Major General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Confederate army approached the Kentucky capital of Lexington, two days after their crushing victory at Richmond. The Unionist legislature approved a measure to relocate to Louisville as the Confederates spread out within the Lexington, Harrodsburg, and Frankfort area. Smith made no real effort to coordinate his movements with General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi, heading north from Chattanooga.
Pro-Confederate residents of Lexington celebrated Smith’s arrival to their town on September 2 with cheering, waving Confederate flags, and providing food and water to the troops as they marched past. To one soldier, the residents seemed to be celebrating that “Kentucky was at last about to be free.” A group of ladies presented Smith with an embroidered flag. The people were especially ecstatic to see Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry ride into town. The horsemen rode through to the sounds of ringing church bells and cheering spectators waving flags and handkerchiefs.
Smith set up headquarters at Lexington and began arranging to install a pro-Confederate governor in the hope that he would help recruit Kentuckians into Smith’s army. Smith notified Bragg that he would next advance on Cincinnati, and once he and Bragg’s forces joined, “and can be supplied with arms, 25,000 Kentucky troops in a few days will be added to my command.” A portion of Smith’s command entered the state capital Frankfort on the 3rd, where more pro-Confederate citizens turned out to cheer their arrival.
Further north, panic swept through the Ohio River towns in Indiana and Ohio because there was no substantial Federal force between them and the Confederates. Businesses shut down as civic officials declared martial law and called for volunteers to defend their homes. The governors of Ohio and Indiana called on the Federal government to provide further military aid.
Major General Lew Wallace took command of Federal forces at Cincinnati. He suspended all riverboat transport across the Ohio to Kentucky and suspended all business activities so that the workingmen could build defenses. He rallied the people with the slogan, “Citizens for labor, soldiers for battle.”
Meanwhile, Bragg’s Confederate army was at Sparta, Tennessee, poised to enter Kentucky. Smith informed Bragg of the Confederate victory at Richmond and urged him “to move into Kentucky and, effecting a junction with my command and holding (Federal Major General Don Carlos) Buell’s communications, to give battle to him with superior forces and with certainty of success.” Bragg’s men marched into Kentucky at Tompkinsville on the 5th.
After Buell’s Federal Army of the Ohio abandoned Alabama to pursue Bragg’s army, Bragg issued a proclamation declaring that Alabama was “redeemed. Tennesseans! your capital and State are almost restored without firing a gun. You return conquerors. Kentuckians! the first great blow has been struck for your freedom!” Tennessee Governor Isham Harris urged Bragg to focus on regaining Nashville, but Bragg had already decided to join Smith in Kentucky.
On the Federal side, Buell arrived at Nashville on the 2nd and found the Federal occupation forces using cotton bales to barricade approaches against a possible attack. Unionist Military Governor Andrew Johnson declared that he would defend the city to the death, refusing to be taken alive. Major General Ulysses S. Grant sent 10,000 troops from his department as reinforcements, prompting Buell to report to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “I believe Nashville can be held and Kentucky rescued. What I have will be sufficient here with the defenses that are being prepared, and I propose to move with the remainder of the army against the enemy in Kentucky.”
As Bragg’s Confederates entered Kentucky, Buell’s Federals reached Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 75 miles south. News reached Buell of Smith’s capture of Lexington, prompting Buell to fear that Bragg may now change his mind and turn against Nashville instead. As such, Buell pulled his Federals back closer to that city. But Bragg did not change plans. After mapping out a practical route through Kentucky, he directed Major General Leonidas Polk’s corps to move toward the Cumberland River via Gainesboro. Bragg’s objective would be Louisville, the Federal headquarters in Kentucky.
Panic continued spreading from Kentucky into the northern states. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton called upon citizens to form militia units and prepare to defend their homes. An article in the Cincinnati Gazette declared, “To arms! The time for playing war has passed. The enemy is approaching our doors.” General Wallace raised about 15,000 volunteers to help defend Cincinnati, including “over 1,000 squirrel hunters from the neighboring counties,” and Brigadier General Jeremiah Boyle raised another 25,000 Federals at Louisville. Boyle frantically reported, “The whole state will be in possession of Rebels if some efficient aid is not rendered immediately.”
E.K. Smith, whose force was too small to invade the North (unbeknownst to those preparing for defense), reported to the Confederate adjutant general: “It would be impossible for me to exaggerate the enthusiasm of the people here on the entry of our troops. They evidently regarded us as deliverers from oppression and have continued in every way to prove to us that the heart of Kentucky is with the South in this struggle… If Bragg occupies Buell we can have nothing to oppose us but raw levies, and by the blessing of God will always dispose of them as we did on the memorable August 30.”
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