Burnside Tries to Save Kentucky

March 24, 1863 (Tuesday)

John Pegram

The winter had stymied the two armies at Murfreesboro and Tullahoma, Tennessee. William Rosecrans’ Union Army of the Cumberland, following their victory at Murfreesboro, did not follow the Confederate Army of Tennessee, under Braxton Bragg, as they retreated to Tullahoma, forty miles to the south. As we have seen before, cavalry on the flanks was more than active, but also cavalry well in the rear, all the way up in Kentucky, wasn’t nearly as silent as the infantry below it.

Confederate General John Pegram had been Kirby Smith’s chief of staff during the Kentucky Campaign last autumn. Now, in command of 1,550 cavalrymen, he had just begun a raid into the Bluegrass State, hoping to cut Rosecrans’ supply line. Pegram’s troopers weren’t the only ones invanding, of course. Others under Cluke, Van Dorne, Morgan, and unnamed thousands were all rumored to be pretty much everywhere.

Union General Jeremiah Boyle, as he had in past Kentucky raids, was losing his mind. On the 23rd, the day previous to this, he wired General Rosecrans about rumors of Rebel infantry to the tune of 10,000 being near Somerset, Kentucky, with more coming quick behind them.

The Department of Ohio’s commander, General Horatio Wright, did what he could to rally his men in Kentucky and Illinois, urging the wonderfully-named Quincy Adams Gillmore, commanding the military in the state, into action. Gillmore was convinced that this was not a mere raid, but a full on invasion backed by Confederate General John Breckenridge. He also reported that 7,000 Rebel cavalrymen were advancing upon Danville.

Adding to Boyle’s panic, General Wright wired, telling that he had “received a rather scary dispatch from Gillmore.” Union troops across the entirety of Central Kentucky were at the ready. At any moment the Rebels could strike from anywhere. As the night of the 23rd drew to a close, it seemed most likely that Danville would be the prime target. There, General Samuel Carter expected 5,000 to 10,000 Rebels to overtake the town at dawn.

Burnside: I know you missed me.

It was in this tumult that General Ambrose Burnside arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio. Burnside, former commander of the Army of the Potomac, had been fired following the Battle of Fredericksburg and sent to the Virginia Peninsula, reduced to a mere corps commander. Thinking this was not fitting, President Lincoln had assigned him to command the Department of Ohio. Burnside arrived in the morning of this date (the 24th).

Burnside and Wright had a quick sitdown where the latter told the former everything that was going on. Almost immediately, Burnside wired Washington, telling General-in-Chief Henry Halleck that it “makes me very anxious to have my other division from Suffolk [Virginia].”

At the same time, Horatio Wright did what he could to ease Burnside into the job while easing his underlings away from panic. To the easily-frenzied Boyle, he tried assure him that Burnside was here and “will have 12,000 troops in a day or two. We need not be scared.”

But by 8:45am, General Boyle reported that Danville had fallen to the enemy.

This was not quite true. Not yet, anyway. Confederates led by John Pegram had crossed the Cumberland River on the 22nd, spending the next day en route to Danville. At 8:45am of this date, Boyle and his 1,550 men were still on the forced march from the river, some fifty miles behind them.

Today’s approximate map showing CS route and Union retreat.

It wasn’t until 2pm that Pegram and his cavaliers arrived before Danville. Union General Carter did not want a fight. He had no idea exactly how many Rebels were to his front (and increasingly on his flank), and didn’t want to find out the hard way. If the rumors of 10,000 were true, there was no way he could hold Danville. And so he retreated his main body towards the Kentucky River, trying to save a wagontrain from capture, while leaving enough skirmishers behind to keep the Rebels busy.

And busy they were. Even before they entered the town, Pegram’s men were held up by Yankees hidden in a thicket. Soon they were dispatched, but just as soon, they were fighting street to street inside the town itself. This melee took twenty long minutes, during which Pegram intercepted a Union message telling Carter that he would be reinforced from Lancaster, west of Danville.

Pegram was determined to get between Carter and the reinforcements, but his horses were worn out. A march of over sixty miles, combined with a brisk fight, had done them in – they needed rest. For the next couple of days, Pegram made a slow tramp towards the Kentucky River.

Meanwhile, back north in Cincinnati, Generals Wright and Burnside were doing their best to keep a handle on the situation until the bulk of Burnside’s IX Corps arrived and would then begin to clear the state of the Rebels.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p168, 171; Part 2, p162, 165, 169-170; The Civil War in Kentucky by Lowell H. Harrison. []
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