Siege of Louisville
Part of The Second Mexican War
Date 1881-1882
Location Kentucky, primarily Louisville
Result Strategic Confederate States victory
34Stars.jpgUnited States CSA.jpgConfederate States
Commanders and leaders
USArmySeal.pngOrlando Willcox CSA battle flag.pngThomas Jackson

CSA battle flag.pngEdward P. Alexander
CSA battle flag.pngPeter Turney

The Siege of Louisville was the single greatest engagement of the Second Mexican War. The US goal of the campaign was to pull at the Confederacy from all directions to take advantage of their small military, but thanks in part of Confederate General Thomas Jackson's quick victory at Winchester, he was able to transfer a good portion of his army to Kentucky and blunt the advance. The US General in charge, Orlando Willcox charged head long into the battle with little regard to strategic planning, which allowed Jackson to hold the Yankees at bay until January of 1882 when all US Forces withdrew.


Even before the campaign got under way, US General William Rosecrans' strategic thinking involved pulling at the Confederacy from all directions. Unfortunately, the Army of the Potomac's unexpected defeat at Winchester along with pressure from US President James Blaine, forced him to accelerate his plans in order to salvage some pride.

Confederate President James Longstreet saw the need to look like a nation defending itself from a larger aggressor, pulled Confederate General Thomas Jackson from his advance into Maryland, to replace Brigadier General Peter Turney as commander of the Army of Kentucky in order to prepare for the coming storm in that state. Jackson was annoyed at having been halted at the Potomac, but was willing to take command, so long as it allowed him to give the Yankees a good licking. Jackson knew he'd have to fight a defensive campaign against the numerically superior forces that were attacking him. From his previous encounter at Winchester, he knew that it was now a lot harder for an attacking army to assault defensive positions, so he prepared appropriately.

The Campaign

Crossing the Ohio

US General Orlando Willcox opened the campaign with an army of fifty thousand men. The Army of Ohio consisted of regulars and volunteers, who didn't mix very well together, especially since the volunteers outnumbered the regulars. The attack began from the Confederates who pre-empted the invasion by shelling the barges and boats that had been gathering along the US side of the river. US guns quickly opened up and a considerable artillery duel developed. The CS gunners were forced to take on the US gunners.

After two weeks of preparations, the attack was launched across the Ohio River from three directions in Jeffersonville, Clarksville, and New Albany in the early morning dawn. The Army of Kentucky had used the time wisely, using Negro laborers to build firing pits and earth works around the city of Louisville. However, the defense of the city would rely heavily on the artillery of Major General E. Porter Alexander. Jackson ordered the guns to pound the barges and boats as they crossed the river, but US guns made this difficult. He then ordered two brigades to the waterfront to resist the crossing. US Guns opened up on the waterfront to help with the landing and shortly there after, the Army of Ohio set foot in Kentucky.

Attacking Louisville

With the Army of Ohio on the banks of Kentucky, CS artillery switched targets, from the boats to the men on the shore. While this caused casualties it didn't slow down the advance, and US troops quickly entered Louisville. To Wilcox's surprise, Jackson, whom they now knew was commander of the CS troops chose to fight for the city rather than retreat and engage US forces on open ground. Although German military attaché, Alfred Von Schlieffen tried to warn Wilcox that fighting in a city favored the defenders, Wilcox ignored the advice. Instead, he chose to support the infantry attacking the town with artillery.

The Confederates refused to give. They fought inside every building and by using camouflaged snipers, caused high casualties among the commanding officers, forcing the US to shell whole blocks into rubble, and then they fought in the rubble until cleared out by rifle and bayonet. As the fighting progressed, Wilcox funneled more and more men into the city, headless of casualties as his own reached as high as 17,409 men. His argument was that the US had far more men it could lose than the CSA. On the CS side, General Jackson was worried about his own casualties, and wondered if he could prevent the Yankees from overrunning the whole of Kentucky once Louisville fell.

During the battle, an eight hour cease fire was called for so that a CS representative could be sent to meet with General Wilcox. The request was agreed on, and a meeting arranged. The Confederacy asked for an end to the war and a return to pre-war borders with no reparations. US President Blaine rejected the offer and the fighting resumed.

The Second Ohio Crossing

Now Wilcox listened to Schlieffen and asked for his advice on his latest plan. Since the Confederates were pinned down in Louisville, he wanted to make a feint in at the city while attempting a large flanking maneuver from the east. In light of the peace terms offered by the Confederacy, Blaine agreed to send Wilcox more reinforcements which he intended to use in this attack.

Unfortunately, Wilcox's planning was mediocre at best, preferring to let God deliver him his victory. The attack opened up with another large artillery barrage, to which the Confederates responded by attacking the boats and barges. Despite this, the US force made it ashore and advanced quickly. However, the defensive lines that negro slaves had built around the city began stalling the advance.

Jackson was now faced with a dilemma. His forces were under attack in both Louisville and to his west. From reports he received about the level of the intensity of the fighting in the city, led him to conclude that, that attack was a feint. Now knowing that the attack from the west was the main thrust, Jackson didn't know if he could rush reinforcements there in time to prevent union troops from encircling him. However the brave actions of Second Lieutenant Jeb Stuart Jr. of the third Virginia helped buy the army some time, as he took command of his regiment (due to casualties of higher ranks) and launched an attack against the Yankees in order to delay and confuse them. It worked. Impressed by his actions, Jackson sent him two regiments and three batteries of artillery to aid in his attack.

The Third Virginia, the Fourth Virginia, the Third Tennessee were backed up by three batteries of the Second Confederate States Artillery. The attack succeeded and by mid afternoon, the line had stabilized. Knowing his men were exhausted, he called off the counter attack he originally planned.

Lull in the Fighting

For a while after the attack was stopped, not much happened. While artillery dueled with each other, both sides sent raiding parties into the other's trench works. During a Confederate raid, Frederick Douglass was captured, but was handed over the next day under a flag of truce. This political move helped prove to Britain and France that the Confederate States were sincere about manumitting their slaves, and both nations began to increase their involvement in the war.

Meanwhile, Wilcox and his staff began infighting, and looking for scapegoats instead of focusing on the battle. It was clear to those around him that the General had no notion of how to break the stalemate. As the raiding and counter-raiding continued on the salient, Wilcox strengthened his forward most position, while paying no attention to his flank. Although he was warned about this, he chose to ignore it on the grounds that all attacks were being made on his front, therefore, he saw no need to weaken it for the sake of shoring up a front where there was no fighting. This would prove to be a disastrous mistake.

Stonewall Counter Attacks

With England and France now fully committed to the fight, the US was under attack from five different sides at once. Jackson knew that without a shadow of a doubt the war was lost for the USA, and he now aimed to ram this fact home with an offensive directed at the weak flank of the US salient. He opened the offensive the next day at early dawn on the salient front. This attack was to be a diversion, to keep the Yankees from reinforcing their exposed flank. Artillery opened along the whole front as to confuse the Yankees as to where the attack would come from. Men rushed out of their trenches towards the US positions and the fighting began.

As the sun rose, the fighting had reached the first line of defenses and Jackson ordered a battery of guns that had been placed along the southern flank of the Yankees' salient to open fire. US artillery shifted focus but this time they were too slow to respond. Confederate troops broke through the flank's weak defenses and were quickly in the rear of the US Soldiers. With an assault from the flank and rear, the US possession quickly collapsed.

CS troops rapidly overran the supply dump of the salient and by the end of the day, were standing on the bank of the Ohio. After this disaster, US President Blaine called for an unconditional cease fire along all fronts.

Cease Fire and Surrender

In the ruins of Louisville, both General Jackson and Wilcox met to discuss terms. Jackson wanted the US to withdraw from all of Kentucky while Wilcox refused, under the pretense that he had no such orders from President Blaine. Jackson wired Longstreet asking for permission to force the Yankees out, but was turned down for fear it might restart the war.

Finally in January 1882, as a way to extend the cease fire out, US President Blaine ordered all troops to evacuate Louisville.


The Siege of Louisville was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Second Mexican War. It hammered home the folly of attacking head on entrenched fortifications. German military attaché, Alfred Von Schlieffen had been greatly influenced by the battle. He would later apply this military thinking to his own plans for dealing with France. Since the siege had been the major focus of the war, the US Army's defeat here finally brought about the end of the war, but it was the unexpected victory up in Montana that kept the ceasefire in place until April 1882.

After the war, the battle entered popular culture in the CSA, sparking the song "Louisville Will Be Free".

In a twist of irony, generations later, CS general George Patton would make the same horrible mistake Wilcox had made in the Battle of Pittsburgh with even more devastating results.