William J. Hardee was a prominent Confederate corps commander in the Western Theater of the American Civil War, who briefly commanded the Army of Central Kentucky and the Army of Tennessee on two occasions.
William Joseph Hardee was born on October 12, 1815, at his family’s plantation, “Rural Felicity,” in Camden County, Georgia, between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida. He was the youngest of seven children of John and Sarah Ellis Hardee. Hardee’s father was a successful planter and slaveholder who also served in the state senate.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
After being educated locally, Hardee received an appointment to the United States Military Academy. He entered West Point on July 1, 1834, and graduated four years later on July 1, 1838, ranked twenty-sixth in his class of forty-five cadets. Among his classmates at the academy were future Union General Irvin McDowell and future Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard, with whom Hardee would serve in the Army of the Mississippi.
U.S. Army Officer
Immediately upon graduation, the army commissioned Hardee as a second lieutenant with the 2nd U.S. Dragoons and sent him to Florida, where he campaigned against the Seminole Indians during the Second Seminole War. On December 3, 1839, Hardee received a promotion to first lieutenant. A few months later, in May 1840, Hardee became ill and traveled to St. Augustine to recuperate.
In St. Augustine, Hardee met and began courting Elizabeth Dummett, the daughter of a Florida planter. In October, Hardee returned to his regiment for one month before receiving an assignment to study at the Royal Cavalry School in Saumur, France. Before departing, Hardee and Miss Dummett married in St. Augustine on November 16, 1840. Their marriage produced three daughters and a son.
Studies in France
In France, Hardee studied light infantry tactics using the rifled musket. When he returned to the United States in 1842, the army assigned Hardee to garrison duty in Louisiana for three years. On September 13, 1844, Hardee received a promotion to captain.
In 1845, a border dispute between Texas and Mexico prompted United States President James K. Polk to deploy troops to Texas. Army officials sent Hardee west to serve with General Zachary Taylor’s Army of Occupation. On April 25, 1846, Mexican cavalry troopers took him prisoner during an ambush known as Skirmish of La Rosia. Also known as the Thornton Affair, the encounter touched off the Mexican-American War. The Mexicans held Hardee prisoner for two weeks before exchanging him on May 10, 1846.
Later during the war, Hardee served with General Winfield Scott’s Army of Invasion, which landed at Veracruz on March 9, 1847, and ultimately occupied Mexico City on September 8, 1847. During Scott’s campaign, Hardee received a brevet promotion to captain “for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Affair at Medellin,” effective March 25, 1847. The army also brevetted him to lieutenant colonel “for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Affair with the Enemy at San Agustin, Mexico,” effective August 20, 1847.
Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics
After the Mexican-American War, Hardee served four more years in Texas. In 1852, United States Secretary of War Jefferson Davis selected Hardee to write a new manual of military tactics, addressing the adoption of rifled muskets. Hardee spent the next three years drafting his work, titled Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics. The United States Army adopted the finished product on March 29, 1855. More commonly known as Hardee’s Tactics, the manual later became the handbook used by officers on both sides of the American Civil War. Concurrent with the adoption of his work, Hardee received a brevet promotion to major, effective March 3, 1855.
While Hardee was preparing his book, his wife died of tuberculosis in 1853. To continue his military career, Hardee entrusted the care of his four young children to his wife’s sister, who lived in St. Augustine, Florida.
West Point Instructor
In 1856, Hardee returned to the U.S. Military Academy as Commandant of Cadets. He served in that capacity from July 22, 1856 until September 8, 1860. While there, army officials promoted Hardee to lieutenant colonel, effective June 28, 1860.
After his home state of Georgia seceded from the Union, Hardee resigned his commission on January 31, 1861 and offered his services to the Confederacy. The Confederate government commissioned Hardee as a colonel and assigned to command Forts Morgan and Gaines at the mouth of Mobile Bay in Alabama.
On June 17, 1861, Confederate officials promoted Hardee to brigadier general. Soon thereafter, they sent him west and charged him with organizing and training troops for the defense of Arkansas’s northern border. Hardee’s propensity for solving difficult problems with limited resources impressed his men, earning him the nickname “Old Reliable.” Hardee’s abilities also captured the attention of his superiors, leading to an appointment as major general commanding a division, effective October 7, 1861.
Central Army of Kentucky Commander
From December 4, 1861 through February 23, 1862, Hardee briefly commanded the Central Army of Kentucky. Shortly thereafter, the Confederate War Department sent Hardee’s command to western Tennessee, and merged it into General Albert S. Johnston’s Army of the Mississippi on March 29, just prior to the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862).
Battle of Shiloh
At the Battle of Shiloh, Hardee received a slight arm wound as he commanded the 3rd Corps of Johnston’s army. During the fighting on the first day, General P. G. T. Beauregard assumed command of the army after Union forces mortally wounded Johnston. On the morning of April 7, to Beauregard’s surprise, Grant, reinforced by Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, launched a counterattack. Outnumbered and running low on ammunition, the Rebels fell back, losing ground that they had captured the previous day. Facing the possibility of losing his army, Beauregard retreated to Corinth.
Siege of Corinth
After the Confederate defeat at Shiloh, Hardee continued to command the 3rd Corps of the Army of the Mississippi, while Major General Henry Halleck’s Union troops besieged Corinth (April 29 to May 30, 1862). As conditions worsened at Corinth during the Union siege, Hardee supported Beauregard’s decision to evacuate Corinth and to move his forces south toward Tupelo, Mississippi.
Army of the Mississippi Commander
The Army of the Mississippi reached Tupelo, on June 9, 1862. On June 15, Beauregard informed the Confederate War Department that he was transferring “the command of the forces and of this department to the next officer in rank, General B. Bragg.” Beauregard then traveled to Alabama to recuperate. When President Davis learned that Beauregard had left his post on an unauthorized sick leave, he relieved Beauregard of his command of the Western Department. On June 20, 1862, Davis informed Bragg that he was the new department commander. Soon after his appointment, Bragg issued General Orders, No. 22, temporarily handing off command of the Army of the Mississippi to Hardee on July 5, 1862.
Confederate Heartland Campaign
On August 15, 1862, Bragg issued General Orders, No. 116 (Department No. 2), resuming his command of the Army of the Mississippi. The order also organized the army into two wings and assigned Hardee to command the left wing composed of two divisions.
Two weeks later, on August 28, Bragg left Chattanooga, Tennessee with 34,000 soldiers to launch an invasion of Kentucky known as the Confederate Heartland Campaign. Once in the Bluegrass State, Bragg planned to combine forces with Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith’s 18,000 soldiers, stationed near Knoxville, Tennessee and to move against Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.
During the Confederate Heartland Campaign, Hardee’s wing took part in the Rebel success at the Battle of Munfordville (September 14-17, 1862). Prior to the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862), Hardee established a defensive perimeter covering the three roads into Perryville on the evening of October 7. On the next day, his wing took part in Bragg’s tactical victory over Buell. Despite the Confederate success, however, the prospect of facing federal reinforcements on the next day, while his own army was running short of supplies and ammunition, prompted Bragg to order his forces to withdraw during the night.
After withdrawing from Perryville, Bragg fell back 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 that he expected never materialized, and he believed that his supply lines were too vulnerable and insufficient to remain in the state. Over the objections of Hardee and other subordinate officers, Bragg ended the campaign and evacuated Kentucky, leaving the state in Union control for the rest of the war. Despite the Rebel failure, Confederate officials promoted Hardee to lieutenant general, effective October 10, 1862.
As the Army of the Mississippi fell back to Tennessee, President Davis summoned Bragg to Richmond to answer the complaints from his subordinate officers. During Bragg’s absence, Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk commanded the Army of the Mississippi from September 28, through November 7, 1862. Satisfied with Bragg’s rebuttal, Davis ignored requests to relieve the general of his command.
Understandably, Bragg’s relationships with his subordinate officers were strained when he rejoined his forces. On November 7, 1862, Bragg issued General Orders, No. 143, reorganizing the Army of the Mississippi into two corps commanded by Polk and Hardee.
Two weeks later, he issued General Orders, No. 151, on November 20, again shaking up the command structure. Bragg created a third army corps, commanded by Edmund Kirby Smith, from troops from the Department of East Tennessee. The general designated his newly structured command as the Army of Tennessee. To inspire confidence and boost morale, Bragg implored his soldiers to make a name for the Army of Tennessee “as enviable as those enjoyed by the armies of Kentucky and the Mississippi.”
Battle of Stones River
In November, Bragg established a defensive position along the west fork of Stones River, near Murfreesboro, intent on preventing a Union advance on Chattanooga, Tennessee. On December 26, Major General William S. Rosecrans left Nashville with approximately 44,000 soldiers, prepared to engage Bragg’s army of nearly 38,000 men encamped at Murfreesboro. Rosecrans found Bragg’s army on December 29, and his men moved into line the next day. Each general planned to engage the other’s right flank on December 31, but Bragg struck first.
The Battle of Stones River began with a massive assault by Hardee’s Corps at 6 a.m. Hardee’s attack drove the Federals back initially, but the Union lines eventually held, when Rosecrans sent reinforcements from his left flank. For the rest of the day, the two sides engaged in a bloody stalemate. That night, Rosecrans called a council of war and ordered his generals to “Go to your commands and prepare to fight and die here.” On January 3, Rosecrans received reinforcements and new supplies of ammunition, convincing Bragg that further assaults would be fruitless. Thus, he withdrew to Tullahoma, Tennessee, thirty-six miles to the south, yielding Murfreesboro to Rosecrans.
After the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Stones River, Bragg deployed his army in a defensive line nearly seventy miles long along the Duck River, north of Tullahoma, Tennessee. He aimed to prevent Rosecrans from capturing the strategically important city of Chattanooga, but Rosecrans continued to push Bragg farther south during the Tullahoma Campaign of 1863. Hardee became so displeased with Bragg’s leadership that he requested reassignment. On July 14, 1863, the Confederate War Department transferred Hardee to Alabama, where he assumed temporary command of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana from July 24 through October or November 1863.
During his time with the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, Hardee met and began courting Mary Foreman Lewis, the twenty-six-year-old daughter of an Alabama plantation owner. On January 13, 1864, the couple married at the Lewis family plantation near Demopolis in Marengo County, Alabama. Their marriage lasted nine years but produced no children.
During Hardee’s hiatus from the Army of Tennessee, Bragg scored a significant victory over Rosecrans at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20, 1863). Following his convincing success, Bragg drove the Federals back toward Chattanooga, forcing them to occupy the defensive works around the city. He then seized the high ground overlooking Chattanooga and laid siege to the city.
Shortly after the Battle of Chickamauga, at Bragg’s urging, Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved Major General Leonidas Polk of his command of the 1st Corps of the Army of Tennessee, on October 23, 1863. Davis recalled Hardee from Alabama and appointed him to replace Polk as commander of the 1st Corps of the Army of Tennessee.
Hardee assumed command of his corps during Bragg’s investment of Chattanooga. When General Ulysses S. Grant ordered a Union breakout from Chattanooga on November 23, 1863, Hardee’s Corps checked Major General William T. Sherman’s assault against the right flank of Bragg’s army at Tunnel Hill. After the Rebel center collapsed during the Battle of Missionary Ridge, Hardee’s Corps served as a rearguard, when Bragg ordered the Army of Tennessee to abandon its positions around Chattanooga.
Army of Tennessee Commander
As the Army of Tennessee withdrew into northern Georgia, Bragg’s subordinates, including Hardee, once again lobbied for Bragg’s removal as commander of the Army of Tennessee. This time they succeeded. On November 29, 1863, Bragg asked President Davis to relieve him of his command. On the next day, Davis granted Bragg’s request and named Hardee as the new commander of the army.
Hardee assumed command of the Army of Tennessee on December 2, 1863, but he let Davis know that he had no aspirations to hold the job permanently. On December 16, Davis ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to “turn over the immediate command of the Army of the Mississippi to Lieutenant-General Polk, and proceed to Dalton and assume command of the Army of Tennessee.” Johnston took command of the army on December 27, 1863, and Hardee returned to his previous post.
In the spring and summer of 1864, Hardee served as a corps commander under Johnston during the Atlanta Campaign. He led his troops in combat at the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge (May 7-13, 1864), the Battle of Resaca (May 13-15, 1864), the Battle of Adairsville (May 17, 1864), the Battle of New Hope Church (May 25-26, 1864), the Battle of Dallas (May 26–June 1, 1864), and the Battle of Pickett’s Mill (May 27, 1864).
As Johnston continued to give ground to Major General William T. Sherman’s armies, President Davis became disenchanted with the Confederate’s leadership. On July 17, 1864, Davis wrote to Johnston, informing him that, “You are hereby relieved from the command of the Army and Department of Tennessee, which you will immediately turn over to General Hood.” Hardee continued to serve as a corps commander under the much more pugnacious John Bell Hood as Sherman closed in on Atlanta.
Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida Commander
When Hood’s counterattacks failed to halt Sherman’s advance, he blamed Hardee for Rebel setbacks at the Battle of Peachtree Creek (July 20, 1864), the Battle of Utoy Creek (August 5-7, 1864), and the Battle of Jonesboro (August 31-September 1, 1864). Unwilling to serve as a scapegoat for Hood’s failures and mounting casualty totals, Hardee requested a transfer. On September 28, 1864, Davis relieved Hardee from duty with the Army of Tennessee and placed him in charge of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
Hardee traveled to Charleston, South Carolina and assumed his new post on October 5, 1864. As commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, Hardee inherited the insurmountable task of trying to check William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea (November 15, 1864–December 21, 1864). The best he could do was to delay the inevitable.
Sherman reached the outskirts of Savannah by December 10, 1864 and discovered that Hardee was protecting the city with 10,000 well-entrenched Confederate soldiers. Hardee’s men had flooded the fields around the city, limiting access to a few narrow causeways. Instead of needlessly jeopardizing the lives of his soldiers, Sherman invested the city. On December 17, Sherman demanded that Hardee surrender under threat of bombardment and starvation. Rather than submit, Hardee elected to evacuate the city on December 20, leading his men across the Savannah River over a hastily erected pontoon-bridge. On December 21, 1864, Savannah Mayor R. D. Arnold surrendered Savannah in exchange for Sherman’s promise to protect the city’s citizens and their property.
On February 22, 1865, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of all Southern armies, Robert E. Lee, made a last-ditch effort to halt Sherman’s march through the Carolinas by merging Hardee’s department with the remnants of the Army of Tennessee. Lee placed General Joseph E. Johnston in command of the combined force. Unreasonably, Lee ordered Johnston to “concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” A more realistic Johnston responded to Lee on the same day, “It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman.”
Still, Johnston tried. On March 16, 1865, Hardee slowed Sherman’s onslaught at the Battle of Averasboro. Three days later, Johnston made a stand near Bentonville, North Carolina. While staunchly defending the Confederate right flank during the Battle of Bentonville (March 19–21, 1865), Hardee learned that his only son, seventeen-year-old Willie, a private with 8th Texas Cavalry, had died during the engagement.
After being soundly defeated at Bentonville, Johnston withdrew and eluded Sherman for the next month. On April 26, 1865, two weeks after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Johnston surrendered his forces, including Hardee’s command, to Sherman at Bennett Place, effectively ending major organized combat in the American Civil War.
Following the conclusion of the Civil War, Hardee settled in Alabama, where he tried to restore his wife’s family’s plantation. He later moved to Selma, where he engaged in the insurance business and served as president of the Selma and Meridian Railroad.
In 1873, Hardee fell ill at his summer home at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. After traveling to Wytheville, Virginia for treatment, he died there on November 6, 1873. Hardee’s remains are buried at Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, Alabama.