By this time, General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Mississippi was stationed around Tupelo, Mississippi. Major General Edmund Kirby Smith’s 18,000-man Confederate Army of East Tennessee was stretched from Chattanooga to Cumberland Gap. Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Federal Army of the Ohio was closing in on Smith’s forces at Chattanooga, prompting Smith to call on Bragg for reinforcements.
In a letter to his predecessor, General P.G.T. Beauregard, Bragg explained that he had four options:
- He could keep his army at Tupelo
- He could attack Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals at either Corinth or Memphis
- He could advance into Middle Tennessee and disrupt both Grant’s and Buell’s supply lines
- He could relieve pressure on Smith by attacking Buell’s Federals advancing on Chattanooga
Bragg found flaws in the first three options, but the fourth had potential. If he could join forces with E.K. Smith at Chattanooga, their Confederates could then advance into Middle Tennessee, and then possibly even into Kentucky as a larger follow-up to John Hunt Morgan’s raid earlier this month. Bragg wrote to President Jefferson Davis, “Obstacles in front connected with danger to Chattanooga induce a change of base. Fully impressed with great importance of that line, am moving to East Tennessee. Produce rapid offensive from there following the consternation now being produced by our cavalry.”
Bragg would leave Mississippi defended by Major General Sterling Price in the central region and Major General Earl Van Dorn at Vicksburg. If Grant moved to join forces with Buell to stop the Bragg-Smith combination, then Price and Van Dorn could move north and threaten Memphis, and possibly even Nashville.
Bragg’s cavalry moved out on July 22, as he wrote Beauregard, “Our cavalry is paving the way for me in Middle Tennessee and Kentucky.” Bragg would bypass Buell by sending his Confederates to Chattanooga by rail. Due to the inconsistencies of the dilapidated southern railway system, the trip would stretch 776 miles involving six different railroads and a steamboat along a route south to Mobile, north to Montgomery, east to Atlanta, then northwest to Chattanooga.
Bragg’s 30,000 Confederate infantry began boarding trains on the 23rd, one division at a time. Emboldened by J.H. Morgan’s boasts that Kentuckians were joining his Confederate partisans en masse, Bragg brought 15,000 extra rifles with him. This move seemed to be validated the next day when E.K. Smith forwarded a message from J.H. Morgan in Kentucky stating that the bridges between Cincinnati and Lexington had been destroyed and at least 30,000 secessionists would gladly join the Confederate cause.
Smith contacted Brigadier General Carter L. Stevenson, who was opposing the Federal force at Cumberland Gap under Brigadier General George W. Morgan. Smith told Stevenson that if G.W. Morgan detached troops to deal with J.H. Morgan, it could “present the most favorable opportunity of pushing forward your operations, and probably enable you to enter Kentucky.”
Bragg reported to the Confederate adjutant general on the 24th:
“Major General Van Dorn, with about 16,000 effectives, will hold the line of the Mississippi. Major General Price, with a similar force, will face the enemy on this frontier (central Mississippi), and a sufficient garrison will be left for Mobile and the Gulf. With the balance of the forces, some 35,000 effectives, I hope, in conjunction with Major General Smith, to strike an effective blow through Middle Tennessee, gaining the enemy’s rear, cutting off his supplies and dividing his forces, so as to encounter him in detail. In any event much will be accomplished in simply preserving our line and preventing a descent into Georgia, than which no greater disaster could befall us.”
Advance Confederate units from Bragg’s army began arriving at Chattanooga on the 27th, just two days before the last train left Tupelo. This was the largest Confederate railroad movement of the war, and it was completed in record time, despite the poor condition and different track gauges of the southern railroads.
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- Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Woodworth, Steven E., Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2005.