Kentucky: Buell Reaches Louisville

September 25, 1862 – Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Federal Army of the Ohio secured Louisville, but the Lincoln administration received several reports critical of Buell’s leadership.

Gen Don Carlos Buell | Image Credit:

When Buell learned that General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Mississippi had captured Munfordville, he believed Louisville would be the next Confederate target and resolved to get there first. Bragg’s army was currently between Buell and the second Confederate army in Kentucky under Major General Edmund Kirby Smith. But Buell had more men, and once he reached Louisville, he could prevent Bragg and Smith from joining forces.

After capturing Munfordville, Bragg was unsure what to do next. He considered returning to Tennessee to try regaining Nashville, but that would leave Smith isolated in Kentucky. He considered going to Louisville, but he needed more men to take the city. He therefore resolved to join forces with Smith and try recruiting Kentuckians to join their cause. After writing his wife that “We have made the most extraordinary campaign in military history,” Bragg issued a proclamation asking for recruits:

“Kentuckians, I have entered your State… to restore to you the liberties of which you have been deprived by a cruel and relentless foe… If you prefer Federal rule, show it by your frowns and we shall return whence we came. If you choose rather to come within the folds of our brotherhood, then cheer us with the smiles of your women and lend your willing hands to secure you in your heritage of liberty.”

However, few Kentuckians joined the Confederates. Many knew (though Bragg would not acknowledge it) that the Confederates lacked the strength and resources to ever fully convert Kentucky into a Confederate state. As such, they feared that if they joined Bragg’s army, they would face Federal reprisals when Bragg ultimately returned to Tennessee.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit:

Bragg contacted Smith at Lexington and asked him to bring his 9,000 Confederates and all their supplies to Bardstown and join with Bragg’s 30,000-man army. Bragg explained that they needed to join forces because “this campaign must be won by marching, not fighting.” Bragg’s men began moving out of Munfordville on the 20th; the Federals reoccupied the town the next day.

Smith resisted Bragg’s call to join him at Bardstown. He saw Buell’s Federals as an impediment to recruitment efforts, and he responded that he considered “the defeat of Buell before he effects a junction with the force (of volunteers) at Louisville as a military necessity, for Buell’s army has always been the great bugbear to these people, and until (it is) defeated we cannot hope for much addition to our ranks.”

Buell, expecting Confederate opposition on the way to Louisville, was surprised to learn that Bragg was going to Bardstown, which was northeast of Munfordville and away from the Federals’ line of march. Even so, Louisville officials expected a showdown at their city, and they frantically evacuated women and children across the Ohio River. The Federal volunteers at Louisville under Major General William “Bull” Nelson dug trenches and awaited the enemy’s approach.

Many Federal officials were unhappy with Buell’s seemingly casual approach to the Confederate threat in Kentucky, and President Abraham Lincoln reviewed many reports questioning Buell’s abilities. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s appointed military governor of Tennessee, accused Buell of using the army as his personal bodyguard, and Republican Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan stated that the troops hated Buell. An editorial in the Indianapolis Daily Journal boldly asserted that Buell “richly deserves to be shot” for allowing the Confederates to slip past him and wreak havoc in Kentucky.

Buell may have reminded Lincoln too much of Major General George B. McClellan, who was also slow to confront the enemy. Finally losing patience, the president directed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to replace him with Major General George H. Thomas. But just after Halleck issued the order, Nelson notified him that Buell’s forward units were now joining with the volunteers outside Louisville: “Louisville is now safe. We can destroy Bragg with whatever force he may bring against us. God and liberty.”

Thomas asked Halleck to revoke the order, explaining, “General Buell’s preparations have been completed to move against the enemy, and I therefore respectfully ask that he may be retained in command. My position is very embarrassing.” Buell prepared to turn over command but received a message stating that Lincoln had “suspended” the order. Buell, now aware of the administration’s extreme dissatisfaction with him, responded, “Out of sense of public duty I shall continue to discharge the duties of my command to the best of my ability until otherwise ordered.”

Buell entered the city on the 25th, where Halleck confirmed that he would be the ranking commander over Major General Horatio G. Wright, the commander of the Department of the Ohio. The troops were met by jubilant residents who celebrated their arrival with brass bands and banners. They also provided the troops with cakes, pies, and other assorted dishes. Several thousand Federals left their posts and camps to take advantage of the city’s nightlife and other morally questionable amenities.

Neither Bragg nor Smith made any move to stop Buell from passing them and getting to the Ohio River. Bragg complained that his men were exhausted from “the long, arduous, and exhausting march” over Muldraugh’s Hill to Bardstown. He wrote his superiors at Richmond:

“It is a source of deep regret that this move was necessary, as it has enabled Buell to reach Louisville, where a very large force is now concentrated. I regret to say we are sadly disappointed at the want of action by our friends in Kentucky. We have so far received no accession to this army. General Smith has secured about a brigade–not half our losses by casualties of different kinds. We have 15,000 stand of arms and no one to use them. Unless a change occurs soon we must abandon the garden spot of Kentucky to its cupidity. The love of ease and fear of pecuniary loss are the fruitful sources of this evil.”

Suddenly, Bragg now considered “the most extraordinary campaign in military history” to be a disaster. He wrote, “Enthusiasm runs high but exhausts itself in words… The people here have too many fat cattle and are too well off to fight…”

Bragg hoped to inspire Kentuckians to join the cause by arranging a formal inauguration of a pro-Confederate governor. He met with Provisional Lieutenant Governor Richard Hawes, who had replaced Governor George W. Johnson after Johnson was killed at the Battle of Shiloh. Bragg wrote Major General Leonidas Polk, “The country and the people grow better as we get into the one and arouse the other.”


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18157; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 217-18; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 660-61, 711-13, 715; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 213-15; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 268, 270-71; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 517-18; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 504-05; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 517-18, 576-77; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 37, 54; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 414-15

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