When General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Mississippi captured Munfordville, Kentucky, on September 17, it validated the belief of Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio, that Bragg’s ultimate target was Louisville. The city served as Federal headquarters in Kentucky, and as such, Buell 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.
Unbeknownst to Buell, Bragg was not certain about moving on Louisville because he would need more men to take that heavily fortified city. He stayed around the Munfordville area for a few days while planning his next move. He considered returning to Tennessee to try regaining Nashville, but that would leave Smith isolated in Kentucky. He therefore resolved to join forces with Smith and try to recruit Kentuckians to their cause. After writing his wife that “We have made the most extraordinary campaign in military history,” Bragg issued a proclamation:
“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 up. Many knew (though Bragg would not acknowledge it) that the Confederates lacked the strength and resources to ever maintain a permanent army in Kentucky, which would be needed to keep the Federals out. As such, they feared that Bragg and Smith would eventually head back down south, leaving them to face Federal reprisals for having joined with the Confederates.
Bragg contacted Smith at Lexington and asked him to bring his 9,000 Confederates and all their supplies to Bardstown, northeast of Munfordville, to 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 officers protested the move, but Bragg argued that Buell’s army was being heavily reinforced, even though Buell only had one division nearby.
Nevertheless, Bragg’s Confederates headed out of Munfordville on the 20th, and Federals regained the town the next day. Buell had expected Confederate opposition on his way to Louisville, so he was surprised to learn that Bragg was heading northeast, giving the Federals a clear path to the key city. Even so, Louisville officials expected a showdown, and they frantically shipped women and children across the Ohio River. The Federal volunteers at Louisville under Major General William “Bull” Nelson dug trenches, built fortifications, and awaited the enemy’s approach.
Bragg arrived at Bardstown on the 24th, but Smith was not there. Smith had been “astonished and disappointed” with Bragg’s decision to not confront Buell, and he left Bragg a message expressing his view of “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.”
The people of Bardstown cheered the Confederates as they entered, but because Smith had opted not to join him, Bragg now suddenly 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…” When called to a hotel balcony to address the crowd outside, Bragg announced that he had come to Kentucky to help the state “express her southern preference without fear of northern bayonets.” If the people accepted his help, he would give it, but if they “decline the offer of liberty,” he would lead his army back south.
Complaining that his men were exhausted from “the long, arduous, and exhausting march” over Muldraugh’s Hill to Bardstown, Bragg reported to the War Department 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.”
Bragg now 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.”
Meanwhile, Federal officials were unhappy with Buell’s seemingly casual approach to the Confederate threat in Kentucky, and President Abraham Lincoln received 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 Buell with one of his division commanders, 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 Louisville 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.
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