At the start of June 1862 the American Civil War looked to be moving towards a quick conclusion. George McClellan’s huge army was slowly approaching the Confederate capitol of Richmond, while in the west the Confederates had been pushed out of most of Tennessee, lost New Orleans and were facing a second huge army under General Halleck. However, the autumn of 1862 was to prove to be very disappointing for the North. McClellan failed in front of Richmond, allowing Lee to turn north, beating a second Union army at Bull Run, before invading the North.
The Confederacy also went took the initiative in the west. In the aftermath of the capture of Corinth, Halleck had had an army of over 100,000 men at his disposal, but instead of focusing on a single object, he dispersed that army across the western theatre.
One part of that army, under General Carlos Buell, was sent east towards Chattanooga. The capture of that city would block one of the main rail links between Virginia and the rest of the Confederacy, and allow Union forces to enter East Tennessee, the one part of the state still in Confederate hands, but also an area with strong Union sympathies. Buell could travel almost due east, along the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which ran just inside Alabama all the way to Chattanooga. However, Buell travelled very slowly, repairing the railroad as he went, Constant attacks on his supply lines slowed him down even further. It began to look like it would take him the entire summer to travel 200 miles.
This gave the new Confederate commander of the Army of Mississippi, Braxton Bragg, a chance to strike back. He decided to take advantage of Buell’s slow progress to move part of his own army east, and then use Chattanooga as a base for an invasion of Kentucky. He confidently expected Kentucky to rally to the Confederate course the moment his army appeared in the state. Moving east would also allow him to combine with Edmund Kirby Smith, who had an army 18,000 strong at Knoxville, in east Tennessee. The combined forces would number 50,000. They would still be outnumbered, but then they were going to be reinforced in Kentucky!
The troop movement demonstrated Bragg’s great organisational ability. One division at a time, he sent his men on a 776 mile railroad trip. With Buell blocking the direct route, Bragg had to send his men south to the coast at Mobile on one line, and then back inland to Chattanooga on another, one of the most impressive railroad movements of the war, and the biggest achieved by the Confederacy. Yes than a month after the movement began (23 July), Bragg’s 34,000 men were ready to move north from Chattanooga.
Kirby Smith moved first. Although he had been reinforced to over 20,000 men, a large force had to left to watch a Union garrison at Cumberland Gap, a key pass between Kentucky and Tennessee, so on 14 August, Kirby Smith marched north with a force of 12,000 men. On 30 August, they fought and won the first battle of the campaign, at Richmond, Kentucky. Here they encountered a force of 6,000 troops. Luckily for the Confederates these were raw troops, virtually untrained, and were brushed aside by the experienced Confederates. Only 900 of these men were ever found again! Those who were not captured, seem to have simply gone home, deciding that the army life was clearly not for them.
Kirby Smith reached Frankfort, the state capitol, on 3 September. There he had to sit and wait for Bragg. With an army containing 27,816 men fit for duty, Bragg began his march on 28 August. By that point, Buell had finally reached within 50 miles of Chattanooga, but he was now forced to abandon his original plans, and turn north to chase Bragg. The two armies now engaged in a race north. Bragg was aiming to unite with Kirby Smith while Buell’s target was his main base at Louisville, on the Ohio River, where he expected to find reinforcements.
The two armies came close together at Munfordville. Here a Federal garrison of 4,000 withstood Confederate attacks on 13 and 14 September, but had to surrender on 17 September when Bragg’s entire army appeared. Buell was rapidly approaching from the south, minus one detachment sent to guard Nashville, and for a moment Bragg was determined to attack. However, the Nashville contingent rejoined Buell in time to stop this attack. On 20 September Bragg pulled away and continued towards Frankfort.
This allowed Buell to slip past him. The first of his 35,000 men reached Louisville on 25 September, and the entire army was in place two days later. There he was reinforced to 55,000 men, while another 60,000 new recruits were also in the area. Bragg was getting dangerously close to Union forces capable of crushing his army.
He was now facing a new problem. Kentucky had not risen to join the Confederacy. Early in the war, the state had remained neutral, and in that period the most enthusiastic Southern supporters had had plenty of time to move south themselves. With large Union armies in the area, and no major victories for Bragg’s army, any potential recruits stayed put. By 25 September he was telling Richmond that unless things changes soon, ‘we must abandon the garden spot of Kentucky’. In an attempt to encourage potential recruits, Bragg and Kirby Smith met at Frankfort on 4 October to inaugurate a Confederate governor of the state. However politically wise this might have been, it was a military mistake. It left the bulk of the army under the commander of General Polk, a well liked commander, but not one of any great ability.
The timing of the ceremony could not have been worse. On 1 October Buell finally launched his counterattack. While small detachments headed toward Frankfort, the bulk of his army headed further west, towards the Confederate troops around Perryville. On 4 October those detachments actually interrupted the governor’s inauguration, and over the next few days managed to pin a large part of Bragg’s army in the wrong place.
Meanwhile, the rest of the army was heading towards Perryville, where on 7 October a minor skirmish was fought over possession of some pools of water in a river bed – the area was in the middle of a severe drought. The next morning saw one of the more confused battles of the civil war (Battle of Perryville, 8 October 1862). The battle began with a Union attack. Sheridan’s division managed to drive the Confederates away from the precious water. The army now formed up in line of battle, with Sheridan’s men in the centre.
Bragg was convinced that he was facing the real enemy at Frankfort, and so ordered Polk to attack this ‘detachment’ of the Union army at Perryville. Polk’s attack hit the centre of Buell’s line, but due to freak weather conditions the sounds of battle did not reach Buell. Only very later in the day did he become aware that a full scale battle was raging only a couple of miles from his position. By then it was too late.
Bragg was also now increasingly aware of the true location of the Union armies. He now made a sensible decision, for which he was later much criticised. Facing the possibility of being overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers, he ordered Polk to pull back from Perryville. Soon after, aware that no reinforcements were on their way, Bragg was forced to abandon the campaign. The combined army retreated back through the Cumberland Gap into East Tennessee (the gap had been abandoned by its Union garrison early in the invasion). A limited Union pursuit was abandoned on 22 October, by which time the Confederate army was almost back on home territory.
Both Bragg and Buell were heavily criticised for their actions during the campaign. Buell’s slow movements eventually resulted in his removal from command (24 October) and his replacement by General Rosecrans. Bragg meanwhile had argued with all of his corps commanders, and came under severe attack for what was seen as the failure of his expedition. However, Chattanooga was saved, at least for the moment, and Bragg’s invasion had given the North a serious scare