The Battle of Perryville

Bragg's Kentucky Invasion

Written by Thomas L. Breiner

When General Braxton Bragg sent his telegram to the Confederate authorities in Richmond on June 17, 1862 announcing his temporary assignment as commander of the Army of Mississippi, little did he expect how President Jefferson Davis would respond. In a return message, dated June 20, are orders removing General Pierre G. T. Beauregard from command and designating Bragg as his successor. At the time, Bragg and his new command are located at Tupelo, Mississippi, as a result of the evacuation of Corinth. Bragg knew he had to do something to change the course of the war in the West and he had to do it soon.

Braxton Bragg devised and initiated a plan to shift the scene of operations in the West by leading a successful turning movement to the east at Chattanooga and from there into Middle Tennessee. This highly successful operation left Bragg with several options, one of which was an advance into Kentucky. Here was a chance to bring Kentucky into the Confederacy. This movement into the Bluegrass State would climax at the little town of Perryville on October 8, 1862. Along the way the Confederates would experience victories at Richmond and Munfordville prior to that fateful day on the fields around Perryville.

The Kentucky campaign began as an idea that was developed by Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, the Confederate commander of the Department of East Tennessee. With a Union army, under the command of Major General Don Carlos Buell, moving towards Chattanooga, Smith had a need for reinforcements and the most obvious source is Bragg's Army of the Mississippi.

Bragg transfers his army of 30,000 infantry over 800 miles using half dozen different railroads going from Tupelo through Meridian, Mobile, Montgomery and Atlanta before reaching his destination. On July 21, Bragg announces his decision to shift his command to Chattanooga. Departing Tupelo on the July 23, the first units arrive in Chattanooga on July 29. Bragg will personally reach the city the next day. Already the seeds of failure for the infant campaign had been sewn. The campaign will begin without a unified command structure. President Davis established E. Kirby Smith as an independent commander. He expects the two commanders to cooperate and provide mutual support for this operation. Smith proposes a campaign similar to the one Bragg planned and volunteers to place his troops under Bragg. Beginning July 31 and continuing into August 1, Bragg and Smith confer on their upcoming operations. As part of the operation Bragg loans Kirby Smith two brigades, Brigadier General Patrick R. Cleburne's and Colonel Preston Smith's. The Army of Kentucky will depart Chattanooga on August 13.

Kirby Smith's Army of Kentucky is made up of four divisions:

1st Division -- Brigadier General Carter Stevenson
2nd Division -- Brigadier General Henry Heth
3rd Division -- Brigadier General Thomas Churchill
4th Division -- Brigadier General Patrick R. Cleburne.
Colonel John S. Scott commands the cavalry brigade. The army contains approximately 21,000 soldiers.

As outlined, Smith will advance against the Federals at Cumberland Gap. After disposing of this force, Smith is to reunite with Bragg for the advance into Middle Tennessee, which will cut Buell off from Nashville. Unfortunately, Smith has an obsession with Kentucky which will end his agreement to mutually support and cooperate with Bragg. Smith plans to deal with Union Major General George Morgan at Cumberland Gap by striking deep into Kentucky. If he destroys the bridge over the Kentucky River near Lexington, Morgan will be forced to evacuate Cumberland Gap.

Once E. Kirby Smith advances into Kentucky, Bragg is left to reassess his own plan. Without the combined forces, Bragg does not feel he is strong enough to oppose Buell directly. Therefore, instead of trying to recapture Nashville, he decides to proceed into Kentucky and unite with Smith in the heart of the Bluegrass.

Major General Don Carlos Buell, with his Army of the Ohio departs Corinth, Mississippi on June 12 moving towards Chattanooga. In order to maintain a supply line, he must repair the Memphis and Charlestown Railroad from Corinth to Decatur as he moves. This delays his advance considerably. He is constantly fighting off Confederate cavalry to maintain the operation of the railroad. With Bragg's flank movement to Chattanooga, Buell needs to change his plans. By June 30 Buell has managed to reach Huntsville, Alabama, and Stevenson, Alabama by early July. The capture of Chattanooga is no longer feasible. Therefore, on September 5, Buell orders all his forces to concentrate at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This decision by Buell creates a dispute with Major General George H. Thomas. Being closer to the scene, Thomas recommends McMinnville as a better point of concentration. Relations between Buell and Thomas begin to deteriorate. Buell shifts his plan to attack the Confederate army as it departs the Sequatchie Valley. However, after reconsidering his plan again, Buell orders the army to fall back to Nashville to defend the city. With the Union army out of his path, Bragg is able to march across the Cumberland River into Kentucky. Realizing that the both Bragg and Kirby Smith are now in Kentucky, Buell leaves Nashville on September 7 to catch Bragg's army. The race to Louisville is on.

Smith's 12,000-man Army of Kentucky passes through the Cumberland Mountains on August 16 and arrives in Barboursville, Kentucky four days later. Brigadier General Carter Stevenson's division is left to watch the Federals at Cumberland Gap. After the difficult advance from Tennessee, Smith is more convinced than ever that he must to move on to the Lexington area as quickly as possible, if he is to supply his army. Smith reports, "The country around here having been almost completely drained of all kinds of supplies, and the roads between here and East Tennessee being much worse than I had supposed, I find I have but two courses left to me -- either to fall back for supplies to East Tennessee or to advance toward Lexington." Smith decides to go to Lexington. Bragg will agree to this movement on August 24.

Smith's cavalry of 650 men, under Colonel Scott, skirmishes with Union forces at Big Hill on August 24. Union soldiers from the 7th Kentucky Cavalry and the 3rd Tennessee Battalion under the command of Colonel Metcalf flee the field with the first cannon shot. After completing the 18-mile transit of Big Hill, Kirby Smith is extremely thankful that the Union troops were not defending Big Hill with anything more than a few skirmishers.

On August 30, Smith's Army of Kentucky is confronted by the Union Army of Kentucky of Major General William "Bull' Nelson, a six foot five inch, 300-pound former Naval officer. In the ensuing battle, Smith is able to completely decimate Nelson's green soldiers, routing the Union forces from three successive defensive positions. The Union Army of Kentucky consists of two brigades: the 1st Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Mahlon D. Manson and the 2nd Brigade under Brigadier General Charles Cruft. Of the 6,500 Union soldiers engaged in the battle, mostly new recruits from Indiana, nearly 4,300 are captured. The way to Lexington is open.

Union Major General Horatio G. Wright's instructions for Bull Nelson were to defend the line of the Kentucky River, but Nelson failed to pass these orders on the Brigadier General Manson in time. However, Manson is just as eager to confront Smith, as Smith is to fight Manson. In order to meet the Confederates Manson, against orders from Nelson, rushes his forces 5 miles south of Richmond to the vicinity of the Mount Zion Church. The Confederates mount three separate charges, and General Manson is captured and General Nelson, who finally reaches the scene at Richmond in the afternoon, is wounded.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Richmond, Major General Wright promotes two captains to command what is left of Nelson's Army of Kentucky. The first is a quartermaster - Captain Charles Champion Gilbert. He is promoted to rank of major general, pending the approval of the President and Congress, and given command during Nelson's absence. The other is an artillery officer, Captain William R. Terrill. He is made a Brigadier General. The remaining general officers in the army, Brigadier Generals Charles Cruft and James S. Jackson, refused to accept command.

After his stunning victory at Richmond, Smith allows his command one day to rest then easily moves into an undefended Lexington on September 2. He sends a division, under Brigadier General Henry Heth, to threaten Cincinnati and has Scott's cavalry pursue the retreating Union troops towards Louisville. Scott stops 12 miles from the city. Frankfort is occupied on the September 3.

Cincinnati operates in a panic mode. Panic calls are placed to the governors of nearby states for the movement of hastily recruited troops. Major General Wright is in charge of the department, and begins developing a string of defenses on the northern Kentucky hillside to defend Cincinnati. On September 1, he orders Major General Lew Wallace away from his recruiting assignment in Indiana to take charge of the speedily arriving forces. Wallace suspends all business, and orders all male citizens (as well as aliens) to report for duty in building the defenses.

In its lead editorial, the Cincinnati Gazette declares: "TO ARMS! TO ARMS! The time for playing war has passed. The enemy is fast approaching our city. Kentucky has already been invaded and our cities for the first time since the rebellion are seriously threatened. . ." President Lincoln, overseeing events in far-off Washington, receives a telegram on September 3 from concerned citizens from Louisville. "The panic still prevails", they wrote. "Lexington and Frankfort in the hands of the rebels. Unless the State is reinforced with veteran troops Kentucky will be overrun." Whereas Wright has operated understaffed in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Richmond, by September 5, Wright finds himself managing nearly 70,000 untrained, untested troops. He orders Ohio Governor David Tod not to send additional troops to Cincinnati.

Cautiously, the Confederates push a minimal amount of their forces northward. Splitting his forces such that he is unable to accomplish much at all, Kirby Smith has Brigadier General Henry Heth push forward from Georgetown towards Cincinnati with the greater portion of a division of troops. Heth, in his memoirs, claims to have started north on September 6 with approximately 6,000 troops.

The results are anticlimactic. By September 10, Heth is at Crittenden, Kentucky, some 35 miles south of Cincinnati. Two days later, Heth's advanced scouts skirmish with Union soldiers at Florence, Kentucky - and that is all that is accomplished. Smith orders Heth not to attack any further, and the Confederates begin to withdraw south towards Lexington. The scare is over, with little to show for the Confederates.

For the Union forces, there are two important outcomes of the panic. First, a significant and strong defensive position is put in place in Kentucky that all but eliminates any future consideration of an attack on Cincinnati. And second, significant numbers of newly raised troops are now available to support General Buell, if and when he reaches a more northern assembly point.

The interested reader may read more about the "Defense of Cincinnati" at the Web site of the Cincinnati CWRT.

Meanwhile, Bragg waits for his artillery and transportation, which could not be move by the railroad, to reach Chattanooga before departing on August 28. He finally crosses into Kentucky arriving at Glasgow on September 13. He is exactly where he wants to be. Bragg has managed to get between Buell and Smith in a position to cut Buell off from Louisville. Unfortunately, Bragg is confronted with a situation that he does not like. Brigadier General James R. Chalmers, encouraged by Colonel John Scott, has attacked the Union bridge garrison at Munfordville, Kentucky on the September 14, receiving a stinging repulse and 285 casualties. Bragg just cannot leave this affront alone. He moves his entire army to Munfordville two days later. After surrounding the garrison on September 17, Bragg demands the Union commander surrender.

Colonel John T. Wilder, being new to the business, is not sure of how to respond. He is familiar with Confederate Major General Simon Bolivar Buckner. Under a flag of truce, Wilder asks Buckner for some advice. Though the situation is quite unusual, Buckner agrees to show Wilder the Confederate forces and cannons. Realizing the hopelessness of his situation, Wilder agrees to surrender.

Bragg must now decide on the next phase of his campaign. He can confront Buell along the Green River, advance on Louisville and most likely capture the city, wait for Buell to pass and then proceed back to Tennessee and capture Nashville, or move towards Bardstown and unite with E. Kirby Smith. Bragg finally chooses to unite with Smith, opening the way for Buell to race into Louisville. However, due to the delay in capturing Munfordville, Bragg has lost valuable time.

Though wounded at Richmond, Bull Nelson is not out of action for long. He regroups what is left of his command at Louisville and proceeds to gather reinforcements. During the reorganization, Nelson argues with Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis over his poor management and lack of knowledge concerning preparations for the defense of Louisville. Being a native of Indiana, Davis blames Nelson for the loss of so many Indiana soldiers at Richmond. Nelson orders Davis out of Louisville and back to General Wright in Cincinnati. Wright in turn orders Davis to return to Louisville. The insulted Davis detours to Indianapolis to meet with Governor Oliver P. Morton to plead his case. Together they return to Louisville. At the Galt House Hotel on the morning of September 29, Davis in company with Morton confronts Nelson. Again, Nelson insults Davis. Searching among the gathering crowd, Davis finds a friend, Captain Gibson, and borrows a pistol and shoots Nelson. Thirty minutes later, Nelson dies from the gunshot wound. Jefferson C. Davis is never tried for his crime. However, this incident will have dire consequences later, as the newly minted Major General Charles C. Gilbert once again replaces Nelson.

On August 29 a second incident interrupts Buell during the reorganization of the Army of the Ohio in Louisville, when he receives an order from the War Department creating the Department of Tennessee and assigning Major General George H. Thomas to command of the Department and the Army of the Ohio. However, Thomas refuses to accept command pleading that Buell should be retained in command until after the current crisis is over since Buell had already made preparations to move against the enemy.

Proceed to the Battle of Perryville Page.