Lexington, Missouri—A battle is lost but a flag is saved
The capture of Illinois and Missouri regiments at the siege of Lexington, Missouri, in September 1861 added to the list of defeats suffered by Federal troops during the summer and early fall of 1861. A bit of comfort, however, was provided by a young private from Illinois who outwitted the rebels and redeemed a captured United States flag.
Missouri in 1861
Missouri became the frontline of action for many Illinois troops beginning in April 1861. After Cairo and southern Illinois were made secure, the Ohio River front became temporarily quiet as both Federal and Confederate governments respected the shaky neutrality declared by Kentucky. Missouri, however, was soon flooded with Federal troops, many of them from Illinois. Some took part in the removal to Illinois of weapons from the U. S. arsenal at St. Louis (see the monthly feature for April 2011). Others moved to protect railroads and loyal citizens from Confederate sympathizers as the state wrestled over the question of secession.
In September 1861 Federal forces and loyal Missouri units attempted to hold the line of the Missouri River and protect the capitol at Jefferson City. Missouri State Guard units numbering about 8,000 men and commanded by Sterling Price moved northward following their defeat in August of U.S. forces at the battle of Wilson’s Creek, hoping to encourage support for secession. They soon headed for Lexington, a Missouri River town held by Federal troops under the command of Col. James A. Mulligan of Chicago. Lexington was targeted because of its location commanding the river, the secessionist leanings of the nearby population, and the more than $900,000 cash that had been taken from a local bank by the Federals.
The siege and battle
Mulligan’s force was made up of his own 23rd Illinois Infantry, more popularly known as the Irish Brigade, the 1st Illinois Cavalry, the 13th and 27th Missouri Infantry, and a number of small unionist home guard units. It totaled about 3,500 men. They occupied a former college campus overlooking the river and quickly began to build defenses. What would prove a fatal mistake was made when a spring of water was left outside the defensive line, leaving only a few wells to supply water for the men and horses. The lead units of Price’s force arrived at Lexington on September 12, the army’s size almost doubled by new recruits and continuing to grow. Price laid siege to the fortified college campus, the two sides struggling to control buildings that could conceal riflemen. Mulligan held on, convinced that reinforcements were on their way. They were not. The wells, supplying water to 3,500 men and several hundred animals, soon began to run dry. On September 20 the Missourians continued to press the Federal forces, this time using soaked hemp bales as a moveable, bullet-resistant barricade. Confusion soon broke out within Mulligan’s lines when a subordinate displayed a white flag. Mulligan asked for terms of surrender, to which Price responded that the surrender must be unconditional. The terms were accepted.
For Mulligan and his men the defeat was a bitter one. A witness wrote that “the scenes at the capitulation were extraordinary. Col. Mulligan shed tears. The men threw themselves upon the ground…demanding to be led out and ‘finish the thing.'” It was reported that some cavalrymen “shot their horses dead on the spot, unwilling that their companions in the campaign should now fall into the hands of the enemy.” Officers were to be held as prisoners of war. The enlisted men were to be released on turning over their weapons and all equipment except the clothing on their backs. As the secessionist band played “Dixie” many of the defeated Federals “wept to leave behind their colors [flags], each Company in the Brigade having its own standard presented to it by their friends.”
Redeeming the flag
But not all of the United States flags at Lexington were surrendered. Nineteen-year-old private Henry C. Carico of Co. A, 1st Illinois Cavalry saved the company’s flag from capture, wrapping it around his body and then covering it with his uniform before being marched away. Carico’s exploit electrified Illinoisans bitter over the Lexington defeat. The banner was proudly displayed as Company A passed through Illinois towns on the return to Bloomington. On October 12 “the old battle-worn flag” fluttered from the rear of the train that brought Company A to Bloomington in triumph.
People rushed to “look at the torn banner… The contrast in the appearance of the flag when it was borne from here, and its looks on its return, indicates fully the scenes it has passed through. Then, its silken folds glistened as it waved in the breeze, bright… and unstained. Now, it still floats as proudly as ever, with its honor untarnished, but torn and defaced by cannon balls and bullets, dimmed by battle smoke, and stained here and there with spots of blood.”
The crowd at a public meeting held at the McLean County courthouse raised three loud cheers for the flag, three for Capt. John McNulta and the men of Co. A, “and three for private Carico, who rescued the flag and brought it safely home.”
Interested in learning more?
An accessible history of the siege is the Lexington, Missouri, Historical Society’s, The battle of Lexington, fought in and around the city of Lexington, Missouri, on September 18th, 19th and 20th, 1861, by forces under command of Colonel James A. Mulligan, and General Sterling Price. The official records of both parties to the conflict; to which is added memoirs of participants (digital format: http://digital.library.umsystem.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?;c=umlib;idno=umlc000087 ).
The history of James Mulligan and the Irishmen of the 23rd Illinois Infantry is outlined in Harold F. Smith, “Mulligan and the Irish Brigade,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 56:2 (Summer 1963), pp. 164-76. The State of Missouri operates the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site. For more information visit http://mostateparks.com/park/battle-lexington-state-historic-site.