Bragg Replaces Beauregard
On June 27, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved General P. G. T. Beauregard of command of the Army of the Mississippi and replaced him with General Braxton Bragg. Hoping to end the string of Federal successes in the West, Bragg devised a plan to shift the focus of the war in the Western Theater by invading Kentucky. Bragg believed that most residents in that border state supported the Confederacy and that many of them would join the Southern army if given the opportunity.
Bragg Invades Kentucky
Leaving 32,000 soldiers in Mississippi to deal with Grant, Bragg moved his remaining 34,000 men to Chattanooga, Tennessee to launch his invasion of Kentucky. Once in Kentucky, Bragg planned to combine forces with Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith’s 18,000 soldiers, stationed near Knoxville, Tennessee, and move against the Union Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General Don Carlos Buell.
Bragg is Successful Initially
Initially, events went well for the Confederates. Smith left Knoxville on August 14, 1862, and he defeated a Union garrison at Richmond, Kentucky on August 30. Bragg’s army left Chattanooga in late August. By mid-September, he had moved nearly unopposed to Glasgow, Kentucky, approximately thirty-five miles east of Bowling Green and twenty-five miles south of Munfordville, the hometown of Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner and Union General Thomas John Wood.
Federal Defenses Near Munfordville
Located nearly seventy-five miles south of Louisville, Munfordville was the site of a strategically important bridge spanning the Green River on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad line. Completed in 1859, the bridge was over 125 feet high and nearly 1,100 feet long. Confederate forces, commanded by Buckner, destroyed the south end of the bridge in late 1861, but Union soldiers repaired it by January 1862. While the repair work progressed, federal forces, commanded by Brigadier General Alexander McCook, constructed a network of fortifications on the southern end of the bridge to defend it against further Rebel marauding.
September 13, 1862 – Rebels Approach Munfordville
On September 13, 1862, a Rebel cavalry brigade, led by Colonel John Scott, approached Munfordville and its garrison of 2,600 federal soldiers, commanded by Colonel John T. Wilder. Believing that he held the upper hand, Scott demanded that Wilder surrender. After Wilder refused, Brigadier General James R. Chalmers’s infantry brigade reinforced Scott, increasing the number of Rebels threatening Munfordville to nearly 2,000 men.
Clash at Munfordville
September 14, 1862 – Rebels Assault Federal Garrison at Munfordville
On Sunday morning, September 14, Chalmers launched an assault against the Union garrison. During the day, Colonel Cyrus L. Dunham arrived at Munfordville with approximately 500 federal reinforcements. Dunham was the senior officer, but he chose not to assume command until the events of the day ended. Although the Yankees held their ground, Chalmers sent a note to Wilder that night, demanding an unconditional surrender. When Wilder refused, the two commanders negotiated a truce that enabled both sides to recover their dead and wounded. His bluff having been called, Chalmers withdrew during the night along with Scott.
September 14, 1862 – Federals Reinforce
On the Union side, Dunham had assumed command of the garrison after the fighting ended on September 14. The next day, Colonel Richard Owen led nearly 1,000 reinforcements to Munfordville, expanding Dunham’s command to a little over 4,000 soldiers. Dunham’s troops spent the day strengthening their fortifications.
Bragg Joins the Fray
While the Yankees hastened to bolster their defenses, Bragg advanced his army toward Munfordville. Fearful of losing face in Kentucky, where he was trying to recruit volunteers, Bragg felt compelled to finish what Chalmers had started. The Confederate leader divided his force into two wings. He sent General William J. Hardee’s wing north to confront the Union defenses on the south side of the bridge.
While Hardee was positioning his soldiers, General Leonidas Polk moved his wing east about ten miles, where he easily crossed the Green River at a ford that General Buckner recommended. Polk then swung his force around and stationed it at the unprotected rear of the Union garrison. With Munfordville surrounded, Bragg called for a truce and offered Dunham an opportunity to surrender. Dunham sent Wilder into the Confederate lines with his refusal, but when Wilder returned, he reported that the Yankees were in a perilous situation. Based on Wilder’s observations, Dunham asked Bragg for some time to reconsider.
Wilder Replaces Dunham
When Bragg agreed, Dunham telegraphed his superior, Major General Charles C. Gilbert, in Louisville, informing him that unless reinforcements arrived soon, he would have to surrender the garrison. Skeptical of Dunham’s assessment, Gilbert wired Wilder, ordering him to take command of the garrison. When Dunham refused to serve under a junior officer, Gilbert ordered Wilder to arrest Dunham for insubordination and send him back to Louisville. Although Wilder complied with Gilbert’s order, he knew that refusing Bragg’s demand to surrender would be senseless. Yet, he also suspected that suggesting surrender would prompt Gilbert to arrest him too.
Wilder Meets with Bragg Again
Faced with a dicey situation, Wilder requested a meeting with Bragg, hoping to secure more evidence to support his inclination to surrender. Bragg agreed to meet Wilder again. When Wilder suggested that Bragg prove his assertion that an overwhelming force surrounded the Federals, Bragg ordered General Buckner to lead Wilder on a tour of the Rebel positions. The tour, on September 16, convinced Wilder that his situation was hopeless. He agreed to meet with Bragg to negotiate a surrender.
Wilder Surrenders to Bragg
Bragg and Wilder spent the night wrangling over the terms of capitulation before reaching an accord. At 6 a.m. on September 17, 1862, Wilder led approximately 4,000 soldiers under his command out of the Munfordville fortifications and surrendered to Bragg. The Confederate general’s terms were generous. Bragg paroled all the Federals and allowed them to march south toward Bowling Green and Buell’s Army of the Ohio.
Bragg later boasted that his army subdued the Munfordville garrison and captured the bridge spanning the Green River “without our firing a gun.” Official reports, however, showed that the Confederacy suffered 288 casualties (thirty-five killed and 253 wounded) during the hostilities at Munfordville between September 13 and September 17. Aside from the 4,133 soldiers captured, the Union reported seventy-two casualties (fifteen killed and fifty-seven wounded).
Bragg held his prize for only three days. With his supplies running low and Buell’s Army of the Ohio bearing down on him, Bragg renewed his original course of action. On September 20, 1862, he abandoned Munfordville and moved his army northeast, toward Bardstown, to carry through his planned rendezvous with Kirby Smith.