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
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
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:
There was never a battle here.
We weren't here. We were somewhere else - anywhere else.
The Yankees won't mention it if the Johnnies won't.
Prisoners will not be exchanged, nor will they be released, but the
guards will be instructed to pay very close attention to the sky.
Polk can keep the hardtack.
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.