LEXINGTON — Re-enactors gathered at the Big River Ranch outside of Lexington on Sunday to replay the Battle of the Hemp Bales, which temporarily gained the Missouri Valley for the Confederacy. The re-enactment marked the 150th anniversary of the battle.
Confederate soldiers advanced up the bluffs toward the Union forces, sheltered behind hemp bales they had soaked in the Missouri river. The bales protected them from advancing Union soldiers.
According to registration officials, two re-enactment units based in Columbia, the Collins Battery Company A and The Tenth Missouri Volunteer Infantry Company E, took up arms alongside others from across the country.
The latter company's Facebook page describes the unit's mission as an effort “to educate the public about the role and life of the common soldier during the American Civil War.” The group was formed in 1989 and frequently participates in Civil War period events throughout the U.S.
During the re-enactment weekend, shuttle buses connected parking lots and Lexington's historic downtown with the battle grounds. In the old city center, merchants sold turkey legs and root beer in glass bottles, women walked around in elegant period dresses and a tent was set up for a demonstration of Civil War medical techniques.
“There are more than 100 homes here that are still actively lived in and used from the Civil War era,” said Don Coen, who has lived in the town all his life. “The courthouse was built in 1847 — it's the oldest continually used courthouse west of the Mississippi.” Lodged into one of the courthouse's front columns is a physical reminder of its long history — a confederate cannon ball.
The original battle was “one of the largest engagements in the Trans-Mississippi Theater,” a press release stated, with “more than 12,000 pro-Confederacy Missouri State Guards and irregulars.” For the re-enactment, Dan Cambridge, Lexington Tourism Director, said that he expected about one-tenth that number — up to 1,200 re-enactors.
“Hemp is not a common crop anymore,” Cambridge said. “Maybe not even a legal one. They're actually using Johnsongrass. They will be round bales similar to what was used in the actual battle.”
Leilani Matlock of Kansas has been coming to re-enactments with her husband for nine years. Over time it's grown into a family occasion. She now has four children ranging in age from less than a year old to 7 years old.
“My husband's up there in the military camp,” she said. “They sleep separately from the women and children — they would have back then, too.”
Matlock's oldest child, Robbie, 7, was playing with a wooden gun while his younger sisters carried a frog around the camp. “The kids love it,” Matlock said. “It just gives them a chance to be outside and not have to worry about anything.”
Other upcoming Civil War anniversary events include Civil War Days and Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration on Sept. 24 and 25 in Hermann and a re-enactment of the Battle of Leasburg on Oct. 1 in Leasburg.