Confederates Target Kentucky

Major General Edmund Kirby Smith and his newly renamed Confederate Army of Kentucky bypassed Cumberland Gap and advanced through the Cumberland Mountains before entering their namesake state on August 16. Smith’s goal was to eventually join forces with General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi, currently at Chattanooga, and reclaim Kentucky for the Confederacy.

Major General Don Carlos Buell, whose Federal Army of the Ohio was threatening Bragg from northern Alabama, learned of Smith’s advance and guessed it was being coordinated with John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry raid in Kentucky. He dispatched Major General William “Bull” Nelson to lead a group of experienced officers “to organize such troops as could be got together there to reestablish our communications and operate against Morgan’s incursions.”

Gen E.K. Smith | Image Credit:

Smith’s Confederates occupied Barbourville, Kentucky, on the 18th. This was in the rear of the Federals at Cumberland Gap, thereby threatening their supply line to Lexington. Smith wrote his wife, “Our men have marched night and day, and have carried their own subsistence in their haversacks for five days. Ragged, barefoot, they have climbed mountains, suffered starvation and thirst without a murmur.” Supply shortages and local Unionist sentiment prompted Smith to start moving toward Lexington.

Within Kentucky, civil unrest between Unionists and secessionists continued to tear the state apart. Governor Beriah Magoffin had long been suspected of Confederate sympathies, and much of his executive power had been usurped by the Unionist state legislature and Federal occupation forces. He had received many assassination threats, and the legislature had refused to endorse Magoffin’s proposal to allow the people to vote on whether Kentucky should stay in the Union.

Kentucky Gov Beriah Magoffin | Image Credit: Wikipedia

To placate the Unionists and protect the secessionists, Magoffin offered to resign if the Unionists would ensure that a fellow conservative replaced him. They complied by naming James F. Robinson speaker of the state Senate, which was next in line of succession to the governorship (the lieutenant governor office was vacant). Magoffin resigned on the 18th, and Robinson succeeded him.

Unrest within the Federal high command also continued, as the Lincoln administration had long been dissatisfied with Buell’s slow movement across northern Alabama toward Chattanooga. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wired Buell, “So great is the dissatisfaction here at the apparent want of energy and activity in your district, that I was this morning notified to have you removed. I got the matter delayed till we could hear further of your movements.” Buell quickly responded:

“I beg that you will not interpose on my behalf. On the contrary, if the dissatisfaction cannot cease on grounds which I think might be supposed if not apparent, I respectfully request that I may be relieved. My position is far too important to be occupied by any officer on sufferance. I have no desire to stand in the way of what may be deemed necessary for the public good.”

As Buell remained relatively stationary, Smith continued his advance and Bragg prepared to mobilize as well.


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