The Battle of Lexington, Missouri: Rebel Advance and War Crimes

Wednesday, September 18, 1861

All that General Sterling Price had been waiting for was now ready and before him. He and his 10,000 Missouri State Guards had marched from Springfield, following their victorious Battle of Wilson’s Creek, to Lexington, a distance of over 150 miles. His cavalry and infantry out-marched their ammunition trains. The previous evening, they arrived. His troops spent the night preparing for an assault.

A small contingent of 3,500 Union troops under the command of Col. James A. Mulligan, clung to the fortifications around the Masonic College on the north end of town. With the Missouri River to the west, Price needed only to surround the town on three sides to bring it under a siege. Even so, a thin line of troops were placed along the banks of the river and a steamboat captured to ensure that the escape of Mulligan’s force was impossible.

In preparation of the attack, Price’s men tore down houses and other buildings that were in the line of fire, displacing residents, including Col. Mulligan’s wife.

The morning was bright and the sun was already beating down upon the men on both sides. From the Union fortifications, Mulligan could see that the secessionists was ready to make his move. At 10am, the thunder of Price’s sixteen cannons surrounding the Union works on four sides, pierced the thick air, breaking windows in the houses that had been spared.

General Rains, a Brigadier under Sterling Price, marched his men east towards the Union works, passing a battery of artillery. Spying the United States flag defiantly flying atop the college, he offered a gold medal to any artilleryman who could shoot it down. And now, with the flag set as the point of attack, he advanced his brigade, pushing back Union skirmishers along the way.

The Rebel bombardment and advance was met by a tremendous Union cannonade. Most of the Missouri officers dismounted to avoid being picked off by Union sharpshooters. Price, however, remained on his horse, riding up and down his lines, whipping his men into a fanatical frenzy.

To the west, between the Masonic College and the Missouri River, was the Anderson House Hospital, which held as many as 100 Union sick and wounded. Its location on the field of battle made it strategically important. That it was now between the lines, meant that one side or the other would have to attack and hold a hospital. This went against all rules of war. Nevertheless, Col. Mulligan watched as the secessionists advanced towards the building, still flying the hospital flag from its rooftop.

Several land mines, placed along the banks leading up towards the hospital building, exploded as the Missouri troops scrambled through the tall weeds to take the building. As they came forward, the Union troops pulled back towards the inner works near the college, abandoning their water supply. In short order, the hospital was captured by the Rebels.

Inside the hospital, they found the Union sick and wounded, plus a huddle of frightened, escaped slaves in the basement. From the balcony, they could look down into the Union works at the college.

Seeing that the hospital must be retaken, Mulligan asked for volunteers to advance across the 250 yards of open ground. None offered to follow him. He then turned to the company of troops, mostly Irishmen, that he personally raised at the start of the war. To them, he delivered a brilliant speech, touching upon the barbarism that would induce the secessionists to attack a hospital. It must be retaken! He asked if his Irishmen would go where the others refused to go?

Inspired by their hero, they cheered and fell in for the assault. Also moved by Mulligan’s oration was a company of Germans, who requested that they be allowed to retake the hospital with the Irish. Together, they formed a line of battle, their officers gave the command and they advanced at the double quick. The advance became a mad rush as the Rebels shot from the windows of the hospital. Soon, the hospital was invested. The Missouri troops scattered as the Irish and Germans shot at them over cots and from room to room.

Three Rebels were captured and, after being arrested, were all killed by a merciless bayonet thrust through each. Though this violated the laws of war, it was done as retaliation for the Rebels attacking a hospital.

The heat of the day, combined with the lack of water, made conditions inside the hospital volatile. To slake their thirst, the Union soldiers fought amongst themselves over the bloody water used by the surgeons to clean their instruments.

Missouri forces quickly regrouped and hit the parched Union troops fighting over water in the hospital. As quickly as they attacked, they ran back to the inner works, leaving the hospital in the hands of the Rebels. The escaped slaves, still hiding in the basement, were rounded up and eventually returned to their owners.

Darkness fell over the battlefield, bringing the action to a close. Mulligan and his men still clung to their trenches, but the town was fully surrounded and the two wells within his lines were dry. There were thousands of mouths to feed and hundreds of horses to maintain. Unless he was quickly reinforced, they were finished.1

  1. Like with other battles, I used multiple sources, including Civil War on the Western Border by Jay Monaghan and General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert E. Castel. As well as Col. Rives’ (MSG) Report from the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 53, p439. []
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The Battle of Lexington, Missouri: Rebel Advance and War Crimes by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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6 thoughts on “The Battle of Lexington, Missouri: Rebel Advance and War Crimes

  1. Lexington, Missouri, has an interesting museum dedicated to the battle. The Anderson house still stands and in one of the upstairs bedrooms you can see what the tour guide says are bloodstains on the floor. The stone Masonic college is gone, replaced by the town water tower. The earthworks are visible but not very well preserved. One neat legacy of the war is a cannonball stuck in a pillar of the local courthouse!

    A bit of trivia on this battle: future outlaw Frank James fought in it. He was briefly a volunteer in the State Guard. On the retreat back to southwest Missouri after this battle, he fell sick, was left behind, captured and paroled.

    I didn’t know land mines were used at Lexington, or indeed that they were used at all this early in the war.

    1. When I think of Frank James, I think of Johnny Cash playing Frank James in The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James. Great movie.

      I’d really like to get to Missouri again and see some CW sites (aside from Wilson’s Creek and Carthage, which I’ve already seen – though I’m up for another trip to both).


  2. dear sir-photo of rains is of brig gen james edward rains of tennessee-missiouri state guard brig gen james spencer rains is with price-good photo of him in hinze and farnhams book “the battle of carthage” page 54

    1. Thank you for that. I do need to pay more attention to these things. Mostly, I’d chalk it up to not enough time/resources. Thank you!


  3. I am from Lexington, Mo. It is a fascinating place to visit with all of its rich history (not just of the battle). However, the last post mentioned that the Masonic College no longer exists; that is not true. It is located, in its original place, about 300 yards from the city water tower. It is part of a city park next to the hospital at the end of 16th Street. There is a picture of it posted on other websites.

    1. Thanks, Troy. Missouri is one of my favorite states. I’ve driven and ridden through it (on Route 66) a bunch of times. I’ve always wanted to explore the rest of the state, but never had the opportunity. Hopefully someday.

      I really appreciate the update. My source (whichever book it was) probably stated that the college itself didn’t exist and I took it to mean that the building was no longer there. Thanks for the clarification.


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