The Battle of Hell, Kentucky

An Essay in Creative History
by Gregory A. Baker

Of all the obscure battles of the Civil War, this battle deserves to be the obscurest - so much so that we're not even certain of the exact date of this battle, though it was some time in the summer of 1862. Through an amazing combination of leadership, terrain and luck, the Battle of Hell, Kentucky resulted in a major disaster for both the Federal and Confederate forces.

According to Confederate records, the proximate cause of the battle was a Federal supply train whose engine had burst a boiler at the railway station. In the train were 25,000 pairs of brogans, 50,000 pounds of coffee, 17,000 pairs of trousers and 3,000 pounds of soap. When Confederate General Leonidas Polk heard of this windfall, he said, "Praise the Lord!", and immediately sent cavalry out to secure the prize.

Meanwhile, Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler marched on Hell, Kentucky for an entirely different reason: he had received a reliable report from Allan Pinkerton that there was a massive silverware factory nearby and he wanted to deprive the Rebels of such rich pickings. Butler sent out his army, with General Don Carlos Buell leading the line of march, General Franz Siegel in the middle, and General Dan Sickles trailing behind, trying to find another road around General Fremont's cavalry screen, which was moving too slowly for the hot-tempered general.

The Confederates did not hear of this march for over twenty-four hours. Cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart had been attempting to ride around the Army of the Potomac, which was still in Maryland at the time, and had difficulty finding sufficient money to pay the fares on the Alexandria Ferry. He did not realize his mistake until after the battle was over. Finally, some of Confederate General Kirby Smith's troops captured a regiment of Fremont's cavalry, which had ridden down a side road, trying to find out which end of the map was North. Smith sent a message to General Braxton Bragg, the Southern commander. Bragg ignored it.

General Fremont next lost a regiment to Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner's Brigade, who captured the Northern horsemen over a leisurely breakfast of coffee and hardtack. The Confederates found the hardtack to be useful later in the battle, building impregnable breastworks out of the rations. Once again, Bragg, who was certain that the Union forces would be coming on the western road, ignored Buckner's protest.

Finally, only when General Breckinridge lost two regiments to one of Union General Fremont's cavalry squadrons did Braxton Bragg move. He lined up his troops on the western side of a field, about 1 mile long by three miles wide, edged by woods on the west, woods on the east, woods on the south, and a small hill, about 75 feet high, on the north. He reached there just as Union General Butler started deploying his troops in line. on the eastern edge of the woods.

Butler had the edge on the Rebels, but he did not have his artillery, which had been bogged down on the road two miles behind Fremont's cavalry. He waited. Bragg had his artillery, but he didn't have Breckinridge's Division, which he had sent out to capture the hill on the north. He waited.

For two days, the Union and Confederate forces stared at each other, deployed in line of battle, waiting for the order to advance. Sunday passed. Monday passed. Finally, at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, a wild cheer came from Sickles' division, deployed on the left flank, who charged the Confederates. At the same time, Smith's troops, on the left flank of the Rebel line, charged the Union works.

There then came a demonstration of what "right wheel" meant on a corps-sized level. The line of battle then swung around ninety degrees, with the Federals now facing north, and the Confederates facing south, with the hill a mile and a half behind them. It was then that Breckinridge's troops came in line, with the Rebel artillery, and set up their guns. They fired short.

Confederate General Polk's Division, behind its hardtack, did not move. Union General Siegel was involved in heavy combat with the bishop's boys. His men didn't hear the command to fall back. It wasn't in German. Meanwhile Sickles had routed Kirby Smith, and Buell had been routed by Buckner, and there were now three separate little battles going on in three separate parts of the field.

The battle came to an end suddenly with the appearance of Fremont's Cavalry, which rode through the clusters of fighting men, scattering both Federal and Confederate soldier left and right. Both armies scattered in all directions, leaving the impression in both Washington and Richmond that a major defeat had occurred.

Later than evening, under flag of truce, Butler met Bragg at a farmhouse north of the little hill. A protocol was signed stating, roughly:

With a red-faced handshake, the two generals signed the protocol, then departed, followed by their staffs. The farmhouse was promptly burnt to the ground by the farmer, an Amishman outraged by such military incompetence that even he recognized it. The forces were mustered and paraded out - Butler to the west, Bragg to the east. Half the troops were laughing, the other half were still stunned, and half again were drunk. The armies disbanded shortly thereafter and troops returned to their original commands.

Lincoln, reading the original telegram, commented, "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and you can't make a general out of a Butler."

On Thursday, two days later, Forrest's men captured what were left of the Union guns. Unfortunately, they were the Confederate guns which had been left on the small hill.

To this day, there has been no official commemoration of the Battle of Hell, Kentucky. In fact, the G.A.R., shortly before it dissolved, set up a legacy to fight the introduction of any sort of monument, marker or plaque to commemorate this battle. The legacy was doubled by the U.C.V.

I hope that this sets the record straight on this important skirmish in American history. If it doesn't, don't blame me, blame Pinkerton. I based this account on his diaries.


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http://battleofolustee.org/