It had been almost one month since Confederate General Braxton Bragg had pulled off an organizational masterpiece–four weeks since the first troop trains had rumbled into Chattanooga, Tennessee, completing an improbable 800-mile odyssey. Bragg had engineered one of the most innovative strategic strokes of the Civil War. An entire Confederate Army had been lifted from in front of nearby Union forces, transported on the rickety Southern railways, and deposited on the enemy’s vulnerable flank.
Bragg now had the Northern Army of the Ohio, along with its commander, Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, sitting frozen in the middle of Tennessee, with no conception of what the Rebels planned to do next. Having gained the advantage of complete surprise, Bragg then proceeded to throw it away.
For 30 days of good Tennessee summer, the Confederates had remained almost immobile–30 days of the campaign season gone. Instead of moving fast, Bragg had squandered the time putting the finishing touches on his army’s organization, pulling in supplies, getting cannons shined to gleaming perfection. In the meantime, General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding another Confederate army in eastern Tennessee, sorted out his own personal brainchild, an audacious invasion of Kentucky.
Ignoring Bragg’s desire to unite their two forces and strike Buell’s army, thus liberating the Tennessee capital of Nashville, Smith formulated his own plan. Masking the Union troops in the Cumberland Gap with 9,000 men, he took the remainder of his force, 6,000 bayonets, around the baffled Northern forces. The Confederates passed into Kentucky through Roger’s Gap, found the aptly named ‘Barrens’ area unable to supply proper provisions, and struck out for the fabled bluegrass region.
On August 30, 1862, they met and destroyed a grass-green Union army of 7,000 men, the only organized troops then in Kentucky, at Richmond, capturing 4,300 of them and opening the door for Smith to move anywhere he desired.
On the other side of the fence, Buell was quite aware of the dire consequences if Smith and Bragg managed to unite behind him and sever his lifeline with the North. Never one to move forward precipitately, Buell now managed to hustle to the rear quite well. The Army of the Ohio moved back to Nashville, scooping up Union detachments all the way.
Bragg was now in a dilemma. His indecision had allowed his original plan to fall into ruins. There was no way he could attack the Union entrenchments at Nashville with his inferior numbers, nor could he increase the size of his army unless he united with Smith. But, much to his annoyance, Smith had gone off on a cross-country joyride through Kentucky.
At this point, an intelligent man would have realized that Smith had already made his decision for him. Bragg was being dragged north whether he wanted to go or not. His only choice was to join his fellow Confederate in Kentucky. A rapid thrust might yet dislodge Buell by threatening his rail line to Louisville, the chief source of his men and supplies. Reluctantly, Bragg gave the order to march.
Bragg’s Confederates and Buell’s Unionists now began a race northward. They marched on roughly parallel courses, the Rebels aiming for Glasgow, the Yankees for Bowling Green. Bragg had the advantage over his opponent in this race–Buell had to be wary that this wasn’t a trick to lure him out of Nashville while the Rebel army doubled back to take the city. Consequently, Bragg reached his objective on September 12, two days ahead of Buell.
At Glasgow, Bragg issued a proclamation to the people of Kentucky, offering to free them from ‘the tyranny of a despotic ruler’ and to ‘restore…the liberties of which you have been deprived by a cruel and relentless foe.’ It was a rather flamboyant appeal, but it fell on deaf ears. Perhaps, as Smith noted, ‘Their hearts are evidently with us, but their bluegrass and fat cattle are against us.’
In fact, the people of Kentucky seemed to have a very curious set of attitudes. Although many of them openly applauded Southern victories and were not averse to waving the Stars and Bars, they did not seem to have any really deep convictions about ultimate Southern victory. If Bragg came to Kentucky expecting to be welcomed with open arms and showered with recruits, he was to be sadly disappointed.
Still, Bragg had outmarched Buell and had the chance to bring him to battle, or else get across his lines of communications with Louisville. Circumstances were quick to erase this advantage. When Buell arrived at Bowling Green, he threw his men into the same entrenchments the Confederates had dug the year before. Unwilling to attack what he felt was a strong position, Bragg looked to continue moving north of Buell, staying between him and Louisville.
While Bragg was pondering his options, a small advance body of troops had been scavenging in the area of Munfordville. Running across what they thought was only a small detachment of Union soldiers, the Confederates attacked and were repulsed with humiliating loss. The action was not critically important, but Bragg was unnerved to find that his army had suffered any kind of reverse. Coupled with the fact that Munfordville lay near the intersection of the Green River and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, Bragg began sending the whole Southern army in the direction of the tiny hamlet.
By the 15th of September, most of Bragg’s army was in front of Munfordville. Upon his arrival, Bragg saw that this was not a small unit, but some 4,000 men behind well-built defenses. Rather than making an immediate frontal assault, he continued to bring up more units until, by the next day, he had the entire position surrounded.
Had Bragg struck immediately, he might well have put Buell in a very awkward position and forced him to fight on ground favorable to the Confederates. Instead, he allowed himself to be talked into an extremely foolish compromise by one of his subordinates, Maj. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner. It seemed that Munfordville was Buckner’s home town–he was loath to see it bombarded. Buckner suggested that he be allowed to parley with the garrison and convince them of the hopelessness of their position. Bragg grudgingly acquiesced.
The Union commander at Munfordville, Colonel John T. Wilder, had no military experience, but the successful Indiana industrialist knew how to make deal. Coming to the Confederate camp, he asked Buckner for a tour of the attacking forces, counted the cannons he was up against, and decided to surrender. Even then, Wilder continued to haggle over the exact details of the surrender and, after everything was settled, turned up several hours late for the ceremony. All told, Wilder and his 4,000 men managed to stop the advance of the whole Rebel army for three days.
Having already wasted so much time, Bragg made matters worse by ordering a day of thanksgiving set aside for the army to celebrate its victory. It was a classic fault of Bragg’s generalship–thinking his opponent would obligingly sit still for him. Instead, while Bragg was celebrating his victory, Buell was marching hard to get around Munfordville and put his forces between the Rebels and Louisville.
While Bragg was diddling away his opportunities around Munfordville, the other two prongs of the Confederate attack were not doing well, either. After his initial smashing entry into Kentucky, Smith seemed to lose his grip on exactly what he intended to accomplish. He had driven into the Lexington area and his cavalry had raided as far north as the Ohio River, but then, unaccountably, he lost his vigor.
Instead of keeping his force together as a solid group and marching toward Louisville or Cincinnati, or else reuniting with Bragg’s army, Smith began to disperse in an attempt to occupy as much territory as possible. If it was an attempt to drum up support for the Confederate invasion, it was a failure. The people of Kentucky were not trying to break their shackles–they were self-imposed.
On the other end of the front, Bragg had intended that Maj. Gen. Sterling Price advance into western Tennessee as Buell evacuated his positions. Fellow Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn had been tasked with keeping the other Union forces in the area, under Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, off Price’s back. Grant had other ideas, however. Taking advantage of the disunity rampant among Confederate commanders, he managed to insert his force between the two Rebel armies. On September 19, Grant hit Price at Iuka, Miss. Grant had planned to execute a turning movement around Price, but the flanking force under Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans did not arrive in time.
The Southerners managed to hold open their line of retreat with repeated attacks. The Rebels lost 1,500 men to half that for Grant, but were able to extricate and unite their forces. Grant had failed to eliminate Price, but he had caught the Rebel’s attention. For the time being, Nashville was safe; no reinforcements were going to Bragg.
With an attack on Nashville neutralized for the moment, Bragg had some hard choices to make. One course of action was to attack the Union Army at Bowling Green. Bragg, however, decided that this would not be feasible, despite the fact that he had captured some important Federal mail that indicated Buell’s army was ‘greatly demoralized, disheartened and deceived; utterly in the dark as to our movements.’
Instead, Bragg became preoccupied with the lack of supplies his men were able to forage in that part of Kentucky. There had been a horrible drought, and foodstuffs were hard to find. Bragg decided to bring his army north to Bardstown. Such a move would hopefully allow him more supplies, give him the chance to unite with Smith’s forces, and leave him the option of hitting either Louisville or Buell’s hard-pressed army.
On September 22, the city of Louisville heard about the imminent approach of Bragg’s soldiers and went into a panic. Major General William ‘Bull’ Nelson, who had lost at Richmond three weeks before, was in command of the city and issued orders that all women and children were to leave at once. He quickly followed this with an announcement that the Jeffersonville Ferry, the only way of getting to Indiana, was to be reserved for military purposes. Within an hour, he had a first-class panic on his hands. The streets were filled with terror-stricken civilians.
The citizens of Louisville need not have worried. Already, Bragg had decided that the city was too tough a nut to crack with Buell’s army still loose. The lack of supplies was still proving an acute problem. As Bragg later noted: ‘We were therefore compelled to give up the object (Louisville) and seek for subsistence.’ Subsistence meant moving east toward a rendezvous with Smith in the bluegrass.
With Bragg moving east, Buell reoccupied Munfordville and drove his men hard for the Ohio. At noon on September 25, the day Nelson had predicted the Rebels would arrive, the head of Buell’s column came into view. The rest of the army was strung out for more than 10 miles along the road. Still, experienced observers noted with alarm the poor condition of the troops.
Buell’s occupation of Louisville doomed any chance Bragg might have had of seizing the Ohio River cities, but even so, Buell and his men were given little time to rest. As far as the administration in Washington was concerned, Buell had done no more than allow large portions of Tennessee and Kentucky to fall back under Rebel control. So angry was Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, Abraham Lincoln’s chief military adviser, that he transmitted a message summarily relieving Buell of command and ordering him to hand over the Army of the Ohio to Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas.
Although Halleck quickly relented and tried to stop the message, it was too late. The only thing that saved Buell was the modesty and loyalty of Thomas. He at once informed Buell that he had no intention of taking over command and would wire his decision to Washington at once. Lincoln accepted Thomas’ flimsy excuses for the time being, but the return message was crystal clear. The tenure of Buell’s command would continue only so long as he was marching against, and attacking, the Rebels. Should he not be able to follow through aggressively, someone else would get the job.
At this point Bragg, too, was beset with political problems. Kentucky was showing no enthusiasm for the Southern cause. Bragg was thus seduced by the specious arguments of a few prominent Kentuckians who were accompanying his army. Their reasoning was that the sons of Kentucky were not coming forward because they feared the harsh Union reprisals against their land and families, should Bragg leave. However, if Bragg were to install a legitimate government at Frankfort, a conscription act could be passed. Once this had been done, Bragg would be flooded with volunteers.
The fact that Bragg could believe such an argument after spending a month in the state observing the reluctant-to-fight citizens of Kentucky revealed a great lack of judgment on his part. However, the South did attach great importance to securing the legitimacy of shadow governments in border states such as Missouri and Kentucky. Bragg obligingly began to make preparations to have Richard Hawes sworn in as the new Confederate governor at Frankfort.
Meanwhile, on October 1, Buell and his 60,000 soldiers pushed out of Louisville in order to bring the Confederate forces in Kentucky to battle and destroy them. The Union host was divided into four great columns. Three of these were bearing down on the Confederate positions at Bardstown. The other, carrying out a feint, was headed toward Frankfort.
As the Union forces launched their operation, the Confederates were in no position to meet the threats. Bragg was away from the army attending to last-minute details of the inauguration, and the available Southern forces were spread along a 50-mile front from Bardstown to Frankfort. Holding the northern anchor at Frankfort were the troops of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, recently returned to the army after suffering a wound to the face at Richmond. On October 2, a strong Federal force hit his positions and drove him back.
The skillfully managed feint convinced Bragg that this was the direction of the main Federal advance, and he decided to concentrate the army. Requests were sent out for Smith to bring the 10,000 men under his command to Lexington. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s forces at Bardstown were to march north.
It was rare to find ‘Bishop’ Polk in the right, militarily, but on the morning of October 2, he was in a much better position to observe the Federal intentions than Bragg. His cavalry pickets told him that all three roads leading into Bardstown were jammed with Federal troops. True to his disputatious nature, Polk decided to disobey Bragg’s orders and retreat to a Confederate supply dump at Harrodsburg.
By October 3, Bragg should have been aware that strong Union forces were pushing against his scattered troops from both north and west. Instead, he continued to devote his energies to preparing for the sham inauguration. On October 4, Hawes was duly sworn in. The audience for his acceptance speech consisted mostly of officers from the Southern army. In the midst of it, Federal guns could be heard pounding Rebel positions west of the city. Hawes quickly wrapped up his speech, and he and his audience evaporated. The Confederate administration of Kentucky had lasted exactly four hours. Bragg abandoned Frankfort and rode south to join Polk.
The next day, Bragg decided on a plan for bringing together the dispersed elements of his command. Still convinced that the main Union thrust was to be made toward Frankfort, he ordered Smith, Polk and Maj. Gen. William Hardee to concentrate at Harrodsburg. There, he would fight the great battle for Kentucky.
Sending the orders, though, was easier than carrying them out. Hardee, especially, was having trouble with the hilly, rocky and slippery terrain. In addition, there was an overwhelming lack of water due to the summer drought. Bragg changed his marching orders to take into account the problems Hardee was having. He ordered him to fall in behind Polk. This would cost Hardee an extra day on the March to Harrodsburg, but it would give the troops an easier approach.
Because of Bragg’s misconceptions about the whereabouts of the Union Army, he had not given Hardee a respite, but instead had put him directly in front of the Federal advance. As a result, Hardee’s men were being heavily pressed by advancing Yankees all day. Polk then sent Hardee supplementary orders. He was to leave his rear division of some 7,000 men under Buckner at Perryville. Buckner’s men were to halt in order to ‘force the enemy to reveal his strength.’
As the Confederates placed themselves around the tiny hamlet of Perryville, the lack of water became an issue of major concern. The Rebels soon discovered that just west of their position was Doctor’s Creek. Pools of precious water lay in the creek bed. The creek itself was bounded by two ridges, one to the east and one to the west. During the afternoon, some Arkansas regiments pushed their positions out to the eastern ridge to be within range of the water. Just beyond the western ridge, they could hear shots being fired. It was Colonel Joseph Wheeler and his cavalry troopers skirmishing with their Federal counterparts.
As Wheeler’s cavalry fell back, they informed Hardee that the Federals were approaching in great strength. Although nobody as yet had any idea that the entire Army of the Ohio was approaching, Hardee felt threatened enough to call on Bragg for reinforcements. In response to Hardee’s request, Bragg split his forces again. Polk was ordered to take the division of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Cheatham back to Perryville to help Hardee. The rest of the army continued to march toward Versailles, 20 miles away from the real threat.
Buell, for his part, was just as confused as Bragg. Convinced that the entire Rebel army was at Perryville, he was pushing every unit he had as quickly as possible in that direction. At the same time, Buell was having his own personal problems. A recent fall from a horse had caused a terrible gash on his leg. He was now confined to an ambulance.
Despite this setback, Buell was pushing on. The entire Union Army was approaching Perryville from three directions. In the center of the Union line was the III Corps under Maj. Gen. Charles Gilbert. To the north of Gilbert, eight miles behind, was the I Corps under Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook. To the south, about 10 miles behind, was the II Corps under Maj. Gen. Thomas Crittenden.
Union and Confederate forces first made contact on the afternoon of October 7. The Union scored the first victory, driving in Wheeler’s cavalry. The pursuing bluecoats raced to the banks of Doctor’s Creek, but were driven back by heavy fire from the veteran Arkansans on the far ridge.
At 11 o’clock that night, advance elements of Gilbert’s corps finally reached the creek. They, too, launched an assault to secure much needed water, but were driven back by the Confederates.
Buell, who was traveling with Gilbert, heard about the repulse and ordered another attack launched at 2 a.m., after more of Gilbert’s corps was on the field.
The moonlit assault fell under the responsibility of Phil Sheridan, a newly minted brigadier general eager to show off his stars. Sheridan’s troops crossed the western ridge, passed over the water course, and stormed into the Confederate positions. Desperate hand-to-hand fighting took place, and eventually the Confederates were driven off. Sheridan wanted to continue to fight, but was halted at the ridge. He was in an advanced and exposed position, and Gilbert wanted more troops in place before he made a further push.
During the night, both sides continued to march troops into the Perryville area. Polk had arrived with Cheatham’s division and new orders to attack the Federals. As they began to make ready for the assault, both Polk and Hardee sensed that something was amiss. What they sensed, but did not yet understand, was that they were on the field with a mere 16,000 men opposed to Buell’s 60,000. Meanwhile, Bragg was at Versailles with 36,000 veteran troops, preparing to hold off a single Federal division of 12,000 men. Sheridan’s predawn assault had done much to unnerve the Confederate commanders. Polk was now getting ready to fight a defensive battle in the morning, while Hardee was sending Bragg messages urging him to pull the army together: ‘Don’t scatter your forces.’
Impatient at the latest turns of events, Bragg decided to ride back and take personal command–a remarkable decision when one remembers that he thought the main Federal army was somewhere else. Bragg arrived at Perryville at 10 a.m. on October 8 and immediately began making preparations to attack. At the time, he was aware only of McCook’s and portions of Gilbert’s corps on the battlefield.
Bragg’s plan was simple. He gave Polk the left wing and Hardee the right. After a brief cannonade, Polk was to attack the Union left flank. Once this assault was under way, Hardee was to join in. Joe Wheeler’s exhausted cavalry was sent down the Lebanon Pike to scout that area. Bragg thus remained unaware that an entire Union corps was on the road and capable of driving into Perryville itself, thus bringing destruction down on the smaller Rebel army.
Polk and Hardee had been correct in their assumption that Buell was preparing to attack. Fortunately for the Confederates, things did not go as the lame Union commander planned. Buell’s headquarters had sent out instructions to both McCook and Crittenden to be out of bivouac by 3 a.m. and in position to launch an attack by 10 a.m. The messages were unaccountably delayed, and neither general was ready at the proper time. When, at midmorning, Buell heard no sounds of engagement, he simply assumed that the Rebels had slipped away and that he would have to wait another day for his battle.
Then, promptly at noon, Confederate batteries opened on the Union positions. For an hour and a half, the Rebel guns played along Union lines. There was a tremendous amount of noise and great clouds of dust from the dry fields, but the shelling did not do much to disrupt the Union troops. A reporter from the Cincinnati Gazette noted: ‘Their missiles struck everywhere except where they intended them to strike, and it actually seemed that the safest points which could be selected for a circuit of two or three miles were in the very midst of their batteries.’
The shelling lasted longer than planned because Polk had delayed the attack. Seeing a column of Union soldiers moving down the Mackville Pike, Polk feared his attack would be taken in flank. Therefore, he waited until these troops had arrived at their destination. Then, after they were positioned but before they could settle in , he hurled Cheatham’s men forward. Cheatham went in with his men, screaming, ‘Give ’em hell, boys!’ Polk, always mindful of his double identity as Episcopal bishop and Southern general, seconded this. ‘Give it to ’em boys,’ he said. ‘Give ’em what General Cheatham says!’
The first waves of Tennessee veterans swung forward, hurtling over the Chaplin River. But before their attack could fully develop they came under murderous fire from several Union batteries. The attack was blunted and driven to ground in a small clump of woods. More troops were pushed into the attack but they, too, wound up taking cover. Those were troops from Brig. Gen. George Maney’s brigade. The general himself now dashed into the bullet-flecked trees. Maney beat his men back into a battle line, and for a third time they went forward. This time, the Confederate lunge went over the Union batteries and up the slope into the main Union line.
There, at the top of the rise, the green brigades of Brig. Gens. James Jackson and William Terrill waited. Forward came the gray lines, sheets of flame erupting here and there as units paused to fire. Swords flashed down and hundreds of Northern muskets replied in kind. When the Rebels came forward again, they left their dead to mark their resting spot. Then the fearsome Rebel yell split the air and the fortitude of the Yankee defenders waned.
In an instant, the lines were an intermingled mass of struggling men. The blue lines wavered, then broke. Jackson and Terrill struggled frantically to hold the line, but there was no way for green troops to stop the fury of the charge. Jackson gave his life trying.
Terrill, a native Virginian who had remained loyal to the Union, managed to halt the rout one mile west of his original position. No sooner had he pushed the men into their places, however, than Rebel guns began to shell them, and Southern ranks shook themselves into place for another attack. Terrill was mortally wounded by an artillery shell. The Confederates struck again and the Union line snapped. Terrill’s lead regiment, the 123rd Illinois, was brand-new. Organized only a month before, the men had received little formal training. After today, many never would. To the shaken survivors in the regiment, it appeared that the Rebels had simply sprung from the ground like dragon’s teeth.
By now, Polk’s attack had sheared almost through McCook’s lines. Vainly, the corps commander asked Sheridan to send troops to his assistance. The fiery young brigadier had none to spare–Hardee was developing his attack to Sheridan’s front. The full force of Bragg’s assault now began to be felt. He had managed to throw all 16,000 of his men against a fraction of the enemy.
The greatest danger was on the extreme left flank of the Union line. There, only Brig. Gen. John Starkweather’s thin line of veterans still stood to oppose Maney’s advance. A reporter with Maj. Gen. Lovell Rousseau watched the course of the battle for over an hour and described the last Confederate assault: ‘We were all struck with the desperate valor of the rebels. Led by mounted officers, their broad columns came to the attack in quick movement and with death-defying steadiness, uttering wild yells, till, staggered by the sweeping crossfire of our artillery and the volleys from Starkweather’s regiments, they fell back to the shelter of cornfields and breaks in the ground.’
While McCook struggled desperately to hold the flank, Gilbert was having his own problems in the center. Hardee had discovered a gap between the two Union corps and was hurriedly pushing troops into it. Gilbert barely managed to stop the Rebel penetration by turning his artillery to fire obliquely at the enemy columns, while pushing every available soldier to the front. With metal screaming in from every side, the Confederate drive sputtered to a halt. Desultory firing and skirmishing continued on both sides as darkness began to envelop the field.
Several officers on both sides were wounded during the fight, including Cleburne, who was shot in the ankle while leading his men. General Polk himself almost became a casualty. About dark, Polk became convinced that he saw one Confederate unit firing upon another, and rode up to an Indiana regiment by mistake. Understanding his error when the Union colonel in charge responded to his demand to cease fire by asking who he was, Polk decided to brazen it out. He rode down the line ordering the men to cease firing. Then, turning, he cantered slowly to the Rebel line, expecting a bullet in the back any minute. Reaching the cover of some woods, he spurred his horse on and immediately ordered his own men to open fire on the Indiana regiment.
Throughout the entire bloody affair, the higher command of the Union Army remained mysteriously unaware of what was going on. Buell later put forward the claim that a trick of atmospherics, known as ‘acoustic shadow,’ prevented him from hearing the engagement until 4 p.m. More likely, Buell did hear the artillery going off about noon, but thought it was the attack he had ordered, going in late. Thus, it was not until the battle was several hours old that he felt the need to ride forward and see what was going on. He arrived at Gilbert’s headquarters too late to do anything save give final approval of Gilbert’s dispositions.
And what had happened to Crittenden? Here was a man who was so well placed he could have turned the tide of the entire battle, possibly without firing a shot. All he had to do was march down the Lebanon Pike, brush aside some cavalry, take Perryville and move into position to strike Bragg’s army in the flank and rear. Instead, he sat out the whole battle, completely intimidated by Wheeler’s cavalry.
The Confederate high command did not function much better. Until nightfall, Bragg remained completely ignorant that he faced an entire Union army. His tactics also were abysmal. Having earlier avoided fighting because he did not want to risk losing his army, he had then taken his precious troops and hurled them over rivers and up ridgelines in futile bayonet charges. The Union line had been driven back, but not broken.
As night settled in, a full moon illuminated the battlefield. Buell’s officers now urged him to renew the attack and hammer Bragg while he had the chance. Had Buell followed their advice, he might have come close to destroying Bragg’s entire army, Smith’s men included. Instead, he demurred and decided to wait until morning, when it was too late. By that time, Bragg had finally come to his senses. He realized that only the greatest of luck had saved him from crushing defeat. In the morning, the Confederates were gone. The chance to bring Kentucky into the sway of the Confederacy was irretrievably lost, but at least Bragg had retired his army.
Bragg left 3,396 dead and wounded on the field, to the Union’s loss of 4,211. Considering that his troops had been on the offensive, that was a pretty good differential. The result was still a defeat for the Confederates, since they were forced to withdraw first from Perryville and then from Kentucky altogether. Bragg briefly considered making a stand at Harrodsburg, but as the Union forces approached, he rethought his notion and left, beginning a long retreat into Tennessee.
Buell, for his part, carried out a very halfhearted pursuit. On October 16, he informed Washington that it was impossible to catch the Rebels because the roads were too rough and the country too barren. A stinging rebuke came back from Halleck urging him on. Buell still went too slowly to please Lincoln, and on October 23 he was relieved of his command in favor of William Rosecrans.
On the same day, Bragg reached Knoxville, Tenn. His soldiers were in terrible condition–no shoes, no food, their clothing in tatters, and over 15,000 of them suffering from dysentery, typhoid, scurvy and pneumonia. Bitter criticism of Bragg’s conduct of the campaign was soon making the rounds of the officers’ tents. Awaiting him in Knoxville was a telegram from President Jefferson Davis summoning him to Richmond. Somehow, he managed to explain the affair to Davis’ satisfaction, but never again would his supremely gallant but poorly led troops follow him confidently into battle. ‘Hooray for Bragg, he’s hell on retreats!’ they would shout bitterly when he passed.
As for Buell, he turned over command to Rosecrans without much regret. Although he had blunted the boldest Confederate offensive of the war in the western theater of action, he had suffered the same fate as fellow Democrat General George McClellan, who had also been sacked after stopping Robert E. Lee at Antietam a few weeks earlier. No longer was it enough for Northern generals to win battles–now they had to be politically correct, as well. As in all civil wars, political considerations–not just results on the battlefield–would increasingly come to play a part in the deadly serious game of musical chairs between Abraham Lincoln and his disappointed, disappointing generals.
This article was written by James W. Flanagan and originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of America’s Civil War. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of America’s Civil War.