William J Hardee, 1815-1873

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A senior Confederate General during the American Civil War, but one who nevertheless rarely commanded an army himself. He was a professional soldier, graduating from West Point in 1838 (26th in a class of 45). He fought in the Second Seminole War (1835-42) and the Mexican War, rising to brevet lieutenant colonel. In 1853 he returned to West Point as an instructor, before becoming commandant of cadets between 1856 and 1860. While at West Point he published a book on tactics (Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics for the Exercise and Manoeuvres of Troops When Acting as Light Infantry of Riflemen), which became the standard drill manual for both sides during the Civil War.

At the outbreak of the war he was the lieutenant colonel of the 1st U.S. Cavalry regiment. He resigned on 31 January 1861 when Georgia seceded from the Union, and joined the Confederate States Army. At first a Colonel, he was promoted to brigadier general on 17 June 1861. His first service came in Arkansas, where he gained a reputation for reliability while organising new troops. He played a minor role in an abortive Confederate attempt to move into Missouri in July 1861.

In the autumn of 1861 he and his men were summoned to Bowling Green, Kentucky to reinforce General A. S. Johnston’s weak forces that were then attempting to defend a long line through Kentucky. On 7 October 1861 he was promoted to major general. Johnston used him to command a detachment of 1,500 men sent to force a small Union force from nearby Greensburg.

This made his men the most experienced in the army gathered at Corinth (where he arrived on 27 March 1862) after the fall of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. His corps of 8,000 men was designated as the Third Corps in the new army on 29 March. It was the smallest of the three corps that fought at Shiloh, containing three brigades.

Accordingly, when Hardee was appointed to command the first line in the upcoming battle, it was reinforced to bring it up to a strength of 9,000. On the morning of 6 April 1862 Hardee’s men led the charge that swept so much of the Union army at Pittsburgh Landing out of their camps. Something of trend in Hardee’s career was that his commanding officers often seem to have used him as a scapegoat for their own failures. At Shiloh General Beauregard, who took command of the army on the death of General Johnston was later to criticise Hardee for leaving crucial gaps at each end of his line. Considering the successes achieved by the first line, its relatively limited size, and the width of the Union camp, this seems an unfair criticism. The cynic may wonder if Hardee’s early death in 1873, before many of these memoirs had been written, played a part in making him a target for these comments.

The organisation of both armies soon collapsed under the stress of the fighting at Shiloh. Hardee ended the first day commanding on the Confederate left, before being moved to the extreme right on the second day. Under pressure from a strong counter-attack by the now reinforced Union army, Beauregard was forced to retreat back to Corinth.

Here the Confederate army was faced with a dilemma. Corinth was seen as a crucial position, but it was an unhealthy one. Beauregard’s army was rapidly dissolving, as disease took as big a toll on the men as Shiloh had. Finally, on 25 May Beauregard called a conference of his corps commanders, to discuss the possibility of retreat. Demonstrating an unwillingness to waste lives that was typical of his career, Hardee was particularly strongly in favour of the retreat. Beauregard’s retreat from Corinth was one of the most skilful of the war. Without it, his entire army would have been lost. A massive Union army under General Halleck was finally closing in on the city. A few days more delay and the last roads out would have been blocked.

In the aftermath of Corinth, Halleck broke up his massive army. Part of it was sent east to threaten Chattanooga, a key Confederate railroad junction whose capture would block one of the main routes between Virginia and the rest of the Confederacy. The Army of Mississippi was needed further east. Hardee was put in charge of the move, and commanded the army between 5 July and 15 August 1862, before handing it over to General Bragg at Chattanooga.

Hardee was once again a corps commander. Bragg decided that the best way to protect Chattanooga was to launch his own offensive, forcing the Union army under General Buell to abandon its march towards Chattanooga to defend Kentucky. Bragg expected Kentucky to join the Confederacy given the chance. He would need it to. Bragg commanded 34,000 men at Chattanooga, with another 18,000 under Edmund Kirby Smith in East Tennessee. When the invasion was launched, Buell had 40,000 men, but he was quickly reinforced, so while Bragg’s invasion army dwindled on the march, Buell’s grew to 60,000.

Hardee commanded the left wing of Bragg’s army during the invasion of Kentucky. That invasion began well. Kirby Smith moved quickly, and in the second half of August the Confederates drove deep into Kentucky. Throughout September, Buell was forced to fall back to Louisville, Indiana (where he had started in 1861!). There he collected reinforcements, and prepared to launch his counterattack.

Meanwhile, Bragg had split his army. At the start of October, Bragg and Smith were at Frankfort, inaugurating a Confederate Governor of Kentucky (4 October). Meanwhile, General Polk had command of 16,000 men at Perryville. Hardee’s corps made up the rearguard of this force, guarding some pools of water, a valuable resource in the drought that was had struck Kentucky. On 8 October part of the Union army hit Hardee’s corps (battle of Perryville), in one of the most confused battles of the war. Hardee’s men held off the initial Federal attack, before Polk arrived to take over. The rest of the battle was indecisive, but it did serve to warn Bragg of the danger he was in. On 10 October Hardee was promoted to Lieutenant-General.

Bragg’s response was to pull back to Murfreesboro, where for most of December the two armies were face to face. At the end of the month, Buell was finally ready to attack. However, when Bragg learnt of this he decided to launch a surprise attack of his own. Hardee was moved to the left wing of the army, and give command of this attack. On 31 December he launched his troops the attack that was was probably the high point of his career. The Federal right collapsed under the pressure, and victory was apparently close. However, the centre of the Federal army held, and after two more days at Murfreesboro, Bragg was forced to retreat back towards Chattanooga.

By now Bragg’s relationships with his corps commanders had collapsed. After Bragg had been forced out of the Tullahoma position (June 1863), Hardee requested a transfer, and briefly moved back to Mississippi and Alabama. However, Chattanooga soon became the centrepiece of the Confederate war effort, after their victory at Chickamauga.  Hardee was recalled to take part in the siege of Chattanooga, replacing Polk, who had also fallen out with Bragg.

Hardee’s corps held the right of the line at the Battle of Missionary Ridge (25 November 1863). His corps faced Sherman’s flanking attack, and held it back with great determination. The Confederate collapse on Missionary Ridge came elsewhere in the line. Hardee’s men did not break, and played a major part in the relative success of the Confederate retreat, helping to prevent the capture of the entire army.

After Chattanooga Hardee once again found himself in temporary charge of an army. On 2 December 1864 he replaced Bragg, but only until Polk returned on 23 December. Polk was himself superseded four days later by General Joseph Johnston. Polk and Hardee were now corps commanders under Johnston. They now faced a different challenge. The initiative in Tennessee had now passed to the Union forces. General Grant left Sherman in Chattanooga, with instructions to destroy Johnston’s army and capture Atlanta.

Hardee commanded one corps of Johnston’s army during the retreat to Atlanta. When Sherman threatened to cut Johnston off by capturing Resaca, and thus cutting Johnston’s only route south, Hardee was sent to command the forces defending that place. In the battle that followed (13-15 May 1864), he commanded the centre of the Confederate line.

His corps played its part in the rest of Johnston’s campaign, successfully trading time for space, and inflicting more casualties than it suffered. However, once the army was forced back to Atlanta, Joseph Johnston was replaced by General John Hood (17July 1864). Since the death of General Polk, Hardee had been the senior corps commander in the army, and briefly considered resigning when Hood was promoted over his head, but decided to stay with the army. It is clear from his writings that Hood did not like Hardee. He blamed him for the failure of his attacks during the battle of Peachtree Creek (20 July 1864), where his corps suffered relatively lightly. However, he still placed Hardee in command of his next attack.

This involved a fifteen mile night march, with orders to outflank the extreme left wing of the Union army, under General McPherson. This attack also failed (Battle of Atlanta, 22 July 1864). Hood blamed Hardee for failing to obey his orders to get behind the Federal army. However, Hardee actually encountered one Union division that was itself behind those lines, and still came close to breaking the Union line. That line was so badly distorted that General McPherson was killed when he ran into a Confederate unit where none should have been.

Sherman now settled down to besiege Atlanta. However, after a month his army disappeared from the lines in front of Atlanta, and made a wide flanking manoeuvre to the west of the city, with the intention of cutting the last railroad into Atlanta. Once again, Hardee was placed in command of a key Confederate force, this time at the battle of Jonesborough (31 August). Once again he failed to dislodge the Union forces in front of him. Hood was forced to abandon Atlanta.

Despite the loss of Atlanta, Hood remained in charge of the Army of Tennessee. However, Hardee did not remain with him. Instead, he was finally given an independent command. From Atlanta, General Sherman decided to abandon his long supply lines back into Tennessee, and march east to the Atlantic coast. Hardee was ordered to Savannah, with orders to do what he could to oppose Sherman’s march.

This was a fairly hopeless task. Sherman’s 62,000 men outnumbered any force that Hardee could raise. The Confederacy was entering its death throes, and could find generals rather more easily than soldiers. At Savannah Hardee had a reasonably strong position, but only 10,000 men. This left him vulnerable to flanking moves. Once Sherman captured Fort McAllister, Hardee’s escape route was dangerously exposed. On 20 December, Hardee escaped from Savannah with his entire command, moving north into Sherman’s next target – South Carolina.

Hardee’s brief period in command quickly ended. Robert E. Lee finally managed to persuade President Davis to put Joseph Johnston back into the field, in command of all Confederate forces in the Carolinas. However, a new General didn’t mean new troops. Hardee had been depending on nature to stop Sherman – in this case the Salkehatchie River – a wide barrier of swamps and river channels that Hardee confidently claimed was impassable, before watching Sherman’s men cross it almost without breaking their stride.  South Carolina was abandoned with even less resistance than Georgia had been.

Hardee now moved into North Caroline, to join with Johnston in one last attempt to defeat Sherman. Johnston decided to attempt to destroy Sherman’s left wing, before turning on the right. He had this chance because Sherman was advancing in on a wide front, hoping to confuse the Confederates as to his final destination.

On 16 March 1865 Hardee’s corp fought a delaying action against the Union left wing at Averasborough. This was the first severe fighting since Atlanta, and although Hardee was pushed back the battle did give Johnston the information he needed about Sherman’s position. Ironically, Hardee was actually late for Johnston’s planned counterattack at Bentonville (19-21 March), having had to march further than the rest of Johnston’s army. However, when he did arrive he led his corps into battle with some skill. Sadly, in a charge that Hardee had led in person, his only son, who had just joined the army, was killed. This was Hardee’s last battle. The final Confederate collapse was only weeks away. Hardee surrendered with Johnston.

Despite Hood’s criticisms, Hardee was a competent corps commander. His best moment came at Stones River or Murfreesboro, where he came close to inflicting a rare defeat on a Union army in the west. He commanded several other hard hitting assaults during the war, although was not willing to waste his troops in futile assaults, probably why he fell out with Hood. Post war he entered private life, working in warehousing, insurance and railroads. He died in 1873.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (June 2007), William J Hardee, 1815-1873 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_hardee.html

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