On October 1, Major General Don Carlos Buell led his 70,000-man Federal Army of the Ohio out of Louisville, Kentucky, to confront General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Mississippi. Buell had deceived Bragg into thinking the Federals were heading for Frankfort, and now Buell advanced his army in four columns:
- Major General Alexander M. McCook led the First Corps on the left
- Major General Thomas L. Crittenden led the Second Corps in the center, accompanied by Major General George H. Thomas, Buell’s second-in-command
- Brigadier General Charles Gilbert led the Third Corps on the right
- Brigadier General Joshua W. Sill’s command of 20,000 men was detached
The first three columns were to advance on Bardstown and Harrodsburg, southwest of Frankfort. Sill was to move east and feint against the Confederates at Frankfort in an effort to prevent the armies of Bragg and Major General Edmund Kirby Smith from joining forces. The Federal 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 to arrange the formal inauguration of Governor Richard Hawes at Frankfort. Hawes had become the provisional governor after the death of the sitting governor at Shiloh, but he had never been formally inaugurated. Hawes’s Confederate sympathies clashed with the decidedly Unionist legislature, which politically stalemated Kentucky.
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 to force men into the Confederate ranks. Most Kentuckians resisted joining Bragg’s army because they feared that the Federal occupation forces would exact revenge on them or their families after Bragg left the state. Bragg told Polk, “Enthusiasm is unbounded, but recruiting at a discount. Even the women are giving reasons why individuals cannot go.”
On the 2nd, Bragg received intelligence that Buell’s forward units had occupied Shelbyville and pushed the Confederates there under Brigadier 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. Bragg reacted just as Buell hoped by asking E.K. 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 replied, “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.”
Bragg then left the military movements to Polk and joined 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 to suffer from intense heat and a lack of water.
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 unseasonable 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. Troops of Gilbert’s Third 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 headed toward them.
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