Prelude to the Heartland Offensive
By the middle of 1862, Confederate fortunes were declining in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. Union forces controlled western Tennessee and the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, and the southern port city of New Orleans. Federal forces had driven the Confederate Army of Mississippi from the important railroad hub at Corinth, Mississippi to Tupelo, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant was making plans to capture the fortress city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River.
On June 27, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved General P. G. T. Beauregard of command of the Army of 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.
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.
Battle of Munfordville
Initially, events went well for the Confederates. Smith left Knoxville on August 14, 1862, and defeated a Union garrison at Richmond, Kentucky on August 30. Bragg’s army left Chattanooga in late August and on September 17, they captured an important rail station at Munfordville, Kentucky, along with 4,000 Union soldiers, at the Battle of Munfordville (September 14–17, 1862). On October 4, events were so promising that Bragg took part in the inauguration of Richard Hawes as the provisional Confederate governor of Kentucky.
Throughout September, the two-headed Rebel onslaught forced Buell back toward Louisville. There, soldiers from across the Ohio River, in Indiana, reinforced the Army of the Ohio. In early October, with up to 60,000 men under his command, Buell left Louisville and became the pursuer. The Confederates were unprepared for Buell’s advance. Smith and Bragg had still not combined their armies and Bragg’s army was spread between Bardstown and Frankfort.
Battle of Perryville
Buell sent a small force to Frankfort to convince Bragg that the focus of his counterattack was the Kentucky capital. Meanwhile, the bulk of Buell’s army departed southeast from Louisville in three columns in search of Bragg’s army. On October 7, 1862, the three columns approached the small crossroads town of Perryville, Kentucky. There, the first column to arrive, commanded by Major General Alexander M. McCook, engaged 16,000 of Bragg’s men, commanded by Major General Leonidas Polk. Realizing the Buell’s feint toward Frankfort was a ruse, Bragg rushed to Perryville and took command by 10 a.m. The battle went well for the Confederates initially. Facing stubborn resistance, the Rebels gradually drove the Federals back. As the day progressed, however, more of Buell’s army arrived on the scene. Running short of supplies and ammunition, and faced with the prospect of squaring off with the bulk of Buell’s army on the following day, Bragg withdrew during the night, despite suffering fewer casualties and achieving a tactical victory at the Battle of Perryville.
After the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862), Bragg retreated to Harrodsburg, Kentucky where he finally joined forces with Kirby Smith. The combined Confederate army was now comparable in size to Buell’s army. Nevertheless, Bragg lost his enthusiasm for the campaign. The Kentucky recruits he expected never materialized and he believed that his supply lines were too thin to remain in the state. Over the objections of Smith, Polk, and other subordinates, Bragg ended the campaign and evacuated Kentucky, leaving the state in Union control for the remainder of the war.
Aftermath of the Heartland Offensive
Neither of the principal commanders fared well at the conclusion of the campaign. President Jefferson Davis summoned Bragg to Richmond, Virginia to answer charges brought by his subordinates about how poorly he handled the campaign. Satisfied with Bragg’s explanation, Davis ignored requests to relieve Bragg of his command. Understandably, Bragg’s relationships with his subordinate officers were strained when he rejoined his army.
Buell’s half-hearted pursuit of Bragg as the Confederates withdrew from Kentucky was the source of dissatisfaction on the Union side. On October 24, 1862, Army officials created a new Department of the Cumberland in the Western Theater under the command of Major General William S. Rosecrans. The War Department assigned the Army of the Ohio to the new department and re-designated it as the 16th Corps. Union officials ordered Buell to appear before a commission investigating his leadership during the campaign. The commission met from November 24, 1862, to May 10, 1863, but never issued a final report. From May 10, 1863, through June 1, 1864, Buell’s official status was “awaiting orders.” With his military reputation irreparably damaged, Buell mustered out of volunteer service on May 23, 1864, and he resigned from the military on June 1.