By August 20, Major General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Confederate Army of Kentucky had entered its namesake state and occupied Barbourville. General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Mississippi prepared to move out of Chattanooga and divert the attention of Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Federal Army of the Ohio while also heading north into Kentucky.
Smith informed Bragg that he would advance on Lexington to supply his exhausted and hungry army. Bragg hoped that Smith would stay at Barbourville until Bragg could get his army moving, but he did not object. Bragg outranked Smith, but since this operation took place within Smith’s military department, the two commanders acted as equals. This hindered coordination between the armies.
Bragg needed to keep his army interposed between Smith’s and Buell’s, so his Confederates began crossing the Tennessee River the next day. When Buell learned that Bragg was on the move, he thought Bragg would advance on Nashville. To counter, he sent Federals to McMinnville and Sparta to block the Confederates’ path. But they were not heading that way.
As Bragg moved, he expected his two forces in Mississippi under Major Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price to hold Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s two Federal armies under Major Generals William T. Sherman and William S. Rosecrans at bay. He wrote Price that Rosecrans’s Federals at Corinth might be vulnerable, and “In the mean time harass your opponent by all your cavalry. Buell is falling back toward Nashville. We must keep them moving.” Bragg sent Price a more detailed message two days later:
“We move from here immediately, later by some days than expected, but in time we hope for a successful campaign. Buell has certainly fallen back from the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and will probably not make a stand this side of Nashville, if there. He is now fortifying that place. General Smith, reinforced by two brigades from this army, has turned Cumberland Gap, and is now marching on Lexington, Ky… We shall thus have Buell pretty well disposed of. Sherman and Rosecrans will leave to you and Van Dorn, satisfied that you can dispose of them, and we shall confidently expect to meet you on the Ohio and there open the way to Missouri.”
Bragg headed north, led by Colonel Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry. The 30,000 Confederates marched out of Chattanooga, through the Sequatchie Valley, and crossed Walden’s Ridge into central Tennessee on the 28th. Bragg’s route ran parallel to Smith’s but about 100 miles farther west. Bragg issued a proclamation:
“The enemy is before us, devastating our fair country… insulting our women, and desecrating our altars… It is for you to decide whether our brothers and sisters of Tennessee and Kentucky shall remain bondmen and bondwomen of the Abolition tyrant or be restored to the freedom inherited from their fathers.”
In Kentucky, Smith had to push his tattered army on to Lexington for much needed supplies. Cavalry under Colonel John S. Scott led the way and dispersed two Federal brigades atop Big Hill, south of Richmond. Scott learned that Federal reinforcements were on their way to Richmond. Smith, operating in Unionist territory, wrote Bragg, “Thus far the people are universally hostile to our cause. This sentiment extends through the mountain region of Eastern Kentucky. In the bluegrass region I have better expectations and shall soon test their loyalty.”
Smith’s lead division under Brigadier General Patrick R. Cleburne, along with Scott’s cavalry, crossed Big Hill on the 29th and entered Bluegrass country, moving northwest on the road to Richmond. Smith’s Confederates had marched a remarkable 150 miles through mountains and rugged terrain in just two weeks. Residents of Cincinnati, just 75 miles away, began panicking at the prospect of being attacked.
Brigadier General Mahlon D. Manson, commanding Federals outside Richmond, confronted Scott’s horsemen and drove them through Kingston, about eight miles south. Scott joined with Cleburne’s force, while the Federals fell back to Rogersville. Manson informed Major General William “Bull” Nelson, the ranking area commander at Louisville, of the action and blocked the Lancaster turnpike east of Richmond. With Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s Confederates hurrying north to join Cleburne, Smith planned to attack Richmond the next day.
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