The Battle at Blue Mills Ferry is another local scrap that took place in our neighborhood during the Civil War.

The Battle at Blue Mills Ferry is another local scrap that took place in our neighborhood during the Civil War.

Because Missouri was threatening to withdraw from the Union, Federal forces occupied “all” river crossings along the Missouri River, including the Liberty, Independence and the Lexington ferries. Their purpose was to prevent potential soldiers for the Confederate cause from north of the river to join up with the force on the southern side.

The Federals also had impounded all of the state funds deposited in banks across Missouri. The only money they had not yet gotten hold of was more than $900,000 that sat in a bank at Lexington.

These were the two main reasons Confederate Gen. Sterling Price needed to wage the “Battle of Lexington.” He could use those funds to help finance his war and pick up those pro-South troops wanting to cross the river.

Lexington was protected by only a small contingent of Union soldiers, the Lafayette County Home Guard, who was not very well equipped and supplied.

After a successful battle at Wilson’s Creek in August, General Price led 6,000 rebels out of Springfield and headed for Lexington in an attempt to liberate the state of Missouri. On a rainy Wednesday night, Sept. 11, 1861, fighting began on a farm just south of Lexington and, by Friday the 13th, the battle was well entrenched in the old section of downtown Lexington.

The Lafayette County Home Guard took up residence around the Anderson House, which sat on a hill with a good view in all directions. So, a major standoff was under way.

Price dispatched word to muster the troops of northwestern Missouri to assist in the battle. On the way to Lexington, Price had picked up a couple thousand farm boys along the way as the battle continued around the Anderson House for more than a week. Many of those farm boys just rode along for the excitement and were never conscripted into the Confederate forces. It was during this battle that a stray cannon ball hit the courthouse and that hole is still visible on the front porch.

The Clay County Mounted Rangers of Liberty, a secessionist band, headed for Lexington, too. However, when they reached the Blue Mills ferry crossing, they encountered Union troops with the intent of keeping them from crossing the Missouri River. The Rangers broke through their lines and allowed the Federals to escape down stream on a boat.

In the meantime, about 4,000 more secessionist troops from other northwestern counties of Missouri were approaching Liberty and headed toward that same river crossing. Hot on their heels was an equally large Union battalion, which was coming to cut them off.

It took a while for those 4,000 troops to cross the river, which was time that they really didn’t have. There were large drainage ditches on each side of the road down in the river bottoms and those ditches were covered with heavy under growth, which afforded them excellent cover while awaiting the Federals. Half of the northwestern Missouri troops managed to cross the river and the remainder hid down in the brush as the Union troops approached. The rebels ambushed them as they arrived and drove them back into Liberty for the night, giving enough time to get the other half across the river.

The stalemate at the Anderson House was finally broken when Price’s troops discovered round bales of hemp down on the river landing waiting to be loaded on boats. Troops started rolling them up the hill toward the Anderson house. The hemp made excellent cover from gunfire and they were able to roust the Home Guard. This is why the Lexington battle is often referred to as the “Battle of the Hemp Bales.”

In the end, the Home Guard at Lexington had to surrender.



Reference: “Clay County in the Civil War Years” by Carolyn M. Bartels.

Ted W. Stillwell also writes a similar column for the Leavenworth Times and is presently in the process of putting those stories in a Leavenworth addition of Portraits of the Past. Those books should be available at The Examiner office soon.