The Federal Ruse in Kentucky Working Better than Expected

October 7, 1862 (Tuesday)

John Austin Wharton

Col. John Austin Wharton, a cavalier from Texas, had been ordered by General Leonidas Polk to take his small brigade to Lebanon to gather supplies. Lebanon was a railroad town thirty miles west of Danville, where Polk was sitting with with Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi.

Following the gathering at Lebanon, Wharton and his men rode towards Perryville, a small crossroads fifteen miles west of Danville. Just after they got started, they received new orders from Polk. General Polk, typically in command of a division, had taken the reigns of Bragg’s army, while Bragg was trying to install a new secessionist governor. Polk had disobeyed a couple of orders and retreated the army fifty some miles east to Danville. To cover his left flank (and then some), he dispatched Wharton’s cavalry, ordering them to remain in Lebanon.

Wharton turned his crew around and headed back. When he got there, he received a different set of orders sent by Bragg. More concerned with matters a bit farther north, he ordered Wharton to Harrodsburg. Wharton wrote to General William Hardee for clarification. Hardee, who commanded the Left Wing of the Army of Mississippi at Perryville, wasn’t Wharton’s superior, but since Wharton was on the army’s left, he probably thought that if anybody knew what was going on, it would be Hardee.

William Hardee

But Hardee had not a clue what Wharton was about and referred the matter back to Bragg. This time, Bragg decided that Wharton should go to Perryville – the place he was originally planning on going anyway. This whole mess tied up the cavalry on the 6th and 7th, leaving Bragg with no reconnaissance.

This was a pretty big deal since the Confederates were operating in a vacuum. Coming towards them was the Union Army of the Ohio, Don Carlos Buell commanding. The only problem (well, not the only problem) was that nobody had a clue just how many were on their way and from whence they were coming. Typically, sussing this out would be a job for the cavalry.

I think you should take a look at this.

Buell’s Federals, numbering some 82,000, were concentrating on Perryville. Five roads led into the town, and so it was a convenient place to gather. Originally, he had left Louisville in four columns. The column farthest to the north was a ruse, sent forward to throw Bragg off the real Union target. It went swimmingly.

Bragg’s army had been separated for the entire campaign. Once he discovered that Buell was coming, however, he decided to concentrate, selecting Harrodsburg as a logical location. Neither of his commanding officers, Leonidas Polk and Kirby Smith, agreed.

Polk thought that Danville was a better place, and though ordered specifically not to go there, he did anyway. Smith believed that the Federals were aiming for Lexington and so stopped at Versailles, twenty-five miles northeast of Harrodsburg. While Bragg was furious with Polk, he believed Smith’s cautionary tail and his many pleas and beggings for help. The whole Union army was apparently streaming his way.

He ordered Polk to abandon whatever it was that he was doing in Perryville and Danville and move to Smith’s aid. Polk, who had no more of an idea where the Federal army was, had little to report. General Hardee at Perryville, however, wasn’t just being paranoid when he thought he was being followed in the retreat to Perryville from their previous camp at Bardstown.

Without giving a reason, Hardee requested Polk send him another division. Polk forwarded the request up the chain to Bragg. But Bragg, who already made up his mind that Polk and Hardee were too far south, reiterated that everyone was moving north to Versailles. Hardee would simply have to brush away whatever force was supposedly following him.

And then, in the afternoon of this date, things became a whole lot clearer to Bragg. Reports came in of two separate Federal columns moving on Lawrenceburg, a stone’s throw away from Versailles. Another column was supposedly at Frankfort, to the northwest. Bragg was now absolutely confident that he had made the right decision. The entire Union army was seemingly about to attack his right wing and he would be ready for them.

The lack of reports from Polk and Hardee bolstered this certainty. Apparently, whatever Federals that had been sneaking towards Perryville had turned northward for Lawrenceburg. Hardee’s lack of communication wasn’t due to lack of news. Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry had been tangling with their Union counterparts all morning. They had seen long lines of infantry and reported that Buell’s main thrust was coming their way. Hardee seemed to dismiss this.

The only thing that Hardee said that could be wildly construed as a proper interpretation of reality was the message he sent to Bragg in the late afternoon. Wheeler had been engaged in some artillery fighting and that he expected a fight the next day. He asked Bragg for more men, but only if they were not “pressed in another direction.” Of course, Bragg believed they were more than pressed in another direction and couldn’t send a single regiment.

Braxton Bragg - "The Yankees are wherever I say they are!"

Finally, in a fit of annoyance that the Federals were spoiling his plans, Bragg ordered Polk to send Hardee the division he had asked for, dispose of the Yankees in his front and tear off for Versailles immediately. Through the evening, Bragg received even more reports of Federal columns descending upon his Right Wing.

There was a bit of a hiccup, however. The more reports that flowed in, the farther south it placed the Yankees. First, it was Frankfort, and then it was Taylorsville. Finally, it was Mackville, forty miles southwest of Versailles and due west of Harrodsburg. If Bragg ever considered that the Federals might actually be moving south through Taylorsville and Mackville away from Versailles (as the reports suggested), he never let it interfere with his belief that the Federals were moving towards Versailles.

By midnight, roughly 16,000 Rebels were arrayed at Perryville. Not too far away, 55,000 Federals under the command of Alexander McCook, Thomas Crittenden, and Charles Gilbert were planning on following Don Carlos Buell’s orders to attack at dawn. The only Union forces anywhere near the Confederate Right Wing were 20,000 mostly green troops under Joshua Sill – the diversionary corps who did their job all too well.1

  1. Sources: Army of the Heartland by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 1 by Grady McWhiney; Perryville by Kenneth W. Noe. []
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The Federal Ruse in Kentucky Working Better than Expected by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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