A short siege that followed on from the Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek (10 August). After defeating Nathanial Lyon’s Union army, the Confederate commander, General Stirling Price, decided to move north to the Missouri River. His target was Lexington, one of the largest cities on the river and a key position if Price was to claim Missouri for the south.
Lexington was defended by 3,500 men, of whom 350 were local militia. Price advanced towards the city with 10,000 men. On 12 September he made two attempts to capture the city by storm, but repulsed by Union counterattacks, designed to give the defenders more time to prepare their defences. After these failures, Price withdrew and worked to increase the size of his army.
No attempt was made to hold the entire city – the Federal force was far too small for that. Instead, a Masonic college on a small hill on the edge of the town was selected as the focus of the defences. However, the main problem to face the defenders would be food. Even before Price re-appeared, the defenders were already short of supplies.
The siege proper began on 19 September. Price reappeared at 9 in the morning, now with a force 18,000 strong. Over the next three days he made repeated attempts to overwhelm the Federal defenders of Lexington. A particularly ingenious attempt was made to advance behind the protect of hemp bales, soaked to prevent their being set on first, apparently with some success.
Meanwhile, a 1,000 strong relief force had been seen off by this dispatch of 3,000 of Price’s men. It was clear that Lexington could not hold out for much longer, and on the afternoon of 20 September a council of war within the city voted to surrender. With no water, almost no food, and ammunition low, there was little point fighting on.
The capture of Lexington was probably the high-point of Confederate success in Missouri. Price soon discovered that he could not hold the city, or keep his 18,000 men together. Facing a strong Union counterattack, Price was forced to withdraw back into the same south western corner of the state that he had emerged from after Wilson’s Creek.