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In Price's footsteps: Battle of Lexington State Historic Site

By Tom Uhlenbrock

Missouri State Parks


The town of Lexington in northwest Missouri wears its Civil War battle scars proudly.

The stately Lafayette County Courthouse on the town square has an inscription pointing to where a cannonball is buried in a column, a relic of the Battle of Lexington fought in September of 1861.

Visitors to the Oliver Anderson house, the centerpiece of the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site, can see the holes in the red-brick walls left my musket and cannon fire as the house changed hands three times during the fight.

Lexington will mark its celebrated history with a three-day event on Sept. 16-18, the 150th anniversary of what became known as the “Battle of the Hemp Bales.” Missouri played an important role in the Civil War – only Virginia and Tennessee had more battles – and Lexington is an intriguing stop in a Civil War tour of the state.

“We have a lot of pre-Civil War architecture, and the battlefield,” said Janae Fuller, resource manager of the state historic site. “We were the fifth largest city in the state in 1855.

“Lexington had a lot going for it with the Missouri River nearby and the Santa Fe Trail going through. Those two things really made it a boom town.”

The fertile farmland drew settlers from Southern states, who used slaves to cultivate cash crops like tobacco and hemp and retained their pro-South sentiments.

 “Inevitably, that also drew Gen. Sterling Price here, because he had a good base of Southern sympathy,” Fuller said.


Battle re-enactment Sunday

Price was a former governor of Missouri who arrived in Lexington with 7,000 members of the pro-southern Missouri State Guard, which was formed to fend off a feared federal invasion of the state. Price knew of the town’s Southern leanings, and thought he might gain some recruits.

Price was victorious in the battle to liberate Lexington from Union forces, but did not burn the town before leaving. Today, Lexington is home to four historic districts boasting houses and buildings dating back to the 1830s.

For the 150th anniversary commemoration, the town and the state historic site have   planned three days of events, which are listed at www.visitlexingtonmo.com.

There will be a Civil War film festival, tours of antebellum homes and the Oliver Anderson house will be open free to visitors. Shuttle buses will run from the state historic site to parking areas, to town and to the privately owned Big River Ranch. Civil war re-enactors will set up a camp at the ranch, with a battle skirmish and artillery fire on Saturday and a re-enactment of the Battle of the Hemp Bales on Sunday.

“We’ll have re-enactors at the Oliver Anderson house explaining the battle charges there,” Fuller said. “We will have living historians inside the house. It was used as a hospital and a lot of times women would roll bandages, read to the wounded soldiers and help write letters for them.”


Price scampers out

With artifacts, text and video, the state historic site managed by the Department of Natural Resources tells the story of what happened in the battle.

A body of 2,700 Union soldiers under the command of Col. James A. Mulligan had fortified itself inside the grounds of the Masonic College on the northern end of Lexington. They also had commandeered the Oliver Anderson house as a field hospital.

Price’s forces encircled the college, and seized the hospital. Mulligan ordered the house re-taken in a bloody countercharge.

The siege of the federal stronghold ended on the third day when the pro-southern state guard took hemp bales from a warehouse, soaked them in water and hid behind them as a rolling barrier. They advanced on the out-manned Union trenches, and Mulligan was forced to surrender after hand-to-hand combat.

The Battle of Lexington served as a high-water mark for Southern forces in Missouri. Federal troops ultimately pushed Price out of Missouri after the battle and re-took Lexington, which eventually faded in prominence.

“Poor Sterling just kind of scampered out of the state,” said Fuller, the state historic site manager. “Ironically, the population of Lexington today is about the same as it was in 1855, some 5,000 people.

“That shows you what happens when the railroads chose to not come by.”