- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

On the same day that more than 26,000 soldiers, North and South, were casualties at Antietam, an affair of honor ended a battle and a siege hundreds of miles away at Munfordville, Ky.

While overshadowed by the horrific casualties at Sharpsburg, Md., the Battle of Munfordville, on Sept. 17, 1862, marked the beginning of the Confederacy’s only coordinated attempt to seize Kentucky.

The village of Munfordville likely would have been spared the horrors of the Civil War had it not been for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which crossed the Green River there. As the war progressed, however, the 200 residents of Munfordville grew accustomed to the rattle of musketry. On several occasions, soldiers battled for control of the 1,000-foot-long, five-span railroad bridge outside of town.

As the L&N; ferried vital supplies to Union troops in Tennessee, Federal soldiers fortified earthworks and built a stockade to protect the bridge. This defensive complex, dubbed “Fort Craig,” was tested when the Confederates moved into Kentucky in 1862.

Two Southern armies invaded the state to pull Union forces away from the vital railhead of Chattanooga, Tenn., and to procure recruits. On Sept. 13, the Confederate cavalry attacked Fort Craig. Repulsed, they called for reinforcements and were joined by a brigade of Mississippi infantry commanded by Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers. The subsequent assault was futile. Chalmers’ Southerners, trapped in fallen timber placed to delay attackers, were shredded by a stubborn Union defense.

Col. John T. Wilder, commander of the Fort Craig garrison, said that an “avalanche of death swept through the [Confederate] ranks. … They were literally murdered by a terrible fire from the gallant defenders of the work.” Wilder, a 31-year-old iron manufacturer from Greensburg, Ind., had been in the service for 13 months. He would end the battle by seeking the advice of an enemy soldier.

The sharp scrape lasted nearly two hours. The attacking Southerners suffered 35 dead and 253 wounded, while 15 Union defenders were killed and 57 injured. Wilder reported that the Federal flag “had 146 bullet holes through it and the staff was struck eleven times.”

Although Chalmers’ attack was beaten back, the Rebel general knew that Gen. Braxton Bragg’s entire Confederate Army of the Mississippi was advancing on Munfordville. Chalmers told Wilder, “To avoid further bloodshed I demand an unconditional surrender of your forces.” Wilder replied, “If you wish to avoid further bloodshed, keep out of the range of my guns.” Wilder’s solid defense of Fort Craig and the timely arrival of Union reinforcements bolstered his confidence.

On Sept. 15, Bragg’s 22,000 Confederates arrived and surrounded the 4,000 Union troops in Fort Craig. Bragg informed Wilder that the garrison was trapped and urged him to surrender to avoid “the terrible consequences of an assault.”

Wilder, who was not a professional soldier, was uncertain what to do. Upon learning that a Munfordville native, Confederate Maj. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, was present, Wilder approached Buckner under a flag of truce and said to the astonished Confederate, “I came to you to find out what I ought to do.”

The dismayed Buckner told the officer that he would not direct him but would provide advice: The garrison was surrounded and would be crushed at dawn. Wilder then asked if he could tour the Rebel lines to check the veracity of this, which Buckner permitted. Wilder and another Federal officer counted more than 70 artillery pieces that were prepared to turn Fort Craig into dust. Buckner told Wilder: “It is for you to judge how long your command would live under that fire.” Wilder responded, “Well, it seems to me, General Buckner, that I ought to surrender.”

On Sept. 17, the siege ended. At 6 a.m. Wilder’s command marched out “with all the honors of war, drums beating and colors flying.” At the official surrender, Wilder handed Buckner his sword. The Kentuckian gave it back. The Confederates then torched the railroad bridge.

Despite the surrender, Wilder — after a prisoner exchange — earned fame in 1863 when his Indiana and Illinois troops used their Spencer rifles to decimate a numerically superior Confederate force at the Battle of Hoover’s Gap, Tenn. The rapid-firing Spencers earned his men the enduring sobriquet “the Lightning Brigade.”

Buckner continued to distinguish himself despite the fact that the Confederates’ 1862 Kentucky Campaign ground to an inauspicious end after the Oct. 8, 1862, Battle of Perryville. After commanding troops throughout the Civil War, service as Kentucky’s governor in the 1880s and a run at the vice presidency, Buckner retired to Munfordville.

Often reminded of Wilder’s surprising request at the siege of Fort Craig, Buckner would later remark, “I wouldn’t have deceived that man under those circumstances for anything.”

Stuart W. Sanders is director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association and can be contacted at [email protected].

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