General Braxton Bragg led his Confederate Army of Mississippi north from Chattanooga in hopes of drawing Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Federal Army of the Ohio out of northern Alabama in pursuit. It worked, as Buell headed to Nashville in the belief that Bragg was targeting that city. When Buell learned otherwise, he left three divisions to guard Nashville under Major General George H. Thomas and took the rest of his army toward Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Major General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Confederate Army of Kentucky continued operating in the Lexington area, awaiting Bragg’s arrival in the state. Smith and Bragg had successfully diverted Federal attention from the Deep South to Kentucky. However, they also sparked a mass outpouring of men in Ohio and Indiana volunteering to stop the Confederate advance.
Bragg received word of the Federal advance on Bowling Green and veered east to enter Kentucky via Glasgow. This eastward shift caused the Lincoln administration to fear that Bragg might continue east and join forces with General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in Maryland. President Abraham Lincoln telegraphed Brigadier General Jeremiah Boyle, commanding Federals at Louisville, “Where is General Bragg?”
Lincoln then wired Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding the Federal Department of the Ohio at Cincinnati, “Do you know to any certainty where General Bragg is? May he not be in Virginia?” Lincoln also asked Buell, “What degree of certainty have you that Bragg with his command is not now in the valley of the Shenandoah, Virginia?” Buell responded on the 10th:
“Bragg is certainly this side of the Cumberland Mountains with his whole force, except what is in Kentucky under Smith. His movements will probably depend on mine. I expect that for the want of supplies I can neither follow him nor remain here. Think I must withdraw from Tennessee. I shall not abandon Tennessee while it is possible to hold on. Cut off effectually from supplies, it is impossible for me to operate in force where I am; but I shall endeavor to hold Nashville, and at the same time drive Smith out of Kentucky and hold my communications.”
Meanwhile, the volunteers being organized in Ohio and Indiana began gathering across the Ohio River from Kentucky. About 20,000 men arrived at Cincinnati, and Ohio Governor David Tod notified Wright that more “will pour in upon you by the thousands.” The Federals received information that E.K. Smith had about 30,000 Confederates in Kentucky, and although Smith only had about 9,000, Tod assured Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I shall send him (Wright) to-day and to-morrow at least 50,000.”
From Richmond, President Jefferson Davis sent messages to Generals Lee, Bragg, and Smith asking them to clearly explain to the people of Maryland and Kentucky that “the Confederate Government is waging this war solely for self-defence, that it has no design of conquest or any other purpose than to secure peace and the abandonment by the United States of its pretensions to govern a people who have never been their subjects and who prefer self-government to a Union with them.”
As Smith’s Confederates advanced to within about 60 miles of Cincinnati, Bragg’s army reached Glasgow, between Smith and Buell’s Federals. Bragg issued a proclamation in compliance with Davis’s request:
“Kentuckians, I have entered your State with the Confederate Army of the West, and offer you an opportunity to free yourselves from the tyranny of a despotic ruler. We come not as conquerors or as despoilers, but to restore to you the liberties of which you have been deprived by a cruel and relentless foe… Kentuckians, we have come with joyous hopes… 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.”
By mid-September, Bragg was closing in on the key Kentucky city of Louisville. He was ahead of Buell, but Buell’s Federals held the vital Louisville & Nashville Railroad. Fearing that Bragg would target Louisville next, Lincoln asked city officials, “Where is the enemy which you dread in Louisville? How near to you?” But before Bragg moved toward Louisville, he sent a detachment of infantry under Brigadier General James R. Chalmers and cavalry under Colonel John S. Scott (detached from Smith’s army) to cut the Louisville & Nashville line at Cave City, 10 miles north.
The Confederates cut the railroad as ordered, then exceeded orders by continuing north to the town of Munfordville, where the Louisville & Nashville crossed a bridge over the Green River. Munfordville was garrisoned by three Indiana regiments and four cannon under Colonel John T. Wilder. Scott reached Munfordville first and issued a surrender demand at 8 p.m. on September 13. Wilder refused. Chalmers’s infantry came up shortly after.
The next day, Chalmers issued another demand to surrender. Wilder replied, “We’ll try fighting for awhile.” Chalmers attacked with five regiments and Scott’s artillery, but the Federals soundly repelled them, inflicting 283 casualties (35 killed and 248 wounded) while sustaining just 37 losses. Chalmers contacted Wilder at 9:30 a.m., asserting that the Federals could not escape and must surrender. Again Wilder refused.
Meanwhile, seven Indiana companies from Louisville slipped into Munfordville to give Wilder about 4,000 total effectives. Bragg, still at Glasgow with the bulk of his army, brought wagon loads of rifles to distribute to the thousands of Kentuckians that he expected would flock to his ranks. But very few volunteered to join him. Worse, Buell was now threatening Bragg’s western flank from Bowling Green, 35 miles away.
Buell had 56,000 men and estimated the size of Bragg’s force to be 60,000. Bragg probably had less than 30,000. Being so outnumbered, Bragg therefore resolved to lead his Confederates north to avoid clashing with Buell and help capture Munfordville as soon as possible.
- Cozzens, Peter, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1990.
- Cozzens, Peter, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (Kindle Edition), 1994.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.