October 5, 1862 (Sunday)
General Leonidas Polk had been left in command of the main body of Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi. Bragg was busy installing a Confederate governor at Frankfort, Kentucky, fifty miles northeast of Bardstown, where he left his 17,000 troops. The only threat to Bragg’s (and now Polk’s) command was the Union Army of the Ohio, under Don Carlos Buell, nestled behind their hastily-dug entrenchments around Louisville. If mobile, they would certainly pose a problem, but it appeared they were going to stay put at least until after Bragg could return to Bardstown.
That assumption was a huge mistake. Shortly after Bragg left to install the secessionist governor, Buell’s army of 82,000 leaped from Louisville, about thirty-five miles west and northwest from Frankfort and Bardstown. While the main thrust was against Bardstown, a more visible feign of 19,000 (or so) men had been jabbed at Frankfort where 22,000 Rebel troops under Kirby Smith were scattered. Though Smith had willfully disregarded several orders given by Bragg, Bragg was still nominally in charge of the entire army. His force, now under Polk, and sufficiently smaller than Smith’s, was technically the main body.
When Bragg found out about the advance, he knew only of the feign. He believed that Buell’s entire Army of the Ohio was gunning for Frankfort. With that in mind, he ordered Polk to come with the main body and slam into the right flank of the Union advance, just like Longstreet and Jackson at Second Manassas.
Polk, however, had been informed that the Federal army was twelve miles away from his troops at Bardstown. There was no way he could possibly follow Bragg’s orders. Polk threw a makeshift council of war, and with some protestation by his officers, he decided to disobey the order and retreat east toward Bryantsville, fifty miles away.
On the 2nd, Polk had informed Bragg of the coming Yankees, but on the 3rd, he only gave a vague reason for disobeying the order to come to Frankfort and join with Kirby Smith: “The last twenty-four hours have developed a condition of things on my front and left flank which I shadowed forth in my last not to you, which makes compliance with this order not only eminently inexpedient but impracticable.”
The next day, as Polk began to pull out of Bardstown, Bragg installed Richard Hawes as the new governor of Kentucky. Speaking at the ceremony, Bragg argued that the Federal government wanted Kentucky to join the war for “the confiscation of property, the excitement of servile insurrections, and the desolation of your homes.” Kentucky, he asserted, had remained in the Union against the will of her people. He, and Governor Hawes, had come to restore her to her rightful place, as a true star of the Confederacy.
As the pomp was drawing to a close, the feigning column of Federals appeared across the Kentucky River, twelve miles away, and making haste for the town. Bragg, perhaps wishing he hadn’t vowed so adamantly to defend Kentucky, ordered the bridges to be burned and for Kirby Smith’s force to retreat to Harrodsburg, thirty miles south and rather close to Polk’s destination of Bryantsville. As Hawes’ first edict as governor, he quickly decided to move Kentucky’s
capital to the eastern part of the state. Before the day’s end, the Federals would be firing into the town.
Polk’s tramp east nearly cost him his cavalry. Typically, the commander would rely heavily upon cavalry in such a situation. But Polk didn’t even bother to let them know he was retreating. Stationed at Mount Washington, they learned for themselves of the coming Federals, and were nearly surrounded and captured.
Along the way, the destination turned to the slightly closer Danville, though Bragg, finally in contact with his men, ordered Polk to instead move to Harrodsburg to join with Smith. Polk assured his commander that he would do it, but then disobeyed, sending some of his force to both places. Bragg didn’t seem all that upset, really. After all, he was retreating as well.
On this date, he reached Harrodsburg, but he arrived well ahead of his army. William Hardee, commanding a division under Polk, complained that the roads were too “hilly, rocky, and slippery” to make good time. In fact, they were so bad to Harrodsburg that he just couldn’t make it. The road to Danville, however, was the very model of what a good road might be. So, if it was all the same to Bragg, Hardee and Polk would just go there. Bragg, at the end of his wits, ordered Polk and Hardee to Harrodsburg – for the third time.
Bragg was clearly losing control over his own men. But at least Kirby Smith and his troops would be along soon. Except those odds weren’t exactly in Bragg’s favor, either. Smith had enjoyed an independent command for most of the campaign. It was so enjoyable that he simply didn’t want to see it end.
Smith had gotten as far as Versailles before realizing that the Federal push against Frankfort was a ruse. The real thrust, he argued, was to be against Lexington. If he moved south of Verailles, Lexington, the town he had personally captured from the Yankees – with no help at all from Bragg, thank you very much, would fall.
But Smith was mistaken. The Union troops heading east somewhat towards Lexington had turned south, focusing upon Polk’s command. Bragg took Smith’s interpretation at face value. Apparently nobody really thought cavalry reconnaissance to be all that important in Kentucky.
The cavalry, having escaped the Federals at Mount Washington, had been ordered to Lebanon, a small railroad town thirty miles west of Danville. Their mission was to gather supplies, and nothing else. Neither Bragg nor Smith nor Polk nor anybody wearing butternut had any idea where Buell’s Federals were located. Sure, they had some rough ideas, rumors tossed around by townfolk, but nothing more.
Not that the Union thrust was going any better. Buell’s regiments were strung out for miles. They were awash in the famished, arrid weather and simply spent from the hard marching. Water was scarce, and the men, with parched throats, suffered greatly. But General Buell coaxed them on.1
- Sources: Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 1 by Grady McWhiney; Perryville by Kenneth W. Noe; Army of the Heartland by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; All for the Regiment by Gerald Prokopowicz. [↩]