Union Reinforcements Thwarted, the Siege Wears On

Thursday, September 19, 1861

The Lexington, Missouri morning quickly grew hot as the sun shown over the Union fortifications, completely surrounded by Rebels, north of town. Though each side was already exchanging shots with the other, Northern troops had run out of water, making the day seem even hotter than it was. As they bit into their cartridges, the saltpeter in the black powder burned their cracked lips and swollen tongues. It was quickly growing clearer to Union commander, Col. Mulligan, that if reinforcements did not soon arrive, the besieged Lexington would have to be surrendered.

Relief was, at once, closer and farther away than Mulligan suspected. He figured that General Fremont in St. Louis, commander of the Western Department, knew of his plight and would be sending reinforcements. Whether or not they could get to Lexington on time, was anyone’s guess.

Across the Missouri River, barely five miles from town, Union General Sturgis and 1,000 infantrymen had reached the banks and could hear the cannonading. It was all for naught. The Rebels, expecting Fremont to send reinforcements, had captured the ferry boats that Sturgis was to use to reinforce Mulligan. On the opposite bank, they established a skirmish line and took pot shots at Sturgis’ men from across the river. The Union troops fell back and eventually wheeled west to Kansas City.1

Other reinforcements were closing in, but it was too little, too late. From Jefferson City, upriver from Lexington, a steamer with a batallion of infantry dropped anchor too far away for the troops to arrive in Lexington on time. Dispatches from Fremont, ordering Union troops in Kansas (under General Lane) to Lexington, apparently never got through. The order from General Pope ordering his two regiments to Lexington was also never delivered.2

And so Mulligan and his 3,500 men were, in all respects, as good as abandoned. Though the fighting was insensate and persisted throughout the day, his men, somehow, still clung to their trenches, to their arms, and held out a fading, forlorn hope.

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Confederates Secure Southern Kentucky, Militarily Defending its Neutrality

The Confederate push into Kentucky was nearly complete. Under the overall command by General Albert Sidney Johnston, the Rebels occupied Columbus, to the west, Bowling Green in the center and Cumberland Ford (near Barbourville) to the east.

While Columbus had been invested by General Leonidas Polk for some time, General Simon Bolivar Buckner’s 5,000 Confederates arrived in Bowling Green on the 18th. As soon as he arrived, Buckner ordered that the Green River and the railroad across it be secured and fortified. Also, he issued a proclamation “To the People of Kentucky.”

It was a call to overthrow the state government, who “have been faithless to the will of the people.” Under the “guise of neutrality,” the legislature had allowed “the armed forces of the United States” to “prepare to subjugate alike the people of Kentucky and the Southern States.”

General Buckner, a native of Kentucky and former head of the state militia, was well-known to the people of the state. He assured the citizens that the Confederate troops under his command, “made up entirely of Kentuckians,” had occupied Bowling Green “as a defensive position.” His troops, and those of the other Confederate commanders in the state, “will be used to aid the government of Kentucky in carrying out the strict neutrality desired by its people whenever they undertake to enforce it against the two belligerents alike.”3

Meanwhile, General Felix Zollicoffer, Confederate commander at Cumberland Ford in the eastern part of the state, secured Cumberland Gap with his force of 7,000 (though not all of it was yet with him). A Union force at Camp Dick Robinson was rumored to number anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000. Like the rest of the Confederate commanders in Kentucky, he was outnumbered.

Zollicoffer sent an advance force of 800, led by Col. Joel Battle, to Barbourville, eighteen miles from his camp, the previous evening. Kentucky Unionists had established Camp Andrew Johnson to raise troops for their cause. When Battle’s force advanced upon the camp through the morning fog, they found most of the recruits gone, sent to Camp Dick Robinson. What remained were 300 Home Guards, desperate to save their town.

When the Confederates were spotted, they pulled up the planks on the bridge leading into Barbourville, hoping that would be enough to stop Battle’s men. It was not. A sharp and deadly skirmish ensued. Confederate numbers soon won out, sending the Home Guards retreating through town.

The camp, with its provisions and arms, was captured. The buildings were burned and Camp Andrew Jackson was no more.4

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From Meadow Bluff to Big Sewell

The situation was normal in Western Virginia. Confederate General Floyd had retreated to Meadow Bluff, near Lewisburg and expected, but did not directly order, General Wise, still at Sewell Mountain, to do the same. The day before, Floyd had inquired why Wise did not obey the order to fall back to Meadow Bluff. Wise asserted that Floyd never ordered him to fall back, that the order stated he (Wise) was to “hold his command in readiness to bring up the rear.” This, said Wise, was exactly what he was doing.

On this date, they renewed their fight. Wise explained that he could hold off a force of 4,000 if allowed to stay within his entrenchments on Sewell Mountain. Floyd made no reply.

As the day wore on, Wise sent scouts westward to discern the enemy position. Soon enough, they found Union troops marching towards their camp. Wise wrote to Floyd, asking him to send wagons forward, but assuring him that the position at Sewell Mountain was secure.

Floyd replied that he had “been aware for several days of the advance of the enemy,” figuring that they would converge upon Meadow Bluff, which is why he (Floyd) took up that position. “I regret exceedingly that you did not think proper to bring up my rear,” reprimanded Floyd, as directed in his order of the 16th, “but on the contrary chose to advance in the direction from which I had come.”

He warned of the “disastrous consequences” that would come from a divided force. Again, he ordered Wise, if he still had time, “to join my force and make a stand against the enemy at this point.”5

Floyd must have regained his composure after losing it following the Battle of Carnifex Ferry. Perhaps the few days of time had healed him, or maybe he knew that General Robert E. Lee was on his way from Valley Mountain to Meadow Bluff, hoping to settle the Wise vs. Floyd debacle for good.



  1. History of the Civil War in America, Volume 1 by Louis-Philippe-Albert d’Orléans Paris (comte de), Porter & Coates, 1875. []
  2. General John Pope; A Life for the Nation by Peter Cozzens. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p413-414, 415, 416. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1. Vol. 4, p199. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p162, 860-862. []
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Union Reinforcements Thwarted, the Siege Wears On by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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