had been occupied by Federal troops, using buildings of the defunct Masonic College. Trenches with earthwork defenses were being prepared. That summer reinforcements arrived, including more than 3,000 troops under the command of Col. James Mulligan.
Price and his forces arrived Sept. 12, skirmishing with Federals at the edge of town and in Machpelah Cemetery, where Mulligan tried to hold off Price while his fortifications were being completed. However, Price's superior numbers forced Mulligan to pull back to the college. Price, short on ammunition, was forced to wait for supply wagons, and made the local fairgrounds his headquarters. On Sept. 18, after circling the town and cutting off the Union army's water supply, he began his assault on the besieged Federals.
The house of Oliver Anderson, a prominent Lexington hemp dealer, had been commandeered by the Federals who used the large building as a hospital. During the battle, both sides fought for control of the strategic site. Heavily damaged by cannon and rifle fire, the house eventually was captured by the Confederates. Today, visitors can view the house and its preserved bullet holes.
On Sept. 19, Price's State Guard maintained a steady barrage of artillery fire on Mulligan's Federal troops, suffering from thirst in the September heat. In the evening, the State Guard secured a number of hemp bales from a nearby warehouse, and soaked them in river water overnight to make them fireproof. The next day, the Confederates rolled them toward Mulligan's fortifications to get close enough for a final charge. The tactic worked. Both sides clashed in a bloody hand-to-hand fight, but the Federals were driven back to their trenches. By 2 p.m., Mulligan surrendered and the "Battle of the Hemp Bales" was over.
Price's casualties totaled 30 dead and 120 wounded; Federal forces lost 39 men, with 120 wounded. The entire Union force was captured, and later paroled. Although the battle gave hope to the Southern cause, the tide would turn. Three years later, Price's final campaign into Missouri ended with the Battle of Westport, and a major victory for the Union.
The Battle of Lexington Historic Site, open daily as a Civil War battle site, can be reached off Interstate 70. Christopher Fritsche, the administrator, said he ranks the Lexington battle as "one of the five most important battles of the Civil War in Missouri."
Christopher Fritsche, National Resources Manager, and some of the artifacts depicting "tools of the trade" in early-day
Fritsche said the use of the hemp bales was a unique battle tactic. "Nobody knows who came up with the idea," he said. "It could have been a private, worried about charging the fortified trenches." But Fritsche also had admiration for Mulligan's men. "The courage shown by the heavily outnumbered Union force was remarkable," he said. "And they were well prepared, except for their lack of water."
The visitor center, built in 1992, describes conditions leading to the conflict with photos and charts. Weapons and cannonballs are displayed, along with numerous artifacts, including hemp bales. Visitors can see the Anderson House, and the broken bricks where rifle and cannon fire left their mark. For details, visit www.visitlexintonmo.com.
The Lexington Historical Museum, located in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, opens in May. Collections include photos of Lexington's steamboat and coal mining days, Osage Indians, Pony Express, and a sword belonging to Col. James Mulligan.
Downtown Lexington merchants make use of historic buildings.
The museum owns and maintains Heritage Park, with a memorial commemorating the 1852 Saluda steamboat explosion that killed 75 Mormon immigrants. Lexington residents adopted many of the children orphaned by the tragedy.
The Lafayette County Courthouse in downtown Lexington was built in 1847. Passers-by can see a cannonball, fired during the 1861 battle, lodged in one of the columns. Nearby shopkeepers sell antiques, vintage clothing, home furnishings, books, art, and other one-of-a-kind items. Shops occupy buildings that served outfitters during the days of steamboats and wagon trains.
Wineries and orchards flourish near Lexington. The scenic area is considered Missouri's oldest and largest apple- and peach-producing region.
Ken Weyand can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org Ken is self-publishing a series of non-fiction E-books. Go to www.smashwords.com and enter Ken Weyand in the search box.