This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Sept. 18: The Battle of Lexington.
Who would have thought large hemp bales could sway the outcome of a battle? The Battle of Lexington rages on early this week in September 1861. Secessionist forces under Maj. Gen. Sterling Price are fighting madly to seize the pro-southern Missouri River town of Lexington. Strains of "Dixie" waft from a military band as the fighters, their ranks swelled by recruits pouring in from the countryside, bombard some 3,000 Unionists hunkered down on the grounds of a Masonic college at the north end of Lexington. By now, besieged Unionists are running out of water, trapped in their defenses in the late summer heat. On the third day, the siege ends dramatically: Southern fighters take some 130 large hemp bales on Sept. 20, 1861, and line them up opposite the Union breastworks and begin pushing the bales ever closer to the rival side. Unionists pound the moving line of hemp bales with cannons and rifle shot but the bales have been soaked with water and fail to catch fire. Secessionists _ hiding three men behind each bale _ nudge the bales forward in snakelike lines until they are close. They then charge the federal defenders. Hand-to-hand fighting ensues but it's quickly over and the Union forces surrender. About 65 deaths are reported and many dozens wounded. A newspaper dispatch published afterward in the New Hampshire Sentinel lauded the outnumbered federal forces under Col. James A. Mulligan for a brave fight: "Col. Mulligan was at last compelled to yield to a force eight times his own number, after fifty-one hours of fighting, without a drop of water." Missouri's Union commander, Major Gen. John Fremont, will eventually respond to the defeat by mounting a 38,000-strong force that eventually drives Price and his band from the state later in the war. Lexington will eventually return to Union control.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Sept. 25: Pressure for a Union plan of attack.
Major Gen. George B. McClellan, tapped to lead the Army of the Potomac after the Union defeat at First Bull Run, comes under growing popular pressure in late September 1861 to attack Confederate forces outside Washington. The commander chafes at strident calls for action, knowing he could be made the scapegoat for any disastrous misstep that turns the tide of war against the Union. Nonetheless, McClellan's weeks of training and drilling have begun to shape green and largely untested troops into a fighting force. And McClellan is still being allowed time by President Abraham Lincoln to plot his war strategy. One of McClellan's chief worries is that he not leave Washington undefended, at times believing the Confederates could be plotting a major assault on the capital. Reports speak of Confederates in northern Virginia nearly within site of Washington. Months later, McCellan will go on to failure with his Peninsula Campaign _ his ambitious thrust toward Richmond from Virginia's seaboard side. Later he will halt Confederate Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland at bloody Antietam yet still lose his command for settling for a draw that tests Lincoln's patience as the president thirsts for crushing victory. This month, the South's Gulf Coast farmers recoil from stormy weather that ruins corn and cotton crops needed to feed and clothe the Confederate army. News dispatches speak of bickering in the Confederate congress over ill-fed and badly uniformed recruits. Misinformation flies. One Southern newspaper claims Confederate troops number an astonishing 185,000 men _ far more than McClellan's _ and adds they are "clothed and fed on a scale of amazing liberality, and are regularly paid in gold or bank paper." One commentator scoffs such numbers are impossibly inflated and the situation is the reverse with near "nakedness and starvation" among some Confederate troops.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 2: William Tecumseh Sherman and Robert Anderson.
Robert Anderson was the Union colonel and commander at Fort Sumter, S.C., when a Confederate bombardment in April 1861 opened the Civil War. Afterward, he rose through the command and was promoted to the Army's Department of the Cumberland Valley. But when an ailing Anderson took medical leave, he was succeeded by a new commander, William Tecumseh Sherman, on Oct. 8, 1861. So would Sherman begin a military career that _ despite ups and downs _ would make him one of the most recognized Union commanders after Ulysses Grant. Eventually Sherman would go down in history for a scorched earth campaign that led to the capture and burning of Atlanta in 1864 and the subsequent march by his troops to the sea on a wide path of destruction in the Deep South. This fall marks the start of an outbreak of numerous small skirmishes but no battles of significance. Outside Washington, a federal observatory balloon is lofted near the northern Virginia community of Falls Church, hoping to spy out Confederate pickets. Within days, skirmishing erupts near Falls Church but reports say "the (cannon) balls coming from each side of the declivity of a hill and a dense woods ... failed their purpose" and Union batteries escaped harm. Further west, rebels who had seized Lexington, Missouri, during a major battle the previous month withdraw as federal forces threaten. "The evacuation of Lexington by the rebels is confirmed," The Associated Press reports in a dispatch published Oct. 4, 1861. It reports "six thousand men left Lexington, crossing the river on Saturday ... they were met by a Federal force ... when a battle ensued" and the federals were driven back. It added: "Many of the rebels swarm the river in their impatience to get across."
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 9: Return of Hatteras Force.
The Associated Press reports that Union regiments in and around Washington are slowly readying winter quarters. Absent major fighting, there are only sporadic skirmishes, firing and occasion potshots taken between rival pickets near the federal capital. "The Second Massachusetts are erecting a spacious stable for their horses, and digging cellars for their tents," The AP reports in an Oct. 12 dispatch. Although there are no major battles during this time, nerves are on edge from skirmishes. "About twenty heavy guns were heard ... Thursday night in the direction of the Great Falls" but the cause was unknown, one AP correspondent writes this week. Stormy weather signals the approaching winter at Fortress Monroe, the Union-held stone bastion on the Virginia coast. Reports note that a "severe gale now prevailing" has blocked a U.S. Treasury cutter from departing to enforce a federal blockade on Southern seaports from Virginia's Hampton Roads to Hatteras, N.C., an area used by contraband smugglers to run goods to the Confederacy. At Fortress Monroe, a federal tug exchanges shots with Confederates manning a battery beside the James River leading to Richmond, the Confederate capital. Meanwhile, the Union is bolstering its defendses at Fort Monroe, an imposing stronghold that would have military use for nearly 200 years until its deactivation in September 2011. "The Union gun is now mounted so as to sweep the Roads between the Fortress and Sewall's Point" nearby, the AP reports. Meanwhile, troops are erecting wooden houses on the fortress grounds for winter accommodations and readying more holding cells for smugglers caught aiding the Confederacy.