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The Battle of the Hemp Bales
by Guy Kinnison


There was a time when it was legal to grow marijuana, or hemp, as it was called in the nineteenth century. In the South cotton was king, but in Missouri marijuana was.

Many towns along the Missouri River thrived off of the profitable hemp industry, manufacturing fine quality rope. Lexington, Missouri, was one such town.

Before the Civil War, Lexington's rope factories lined the river bank, owned by prominent citizens who, with their hemp profits, built some of the finest antebellum homes west of the Mississippi River.

However, the Civil War brought an end to the life of luxury that these southern-born Missourians had come to enjoy. In the summer of 1861, the state of Missouri had not seceded from the Union, but rebels from Missouri set up their own government in exile and fighting broke out in the state.

One of the biggest battles fought that year took place south of Springfield, Missouri, when Federal troops took on Arkansas Confederates and the pro-southern Missouri State Guard. The rebels routed the Yankees, killing their general, and sent them reeling back to St. Louis.

The Confederate victory opened up the western part of Missouri for a southern invasion. Without any help from the Arkansas troops, General Stemns(?) Price led his nearly 7,000 Missourians north towards Lexington and the Missori River. Control of the river would split the Union east from the west.

At Lexington, 3,500 Federal and Home Guard troops awaited Price's men, converting the old Masonic College atop the biggest hill in town into their fort. In preparation for battle, they dug trenches and laid the first land mines of the Civil War.

Hemp factories stood at the bottom of the hill with big hemp bales lined up close by ready to be processed into rope. The rebels entered the area around September 12th and soon had the entrenched Federals nearly surrounded.

Fighting commenced on the 18th and continued through the next day. After an attempt by the Union men to dislodge the Missourians from a mansion that stood between the trenches and the river, Price's men had the Yanks completely encircled and cut off their water and supplies.

On the evening of the 19th, a local resident came up with a plan to defeat the Federals. By soaking the giant hemp bales and pushing them up the hill, the hemp could be used as moving breastworks.

The next morning, the Union men awoke to see a line of more than a hundred hemp bales snaking across the hill facing the river. Behind each bale, three or four men pushed toward the Federal trenches.

Panicking, the Yanks tried in vain to set the bales on fire by using hot shot in their cannons. A few bales broke apart only to be replaced by other bales.

The Missourians kept pushing closer until the Federals ran out of food, water and supplies. Cut off from reinforcements, the Union men surrendered to the rebels.

From that time on the battle came to be known as, "The Battle of the Hemp Bales," the first battle in which marijuana played a key role.