SOURCE: John Dvorak, Hemp Historian

While this may have been one of the smaller engagements of the Civil War, the siege of Lexington, Missouri, also known as the Battle of the Hemp Bales carries special significance regarding America’s hemp history.

The following accounts were provided by Colonel James A. Mulligan whose Union Army soldiers were defeated by a pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard force using hemp bales for protection:

Siege_of_Lexingtom_MapThe morning of the 20th broke, but no reinforcements 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 breastworks 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.

There are many claimants for the credit of having first suggested the hemp-bale strategy. General Harris’s official report says: “I directed the bales to be wet in the river to protect them against the casualties of fire of our troops and of the enemy, but it was soon found that the wetting so materially increased the weight as to prevent our men, in their exhausted condition, from rolling it to the crest of the hill. I then adopted the idea of wetting the hemp after it had been transported to its position.”

As to the date of the use of these, which is given both by Colonel Mulligan and by Colonel Snead as the morning of the 20th, we quote the following circumstantial account from the official report of Colonel Hughes: “On the morning of the 19th, we arose from our ‘bivouac’ upon the hills to renew the attack. This day we continued the fighting vigorously all day, holding possession of the hospital buildings, and throwing large wings from both sides of the house, built up of bales of hemp saturated with water, to keep them from taking fire. These portable hemp-bales were extended, like the wings of a partridge net, so as to cover and protect several hundred men at a time, and a most terrible and galling and deadly fire was kept up from them upon the works of the enemy by my men. I divided my forces into reliefs and kept some three hundred of them pouring in a heavy fire incessantly upon the enemy, supplying the places of the weary with fresh troops. On the night of the 19th we enlarged and advanced our defensive works very near to the enemy’s entrenchments, and at daybreak opened upon their line with most fatal effect.”