Frank James and the Civil War Battle of the Hemp Bales

Jesse James must have been jealous of his older brother Frank. Jesse was only 13 when the Civil War started. Frank was 18, the perfect age to go off to war. Coming from a slave-owning farm family Frank naturally joined the Confederate army.

Many Missourians, especially city dwellers and the large German immigrant community, remained loyal to the North, while the majority of rural farmers supported the South. Most people actually wanted peace, but attitudes hardened as events spiraled out of control in the spring and summer of 1861. When Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion, Missouri’s governor defiantly refused. Then the Unionist General Nathaniel Lyon captured a group of state guardsmen camped near St. Louis, fearing they planned to capture the city’s federal arsenal. The capture went off without a hitch (except for Lyon being kicked in the stomach by his own horse) but when Lyon’s troops marched their prisoners back into town they got attacked by a secessionist mob. A soldier and about twenty civilians died in the ensuing riot.

The secessionist government fled, soon replaced by a loyal state government, and the Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price declared their loyalty for the South. Lyon led his Union forces from St. Louis west along the Missouri River valley, took the state capital of Jefferson City, and defeated a small State Guard force at the Battle of Boonville, one of the first battles of the Civil War. Price retreated with the State Guard to the southwestern part of the state to organize and train his green troops.

One of his new recruits was Frank James. He arrived with a group of Clay County boys, some armed with shotguns and squirrel rifles, others with nothing. They all itched for a chance to fight the Yankees. They didn’t have to wait long. On August 10, 1861, Lyons’ Union forces attacked Price’s Confederate camp at Wilson’s Creek. The Union soldiers came in from two sides, and as cannonballs flew through the State Guard tents, Frank James and his companions marched off to face the enemy.

%Gallery-108346%He and his unit charged up a hill overlooking their camp on which Lyon had placed the bulk of his force. Almost immediately the position earned the name “Bloody Hill”. Missourians fought each other through thick underbrush, attacking and counterattacking for hours. Meanwhile the second pincer of the Union attack was being wiped out to the south of camp. The battle tipped in the rebels’ favor, Lyon fell dead from a bullet, and the Union army retreated.

The fight left more than 1,200 casualties on each side, but the rebels exulted in their victory and marched into the center of the state towards the Missouri River port of Lexington. If they could take it, they’d control the river and the most populous pro-secession region in Missouri.

Col. James Mulligan, a tough Irish-American, had 3,500 Union soldiers at Lexington. While Price’s Confederates numbered more than 12,000, Mulligan decided to fight anyway. He dug trenches and earthworks atop a hill with a commanding view of the town. A stone building that served as a Masonic College added extra protection. The rebels arrived on September 13 and immediately surrounded the position. For a week they sniped at the Union troops on the hill. Volunteers swarmed in from the countryside to join Price. An account tells of how one local, an old man, arrived every morning with an antiquated flintlock rifle and a packed lunch, spent the day blasting away at the Yankees, and went home every evening.

Inside the fort Mulligan and his men grimly held on. No help came, and after a few days the rebels cut off their water supply. They threw back several determined attacks, and when the rebels heated up their cannonballs in an attempt to set the Masonic College on fire, Mulligan sent a boy with a shovel running around inside the college building, picking up the red-hot iron balls and chucking them out the window.

Frank James must have been getting nervous by this point. It had been a week and the fort still hadn’t fallen. Sooner or later a Union relief force would show up and there’d be real trouble. Then someone hit upon a clever idea. Missouri was one of the nation’s largest hemp regions. The cannabis plant was used for rope, paper, cloth, and many other purposes besides the recreational smoking that eventually got it banned. The harvest had just been brought in and the river port was filled with heavy bales of hemp. The rebels made a wall of these bales, soaked them with water so they wouldn’t be set on fire by hot lead, and started moving this wall up the hill.

Mulligan’s Union soldiers soon discovered these bales were bulletproof. Even cannonballs only rocked them. From behind the wall of hemp Frank James and his friends were able to get better shots at the defenders and the Union casualties began to mount. The noose tightened. Cut off, low on water, and with no help in sight, the defenders finally surrendered. Marijuana had won a victory for the Confederacy.

It wouldn’t last long. General Price realized his position was too exposed and headed back south. Frank fell sick with measles, a potentially fatal illness in those day, and got left behind. He was captured, gave an oath of loyalty to the Union, and returned home. Soon he was back in the saddle, however, joining William Quantrill’s guerrillas. Later he followed one of Quantrill’s lieutenants, Bloody Bill Anderson, and his younger brother Jesse joined him.

Frank and Jesse James’ war years were the beginning of their training as America’s most famous outlaws. They learned to ride, shoot, and hide out in the woods. Fellow members of Bloody Bill’s group formed the core of their bandit gang. With these experienced warriors they’d blaze across half a dozen states and into American folklore.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield has a museum and tours. The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site also has a museum (with a hemp bale they had to get special permission to import) and is in the center of a fine old town with lots of historic buildings. Check them out for more information about two Civil War battles that aren’t very well known outside of Missouri.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Jesse James’ greatest escape

[Image of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek courtesy user Americasroof via Wikimedia Commons]

America’s Wildest Weather Cities

Last Summer, Forbes released their list of America’s “Wildest Weather Cities,” which included nominations in categories like the coldest city, hottest, wettest, windiest, and “most variety.” The city I currently live in, Springfield, Missouri, won honors in that last category, and this winter further reinforced its place in the top spot.

We’ve had a brutal wave of ice for the past two days, but in the last month we’ve seen 70-degree temperatures, snow storms, and two separate, deadly tornado outbreaks — in January! In fact, there was one day last month that it dropped from a comfortable 64 degrees to 16 degrees in less than two hours. No joke. That’s a 48 degree drop!

For more wild weather cities in America, check out this article.

Why does Allegiant Air need two hours of my life?

Today I’m flying to Las Vegas out of our small, national airport in Springfield, Missouri on low-fair airline Allegiant Air.

Allegiant, like most other budget airlines, charges extra for virtually everything beyond the ticket price, including (for two passengers) a $44 “seat selection fee,” and a $17 “convenience fee” for booking online. I feel convenienced already. Even with all the extra fees, the round trip tickets to Las Vegas are still very much affordable and on par with other carriers. But one thing that’s really got my goat is their check-in policy.

You see, Allegiant doesn’t offer the ability to check-in online. (Tell me, what’s my “convenience fee” going towards again?) Further, the confirmation email they sent says one “must check in 2 hours prior to departure, [and] be in the gate area 30 minutes prior to departure to avoid forfeiting their reservation and all associated amenities.” This means that if I don’t show up at the airport two hours before departure, the $44 I spent guaranteeing my seat goes down the drain, and I may be bumped off the flight entirely.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Shouldn’t you be at the airport two hours before departing anyway?” In most airports, you would be correct. But, like I said earlier, Springfield’s airport (SGF) is tiny, and showing up anything more than 45 minutes before departure ensures that you’ll be doing a lot of standing around, or — in my case — drinking overpriced beers in the bar.

The airport’s minimal load means check-in and security lines are never long, and I can walk from one end of the solo concourse to the other in a few minutes. Plus, the airport’s policy says you can’t even pass security and enter the concourse until an hour before your departure. This means I’ll be spending at least an hour waiting in the check-in area, and then another hour in the concourse at my gate. So why make me show up two hours in advance?

Allegiant: get rid of this policy in smaller airports, or get with the times and offer online check-in. Hell, charge me for the ability to check-in online if necessary; I’d rather spend a few bucks for the privilege of showing up when I want rather than sitting around the airport for two hours.

Oh well, at least I’m going to Vegas!

The Simpsons Movie: Springfield Challenge

Since the exact location was never explicitly revealed in any episode of The Simpsons, fourteen Springfields across America are currently battling it out to decide which town should be the true home of Homer and family.

Each of the fourteen Springfields in the running — Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont — have created a video that showcases why they should be chosen, and each is now available on to watch.

The winning town will be awarded to the right to host the premiere of the movie before the U.S. release date of July 27th.

Log onto USAToday to watch the videos, and cast your vote for which town you think should win. If you have no particular interest in any of cities, cast your vote for Missouri, because…well, I live in Springfield, Missouri, and somebody has got to win, right?