October 14, 1862 (Tuesday)
It had been nearly a week since the Kentucky battle of Perryville, where the smaller Confederate force drove back what they later found out to be pretty much the entire Union army. With only half of Braxton Bragg’s Rebel command at hand for the attack, the Federal Army of the Ohio, under Don Carlos Buell, fell back until night put and end to the fighting.
The day after the engagement, Bragg discovered that his small band of 16,000 had attempted to rout as many as 50,000 Federals. Though the battle was a clear Rebel victory, it was only so because Buell’s handling of his men was abysmal at best. Bragg understood that if the Federals figured out just how few Confederates were in their front, he wouldn’t stand a chance. So, by the 9th, he was in full withdrawal, moving his men towards Harrodsburg to unite with the right wing of his command under Kirby Smith, who was en route.
The next day, Smith urged Bragg to attack the Federals, who had closely followed. But Bragg had already sent his wing east, towards Bryantsville. At Harrodsburg, his troops had occupied some fine defensive ground. If Buell would only attack him, they could end this campaign and hopefully claim Kentucky for the Confederacy.
Buell, however, wasn’t about to attack. His command, while large, was still hurting from Perryville. An entire corps, one-third of his army, was wrecked. There would be no Union attack.
With the joined wings of Bragg’s Rebel army, his numbers would have come close to, and possibly even exceeded, those of Buell’s. The problem was that Buell could potentially whip Bragg without much of a fight – all he would have to do is slip behind Bragg, getting in between the Rebel force and their line of retreat towards Cumberland Gap.
In fact, Buell seemed to be doing just that, edging his troops ever closer to Danville, twenty miles south of Bragg’s army. As the days slipped away, so did the Rebel chances of taking Kentucky. Rumors abounded that a large Federal force dropping south from Cincinnati was about to join Buell.
To counter, Bragg sent his entire command, including Kirby Smith, across Dick’s River and set himself up in another fine defensive position, hoping against hope that Buell would attack.
Again, Buell did not acquiesce. He did not have to.
By the 11th, rumors of a different sort were circulating around camp. Bragg had ordered scouts to find water along the roads to the south Bryantsville. This could only mean one thing – the Confederates were about to retreat. The next day brought the word. The campaign was to be abandoned.
The news in the Confederate West was bad. Bragg had counted upon Generals Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn, commanding forces in Mississipppi, to steamroll through Tennessee and join them in Kentucky. But as word reached him of their defeat at Corinth, he knew there would be no reinforcements.
Aside from all of this, supplies were running dangerously low. They had rations for only four more days. The Federals had picked the country clean and there was scant left for Bragg and his troops. Also, while the Union troops could receive reinforcements and supplies from Louisville and Cincinnati, embarrassingly few Rebel recruits that Bragg had hoped would materialize once they entered the Bluegrass State actually showed up.
The next day, the 13th, began the retreat. Only combined for a handful of days, Bragg and Smith retreated to Lancaster, where, on this date, they again split.
Bragg’s Army of Mississippi would retreat towards Tennessee through Mount Vernon, sticking close to Dick’s River. Kirby Smith’s Army of Kentucky would more or less go back the way they came, through Paint Lick and then south, rejoining with Bragg around Barboursville.
By the end of the month, Bragg and Smith would be in Knoxville. Buell would follow Bragg towards London, but would break off the pursuit, believing the true Confederate destination to be Nashville.1
- Sources: Perryville by Kenneth W. Noe; Army of the Heartland by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; War in Kentucky by James Lee McDonough; OR, Series 1, Vol. 16, Part 2. [↩]