October 20, 1862 – The two Confederate armies left Kentucky, with one returning to eastern Tennessee and the other looking to threaten Middle Tennessee.
Edmund Kirby Smith, recently promoted to Confederate lieutenant general, led his troops through Barbourville on their way out of Kentucky. Smith, who had renamed his force the Army of Kentucky when he led it into that state, now returned it to its original name and resumed command of the Department of East Tennessee. Smith’s department operated independent of General Braxton Bragg’s, which included the area from eastern Tennessee to the Mississippi River.
As Bragg’s Army of Mississippi withdrew from Kentucky, Bragg began formulating a plan to move into Middle Tennessee and regain Nashville. He asked Smith to leave 3,000 of his troops to guard Cumberland Gap and bring the rest to join with him and put this plan into motion.
Smith refused, as he explained to Bragg, “The men are worn down from exposure and want of food. They are much in want of shoes, clothing, and blankets… as soon as my command can be perfectly fitted out I will take the field with it.” Straggling had left Smith with just 6,000 effectives. He stated, “Having resumed the command of my department, I am directly responsible to the Government for the condition and safety of my army.”
Bragg’s army was in no better shape. After retreating over 200 miles on rough roads in foul weather, nearly 15,000 Confederates contracted an illness of some kind, the most prevalent being pneumonia, typhoid, scurvy, and dysentery. Most of the officers and men disliked Bragg from the moment he took command, but now his harsh treatment of the army made them openly despise him.
The men’s hatred of Bragg was not eased by his idea to immediately launch a new offensive after they had endured such a grueling campaign in Kentucky. Bragg issued orders for his army to “proceed as soon as practicable to Murfreesborough, Tenn., and take such position in that vicinity as may seem advisable to its commander.”
“Its commander” would be Major General John C. Breckinridge, former vice president of the U.S. He arrived at Murfreesboro with a division that became known as the Army of Middle Tennessee. In addition, Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry was already based there; his new “critter companies” had been harassing nearby Federals.
Bragg vaguely ordered Breckinridge to prepare “for the defense of Middle Tennessee or an attack on Nashville.” Meanwhile, President Jefferson Davis received numerous reports condemning Bragg’s leadership. Davis initially thought this was the work of political enemies trying to get to Davis by tearing down his friend Bragg. But then Davis asked the opinions of the commanders who had served under Bragg in Kentucky.
E.K. Smith stated that Bragg handled the campaign badly, especially the later part, and asked to be transferred to a command far away from him. General Leonidas Polk respected Bragg’s organizational skills but felt he lacked “the higher elements of generalship” needed to lead an army. Even Bragg’s own wife criticized him: “Nashville strongly garrisoned by Yankees in your rear…” Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal army “will soon effect a junction with them, and thus place you between two enemies… I hoped you would have cleared Tennessee as you advanced.”
Davis decided to personally discuss these criticisms with Bragg. As Bragg’s demoralized troops passed through Cumberland Gap, Bragg received an order: “The President desires that you will lose no time in coming here.” Bragg, who was ahead of his men at Knoxville when he received the message, left just before E.K. Smith arrived, thus avoiding an awkward confrontation.
Bragg met with Davis on the 25th. Davis congratulated him because even though he did not bring Kentucky into the Confederacy as hoped, his offensive was more successful than those of Robert E. Lee in Maryland and Earl Van Dorn in northern Mississippi. Bragg had inflicted 14,000 Federal casualties and returned to Tennessee with tons of supplies for future operations. His offensive relieved Federal pressure on Chattanooga, cleared the Federals out of northern Alabama, and secured Cumberland Gap, all without substantial aid from the Confederate government.
Although Bragg’s army was about half the size it was when the campaign started, it remained the only force strong enough to stop Federal efforts to move further into the Deep South. As such, Bragg outlined his plan to divert the Federals by attacking Nashville from a new base at Murfreesboro in Middle Tennessee. At the time, the Confederates were already boarding train cars at Knoxville en route to Murfreesboro and Tullahoma.
It seemed to Davis that Bragg was willing to accept responsibility for any failures of the Kentucky campaign. He was also willing to make amends by moving immediately against Nashville, and he had a sound plan to do it. Thus, Davis retained Bragg as army commander and allowed him to proceed.
Davis then responded to E.K. Smith’s critical report on Bragg’s leadership. Davis would not transfer Smith as requested because he was too valuable where he was. Apparently taking Bragg’s side, Davis acknowledged that the campaign had been “a bitter disappointment” in some ways, but he urged Smith to not report on actions based on “knowledge acquired after they transpired.”
By month’s end, Bragg was heading west from Richmond to rejoin his troops as they moved toward Murfreesboro, the base for their upcoming offensive.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 227; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 741-43, 773-75; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 224-25; Hattaway, Herman, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 492; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 281-82; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 82-84; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 414-15