Battle Looms in Kentucky

October 7, 1862 – Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Federal Army of the Ohio moved toward Perryville after Buell had deceived Confederate General Braxton Bragg into thinking they were headed for Frankfort.

Gen Don Carlos Buell | Image Credit:

Buell led nearly 70,000 Federals out of Louisville on the 1st to confront Bragg. They marched in four columns:

  • Major General Alexander M. McCook led I Corps on the left
  • Major General Thomas L. Crittenden led II Corps in the center, accompanied by Major General George H. Thomas, Buell’s second-in-command
  • Brigadier General Charles Gilbert led III Corps on the right
  • Brigadier General Ebenezer Dumont’s division was detached

The first three columns were to advance on Bardstown and Harrodsburg, southwest of Frankfort. Dumont was to move east and feint against the Confederates at Frankfort. The march proved especially grueling because of unseasonably hot weather and a drought that had depleted the army’s water supply.

Meanwhile, Bragg left his main army at Bardstown under Major General Leonidas Polk while he helped arrange the formal inauguration of pro-Confederate Governor Richard Hawes at Frankfort. Hawes had become provisional governor after the death of the sitting governor at Shiloh, but he had never been formally inaugurated. Furthermore, the Kentucky legislature was decidedly pro-Union, thus putting the state in a political stalemate.

But Bragg needed tens of thousands of Kentucky recruits to offset the Federal volunteers gathering on both sides of the Ohio River, and he hoped that installing a Confederate governor would inspire Kentuckians to join the cause. Or, at the very least, Hawes could impose a military draft forcing men into the ranks.

A main reason why Kentuckians resisted joining Bragg’s army was the fear that Federal occupation forces would exact revenge on them after Bragg left the state. Bragg informed Polk, “Enthusiasm is unbounded, but recruiting at a discount. Even the women are giving reasons why individuals cannot go.”

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit:

The next day, Bragg received intelligence that Buell’s forward units had occupied Shelbyville and pushed the Confederates in that area, under General Patrick Cleburne, back toward Frankfort. Bragg had expected Buell to advance on Frankfort, but not this quickly. Bragg was also unaware that this was just Buell’s feint, led by Dumont.

Bragg reacted just as Buell hoped by asking Major General Edmund Kirby Smith to bring his 9,000 Confederates from Lexington to Frankfort to help guard Hawes’s inauguration. Bragg also contacted Polk: “The enemy is certainly advancing on Frankfort. Put your whole available force in motion… and strike him in flank and rear. If we can combine our movements he is certainly lost.”

But when Polk saw that the main Federal army was heading his way, he explained to Bragg, “The last twenty-four hours have developed a condition of things on my front and left flank which I shadowed forth in my last note to you, which makes compliance with this order not only eminently inexpedient but impracticable.” Polk told Bragg that he would fall back to the Confederate supply depot at Bryantsville instead.

Bragg responded, “Concentrate your force in front of Harrodsburg… Smith’s whole force is concentrating here and we will strike the enemy just as soon as we can concentrate.” Then, leaving the military movements to Polk, Bragg joined E.K. Smith in attending Hawes’s extravagant inauguration on the 4th.

Just after Hawes delivered his inaugural address, guns could be heard in the distance and news arrived that Buell’s Federals were approaching. The post-inauguration festivities were canceled, and the new governor fled town; his administration ended before it even began. Bragg hurried to rejoin Polk, who was evacuating Bardstown.

Bragg joined the army the next day as it reached Harrodsburg. A division under Major General William J. Hardee was at Perryville, southwest of Harrodsburg. Hardee told Polk that he could not link with the rest of the army due to the “hilly, rocky and slippery” terrain in the area. He asked to move the army to Danville, where the ground was better, but Bragg once again ordered his army to concentrate at Harrodsburg, with Hardee forming the rear guard.

Meanwhile, Smith’s Confederates moved south out of Frankfort toward Versailles, where Bragg expected the main Federal attack to take place. He sent a division to reinforce Smith there, unaware that the main Federal thrust was toward Hardee. For the Federals, straggling increased as the troops continued suffering from a lack of water and intense heat.

On the 6th, Hardee reported skirmishing in his front, west of Perryville, and worried that the Federals might flank him if he moved north toward Harrodsburg. Polk directed Hardee to “force the enemy to reveal his strength.” Bragg grudgingly agreed to send a division under Brigadier General James P. Anderson south to reinforce Hardee, who placed his men on the hills north and west of Perryville.

Sending Polk along with Anderson, Bragg ordered them to “give the enemy battle immediately; rout him, and then move to our support of Versailles.” Confusion among orders put Bragg’s cavalry at Danville, 15 miles east of Perryville, too far to conduct enemy reconnaissance.

The Federals continued their slow advance in the unusual autumn heat. Buell ordered his three columns to converge on Doctor’s Fork, a tributary of the Chaplin River, less than two miles northwest of Perryville. It was reported that the thirsty troops could find water there.

By the 7th, about 55,000 Federals were closing in on 16,000 Confederates at Perryville via three separate roads. Gilbert’s corps arrived at Perryville around dusk, having engaged in heavy skirmishing with the Confederates over control of the local watering holes. The Federals were unaware that Hardee had been reinforced by Polk and Anderson.

Meanwhile, the other 23,000 Confederates remained at Versailles to take on what they believed to be the main Federal attack. But only 12,000 Federals were approaching them.



Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 213;; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 223; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 352; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 713, 716, 726-27, 729; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 216-19; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 274-76; 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. 518-19; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 505; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 576-77; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 54-55, 57-61; 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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