October 16, 1862 (Thursday)
Don Carlos Buell had been given the slip in Kentucky. Two Confederate armies under Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith, had invaded the state, moving more or less at their own will. While neither had been able to cross, or even approach, the Ohio River, when Buell and his Army of the Ohio left the defenses of Louisville to chase them down, the Rebels surprised and defeated them at Perryville.
Greatly outnumbered, the Rebel armies attempted to combine and retreat back to Tennessee. Had Buell moved with more swiftness, he was in a fine position to cut off the Confederate line of retreat. Instead, he waited a few days too long and misjudged their intended route. On this date, most of his army was at Crab Orchard, while a brigade or so attempted to follow the Rebels as they picked their way south along the narrow Wilderness Road towards Cumberland Gap.
There was really no hope that his men could catch up to the retreating Confederates. And if they did, there simply wasn’t enough of them giving chase to make any difference. For all realistic purposes, the Kentucky Campaign had come to an end. It was time to let Washington know what happened.
“You are aware that between Crab Orchard and Cumberland Gap the country is almost a desert,” explained Buell to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. “The limited supply of forage which the country affords is consumed by the enemy as he passes.” In the short time that the Army of the Ohio had been at Crab Orchard, on the cusp of this Kentucky desert, the animals had already begun to suffer.
“The enemy has been driven into the heart of this desert and must go on,” Buell continued, “for he cannot exist in it. For the same reason we cannot pursue in it with any hope of overtaking him, for while he is moving back on his supplies and as he goes consuming what the country affords we must bring ours forward.”
This actually made some sense. The closer the Rebels got to their home, the quicker supplies could reach them. The farther the Federals got from their supply depots at Louisville, the harder it would be. Things like planning, preparedness, and organization would have to be utilized and those simply weren’t Buell’s strong points.
Buell’s next reason seemed like more of an excuse: “There is but one road and that a bad one. The route abounds in difficult defiles, in which a small force can retard the progress of a large one for a considerable time, and in that time the enemy could gain material advantage in a move upon other points.”
Wilderness Road was indeed a notoriously nasty stretch. It was also true that it afforded many opportunities for ambush. Rocks could be (and would be) rolled onto the pathway to hold up any pursuers. But if there was only one road, Buell never explained how the enemy could move upon other points.
“For these reasons, which I do not think it necessary to elaborate,” wrote Buell, expecting his lack of elaboration to be greeted in Washington with shrugs and casual nods, “I deem it useless and inexpedient to continue the pursuit, but propose to direct the main force under my command rapidly upon Nashville….”
Again with Nashville. Buell supposed that since the Rebels weren’t retreating towards Nashville that they must actually be retreating towards Nashville anyway. While the railroads were being rebuilt, Buell continued, “I shall throw myself on my wagon transportation, which, fortunately, is ample.”
A more cynical reader might suggest that Buell could have used these ample wagons laden with supplies to cross the great Kentucky desert.
Buell may not have been a true Napoleon, but he wasn’t bereft of all intelligence. He realized that allowing the Confederates to slip away yet again might just signal the end of his career.
“While I shall proceed with these dispositions, deeming them to be proper for the public interest, it is but meet that I should say that the present time is perhaps as convenient as any for making any changes that may be thought proper in the command, of this army. It has not accomplished all that I had hoped or all that faction might demand.”
And just in case anyone in Washington hadn’t stopped reading to immediately file the paperwork for Buell’s prompt dismissal, he tried to shine a better light on things. Though many of his troops were green and untried, his little army “defeated a powerful and thoroughly disciplined army in one battle and has driven it away baffled and dispirited at least, and as much demoralized as an army can be under such discipline as Bragg maintains over all troops that he commands.”
With that, Buell was finished, basically admitting that Braxton Bragg was the better general, in command of a better army. The Rebels might have been dispirited, but only because they were in retreat.
As for Buell’s description of the battle of Perryville, where his army “defeated a powerful and thoroughly disciplined army,” the line of logic is a bit fuzzier. Buell’s army was clearly defeated during the battle – they were pushed back nearly a mile by a much smaller force. But a victorious leader such as Buell doesn’t consider what happened during a battle when talking about the outcome of the battle. What must be considered is what happened the day after the battle. No matter how badly your larger army was beaten by a smaller army, a commander need only wait until the enemy leaves the field to claim victory. And that is what Buell did.
This laundry list of excuses wouldn’t reach Washington until the next day. In the meantime, Buell’s pursuing force tangled almost constantly with the Rebel rear guard. They would tangle on and off (mostly on) for several more days, but it was more harassment than anything else. Soon, Buell would begin to move his base back to Nashville.1
- Sources: OR, Series 1, Vol. 16, Part 2, p619; Perryville by Kenneth W. Noe. [↩]