September 21, 1862 (Sunday)
After capturing the Union garrison at Munfordville, Kentucky, Confederate General Bragg’s Army of Mississippi seemingly cut off the Union Army of the Ohio from Louisville, where Bragg believed the Federals under General Don Carlos Buell were headed.
Here, Bragg was faced with a choice. He could dive his 26,000 men back south to Nashville, easily capturing the city, or he could hold Munfordville. If he chose Nashville, he would hold Middle Tennessee, his original objective. It would also allow him to link up with the combining armies under Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn, somewhere in the vicinity of Corinth, Mississippi. This would leave Kirby Smith’s Confederate force at Lexington completely isolated.
If he chose to hold Munfordville, he would have to fight Buell, who numbered upwards of 40,000. Though Bragg was fairly confident that his defenses were solid, he also believed Buell greatly outnumbered him. Whatever reinforcements Bragg would receive would come from Kirby Smith at Lexington, around 100 miles away. They would probably not arrive in time.
Attacking Louisville was also an option, but if he did, Buell’s army could simply bypass Munfordville and fall upon him on the way there.
Whatever he was going to decide, he believed Buell’s Union army would remain in their defenses at Bowling Green. But he was mistaken. Buell was on the move, and was slowly moving towards Munfordville. Bragg soon realized this, but didn’t realize that Buell had no strong desire to attack.
To Bragg’s understanding, the Federals had three choices. They could stay put at Bowling Green, behind defenses Bragg didn’t believe his Rebels could carry. They could move around him, forcing the Rebels out of their position and into the open – something Bragg, who believed he was outnumbered two-to-one, did not want. Or, they could simply attack Bragg, pinning him to the Green River, while the gathering Union force at Louisville fell upon him from the rear.
Whatever Buell decided, Bragg thought, it wasn’t good. On the 19th, Bragg made up his mind, and ordered his army to combine with Kirby Smith’s force at Bardstown. The next day, Munfordville was empty of Rebels and Buell could breath a huge sigh of relief. His fears that Bragg and Smith would unite to defend the town along the Green River were dissipated.
The problem was that Bragg had no real objective. Originally, he wanted to retake Nashville and Middle Tennessee, but Kirby Smith persuaded him to come up into Kentucky. Now that he was there, he didn’t seem real sure about what he should do next.
Buell’s Federals picked up their pace, leaving Bowling Green for Louisville, on this date. He fully believed that Bragg was making a dash for Louisville. In truth, Bragg was moving northeast, rather than north.
Not knowing this, the city of Louisville was in an understandable panic. Banks closed their doors. Stores and shops cleared all merchandise off their shelves. Women and children were ordered across the Ohio River, and many men fled along with them.
“Bull” Nelson, in command of the hastily thrown together volunteers defending the city, was anything but confident that it could be held. He gave it two hours. Even so, he and his men (including many black men impressed into “service”) dug entrenchments and prepared for battle. All believed that Bragg and Buell were racing to Louisville. It simply wasn’t true. Bragg never had any real intension to fall upon the city. If he had any objective at all, Louisville wasn’t it.1
During the Battle of Iuka, Mississippi, Union General William Rosecrans had been expecting reinforcements from General Edward Ord. Rosecrans had attacked the Rebels under Sterling Price from the south, and Ord was, upon hearing Rosecrans guns, to join the battle from the north. Ord never did, claiming that he never heard the sounds of battle. Rosecrans would never accept that as an excuse.
Sterling Price realized that while he was victorious on the 19th, he probably wouldn’t be on the 20th. By dawn, Iuka was empty and the Rebels retreated south via a road that Rosecrans neglected to cover.
When General Ulysses Grant, commanding both Rosecrans and Ord, saw that Price had escaped, his concern immediately jumped to Corinth, just over twenty miles west. A division was dispatched to chase down Price, but the Rebels had a good head start and pursuit was futile.
Also, Grant had Earl Van Dorn to worry about. The Rebel force, which had been south of Corinth, had made a jab into Tennessee, forcing Grant to pull troops away from whatever pursuit they might otherwise have mustered. Ord’s Division made time for Corinth, arriving on this date, while Grant tossed other troops to Bolivar and Jackson, Tennessee [north of map edge] to stop whatever it was Van Dorn was up to.
Price’s retreat, though opportune, was anything but orderly. His men often straggled, looted and ransacked homes, and were little more than an armed mob. Their retreat would take them to Baldwyn, forty miles southwest of Iuka, and nearly seventy miles away from Van Dorn’s force.2
- Sources: Army of the Heartland by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; War in Kentucky by James Lee McDonough; All for the Regiment by Gerry Prokopowicz; Perryville by Kenneth W. Noe; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; Braxton Bragg and the Confederate Defeat by Grady McWhiney. [↩]
- Sources: The Darkest Days of the War by Peter Cozzens; General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert E. Castel; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth Williams. [↩]