The Battle of the Hemp Bales, 1861
This little volume is another in the History Press’ Civil War Sesquicentennial series. Rather than produce yet another book on the major battles, or even one on a small element of such a battle, the series covers less known battles or campaigns so as to increase the coverage in print of these lesser known aspects of the war. The smaller format works to add a little meat past what you get from flyers from military parts, say, And there are plenty of local historians that can write, or contribute to such a book.
At the start of the American Civil War both sides seemed hesitant to get the ball rolling. In the east, the Union defeat at Bull Run put an end to serious action. The state of Kentucky’s quixotic attempt at neutrality was convenient to both governments who were scrambling to raise enough forces to even cover the frontier. That left the final border state of Missouri open for serious action, and unlike the rest of the country there was leadership on the Northern side that provided action.
Fiery Nathaniel Lyon was in charge, and from the initial move of secretly carrying off the armory’s weapons to Illinois was showing that he was serious about acting. One of the unintentional comedies of the period was the outrage of the local Southern sympathizers that he stole the guns before they could raise a mob to do so themselves, as happened in most of the rebel states.
Lyon moved out to crush the military forces in the southwest part of the state, near Springfield. He had bit off more than he could chew, as the troops from Missouri and other states that could be gathered began to seriously outnumber him. The lack of decent communication to the east, and a new district commander who was not a man of action meant that reinforcements weren’t coming soon. Lyon, worried about retiring, decided to attack instead to catch the raw troops napping. While it was initially successful, the over bold plan failed, and the superior numbers won the day, Lyon himself was killed.
After the victory, the winners were in a bit of a quandary themselves. The army consisted of two elements: official Confederate troops dispatched from Arkansas and beyond, and a southern sympathetic “Missouri State Guard” under local general Stirling Price. These forces were not under the orders of the CSA, as the breakaway government of the state had not seceded or joined the Confederacy at this time.
The leader of the CSA troops was not interested in risking his troops in any adventures into other parts of the state. Opposing this, the breakway legislature wanted to increase its holdings from a nominal part of the Ozark hill country while it had an advantage. These aims were not reconcilable, so the army broke up and the Missouri State Guard was left to act alone.
Far to the north, on the Missouri river, is the town of Lexington. There was an outpost of Union troops holding the town along the line of communication to Union sympathetic regions in Kansas. The natives of the area were solidly southern in sympathies, as this is the slave holding belt in the state. Supplies would also be easier to obtain than in the poorer sections they were in. The decision was made to take that town and win a victory.
By mid September they were on the march and approaching the town. The Union forces barricaded themselves into buildings in and around the grounds of the Masonic college north of town, and looked to be a nasty opponent. So far, the inexperience of the troops had proven no bar to both sides fighting hard and long.
Then someone (who is disputed) came up with the idea of using hemp bales from around the town to use as protection. These large cylinders of cut plant matter would stop a bullet, and if soaked in water would not burn. Also, if tipped on their side they could be easily rolled by the men behind into new positions, closer to the defenders. The creeping walls of hemp were the signal item that made this little battle notable at the time and now.
With this protection, the defenders lost the advantage of being able to shoot down the attackers faster, and the numbers began to tell. Soon the defenders had to give up, and Price and his men had the victory and the fame.
Long term, of course, this could not be sustained. Even the slaveholding Missourians were doubtful about long term prospects, both from sentiment and from the very practical realization that troops coming from Kansas and upriver from the rest of the country would make holding the area impossible. The integration of the state forces with the CSA in the winter made the defense of the state much lower in priority, and the State Guard and Price would be diverted to the defense of Mississippi for the rest of the war.
Another great entry into this series that I need to get more of.