Following the Battle of Perryville, the two Confederate armies in Kentucky under General Braxton Bragg and Major General Edmund Kirby Smith finally linked near Harrodsburg. Smith urged Bragg, the ranking commander, to make a stand there because it offered good ground on which to meet a Federal attack. But Bragg had already directed his army to continue withdrawing toward Bryantsville.
The next day, Bragg dispatched scouts to find camping grounds around Bryantsville, which indicated that he was leaving Kentucky. Bragg had learned of the Confederate defeats at Antietam and Iuka a few weeks prior. He had sustained heavy casualties at Perryville, and he was running low on supplies after gaining hardly any Kentucky recruits. Then Bragg learned of the recent defeat at Corinth, which now gave the Federals undisputed control of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. This made him decide that he needed to fall back to defend Chattanooga against a possible Federal thrust from the west.
Bragg’s army arrived at Bryantsville on October 13, where he and Smith split up once more; Bragg headed for Mount Vernon, and Smith moved toward Paint Lick. Smith reported the next day, “My command from loss of sleep for five nights, is completely exhausted. The straggling has been unusually great. The rear of the column will not reach here before daybreak. I have no hope of saving the whole of my train, as I shall be obliged to double teams in going up Big Hill, and will necessarily be delayed there two or three days.”
Meanwhile, Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio, expected Bragg to attack Nashville once he reentered Tennessee. Buell positioned his men to cut Bragg off at Crab Orchard, exclaiming, “Bragg’s army is mine!” But when Buell reached the town on the 15th, he discovered that the Confederates had already passed through on their way to Cumberland Gap.
Buell sent Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s corps in pursuit, but the Confederates had felled trees across the Wilderness road to block them. The Federals paved a new road and advanced to within a few miles of Mount Vernon by that night.
The next day, Bragg’s Confederates continued slowly withdrawing through the Cumberland Gap bottleneck without substantial Federal opposition. His ultimate destination was Murfreesboro, which had been secured by Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry. The Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad ran through Murfreesboro, and the fertile valleys of the Stones, Duck, and Elk rivers lay nearby. Crittenden’s Federals resumed their pursuit, but they had neither the speed nor strength to catch up to Bragg’s force.
Buell’s superiors resumed their push for a Federal invasion of eastern Tennessee, which they had been pushing for nearly a year now. They wanted Buell to both destroy the Confederates and secure the predominantly Unionist region. Just as before, Buell resisted, explaining to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “You are aware that between Crab Orchard and Cumberland Gap the country is almost a desert. The limited supply of forage which the country affords is consumed by the enemy as he passes.” Buell continued:
“The enemy has been driven into the heart of this desert and must go on, for he cannot exist in it. For the same reason we cannot pursue in it with any hope of overtaking him, for while he is moving back on his supplies and as he goes consuming what the country affords we must bring ours forward. There is but one road and that a bad one. The route abounds in difficult defiles, in which a small force can retard the progress of a large one for a considerable time, and in that time the enemy could gain material advantage in a move upon other points.
“For these reasons, which I do not think it necessary to elaborate, I deem it useless and inexpedient to continue the pursuit, but propose to direct the main force under my command rapidly upon Nashville, which General (James) Negley reported to me as already being invested by a considerable force and toward which I have no doubt Bragg will move the main part of his army.
“I shall throw myself on my wagon transportation, which, fortunately, is ample. While I shall proceed with these dispositions, deeming them to be proper for the public interest… I should say that the present time is perhaps as convenient as any for making any changes that may be thought proper in the command, of this army. It has not accomplished all that I had hoped or all that faction might demand.”
After offering to give up his command if his superiors were unhappy, Buell explained that his army “defeated a powerful and thoroughly disciplined army in one battle and has driven it away baffled and dispirited at least, and as much demoralized as an army can be under such discipline as Bragg maintains over all troops that he commands.” Buell did not mention that he failed to destroy an enemy he outnumbered three-to-one at Perryville, and only won because Bragg pulled out afterward.
Halleck sent a stern reply in opposition to Buell’s plan to return to Nashville: “The great object to be attained is to drive the enemy from Kentucky and East Tennessee. If we cannot do it now we need never to hope for it.” In another message on the 19th, Halleck reiterated what he expected of Buell:
“The capture of East Tennessee should be the main object of your campaign. You say it is the heart of the enemy’s resources; make it the heart of yours. Your army can live there if the enemy’s can… I am directed by the President to say to you that your army must enter East Tennessee this fall, and that it ought to move there while the roads are passable… He does not understand why we cannot march as the enemy marches, live as he lives, and fight as he fights, unless we admit the inferiority of our troops and of our generals.”
Meanwhile, Bragg continued to move his Confederate Army of Mississippi through Cumberland Gap virtually unmolested, despite having to slow his movement due to the long lines of wagon trains, cattle, and other supplies taken from Kentucky. Bragg’s army was still intact and safe from enemy threats, but his optimistic hopes of claiming Kentucky for the Confederacy were gone.
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