The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2
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The second mistake was in ordering Buell to repair the very badly damaged Memphis and Charleston railroad as he advanced. This, as we have already seen, resulted in so delaying his advance that Bragg reached Chattanooga first and was from that hour master of the situation.
In the meanwhile Forrest and Morgan were ceaselessly active in Buell's rear – towards Louisville – harassing his detachments, threatening and at times destroying his communications, burning bridges, tearing up railroads, gathering recruits from the youth of Kentucky and Tennessee, throwing the people into panic and grave uncertainty of mind, and now and then defeating and capturing important forces. Thus at Tompkinsville, Kentucky, Morgan routed the Federal garrison under Major Jordan, and proceeding, destroyed the railroad at Lebanon Junction, and at Lebanon compelled the surrender of the force there with a large amount of supplies which Buell badly needed. Thence he raided all over central Kentucky, destroying railroads of the utmost importance to Buell and finally escaping with rich booty into the Confederate lines again.
Forrest pushed out from Chattanooga and undertook even larger operations. He assailed Murfreesborough on the thirteenth of July, carried the place by storm, captured the whole garrison, including its commander, General Crittenden, and, turning about, overcame and captured Colonel Lester on the Stone river, with his entire force of nine full companies.
These actions were not battles of any special consequence, of course. They are mentioned here merely as illustrations of the perplexities that beset General Buell in his march upon Chattanooga, and ultimately made a complete failure of the attempt. Such actions as those described were of daily occurrence, and they compelled General Buell not only to weaken his column by detachments sent to strengthen exposed positions, but still further to cripple himself by sending columns of some importance to try conclusions with the very enterprising enemy.
Bragg, at the head of a strong Confederate army, established himself in Chattanooga on the twenty-ninth of July, some weeks before Buell could finish the reconstruction of the Memphis and Charleston railroad and advance to the point the occupation of which was the sole object of his campaign.
Bragg at once called to his aid all the troops that could be spared to him from points of less importance, and very soon he was at the head of a strong force which threatened a serious and dangerous invasion.
But while he was thus concentrating his forces for a vigorous aggressive movement, Bragg adroitly concealed his purposes. He so disposed his divisions as to leave Buell in utter uncertainty as to his intentions. It might be that he intended a reconquest of Nashville. It might be that his purpose was to march into eastern Kentucky. It might be that he intended to move northward, take Buell in flank and rear, destroy his communications, cut him off from assistance or retreat, and perhaps compel his surrender.His dispositions equally threatened each of these possible enterprises, without in the least degree impairing his ability instantly to concentrate his entire force for the execution of any one of them.
And what his force was Buell did not know and could not conjecture with any degree of confidence. East Tennessee was full of Union men eager to give helpful information to the Federal commander, but Bragg, with an adroitness that had not before been brought to bear upon campaigning in the west, managed to conceal the strength of his army even from the citizens of Chattanooga, at the same time moving troops about in such fashion as to suggest half a dozen different and irreconcilable purposes. It thus happened that the more and the more positive information Buell received with regard to his enemy's operations and intentions, the more hopelessly was he bewildered. He dared not concentrate upon any line, lest his adversary should move at once by some other and put him in peril. No one can read General Buell's orders and dispatches written at that time without being strongly impressed with the hopeless confusion and uncertainty of his mind due to a situation that was perplexing in the extreme.
It was obvious that he must draw his widely scattered forces together at some point; but where? He could not concentrate them at any point upon the line or in the region he was supposed to be occupying without weakening all other points at grave risk of having his enemy turn his position and bring him to destruction. There was only one course that he could pursue with even tolerable prudence. That was to abandon his aggressive campaign, fall back, concentrate for defense and give battle at some point of his own selection much farther north.
Bragg's army consisted of five divisions of infantry with artillery and cavalry. Buell had five divisions in front and three others within almost instant call, while he could depend upon being still further reinforced from Louisville, whither a still further part of Grant's army had been sent. But the nature of the country in which Bragg lay, and the uncertainty of his intentions forbade an attack upon him there.
Buell decided at last that his adversary's objective was Nashville, and on the thirtieth of August he gave orders for a retreat toward that place by way of Murfreesboro. At Murfreesboro he made no pause, as by that time Bragg's movement had developed his purpose to go into Kentucky and make a hurried advance upon Louisville, striking that city before Buell could come to its defense. Buell therefore abandoned his march towards Nashville and pushed his column northward by hurried marches, in the hope that he might beat Bragg in the race for the Ohio river, or failing in that, might be in time to fall upon his adversary's rear before he could establish himself in Louisville's defenses. He left a small garrison to hold Nashville but pushed forward in all haste with his main army, in retreat upon Louisville.
His retreat was embarrassed at every step. Bragg had forces ahead of him who destroyed bridges, tore up tracks, captured important supply depots, and in one case, at Mumfordsville, compelled the surrender – September 17 – of a fortified town with its garrison, upon which Buell had somewhat depended for a reinforcement.
At first Buell had left Thomas at Nashville, to defend that city, but his own need of strength became so pressing that he called upon that able officer to join him with the greater part of the troops that had been left at Nashville.
What Bragg's campaign really meant, and what he hoped to accomplish by it may best be shown by his own orders and dispatches. On August eleventh, soon after he had established himself at Chattanooga, he sent instructions to General Van Dorn who was confronting Grant at Corinth in which he said: "It is very desirable to press the enemy closely in West Tennessee. We learn their forces there are being rapidly reduced, and when our movements become known, it is certain they must throw forces into middle Tennessee and Kentucky, or lose those regions. If you hold them in check, we are sure of success here; but should they reinforce here so as to defy us, then you may redeem west Tennessee and probably aid us by crushing the enemy's rear."
On August 27, just as his army was got into vigorous motion, General Bragg wrote to Van Dorn again as follows: "We move from here immediately – later by some days than expected; but in time, we hope, for a successful campaign. Buell has certainly fallen back from the Memphis and Charleston railroad, and will probably not make a stand this side of Nashville, if there. He is now fortifying that place. General E. K. Smith, reinforced by two brigades from this army, has turned Cumberland Gap and is now marching on Lexington, Kentucky. General Morgan (Yankee) is thus cut off from all supplies. General Humphrey Marshall is to enter eastern Kentucky from western Virginia. We shall thus have Buell pretty well disposed of. Sherman and Rosecrans, we leave to you and Price, satisfied you can dispose of them, and we confidently hope to meet you upon the Ohio."
Two days later, on August 29, Bragg telegraphed Price, saying: "Buell's force is in full retreat upon Nashville, destroying their stores. Watch Rosecrans and prevent a junction. Or, if he escapes, you follow him closely."
It will be seen from these dispatches that Bragg had no real thought of advancing upon Nashville, as Buell at first believed that he intended to do. His campaign was boldly planned for a larger conquest farther north, which, if he had been successful, would have left Nashville an easy prey to a strong detachment, if indeed it had failed to succumb to isolation and fall by its own weight.
In these brief communications we have a complete revelation of Bragg's plans and purposes – a complete setting forth of his hopes. Stripped of military technicalities his purpose was to push his army towards Louisville in advance of Buell's retreat; to strike and destroy the Federal general's line of railroad communication between Nashville and Louisville, at points north of Buell's march, thus impeding and delaying the Federal retreat and in Forrest's phrase "getting there first with the most men" —there meaning Louisville on the Ohio river.
In aid of this plan he had cut off the Federal general, Morgan, at Cumberland Gap, rendering his force useless for any aggressive purpose and incapable of joining Buell anywhere. He had ordered strong forces into eastern Kentucky, to hold there all the Federals in that quarter, to threaten Cincinnati and perhaps to compel the detachment of a considerable force from the garrison at Louisville for the defense of the Ohio city. He depended upon Price and Van Dorn so to occupy Grant's badly depleted army in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi as to prevent it from moving to Buell's assistance, or should it so move, he expected his very energetic lieutenants to cripple it by a prompt pursuit and by vigorous blows struck upon its rear, in the meanwhile overrunning and reconquering the region lost in western Tennessee and Kentucky.
This was without doubt one of the most brilliantly planned operations of the entire war on either side. It looked to no less an achievement than the undoing of all that had been done by Grant and Buell and Thomas, the reconquest of all the region lost and the establishment of the Confederate lines upon the Ohio river for both offensive and defensive operations during the next year and the years to follow.
The one defect of the plan was that the Confederates had not force enough to carry it to success, except by some happy accident, and happy accidents were far less likely to happen in the autumn of 1862 than they had been a year earlier when troops were raw, generals totally inexperienced and the problems of war wholly unsolved even in their primary processes.
Bragg's force was considerably less than that which Buell had under his immediate command. Lee was at that time carrying on his tremendous campaigns in Virginia and Maryland so that no troops could be spared from that quarter to reinforce Bragg's undertaking. Price and Van Dorn had quite all they could do to hold their own against Grant at Corinth and Sherman at Memphis. It is true that Grant had been "stripped to the skin," as he expressed it, by calls upon him to reinforce Buell and to spare division after division for the army that was contending against Lee and doubtfully defending the Federal capital. But on the other hand Price and Van Dorn had been stripped equally bare to furnish Bragg with the troops with whom he was invading Kentucky.
And while Bragg was thus marching into his enemy's country with a force only about three fifths as numerous as that of his adversary and with no prospect of important reinforcement from any quarter, Buell was retreating upon a city strongly held, whose garrison would furnish an instant and a very strong reinforcement, while the mere threat of Bragg's advance was inducing the hurrying of multitudes of fresh troops from all the northwestern states, to the menaced cities of Cincinnati and Louisville. For it was clearly seen in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and even in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, that should Bragg succeed in establishing himself on the Ohio river the states north of that stream must become the ravaged and trampled theater of the next year's campaign, with a Confederate invading force swelled by enlistments from Kentucky and Tennessee to enormous proportions and reinforced by the fifty or sixty thousand Southern veterans whom the conquest of the Ohio by Bragg would instantly release from defensive work farther south. In brief, if Bragg could have captured and held Louisville by defeating Buell, it was morally certain that the Confederates would have been able, during the following spring, to invade the Northwest with an effective force of tremendous proportions. For Kentucky and Tennessee would in that case have become wholly Confederate, and the whole South would have joined in an effort to make decisive use of such an opportunity to end the war in triumph. Tens of thousands of seasoned troops employed during the summer of 1862 in garrisoning towns and protecting railroad lines would in that case have been set free to aid in an aggressive movement north of the Ohio. With the Confederates established at Louisville and holding the Ohio river as their line, there would have been no choice but for Grant to withdraw from Mississippi, West Tennessee and Kentucky, thus setting free not only the 30,000 or 50,000 men confronting his present position, but also the garrisons and armies about Vicksburg and along the several railroads in Mississippi and in northern Georgia and Alabama. It is certainly not an exaggeration to estimate that had Bragg succeeded, as he hoped, in seizing Louisville and meeting Van Dorn and Price "on the Ohio" as he said, the Confederates could and would have mustered at least 150,000 men for the invasion of the Northwest at the opening of the spring of 1863 – an army greater than the South ever put into the field at any point during the entire continuance of the war.
And all this was a not impossible – indeed a not improbable – contingency. It is true that Bragg's force was in numbers inferior to Buell's in about the proportion of three to five. But it was massed at the outset and remained completely co?perating from beginning to end of the campaign. It had besides, the advantage of knowing what it intended and whither it was going, while Buell must vaguely guess its intentions and hold himself ready during a retreat, to meet his enemy wherever that enemy might see fit to strike.
In war these things offset superiority of numbers in a degree which it is difficult for the civilian reader to understand. He who can give battle or refuse it where he pleases, has a very great advantage over his adversary who must accept whatever is offered or else retreat at disadvantage.
Moreover Bragg had managed to get the start of Buell in their race for Louisville, and this advantage had been greatly increased by his success in breaking Buell's lines of march by burning bridges, tearing up railroads and capturing supply depots. For a time it seemed more than probable that Bragg would reach Louisville and occupy it before Buell could by any possibility get there. In that event Buell would have been cut off from all supplies, and only ordinary vigilance on the part of the Confederates would have been necessary to starve him into surrender – for if thus cut off, his stores could not have supported his army for more than three or four days at the utmost.
Still again, Bragg had another ground of hope. It often happens in war, that a smaller force, skilfully handled, masters a larger force. To go no further back than the Seven Days' battles around Richmond, and the campaign following, Lee had succeeded by the skilful handling of a comparatively small force in overcoming one army which greatly outnumbered his own, while paralyzing the purpose of other forces as great as his own, that had been sent to reinforce his enemy. With this and many other familiar illustrations of the possibility of achieving conspicuous military success against superior numbers present to his mind, it was not vainglorious on the part of Bragg, who believed in his own skill, to hope that if he could reach Louisville in advance of Buell, his army, inspirited by repeated successes on the march, and holding the vantage ground of possession, might successfully meet and defeat Buell's way-weary force, cut off, as in that case it would have been, from its objective, from all hope of assistance and even from very badly needed supplies.
Indeed, had Bragg achieved his purpose of pushing his columns into Louisville in advance of Buell's coming, it would have been almost a miracle for him to have failed in his resistance to the outmarched Federal commander's attempts to recapture the lost stronghold.
It was one of those fearful crises of the war, – like Sharpsburg and Gettysburg – in which the whole outcome of the struggle hung trembling in the balance, and the future alike of the Union and of the Confederacy was risked, as it were, upon the hazard of a die.
For while Bragg was thus dragging Buell back from northern Alabama and Georgia to the Ohio river and more than seriously threatening to make of that river the fortified frontier of the Confederacy, Lee was in Maryland, after having overthrown McClellan before Richmond and Pope at Manassas, and the National capital itself seemed in sore danger of capture. The year which had opened with the Union victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, presently followed by Grant's success at Shiloh, while McClellan's overwhelming divisions were near enough to Richmond to see the spires of that city's churches, seemed about to draw to a close so disastrous to the Federal cause as to leave it in worse case than at the beginning of the war or indeed at any time since the first defeat at Bull Run.
The National credit was impaired as it never had been before. The Confederates were moved to make of the eighteenth of September a day of Thanksgiving for a deliverance which they regarded as in effect accomplished.
Enlistments at the North had so far fallen off that drafts must be made in order to maintain that great superiority of numbers without which the North, fighting aggressively, could not hope to make head against Southern defense, as all the operations of the war up to that time had shown, and as the later course of the contest additionally proved at every point.
But Bragg's effort to seize Louisville before Buell could throw himself into that city's defenses, failed of its purpose. By virtue of a wonderful march Buell reached the city first, near the end of September, the last of his forces arriving there on the twenty-ninth. Bragg was at Bardstown, not far away and in a very threatening position. In the meanwhile Grant held his own at Corinth in spite of the dangerous depletion of his forces, and the whole of West Tennessee remained in possession of the Federals.
Buell found heavy reinforcements awaiting him at Louisville, while Bragg at Bardstown had not yet been joined, as he had expected to be, by Kirby Smith's force from eastern Kentucky.
The conditions of the campaign were thus reversed. Buell, who had been on the defensive and in enforced retreat, was able now to take the offensive, while Bragg, who had been advancing with high hopes was now in a position from which he must retreat promptly on pain of having his army overwhelmed and destroyed.
Buell quickly reorganized his army into corps, welding the raw troops into the seasoned force, and within a day or two he was ready to assail the enemy who had driven him across two states.
Bragg retired to Perryville with a total force of about 35,000 men, and Buell with 58,000 advanced upon him. On the eighth of October a severe battle occurred which lasted from noonday to night and seemed undecided when night fell. But when morning came Bragg had retired and was in slow and orderly retreat southward. The Federal loss in the battle of Perryville was reported at 4,348, including two brigadier generals killed. The Confederate loss is unknown, but as Bragg began the battle with only three divisions assailing eight, and as the fighting at times was muzzle to muzzle, the slaughter among such troops as were actually engaged on his side, must have been terrible.
Learning that Kirby Smith's command had on that evening joined Bragg, General Buell did not press his enemy, but disposed his forces for a defensive battle. It was not until the thirteenth that he discovered that Bragg was indeed retreating and ordered a pursuit. This was pressed, with some fighting now and then, as far as Crab Orchard, where the Federals halted, leaving Bragg free to make his leisurely way to East Tennessee with an enormous wagon train loaded with a rich booty of supplies which he had gathered in Kentucky.
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