The Death of Washington and the Coming Siege of Lexington

Friday, September 13, 1861

The odd, almost-battle of the previous day left both sides more or less in the same positions. The Union held Cheat Mountain and Elkwater, seven miles to the west. The Confederates occupied the Union front, rear the right flank at Cheat, and the front and left flank at Elkwater. Lee’s plan to surprise the enemy was shot and on this morning he and General Loring, commander of the brigade to the front of Elkwater, debated on what to do next.

Loring wanted to attack the Union camp at Elkwater in a frontal assault. Lee thought it too risky, wishing, instead, to turn the right flank. Needing to reconnoiter the ground, Lee sent several mounted reconnaissance parties to find a usable route.

One of these parties was made up of Lee’s son, Rooney, two escorts and Lt. Colonel John A. Washington, the forty year old great-grand nephew of George Washington, who inherited Mt. Vernon only to sell it a couple of years before the war. The party rode west, up a hill to overlook the Union right flank. Near the mouth of a creek, they saw an enemy picket mounted on a gray horse. Rooney Lee took careful note of the ground and determined his mission complete.

Washington, however, was not quite finished and egged Lee into attempting to capture the unsuspecting Union picket. However, Washington and Lee were not so alone. As they began their descent towards the picket’s position, they were spied by a party of Indiana troops. When it was determined that the riders were Rebels, they fired a few shots at them.

One shot hit Lee’s horse, while another knocked Washington to the ground. Lee, though startled, was unhurt. He saw the Indiana troops rushing to capture them, jumped upon Washington’s mount and made his narrow escape.

When the Indiana troops came to the side of the dying Washington, he asked for water, but expired before he could drink. When they rummaged through his belongings, his identity became clear to them. They bore his body back to their camp, where his remains were treated with respect, while his belongings were passed around as souvenirs (Secretary of War Simon Cameron eventually ended up with one of Washington’s pistols).

Though they returned the body to the Confederates the next day, they carved a memorial for the fallen scion of the Washington family where he was killed: “Under this tree, on the 13th of Sept., 1861, fell Col. John A. Washington, the degenerate descendant of the Father of his Country.”1

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Floyd and Wise Fall Back Nearly Together

Two days had passed since General Floyd had retreated after the Battle of Carnifex Ferry. Floyd had pulled his forces to Dogwood Gap, near the forces of General Wise at Hawks Nest.

The Union forces under General Rosecrans, who had sent Floyd’s men running, were attempting to cross the river, but were having a difficult time of it as the bridge and ferry boats had been burned. Floyd also posted a few skirmishers on the other side to harass the Federal troops and keep him informed.

The previous evening, Floyd called a council of war where it was decided that he and Wise were to finally combine forces and fall back to Big Sewell Mountain, twenty or so miles east. While combined, they would still have two separate camps. Floyd made his on the top of Sewell Mountain and Wise made his one and a half miles farther east, on a separate bluff, which he found much more suitable to defense.2

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Price About to Take Lexington, but Nobody Seems to Care

The commander of the Missouri State Guard, General Sterling Price, was rapidly closing in on Lexington. His cavalry was a few miles from the city, while his infantry and artillery would be up within a day. As the sun rose over western Missouri, Price’s pickets and the Union outposts kept up a sharp and ceaseless fire that looked to be quickly developing into a small battle.

Not yet wishing to engage the Union forces, Price withdrew his cavalry a couple of miles south and waited for the rest of his command to arrive, bringing his numbers to 10,000.3

Meanwhile, Union General Fremont, commanding the Western Division from St. Louis, seemed to care little about Lexington. Union Col. Davis at Jefferson City, 100 miles to the east of Lexington, kept Fremont informed as best he could, but he too seemed not very worried. Though he was ordered by Fremont to send two regiments to Lexington, he reported that Rebels were moving on Booneville and he, instead, planned to check them.

“Let General Sturgis operate higher up the river and support Lexington,” Davis wired Fremont. Sturgis had commanded the Army of the West after General Lyon fell at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. He now commanded a brigade operating near Mexico, Missouri. Fremont wired back that Sturgis was ordered to “move on” and again asked Davis if he had sent the two regiments to Lexington.4

Back at Lexington, General Price’s Rebel infantry had come up. He formed line of battle and advanced his troops towards the city, pushing in the Union skirmishers as they went. On the outskirts, Union Col. Mulligan’s troops, part of a force that totaled less than 3,500, attempted to make a stand.

Greatly outnumbered, they soon gave way, falling back upon their defenses at the Masonic College on the north end of town. Price opened upon the works with his artillery, but as night fell and ammunition ran low, he called even this to a halt.

Ammunition for his entire command was running low. On the march from Springfield, his wagons had fallen behind and wouldn’t be up for a few days. Until then, all he had to do was keep Mulligan’s troops penned up and soon Lexington would be his.5

Back in St. Louis, General Fremont received a telegram from Missouri’s appointed Unionist Governor, Hamilton R. Gamble, who was very concerned about Lexington. “It would be a great disaster,” said the governor of the city, “giving control to the enemy of the upper country.”

His plan was for both General Pope’s and Sturgis’s men (who were at Glasgow and Mexico, though Gamble probably thought they were farther north) to board trains to Hamilton, forty miles north of Lexington, and then, by hard marching, reinforce Mulligan. “It may be too late now,” said the Governor in closing, “but it is worth the effort.”6



  1. Combined account from both Lee Vs. McClellan by Newell and Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p849, 854. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p186. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p173-174. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p186. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p174. []
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4 thoughts on “The Death of Washington and the Coming Siege of Lexington

  1. I am reflecting on how well-written this blog is. If you are digesting information and then writing it up, as opposed to doing a light re-write of your sources, let me encourage you to accumulate this for a book, or series of books. I can picture a volume for each year being a good size.
    Anyway, I am continuing to enjoy your coverage of breaking news 150 years ago!

    1. Thank you so much. It means quite a lot. I’m certainly not lightly rewriting from sources (especially not doing so with secondary sources). Everything is meticulously researched from as many sources as I can find and then interpreted as best I can. My unfortunate reliance upon secondary sources bugs me, but apart from moving back to the East Coast and living in a university library, there’s not much I can do about that. 🙂

      I’d love to see this compiled into a book someday. That said, I’m thrilled to be able to offer this for free online.

      Thus far, I’ve published 217,000+ words. That’s one chunk of a book. I guess I’ll wait and see what happens here.

      Thank you so much for the kind words,

      Eric

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