Here we are again, yet another entry into my project “History Boy Summer” which is just an excuse for me to blog about my recent attempt to visit a bunch of museums this year. Last time, we looked at a War of 1812 era military fort and trading post, this week we are shifting forward to a Civil War battlefield.
One thing that has always bothered me about how many discuss the American Civil War is the complete and utter downplaying of anything that happened west of the Mississippi River. Being from Kansas originally, but spending near 30 years in Bushwhacker territory (That’s Missouri), it’s crazy how important this area was to the war in the beginning, an ultimately it’s end as well. One can argue that The Civil War STARTED in Kansas in the mid 1850s. One of my future incursions will hopefully be to the John Brown Museum in Osawatomie, Kansas where I will go into more detail about the period of time called “Bleeding Kansas“, and if you are unaware what that is, please look it up – the story is wild!
Battle of Lexington State Historic Site / Oliver Anderson House: Lexington, MO
Today I will be looking at one of my favorite historic sites, and Civil War battles for that matter – The Battle of Lexington a.k.a. “The Battle of the Hemp Bales“. lasting from September 13-20 1861, this siege always fascinated me because of the ingenuity of the Missouri State Guard (aligned with the secessionists). Instead of bum-rushing a Federal Fortress repurposed from an old College building owned by the Freemasons (and likely getting massacred), a call was made to create a moving bulwark of wet hemp bales to slowly get closer and closer to the fortress rendering any sort of defensive measure worthless. It was a tactic that impressed people so much, that random people often gushed about it. Many years later, in his book The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Southern president Jefferson Davis opined that “The expedient of the bales of hemp was a brilliant conception, not unlike that which made Tarik, the Saracen warrior, immortal, and gave his name to the northern pillar of Hercules.”
I always loved visiting The Oliver Anderson house as a kid. It’s riddled with bullet holes and cannon shot, when most would have patched any damage up soon after the war. Being able to see things like the physical scarring of a battlefield makes it that much more real for me. When I was a kid, there wasn’t any sort of visitor’s Center like they have today. From what I understand, it was built in 1994 or so, and is a great addition to the grounds with the sole exception being that you can no longer see the house from the road. This was another nostalgic trip for me, I honestly don’t think I’ve been here for upwards of 20+ years or so.
According to our old buddy Wikipedia:
“The siege of Lexington, also known as the Battle of First Lexington, was a minor conflict of the American Civil War. The siege took place from September 13 to 20, 1861 between the Union Army and the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard in Lexington, county seat of Lafayette County, Missouri. The victory won by the Missouri Guard bolstered the considerable Southern sentiment in the area, and briefly consolidated Missouri State Guard control of the Missouri River Valley in the western part of the state.Wikipedia
Prior to the American Civil War, Lexington was an agricultural town of over 4,000 residents that served as the county seat of Lafayette County and enjoyed a position of considerable local importance on the Missouri River in west-central Missouri. Hemp (used for rope production), tobacco, coal and cattle all contributed to the town’s wealth, as did the river trade. Though Missouri remained in the Union during the war, many of Lexington’s residents were slaveowners, and several openly sympathized with the Southern cause. Lafayette County had a high ratio of slaves to free persons, with slaves comprising 31.7% of its population.”
There was a “Second Battle of Lexington, MO in 1864 that kind of flies under the radar a bit due to how minor it is on it’s own. As part of Major-General Sterling Price’s ill-fated Missouri expedition, a brief skirmish happened in Lexington between Price and Federal Major General James Blunt. If anything, Blunt used the exercise more to size-up Price’s forces as he marched towards the state line, allowing time for people to prepare for battle in Jackson County and slow Price down. Price was ultimately forced to leave the state after back-to-back defeats in Westport and Mine Creek, ultimately taking Missouri off of the Confederate table.
For this trip, I read a book by Larry Wood entitled: The Siege of Lexington, Missouri: The Battle of the Hemp Bales Which is part of a series of books based on various Civil War Battles released during the 150th anniversary. I had mentioned in my previous article:
” I want to know what’s going on, just in case they are either closed, the guided tours don’t happen, or its slanted in one direction or another for political reasons. I was really worried about the latter in regards to my next topic (Battle of Lexington), but I will get to that next time. ”Me
I said this because I clearly remember visiting The Oliver Anderson House as a kid, and watching the obligatory video in the visitor’s center, to get a one-sided account of the events as told through the lens of “Lost Cause” mythology. It was very much “Here we were, all chivalrous and Southern, and these evil Yankees took the town over and did bad stuff”. As a kid, it seemed at odds with things I knew about the Civil War in Missouri, but I left it at that. As I got older, I realized what was going on and took it with a grain of salt. I wanted to read this book to get all the facts BEFORE I went in, and I think it helped me a lot. Even before I took one of my tours, I had a long discussion with one of the living history interpreters, and I feel like my knowledge from this book made it that much more special.
While, I will suggest reading my full book review HERE, I will say briefly that this was a very well-done book (as are most in this series), and I want to read more by Mr. Wood. If you would like your own copy, check this link out.
Lexington is a short-ish drive from the majority of Kansas City, traffic isn’t an issue and I had no trouble finding it with my GPS. My only issue was that there is currently some sort of road construction going on that resulted in a detour, so if you plan to follow my lead, be prepared for that. As I stated before, the facility is comprised of three parts 1) The Battle of Lexington Battlefield, The Visitor’s Center, and the Oliver Anderson House. While you pass some of the battlefield markers on the way in, the site offers a tour for five dollars a head that will walk a patron through the Anderson House or the Battlefield itself. One ticket is good for both. On my particular trip, it looked likely for rain, so I decided to forgo the battlefield tour, with a hope that I will be back again at some point. I did however stop off on the road and look at some of it myself.
The visitors center is a large building with a theater for the video presentation, a gift shop area, and a museum filled with battlefield artifacts and exhibits. It’s a smaller museum that would take anywhere from 10-30 minutes to get through depending on how much you stop to read. I mentioned my wariness of the video, and to my surprise, there was a new presentation that was not at all as slanted as the 1990’s version. One of the interpreters even mentioned that they took great care to make it a lot less one-sided. The gift shop actually has a decent selection of items specifically related to the site itself, sometimes you go to these things and you see a bunch of books about Gettysburg or something, while cool it doesn’t really reflect why you are where you are. I of course, went with a stack of facsimile steamboat tickets and fake Civil-War era money as I collect stuff like that from time-to-time.
Since I decided to forgo the main battlefield tour (sadly it never rained so I could have done it) I spent some time chatting with a few interpreters that were handling the gift shop at the time. The information was very interesting and I learned a lot about some planned upcoming events and general history of the area that you wouldn’t really get on either tour.
My time came to finally go into the Oliver Anderson House, which is located behind the visitor’s center. When the Union army came into town and took over the Masonic College, the huge plantation field around the Anderson House ended up becoming the battlefield. The house itself sat smack-dab in the middle of this field, so it was seized by Union troops and converted into a field hospital. Oliver Anderson, and his family, were made to answer questions on their loyalty to the Federal Government, since he had not signed his card and held slaves, he was unwilling to say he denounced the Confederates. As a result, he was evicted.
The house itself became a focal point of the battle with claims that the Union troops were using it to shoot from, which is unfortunate because using a hospital to fire from is an offense on the supposed “rules of warfare” of the day. State Guard troops successfully took the house over, then planted sharpshooters on the rooftops and windows, basically doing the same questionable thing. Finally the Federals were able to re-capture the house, executing many of the soldiers inside. As you can see The house’s history is mired in controversy, and many aspects of the battle had to be deliberated on in court after the fact.
Due to this fighting, the house is riddled with scars of the battle. All of the windows on the second floor have bullet holes around all of the walls. It’s quite jarring to walk around seeing places where soldiers likely died in battle, such as the outsides of almost all of the windows. Surprisingly, this is all preserved because the owners of the house, at the turn of the century, made a deliberate call to not fix any of the war damage in any way. The rest of the house is filled with furnishings, most of which from that second family, of the time. Nothing is temperature controlled and nothing is behind glass – its as if you are going back in time to the exact way the house was being used in the past.
Probably one of my favorite areas to explore is the second floor. One of the main rooms became the “operating room” of the hospital. Doors were pulled from hinges and tossed on sawhorses as men were hacked to pieces in the name of primitive medicine. There was so much blood involved, holes were drilled into the floor and the grisly fluids were allowed to drain into a basin on the first story. I can’t imagine how morbid such a sight would be.
The tour was very informative, and gave lots of information on the day-to-day like of people during the mid 1800s. If you are there, you are truly missing out on not taking it.
This is yet another great way to spend a summer day here in Missouri. If you are a lover of Civil War History, antebellum architecture, local history, or even macabre things, this is a cool place to visit. Granted, a lot of my love for visiting this comes from the nostalgia I get going back to places I loved as a kid, but this site seems to be a complete package and can fill out a full day with activities if one plans it right. My recommendation – take the tours, especially if you don’t know anything about the battles or the site itself. Its really cheap and well-worth it. Join me again very soon, as I visit a site that I’ve actually never been before, it’s another Civil war battlefield, this time much later in the war.
This review is part of my 2021 series History Boy Summer, which you can read more of following this LINK.