October 15, 1862 (Wednesday)
“Bragg’s army is mine!” shouted Don Carlos Buell, the typically grim Federal commander of the Army of the Ohio. After several days of slacking and lackadaisical pursuit of the Confederate Army of Mississippi, commanded by Braxton Bragg, Buell was absolutely certain that he not only knew where the Rebel commander was going, but that he could bag him here, in central Kentucky.
Bragg, thought Buell, was moving upon Nashville. The Rebels had retreated to Harrodsburg following the battle of Perryville, then to Bryantsville. On the night of the 14th, Buell had pushed his troops towards Stanford, the next town on the road to Nashville, hoping to cut off Bragg’s column. Throughout the day, they skirmished with Confederate cavalry, but had not yet engaged the main body.
On the 14th, Bragg’s force divided itself. One wing, under Kirby Smith, headed in a more easterly direction, while the other, commanded by Bragg himself, moved towards Crab Orchard and Mount Vernon, along the Wilderness Road that eventually led to Cumberland Gap.
It was at Crab Orchard that Buell wanted to cut him off, and accompanied General Thomas Crittenden’s corps to hurry them along.
When they entered the town, for some reason Buell believed that Bragg was his. The town itself was wrecked by the Confederates. He had missed them. By his own reckoning, the Rebels were headed southwest through the relatively open spaces of Kentucky. If true, there was little doubt in his mind that he could catch them.
However, soon it was discovered that Bragg was not moving on Nashville, but falling back through Cumberland Gap. The Wilderness Road was macadamized heading south until it reached Crab Orchard. After that, it became a nasty little winding dirt road. When Buell finally figured out that Bragg had not done what he had expected, he realized that catching the enemy might not be quite so easy.
Halting two of his corps at Crab Orchard, Buell sent Crittenden’s troops forward, hoping that they’d somehow get close enough to force Bragg to turn and give battle. The road from Crab Orchard to Mount Vernon descended into a gorge after about four miles. All through that narrow passage, Rebels had blocked the road with felled trees. Each man with an ax, more than likely “borrowed” from Kentucky farmers, chopped down as many trees as they could.
Rather than clearing Wilderness Road, Crittenden ordered a new road to be cut. This turned out to be faster and by nightfall, the Federals were within a couple of miles from Mount Vernon, where the Confederate army was encamped for the night.1
- Sources: Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; Perryville by Kenneth W. Noe; Episodes of the Civil War by George Washington Herr; The Army of the Cumberland, Volume 7 by Henry Martyn Cist; The Battle Rages Higher: The Union’s Fifteenth Kentucky Infantry by Kirk C. C. Jenkins. [↩]