Bragg Tries to Set Up a Kentucky Government on the Eve of Battle; Lincoln’s Visit

October 2, 1862 (Thursday)

Braxton Bragg

In Kentucky, things weren’t going so well for General Braxton Bragg. He, along with Kirby Smith, had invaded the Union-held state, threatened both Cincinnati and Louisville, but had been unable to win any kind of decisive victory that would wrest the state from Federal hands.

Bragg and Smith’s Rebel forces had entered the state separately, but the time had been right to combine the two armies into one. Smith, at first, agreed, but then demurred in an attempt to track down a Union division under George Morgan. This wayward division had been at Cumberland Gap and Smith was hoping to find and destroy it. Morgan, however, gave him the slip, and by October 1, Smith, head held high with his tail between his legs, wandered back to Braxton Bragg in Frankfort.

The main army was in Bardstown, left in the care of Leonidas Polk, but the General was in Lexington for another purpose. Not really knowing what General Don Carlos Buell was up to, Bragg issued very discretionary orders to Polk to move his force out of Bardstown, creating an arc to cover any roads that his adversary might use if he should leave Louisville – a very slim chance, thought Bragg.

Don Carlos Buell

Since entering the state, Bragg had proclaimed, announced, bellowed from the rooftops and begged the brave boys of Kentucky to sign up with his Confederate army. Some came, mostly joining up with Kirby Smith. But many, many more did not.

With the Federal forces gathering in unbelievable numbers along the Ohio River, Bragg needed tens of thousands of reinforcements to win a victory. But it was doubtful that these men would join without such a victory to bolster their spirits.

Even without a victory, believed Bragg, thanks to the prodding of several Kentucky politicians, it might still be possible to convince the secessionist Kentuckians to join. What they feared, argued the politicos, was losing everything to Union retaliation should the Confederate armies retreat.

If Bragg would to issue a Conscription Act for Kentucky, then these retaliations might be less as the new recruits would not be volunteers. But to issue a such an act required a Confederate governor. Since Kentucky still believed itself in the Union, that was an uphill climb.

Richard Hawes

Bragg, however, cared little for climbing and insisted upon installing Richard Hawes as provisional Governor immediately. Just as all this political pomp in Frankfort was about to occur, Buell’s men began to stir from their trenches around Louisville.

Rather than calling upon Kirby Smith to meet the threat, joining with the troops at Bardstown, he instead ordered Smith’s army to protect the inauguration ceremony. Bragg believed that General Polk alone could best Buell – or at least hold him until Hawes was governor and a Conscription Act could be slammed through whatever Confederate Congress he believed Kentucky had. The inauguration itself would take place on the 4th, so it was with great surprise that Bragg learned Buell was moving at a greater clip than expected.

The Union Army of the Ohio, 82,000-strong, began their march to Bardstown with a feign, hoping to throw Bragg off his mark. It worked. Upon learning that Buell was moving, Bragg assumed Polk at Bardstown could handle it. Buell, he thought, was in no position to leave Louisville so early. As the messages rolled in, however, Bragg learned that his troops in Shelbyville had barely gotten away before the town was taken by the Federals.

Map showing approximate troop positions on Oct 2.

This was big. Bragg figured that if Buell moved at all, he would move upon Polk at Bardstown. But now it seemed as if Buell was moving upon Smith and the inauguration at Frankfort. Soon, the Rebels that were defending Shelbyville would be pouring into town. To Bragg, it seemed that Buell was ignoring Polk and gunning for the capital.

That was not so. The feign had worked. Buell’s main force was advancing in three separate columns to sever the two Rebel forces. The march, which started on the 1st, went poorly. The diversionary forces kept a slow, almost meandering pace, while the main body was filled with boys still half-drunk from the Louisville nights preceding. On this day, a rain storm soaked the roads, turning them to rivers of mud.

Still, they moved swiftly enough, reaching the Salt River. Bragg, while not slow to act, was preoccupied with setting up a government. Believing that there were not Federals in Polk’s front, he ordered him to fall upon the flank of the advancing enemy. But Polk, of course, had problems of his own.1


Lincoln Drops By for a Visit

President Lincoln, accompanied by a small entourage of politicians, officers and Ward Hill Lamon, arrived at Harpers Ferry the previous afternoon. Following the Confederate withdrawal after the Battle of Antietam, General George McClellan ordered Ambrose Burnside to move his IX Corps and occupy the town. Shortly after, McClellan moved his entire army to the ground between the battlefield and the Potomac River opposite Harpers Ferry.

Ward Hill Lamon

And it was here that Lincoln found them. McClellan appears to have little to no prior knowledge that Lincoln was dropping by for a visit, but on the first, he rode into Harpers Ferry to say hello. Together, they reviewed the troops on Bolivar Heights.

The President, attired in his typical black frock coat and tall, stovepipe hat, rode with General McClellan, jumped up in parade dress. For most of the soldiers, this was a rare and excited experience. They had never seen the President before. Though arrayed at full attention, each turned their heads and squinted, trying to get a better look at the gaunt looking man.

Before nightfall, McClellan went back to his tent, closer to the battlefield and Lincoln had a look around the town. As reporters followed, he took a peek into the US Arsenal used by John Brown in a failed attempt to start a great slave rebellion. Here, to many, was where the war started.

In the morning of this date, Lincoln, accompanied by General Edwin Sumner, reviewed the troops at Louden and Maryland Heights south across the Shenandoah River and east across the Potomac. And then it was time to formally visit General McClellan.

McClellan held no real desire to see Lincoln. Officially, the President’s reason for the tarriance was to see the troops and visit the battlefield, but McClellan believed he knew the true reason. “I incline to think,” he wrote his wife, “the real purpose of his visit is to push me into a premature advance into Virginia.” He allowed that he could be mistaken, but he thought not.

John Brown's Fort (circa 1888ish)

His vast army, numbering over 80,000 in the field, was, “not fit to advance – the old regiments are reduced to mere skeletons and are completely tired out – they need rest and filling up.” Additionally, the troops from General John Pope’s old army were in even worse shape. The new regiments simply weren’t ready. The Cavalry and artillery were both broken down.

It was not Lincoln’s fault that he was unaware of this. “These people don’t know what an army requires,” reasoned McClellan, “and therefore act stupidly.”

That night, Lincoln set up his own headquarters next to McClellan’s. They arrived too late to do much sightseeing. For the next several days, Lincoln would review the troops, see the battlefield, and try his best to convince General McClellan to cross the Potomac and fight the Rebels.2

  1. Sources: Army of the Heartland by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Perryville by Kenneth W. Noe; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat Vol. 1 by Grady McWhiney. []
  2. Sources: Lincoln and McClellan by John C. Waugh; Six Years of Hell by Chester G. Hearn; Recollections of Abraham Lincoln by Ward Hill Lamon; The Civil War Papers of George McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears. []
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Bragg Tries to Set Up a Kentucky Government on the Eve of Battle; Lincoln’s Visit by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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