General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Mississippi arrived at Chattanooga to join with Major General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Army of East Tennessee. Smith’s force was spread across east Tennessee, with about 10,000 men at Knoxville. After meeting with Bragg, Smith reported that:
- Smith would “move at once against General (George) Morgan in front of Cumberland Gap.”
- Bragg would advance from Chattanooga into Middle Tennessee after collecting supplies.
- If Smith defeated Morgan, he would join forces with Bragg.
The generals were confident of success based on recent cavalry raids by Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Colonel John Hunt Morgan: “The feeling in Middle Tennessee and Kentucky is represented by Forrest and Morgan to have become intensely hostile to the enemy, and nothing is wanted but arms and support to bring the people into our ranks, for they have found that neutrality has afforded them no protection.”
For the Federals:
- Brigadier General George W. Morgan, Smith’s West Point classmate and close friend, had about 8,000 men at Cumberland Gap with a presumed objective to capture Knoxville.
- Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio consisted of about 30,000 men and was mainly positioned around Huntsville in northern Alabama; its presumed objective was to capture Chattanooga.
Much of Buell’s army was strung out to guard its main supply line on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. This slowed the pace of Buell’s march and drew a reprimand from General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck: “There is great dissatisfaction here (in Washington) at the slow movement of your army toward Chattanooga. It is feared that the enemy will have time to concentrate his entire army against you.”
Buell responded, “It is difficult to satisfy impatience, and when it proceeds from anxiety, as I know it does in this case, I am not disposed to complain of it. My advance has not been rapid, but it could not be more rapid under the circumstances. I know I have not been idle nor indifferent.”
Buell reported that there were about 60,000 Confederates in eastern Tennessee, “yet I am prepared to find the reports much more exaggerated than I have supposed, and shall march upon Chattanooga at the earliest possible day, unless I ascertain certainly that the enemy’s strength renders it imprudent. If, on the other hand, he should cross the (Tennessee) river I shall attack him, and I do not doubt that we shall defeat him.”
Meanwhile, Bragg received word that Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Mississippi, currently stationed at Corinth, Mississippi, was reinforcing Buell. Bragg looked to his army in Mississippi under Major General Sterling Price to act on this information. He wrote Price, “Nearly the whole force at Corinth should be moved this way. The road is open for you into Western Tennessee.” But it was later revealed that Rosecrans was still at Corinth, and Price could not move as Bragg had hoped.
As Bragg and Smith continued planning, Smith proposed an alternative to attacking Morgan’s Federals: “I understand General Morgan has at Cumberland Gap nearly a month’s supply of provisions. If this be true then the reduction of the place would be a matter of more time than I presume you are willing I should take. As my move direct to Lexington, Kentucky, would effectually invest Morgan and would be attended with other most brilliant results in my judgment, I suggest I be allowed to take that course.”
Bragg, who had originally envisioned Smith defeating Morgan and then joining him to defeat Buell, seemed intrigued by Smith’s idea of marching on Lexington and began considering whether he should advance into Kentucky as well. But to do so, Bragg would need help from his two forces in Mississippi under Major Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price. Bragg agreed with Smith’s revised plan but urged caution:
“It would be unadvisable, I think, for you to move far into Kentucky, leaving Morgan in your rear, until I am able to fully engage Buell and his forces on your left. But I do not credit the amount of Morgan’s supplies and have confidence in his timidity. When once well on the way to his rear you might safely leave but 5,000 to his front, and by a flank movement draw the rest to your assistance. He will never advance to escape. Van Dorn and Price will advance simultaneously with us from Mississippi on West Tennessee, and I trust we may all unite in Ohio.”
With Colonel John S. Scott’s cavalry riding ahead, Smith headed out of Knoxville with four divisions on August 13. The three divisions under Brigadier Generals Thomas J. Churchill, Patrick Cleburne, and Henry Heth moved north with Smith. The fourth division under Brigadier General Carter L. Stevenson would hold Morgan’s Federals at Cumberland Gap.
Smith notified Richmond, “My advance is made in the hope of permanently occupying Kentucky. It is a bold move, offering brilliant results, but will be accomplished only with hard fighting, and must be sustained by constant reinforcements.” He renamed his force the Confederate Army of Kentucky.
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