THE SIEGE OF LEXINGTON, MO.
BY COLONEL JAMES A. MULLIGAN
ON the night of the 30th of August, 1861, as the "Irish Brigade" (23d Illinois Volunteers) lay encamped just outside of Jefferson City, Mo., I received
orders to report to General Jefferson C. Davis, commanding in the town. On doing so, I was informed by General Davis that the cavalry regiment of Colonel Thomas A. Marshall, which had left for the South-west some days before, had reached Tipton, where it was hemmed in by the enemy, and could neither advance nor return, and that he wished me to go to Tipton, join Colonel Marshall, take command of the combined forces, cut my way through the enemy, go to Lexington, and hold it at all hazards.
The next morning the "Irish Brigade" started with forty rounds of ammunition and three days' rations for each man. We marched for nine days without meeting an enemy, foraging upon the country for support. We readied Tipton, but found neither Colonel Marshall nor the enemy, and we passed on to a pleasant spot near Lexington where we prepared for our entry into the city. The trouble was not so much the getting into Lexington as the getting out. At Lexington we found Colonel Marshall's cavalry regiment and about 350 of a regiment of Home Guards. On the 10th of September we received a letter from Colonel Everett Peabody, of the 13th Missouri Regiment, saying that he was retreating from Warrensburg, 34 miles distant, and that the rebel General Price was in full pursuit with an army of 10,000 men. A few hours- later Colonel Peabody joined us.
There were then at this post the " Irish Brigade " Colonel Marshall's Illinois cavalry regiment (full), Colonel Peabody's regiment, and a part of the 14th Missouri- in all about 2780 men, with one six-pounder, forty rounds of
ammunition, and but few rations. We then dispatched a courier to Jefferson City to inform General Davis of our condition, and to pray for reenforcements or even rations, whereupon we would hold out to the last. At noon of the 11th we commenced throwing up entrenchments on College Hill, an eminence overlooking Lexington and the broad Missouri. All day long the men worked untiringly with the shovel. That evening, but six or eight hours after we had commenced, our pickets were driven in and intimation was given that the enemy were upon us. Colonel Peabody was ordered out to meet them, and two six-pounders were planted in a position to command a covered bridge by which the enemy were obliged to enter the town. It was a night of fearful anxiety; none knew at what moment the enemy would be upon our devoted little band, and the hours passed in silence. We waited until the morning of the 12th, vigilantly and without sleep, when a messenger rushed in, saying, "Colonel, the enemy are pushing across the bridge in overwhelming force." With a glass we could see them as they came, General Price riding up and down the lines, urging his men on. Two companies of the Missouri 13th were ordered out, and, with Company K of the Irish Brigade, quickly checked the enemy, drove him back, burned the bridge, and gallantly ended their work before breakfast.
The enemy now made a détour, and approached the town once more, by the Independence road. Six companies of the Missouri 13th and the Illinois Cavalry were ordered out, and met them in the Lexington Cemetery, just outside the town, where the fight raged furiously over the dead. We succeeded in keeping the enemy in check, and in the mean time the work with the shovel went bravely on until we had thrown up breastworks three or four feet high.
At 3 o'clock in the afternoon the engagement opened with artillery. A volley of grape from the enemy was directed at a group of our officers who were outside the breastworks. Our men returned the volley. The contest raged about an hour and a half, when we had the satisfaction, by a lucky shot, of knocking over the enemy's big gun, exploding a powder caisson, and otherwise doing much damage. The fight was continued until dusk, and, as the moon rose, the enemy retired to camp in the Fair Ground, two miles away, and Lexington was our own again.
On Friday, the 13th, though a drenching rain had set in, the work of throwing up entrenchments went on, and the men stood almost knee-deep in mud and water, at their work. We had taken the basement of the Masonic College, a building from which the eminence took its name; powder was obtained, and the men commenced making cartridges. A foundry was fitted up, and 150 rounds of shot- grape and canister - were cast for each of our six–pounders.
Sunday had now arrived. We had found no provisions at Lexington, and our 2700 men were getting short of rations. Father Thaddeus J. Butler, our chaplain, celebrated mass on the hillside, and all were considerably strengthened and encouraged by his words, and after services were over we went back to work, actively casting shot and stealing provisions from the inhabitants round about. Our pickets were all the time skirmishing with the enemy, while we were making preparations for defense against the enemy's attack, which was expected on the morrow.
At 9 o'clock on the morning of the 18th the enemy were seen approaching. The Confederate force had been increased to 18,000 men with 16 pieces of cannon. They came as one dark moving mass, their guns beaming in the sun, their banners waving, and their drums beating - everywhere, as far as we could see, were men, men, men, approaching grandly. Our earthworks covered an area of about eighteen acres, surrounded by a ditch, and protected in front by what were called "confusion pits," and by mines. Our men stood firm behind the breastworks, none trembled or paled, and a solemn
silence prevailed. As Father Butler went round among them, they asked his blessing, received it with uncovered heads, then turned and sternly cocked their muskets.
The enemy opened a terrible fire with their caution on all sides, which we answered with determination and spirit. Our spies had brought intelligence, and had all agreed that it was the intention of the enemy to make a grand rush, overwhelm us, and bury us in the trenches of Lexington.
At noon, word was brought that the enemy had taken the hospital. We had not fortified that; it was situated out side the entrenchments, and I had supposed that the little white flag was sufficient protection for the wounded and dying soldiers who had finished their service and were powerless for harm. The hospital contained our chaplain, our surgeon and a number of wounded. The enemy took it without opposition, filled it with their sharp-shooters, and from every window, every door, from the scuttles in the roof, poured right into our entrenchments a deadly drift of lead. A company of the Home Guards, then a company of the Missouri 14th, were ordered to retake the hospital, but refused. The Montgomery Guards, a company of the Irish Brigade, was then ordered out. Their captain admonished them to uphold the gallant name they bore, and the order was given to charge. The distance across the plain from the entrenchments to the hospital was about eighty yards. They started; at first quick, then double-quick, then on a run, then faster. Still the deadly fire poured into their ranks. But on they went; a wild line of steel, and, what is better than steel, irresistible human will. They reached the hospital, burst open the door, without shot or shout, until they encountered the enemy within, whom they hurled out and sent flying down the hill.
Our surgeon was held by the enemy, although we had released the Confederate surgeon on his mere pledge that he was such. It was a horrible thing to see those brave fellows, mangled and wounded, without skillful hands to bind their ghastly wounds; and Captain David P. Moriarty, who had been a physician in civil life, was ordered to lay aside his sword and go into the hospital. He went, and through all the siege worked among the wounded with no other instrument than a razor. Our supply of water had given out and the scenes in the hospital were fearful to witness, wounded men suffering agonies from thirst and in their frenzy wrestling for the water in which the wounded had been bathed.
On the morning of the 19th the firing was resumed, and continued all day. Our officers had told the men that if they could hold out until the 19th we should certainly be reinforced, and all through that day the men watched anxiously for the appearance of the friendly flag under which aid was to reach them, and listened eagerly for the sound of friendly cannon. But they looked and listened in vain, and all day long they fought without water, their parched lips cracking, their tongues swollen, and the blood running down their chins when they bit their cartridges and the saltpeter entered their blistered lips. But not a word of murmuring.
The morning of the 20th broke, but no reenforcements had come, and still the men fought on. The enemy appeared that day with an artifice which was destined to overreach us and secure to them the possession of our entrenchments. They had constructed a movable breastwork of hemp bales, rolled them before their lines up the hill, and advanced under this cover. All our efforts could not retard the advance of these bales. Round-shot and bullets were poured against them, but they would only rock a little and then settle back. Heated shot were fired with the hope of setting them on fire, but they had been soaked and would not burn. Thus for hours the fight continued. Our cartridges were now nearly used up, many of our brave fellows had fallen, and it was evident that the fight must soon cease, when at 3 o'clock an orderly came, saying that the enemy had sent a flag of truce. With the flag came a note from General Price, asking "why the firing had ceased. "I returned it, with the reply written on the back, "General, I hardly know, unless you have surrendered." He at once took pains to assure me that this was not the case. I then discovered that the major of another regiment, in spite of orders, had raised a white flag. Our ammunition was about gone. We were out of rations, and had been without water for days, and many of the men felt like giving up the post, which it seemed impossible to hold longer. They were ordered back to the breastworks, and told to use up all their powder, then defend themselves as best they could, but to hold their place. Then a council of war was held in the college, and the question of surrender was put to the officers, and a ballot was taken, only two out of six votes being cast in favor of fighting on. Then the flag of truce was sent out with our surrender.