September 13, 1861: Siege of Lexington, Missouri Begins

In September 1861, the sleepy town of Lexington, Missouri had considerable strategic importance.  Located in West Central Missouri on the Missouri river, control of Lexington was vital for Union offensives headed up the Missouri, or Confederate offensives going down it.  The Union garrisoned it strongly with some 3500 men under Colonel James A. Mulligan, consisting of Mulligan’s 23rd Illinois, the 13th Missouri, 27th Missouri Mounted Infantry and Van Horne’s battalion of the United States Reserve Corps.  Mulligan’s 23rd Illinois was popularly known as the Irish Brigade, being raised in Chicago among Irish immigrants, and the name has stuck to the entire force that Mulligan commanded.

Realizing that he did not have sufficient men to defend the entire town from the large Confederate force approaching, Mulligan built fortifications around the Masonic College in the town.  He expected to be reinforced by General Fremont and assumed that he and his men would only have to hold their positions for a few days before reinforcements arrived.

The siege began on September 13, when a force of 12,000 Confederates arrived in Lexington under General Sterling Price.  Among the units in this force was the Washington Blues, a regiment recruited from the Saint Louis Irish and commanded by Irish immigrant Colonel Joseph Kelly.

A Union relief force was sent under General Samuel Sturgis, but it was ambushed and forced to retreat.

After a hard fought siege, most notable for the Confederates using wet bales of hemp as a portable breast works as they closed on the Union fortifications, the Union force surrendered on September 20, 1861, after the Confederates had approached to the Union fortifications so closely,that it was clear to Colonel Mulligan that the Confederates would be able to successfully storm the Union position if he did not capitulate.  Colonel Mulligan’s men were paroled, released from Confederate captivity with a promise they would not fight for the Union until their paroles had been exchanged with those given by captured Confederate soldiers.  Colonel Mulligan refused his parole.   General Price however was so impressed by Colonel Mulligan’s courage during the siege, that he ordered his release without parole.  Colonel Mulligan would serve throughout the war until his death at the Second Battle of Kernstown in 1864.

The Confederate ballad Kelly’s Irish Brigade makes oblique reference to this engagement in which Irish units fought on both sides.

Published in: on September 13, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on September 13, 1861: Siege of Lexington, Missouri Begins  
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