October 28, 1862 (Tuesday)
The Confederate retreat from Kentucky wasn’t simply a retreat. General Braxton Bragg, had been planning a new offensive – a strike towards Nashville – even as his troops were still in the Blue Grass State. While he and his army had been on the campaign that culminated in the battle of Perryville, John Breckinridge, commanding a Confederate division, arrived in Knoxville.
Originally, Bragg had wanted Breckinridge with him on the Kentucky campaign, but had to leave without him. Now, however, the former Vice President of the United States could be of some use. As the army tramped south through Cumberland Gap, Bragg ordered Breckinridge to Murfreesboro, thirty-five miles southeast of Nashville, with the promise that he (Bragg) and the rest of the army would soon follow.
By the 23rd of October, however, Richmond was becoming more than a little wary of Bragg’s future plans. He had told them he planned to attack Nashville, but also let slip that his army was in complete disarray. He didn’t even know how many troops he had. And so Richmond ordered that he explain himself in person. He planned to leave as soon as possible, but had one more thing to take care of.
His army was actually two armies. The Army of Mississippi was commanded by himself, while the Army of Kentucky was commanded by Kirby Smith. Technically, Smith was the head of his own department and held an independent command. Throughout the late campaign, Smith notoriously refused to work with Bragg, while Bragg’s indecisiveness and laid back attitude allowed Smith to get his way.
Throughout their time in Chattanooga and Kentucky, Bragg’s army had been operating in Kirby Smith’s department. Even now that they had returned to Eastern Tennessee, they were still outsiders. Since Bragg’s department was the Western Department, he needed to return. There was little more that he could do apart from invading Nashville and Middle Tennessee. If victorious, it would be his redemption.
As he prepared to leave for Richmond, Bragg asked if Smith might not be able to join him in a push towards Nashville. Specifically, Bragg wanted Smith to leave 3,000 men at Cumberland Gap, while bringing the remainder of his force to Kingston, thirty miles west of Knoxville. Smith again refused, seeing no way that this could be accomplished. He had 16,000 men under his command, but fully 10,000 of them, claimed Smith, had left the ranks to forage for food. It was either that or starve. The remaining 6,000 would soon be left to the same fate and Smith would be a commander without an army (or so he insinuated).
“The condition of my command now is such as to render any immediate operations with it impossible,” related Smith to Bragg on the 23rd. “The men are worn down from exposure and want of food. They are much in want of shoes, clothing, and blankets.” In closing Smith promised that “as soon as my command can be perfectly fitted out I will take the field with it.” Of course, he wasn’t promising that he would take Bragg’s field with it.
There was nothing more Bragg could do except leave Leonidas Polk in command of his Army of Mississippi, while he jaunted to Richmond to explain his next move and why he so badly needed Smith’s help. Though he had no permission to begin another campaign, Bragg ordered his Army to “proceed as soon as practicable to Murfreesborough, Tenn., and take such position in that vicinity as may seem advisable to its commander [Polk].” Polk started out (and thus began the new campaign) even before Bragg got to the Confederate Capital.
But Bragg’s Army of Mississippi was really in no shape to begin a chilly autumn campaign immediately after the long and treacherous 200-mile march of near-starvation they had just endured while leaving Kentucky. They needed rest and time to reorganize. Bragg, hoping for redemption, could afford neither.
For this, a move to Murfreesboro was essential. And for that, John Breckinridge was the man to hold it. The town was already the base for Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry. Forrest had been sent by Bragg to Middle Tennessee to raise a force of (more or less) irregular cavalry. He was able to throw together four regiments and a battery of artillery to hold the town and raid towards Nashville.
When General Breckinridge arrived, Forrest tried to convince him that he should attack Nashville right away. His raids had learned him that the Yankees weren’t exactly spoiling for a fight. “If you was here with your force,” wrote Forrest so eloquently to Breckinridge, “Nashville would fall in forty eight hours after reaching it.”
It would take some time for Breckinridge to come around to that thinking. Besides, he also had a new army to organize. On this date, Breckinridge took command of the newly-established Army of Middle Tennessee. It consisted of three brigades, plus Forrest’s cavalry. The independent command and command of an army would both be short-lived. Soon, his army would be a division in William Hardee’s Corps of the Army of Tennessee.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, Part 2, p975-978, 981; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; No Better Place to Die by Peter Cozzens; The Confederate’s Greatest Cavalryman by Brian Steel Wills; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley Horn. [↩]