Also known as the Battle of Green River, and the Battle of the Green River Bridge, the Battle of Munfordville was fought from September 14-17, 1862 at Munfordville, Kentucky, as part of the Confederate Heartland Campaign.
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, as well as the southern port city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Federal forces had driven the Confederate Army of the Mississippi from the important railroad hub at Corinth, Mississippi to Tupelo, Mississippi, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant was making plans to capture the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi on the Mississippi River.
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 the majority of residents in that border state supported the Confederacy and that many of them would join the Southern army if given the opportunity.
Leaving thirty-two thousand men in Mississippi to deal with Grant, Bragg moved the remaining thirty-four thousand soldiers to Chattanooga, Tennessee to launch his invasion of Kentucky. Once in Kentucky, Bragg planned to combine forces with Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith's eighteen thousand soldiers, proceeding north out of Knoxville, Tennessee and then move against Union General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio.
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.
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 workers repaired it by January 1862. While the repair work progressed, federal soldiers, led by Brigadier-General Alexander McCook, constructed a complex of fortifications on the southern end of the bridge to defend it against further Rebel marauding.
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 two thousand men.
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 five hundred Union reinforcements. Dunham was the senior officer, but he chose not to assume command until the events of the day were completed. Although the Yankees held their ground, Chalmers sent a note to Wilder that night, demanding an unconditional surrender. After Wilder refused, a truce was established enabling both sides to recover their dead and wounded. His bluff having been called, Chalmers withdrew during the night along with Scott.
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 one thousand reinforcements to Munfordville, expanding Dunham's command to a little over four thousand soldiers. Dunham's troops spent the day strengthening their fortifications.
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 reluctantly 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 indeed in a perilous situation. Based upon Wilder's observations, Dunham asked Bragg for more time to reconsider.
When Bragg consented, Dunham telegraphed his superior, Major General Charles C. Gilbert, in Louisville, informing him that unless reinforcements were dispatched immediately, Dunham would be forced to surrender the garrison. Unsympathetic to 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 result in him suffering the same fate as Dunham.
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 the Federals were surrounded by an overwhelming force, Bragg ordered General Buckner to lead Wilder on a guided tour of the Rebel positions. The ensuing tour, on September 16, convinced Wilder that his situation was hopeless. He agreed to meet with Bragg to negotiate a surrender.
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 four thousand soldiers under his command out of the Munfordville fortifications and surrendered to Bragg. The Confederate general's terms were generous. All of the Federals were paroled and allowed 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 indicated 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 was able to hold 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.
The only Ohio unit that participated in the Battle of Munfordville was the 1st Ohio Light Artillery, Battery D.
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"Battle of Munfordville," Ohio Civil War Central, 2020, Ohio Civil War Central. 28 Jan 2020 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1520>
"Battle of Munfordville." (2020) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved January 28, 2020, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1520
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