General Braxton Bragg had sent a portion of his Confederate Army of Mississippi under Brigadier General James R. Chalmers to cut the railroad line north of Glasgow, Kentucky. Chalmers had received erroneous word that the Federal garrison at Munfordville was isolated and vulnerable to capture. Without orders, he led a cavalry detachment to take the town.
The Confederates arrived on September 14 and demanded surrender, but the garrison commander, Colonel John T. Wilder, refused. Chalmers then launched a frontal attack that was repelled. When Bragg learned of this, he condemned Chalmers’s “unauthorized and injudicious” assault. However, failing to support him would “throw a gloom upon the whole army,” so Bragg brought the rest of his force to Munfordville.
By the 15th, about 30,000 Confederates had assembled outside Munfordville to face just 4,000 Federals in the town. The Federals held defensive positions on the south bank of the Green River, protecting the railroad crossing over that waterway. They were led by Colonel Cyrus L. Dunham, who arrived the previous day with reinforcements and superseded Colonel Wilder.
Bragg readied his men for an all-out attack to overrun the garrison. But one of his division commanders, Major General Simon B. Buckner, was a native of this part of Kentucky, and he feared that such an assault might alienate or endanger friends and neighbors. Bragg held back and instead surrounded the garrison by moving Major General Leonidas Polk’s corps to the Federal rear and placing Major General William J. Hardee’s corps to the front.
Meanwhile, the second Confederate army operating in Kentucky, led by Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, reached Covington, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. After panicking the locals in that area, Smith pulled back the next day and began to return toward Lexington.
By the afternoon of the 16th, Bragg had the garrison surrounded. He sent his demand for surrender at 6 p.m., but the Federals were in the middle of a command change. Since the Confederates had failed to cut the telegraph wire, a cable arrived in Munfordville from Federal headquarters at Louisville removing Dunham from command and reinstating Wilder to lead the garrison.
Being a volunteer, Wilder was unfamiliar with military protocols and questioned Bragg’s claim of numerical superiority. He asked town residents for advice. The residents, knowing that Buckner was among the Confederates, told Wilder to consult with him because he was an honorable man. Wilder came across the lines under a flag of truce and asked to meet with Buckner to seek his advice as a gentleman. He was blindfolded and brought to Buckner’s headquarters.
Buckner agreed to meet with Wilder and, with a touch of unusual chivalry, gave Wilder a tour of the Confederate forces surrounding Munfordville so that Wilder could see for himself what he was up against. Wilder observed the large number of men and guns posted around the town, weighed his options, and finally concluded, “Well, it seems to me that I ought to surrender.”
A formal surrender ceremony took place on the 17th. The Confederates took 4,267 prisoners, 10 guns, 5,000 small arms, and, according to Bragg, “a proportionate quantity of ammunition, horses, mules, and military stores. My admiration of and love for my army cannot be expressed. To its patient toil and admirable discipline am I indebted for all the success which has attended this perilous undertaking.”
Wilder and his men were permitted to march out of Munfordville with full military honors. Bragg paroled the soldiers, but the officers (including Wilder) were held as prisoners of war until properly exchanged. Bragg reported to the Confederate adjutant general that his “junction with Kirby Smith is complete. (Federal Major General Don Carlos) Buell still at Bowling Green.”
This marked the high point of the Confederate incursion into Kentucky. E.K. Smith had advanced all the way to the Ohio River, and Bragg now held a point of “great natural strength.” Buell’s Federal Army of the Ohio had been unable to protect the garrison at Munfordville, and Bragg’s army now stood between Buell and the key city of Louisville. Over 50,000 Federal troops had been pulled out of Tennessee and Mississippi, and Brigadier General George W. Morgan’s Federals had been forced to abandon Cumberland Gap. The Confederates now seemed poised for a major conquest.
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