Lexington, Missouri Surrendered to the Rebels

Friday, September 20, 1861

The siege of Lexington had lasted well over a week. The past two days, however, saw the most intense fighting. Union Col. Mulligan’s 3,500 men were running short on supplies and ammunition. Still, he held out hope that General Fremont had come through for him and reinforcements were on the way. They were not.

The previous night, General Sterling Price’s men came up with the idea of using bales of hemp as movable breastworks. The hemp was heavy enough to absorb bullets and even cannonballs, but light enough to be moved forward, against the Union troops huddled in their own, stationary works.

By dawn, the bales stretched to the west and north of Lexington, 100 to 400 yards in front of the Federals’ fortifications. The firing resumed in earnest at 8am, and slowly, the Missouri secessionists moved the bales closer to the Union lines.

This was typically accomplished by three unarmed troops pushing the bales while on their hands and knees. Armed troops would load and fire as they were moved forward. Union bullets, shot and shell were useless against such mobile barricades.

The Rebel divisions closed like a boa constrictor around their enemy. It was clear that the situation was becoming dire, even hopeless, for the Union. Several hours of heated battle passed, with the Rebel lines shrinking around them. The Federals’ ammunition was dangerously low and all food and water gone.

It was painfully obvious to an officer under Col. Mulligan, the garrison had to surrender. Without orders, he hoisted a white flag over their fort. Seeing this, both sides ceased firing. General Price, hoping that this was the surrender, sent a messenger to Mulligan asking the reason why the firing had stopped. Mulligan, gallant and stubborn as ever, replied, “General, I hardly know, unless you have surrendered.”1

Soon after, the firing commenced and the Rebel hemp bales advanced. The Unionist Home Guards retreated into the inner fortifications, refusing to fight any longer. They raised again a white flag, hoping to stop the senseless battle. Knowing that victory was completely out of his grasp, Mulligan called his subordinates to his side for a brief council of war. They took a vote and a large majority favored surrender over being slaughtered.

Around 2pm, Mulligan dispatched a messenger to Price, asking for the terms of the surrender. Price replied that the surrender would be unconditional, the soldiers would be disarmed and paroled, while the officers would he held as prisoners of war. He gave Mulligan ten minutes to respond.2

Having no choice, Mulligan and his troops marched out of their fortifications and laid down their arms. Col. Mulligan and the other officers offered their swords to Price as symbols of their own surrender. “You gentlemen have fought so bravely,” responded Price, “that it would be wrong to deprive you of your swords. Keep them.”3

While the troops marched before the Missouri State Guard, a Rebel band played “Dixie.” When the surrender was complete, former (or current, depending upon who was asked) Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson made a long, harsh speech before the assembled Union troops. He demanded to know what business they had coming into Missouri to make war. Since many of Mulligan’s men were from Illinois, Jackson added, “when Missouri needed troops from Illinois, she would ask for them.” After much expended breath, the displaced Governor told the Federal soldiers that they were allowed to go home.4

Col. Mulligan and his wife were the only Unionists to remain with Price. Having refused parole, Mulligan became the guest of the Missouri State Guard and was treated with all kindness and respect due to a gentleman and his lady.

From the victory, Price acquired seven cannons, 3,000 muskets, 750 horses and various other supplies. Price lost 25 killed and 72 wounded, while Mulligan lost 39 killed and 120 wounded.5


If Fremont is Not Removed, Public Service Will Go to the Devil

General Fremont had arrested his former friend and the brother of the United States Postmaster General, Frank Blair. Fremont took offense over Blair’s letter to his brother, detailing why the General should be dismissed. For the past five days, Frank Blair had spent his time languishing in a St. Louis jail. He was, however, not silent about it.

Following the arrest, the Unionist Missouri newspapers fell in line behind Fremont, supporting the arrest of Blair. Though locked up, he accused Fremont of manipulating the press. Only one newspaper in St. Louis supported Blair through his imprisonment. Though they were the smallest paper, they were soon shut down by the Provost Marshall, acting on Fremont’s orders.

The news spread to Washington, where Montgomery Blair, Postmaster General, wired Fremont, offering to send him the controversial letter so that he could see for himself that there was no reason for drama such as this. He also demanded his release. On this date, he sent the letter, much to brother Frank’s chagrin, though he understood that his brother held the best of intentions.

Fremont, however, still refused to release Blair. The very public quarrel, which had taken on a life of its own, was beginning to draw a backlash. Some criticized the Fremont and Blair fight as being detrimental to the public service, as it showed that the Union was not always so united.

“All the talk about this quarrel being detrimental to the public service is bosh,” wrote Frank Blair of the accusations. “If Fremont is not removed, the public service will go to the devil.”6

  1. General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert E. Castel. []
  2. Harper’s Weekly, October 12, 1861. []
  3. The Siege of Lexington by James A. Mulligan. []
  4. Harper’s Weekly, October 19, 1861. []
  5. General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert E. Castel. []
  6. Frank Blair: Lincoln’s Conservative by William Earl Parrish, University of Missouri Press, 1998. []
Creative Commons License
Lexington, Missouri Surrendered to the Rebels by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by