This is one of my favorite stories from the Civil War.
It was the late summer of 1862 and the Confederacy was on a wide-ranging offensive, stretching from Maryland to Kentucky, Missouri, and Mississippi. The Union was reeling from several defeats, including the Second Battle of Bull Run in Virginia and the Battle of Richmond in Kentucky. One of the Confederate armies, the Army of Mississippi under General Braxton Bragg, had outmaneuvered its Union counterpart, the Army of the Ohio under Major General Don Carlos Buell, and made its way from Chattanooga, Tennessee all the way up into Kentucky, where on September 14th, the lead element of Bragg’s army approached the Union garrison at Munfordville, Kentucky.
The Louisville and Nashville Railroad was the primary supply line for the Army of the Ohio, and the garrison at Munfordville protected a vital railroad bridge over the Green River. That garrison was made up of a mishmash of troops from Indiana and Kentucky and commanded by a volunteer officer named John Thomas Wilder. Colonel Wilder had been an industrialist and inventor before the war and had ancestors that had fought at Bunker Hill during the Revolution.
The lead unit of the Confederate army was a brigade of Mississippians under Brigadier General James R. Chalmers. Colonel Chalmers had gotten bad intelligence from Confederate cavalry that the garrison was made up of some 1,800 raw recruits and he believed they would give up easily to his veteran troops. The cavalry had demanded the surrender of the town the day before, but Col. Wilder had refused. Chalmers again asked the garrison to surrender, and again they refused. So Chalmers ordered his troops to attack.
The assault failed, and the Confederates suffered nearly 300 casualties, including one of the colonels who led the charge.
When he was again asked to surrender “in order to prevent further bloodshed”, Colonel Wilder responded “if you wish to avoid further bloodshed, keep out of the range of my guns.” But he did allow the Confederates to remove their wounded and bury their dead on the 15th.
General Bragg was angry with BG Chalmers, calling his attack “unauthorized and injudicious”. But he felt now that Munfordville must be taken and that he could not just leave the garrison (actually some 4,000 men) behind. So he brought up the rest of his army and prepared to reduce the place with artillery before overwhelming it.
Another demand for surrender was sent on September 16th, and since there was concern among the Confederates about civilian casualties if they bombarded the town, they hoped to persuade Col. Wilder to give up. Major General Simon Bolivar Buckner, who actually grew up in Munfordville, took Wilder on a tour of the Confederate lines, showing him that he had over 22,000 men and dozens of artillery pieces. Then, much to Buckner’s astonishment, Wilder asked him for his advice. Buckner honestly told him that he was hopelessly outnumbered, but that he had an obligation to hold out if he thought it would benefit Union forces in any way. Wilder decided to surrender, but he also negotiated generous terms for his men, in which they were allowed to march out on September 17th with drums beating and flags flying. They stacked arms, and then with new uniforms and rations, they marched up the road towards Louisville. The Munfordville garrison had slowed down the Confederates enough to allow the Army of the Ohio to catch up, and then slip past to save Louisville, a strategic victory to make up for the tactical defeat. From there, the Union force was re-equipped and reinforced before going on to fight the Confederates at Perryville and then chase them out of Kentucky.
Obviously, I admire Colonel Wilder.