Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

Local News

April 10, 2011

Battle fought over railroad bridge

MUNFORDVILLE — The railroad bridge over the Green River that was the focus of the Battle and the Siege of Munfordville is still in use today.

It can be easily seen from the Battle for the Bridge Historic Preserve on Charlie Dowling Road in Hart County.

The original stone piers built by an Irish stonecutter, John W. Key and two of his sons, still support the bridge, which was the last link in the L&N Railroad.

“Everybody passed through Munfordville during the Western Theater of the Civil War,” said Tres Seymour, executive director of the Battle for the Bridge Historic Preserve. “All the generals, all the soldiers from the north passed through here and a lot of them stayed here.”

Construction of the bridge was completed in 1859. The Battle and the Siege of Munfordville took place near the bridge along the L&N Turnpike over a three-day period in September 1862. It was one of three Civil War engagements that occurred in the immediate area. The other two were the Battle of Rowletts Station in December 1861 and the Battle of Woodsonville in September 1862 — three days after the end of the Battle and Siege of Munfordville.

The Battle of Rowletts Station occurred when Gen. D.C. Buell issued orders to blow up one of the piers of the railroad bridge as the Confederate soldiers left Munfordville.

“Most of the fighting was over the railroad bridge, because whoever had control of the bridge had control over supply and communication lines,” said Carolyn Short with the Hart County Historical Society Inc. in Munfordville.

Gen. Alexander McDowell McCook, who was at Bacon Creek, which is now Bonnieville, began building pontoon bridges so the river could be crossed while the railroad bridge was repaired, she said.

Union soldiers saw Confederate soldiers across the river at Woodsonville, which is across the Green River from the Battle of the Bride Historic Preserve.

“Most of the fighting was done that day,” she said, adding it didn’t last very long and some people refer to it as a skirmish rather than a battle. “It depends on how you define a skirmish.”

When Gen. Don Carlos Buell began pushing south, Gen. Braxton Bragg began moving north and that action led to the Battle and Siege of Munfordville, she said.

When Gen. Braxton Bragg was given command of the Confederate Army, he put the entire army into railcars and took them by train from southwest Tennessee all the way to Chattanooga and saved them from being destroyed by the Union, Seymour said.

The Union Army was in the South under the control of Buell. Bragg brings the Confederate Army around Nashville and into Kentucky.

“Kentucky was not defended,” he said, adding while there were small garrisons of Union soldiers there basically was no Union Army in Kentucky. Bragg planned a two-pronged attack on Kentucky.

“There were a couple of reasons he chose to do this,” Seymour said. “First of all, John Hunt Morgan, who had been making raids into Kentucky told him 50,000 Kentuckians wold rise to join the Confederacy if he came up in force. He also thought he might be able to capture Louisville. He might be able to capture Cincinnati. He might be able to take the boundary of the Confederacy to the Ohio River. There were a lot of good reasons to make this attempt.”

Bragg arrived in Glasgow with 26,000 soldiers of the Mississippi army. Of those soldiers, 5,000 are under the control of Gen. James R. Chalmers, who Bragg sends to Cave City to highjack a train, he said.

A spy warned the railroad company of Chalmer’s plan to highjack a train and it never happened. In the meantime, Col. John Scott, who was riding with Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in eastern Kentucky, was sent west to tell farmers not to sell their pigs because the Confederate Army would buy them, Seymour said.

“When he arrives at Munfordville ... he finds a small Union garrison in place,” he said. “A garrison of about 1,400 men. They are under Col. John T. Wilder and Wilder has some forfication. He has Ft. Craig — a five-point bastion earthwork — rifle trenches, a stockade on the other side and its rifle trenches.”

Scott also has four cannons — two in the fort and two in the stockade. The small garrison of Union soldiers, the 33rd Kentucky, had just been sworn in the day before his arrival and had no rifles, he said.

Another Confederate spy informs Scott that Chalmers is in Cave City, so he sends a note to Chalmers and invites him to come to Munfordville and capture the 33rd Kentucky. Chalmers agrees and brings his 5,000 soldiers to Munfordville.

He orders his troops to surround the 33rd Kentucky on all sides and prepares them for attack on Sept. 17, 1862. Col. Robert A. Smith attempts to attack the garrison of Union soldiers, but must pick his way through an abatis made of sharpened beech tree limbs.

As Smith attempts to make his way through the abatis, two guns at Carden’s Knob, which is at the southeast side of the Munfordville battlefield began to fire their cannons to see if they can hit Fort Craig on the north side of the battlefield. The firing of the cannons concerns Wilder, so he begins to make preparations for an assault, Seymour said.

“The first thing he does is set fire to the old Green River Church, which stood right next to the forfication,” he said. “He didn’t want Confederate troops to have a place to shelter behind to fire upon his troops in the fort so he sets fire to the church.”

Chalmers, who is now at Rowletts sees the smoke from the church fire and believes an attack in under way.

“He wants to do a pincher attack, so he quickly sends a messenger riding along the flank of Mrs. Lewis’ hill to Col. Smith and says you’ve got to attack right now,” Seymour said. “Col. Smith facing that abatis says I can’t, we’ll be mown down. The messenger said it doesn’t matter, the general says you’ve got to attack right now. So. Col. Smith says the duty is mine, but the responsibility lies elsewhere.”

Smith begins to pick his way through the abatis and was shot out of his saddle and his mortally wounded, he said.

“While that’s happening, Gen. Chalmers realizes the attack has not yet begun, so he sends the 7th Mississippi that he held in reserve on the run over to Carden’s Knob to join the other troops and to tell them to hurry along the pike up here to this house, the Woodson house,” Seymour said.

Richard’s Battalion of Sharpshooters takes position in the fields so they can “get a bead on the fort.”

As the Mississippi army begins its attack, the Union defenders of the fort begin to fire.

“Shots are flying so fierce that the flag over the fort is perforated 146 times,” he said. “The flag pole itself is truck 11 times. The 29th Mississippi reaches the moat of the fort when cannon fire erupts from behind the 9th Mississippi. It’s coming from the extreme northeast and they do an about face and charge what they believe is a hidden Union battery. But it’s not a Union battery.”

Instead, it is Col. John Scott’s cannons on the north side of the river who are firing. It is “friendly fire,” he said.

“The Confederates all pull back and this attack falls apart. Now Chalmers down at Rowletts is still trying to preserve his pincher attack so he sends the 44th Mississippi, which he has held in reserve, up along the railroad track to rescue the 10th Mississippi. Because the guns of Fort Craig are now involved in the defense of Fort Craig, they can’t fire in support of the stockade. So he thinks the 44th will have a very good chance of overwhelming the stockade. But by the time the 44th arrives this attack has fallen apart,” he said.

On Sept. 14, 1862, Chalmers asks Wilder to surrender, but he declines. Chalmers sends word to Bragg he has lost the battle.

“Bragg is unwilling to let such a sense of defeat settle into the minds of his troops,” he said, so he brings 26,000 soldiers to Kentucky. Under his command is Buckner, who is originally from Munfordville. Buckner tells Bragg how to place his soldiers so as to fire directly at the Union soldiers.

“This happens on the 15th of September, the 16th of September all during the day there are in and out skirmishes between the different  points along the line,” Seymour said. “So there is intermittent fighting going on for three days here at Munfordville.”

The Confederate out numbers the Union by more than 21,000 troops and more than 50 guns.

The Union commander sends a telegram to Louisville stating he thinks they should surrender. A telegram returns with the message that the commander needs to step down from power. The man who assumes control at that point is Wilder.

Wilder convinces Confederate soldiers to take him to Buckner so he could ask his advice on what he should do - should he surrender or not.

Buckner takes Wilder to Bragg, but Bragg was dismissive. Buckner ends up showing Wilder what type of forces the Confederacy has so as to help him to make the decision to surrender or not.

Wilder agrees to surrender. Doing so puts Bragg in charge. Bragg left Munfordville on Sept. 20 and went to Bardstown. He left Col. Joseph Wheeler to stave off any Union attack that might follow, which is what led to the Skirmish of Woodsonville, Seymour said.

The Union was planning to attack at dawn, but when daylight arrived they realized the Confederate had moved on to Bacon Creek, which is now Bonnieville.

“After that there was never an organized Confederate military action anywhere in Kentucky,” Seymour said. “There were gorilla activities through the state for the rest of the war, but there was never a military attack.”

Many people visit Hart County to learn about the role its battles played in the Civil War.

“We have close to 3,000 people a year to visit,” said Short. “They will come here and they go right on to the Battle for the Bridge Historic Preserve. One thing that surprises most people is how neat they think our preserve is for such a little town.” 

The Battle for the Bridge Historic Preserve is located along U.S. 31-W outside of Munfordville. It protects 210 acres of the Munfordville and Rowlett Station battlefields, Seymour said.

Hart County recognizes its place in Civil War history by hosting Hart County Civil War Days each year during the second week of September, which attracts thousands of people, including re-enactors, said Sandra Wilson, executive director of the Hart County Tourist Commission.

“This is one of the county’s largest events,” Wilson said. “Hart County’s Civil War history is significant in the region, state and nationally. Our battles, including the battle for control of the Green River bridge, were significant and strategic. The city of Munfordville was occupied by 40,000 soldiers during the war. John Hunt Morgan was sworn in there. The friendship of General Wood and General Buckner is historic and puts faces and names to the poignant stories of our region that pitted friend against friend and brother against brother.”

More information about the Civil War engagements in Hart County can be found by visiting the Battle for the Bridge Historic Preserve website at www.battleforthebridge.org.

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