Bragg and Smith Plan to Take Most of Tennessee… or Maybe Kentucky

July 31, 1862 (Thursday)

Braxton Bragg

The winter and spring of 1862 had been fraught with disaster upon disaster for the Confederate forces in the West. Forts Henry and Donelson had fallen, Nashville had been lost, bastions along the Mississippi had been abandoned, and even Corinth was now under Federal control. There was, however, a shimmer of hope in General Braxton Bragg.

From his position at Tupelo, Mississippi, there was little he could do. Two Union armies under Generals Grant and Rosecrans held Corinth and Memphis, and moving against such a force was suicidal. Hundreds of miles to the east, however, was Chattanooga, a vital railroad hub and gateway to Cumberland Gap and Middle Tennessee. It was held by several thousand Rebels under General Kirby Smith, but, being blocked by 10,000 Union troops under General George Morgan to the north (at Cumberland Gap) and General Don Carlos Buell’s 40,000-strong Army of the Ohio to the west, they were stuck in place until reinforcements arrived.

Smith had been calling upon Bragg for reinforcements for weeks. After sending a brigade, he finally decided on an uncharacteristically bold action. Instead of sending reinforcements to Smith, he would take his entire army, leaving 16,000 men under General Sterling Price as placeholders near Tupelo and another 16,000 under General Earl Van Dorn at Vicksburg. Bragg, with his 35,000 men, made the long trip to Chattanooga via Mobile and Atlanta, going south before north, widely outflanking Buell’s army, slowly creeping its way east.

Kirby Smith

On the 27th, Bragg’s troops began to arrive in Chattanooga and on this date, Bragg himself greeted Kirby Smith at his headquarters. With their combined forces, they totaled upwards of 55,000. With this, they could defeat both Buell and Morgan in turn, and take back much of what was lost in eastern and middle Tennessee before the end of the summer. This daring junction of forces was poised to be the savior of the Confederate west. There was, however, a problem.

What this brave new army lacked was a leader. The forces weren’t so much combined as near each other. General Bragg had no control over General Smith’s men, just as Smith had no authority over Bragg’s. The operations were technically in Smith’s department, so Bragg did not outrank him, but Bragg technically outranked Smith, so Smith could not lead the combined forces (which weren’t really even combined).1 This was all somewhat waylaid as Smith had assured Bragg that he would “not only co-operate with you, but will cheerfully place my command under you subject to your orders.”2

Map showing very approximate locations of the principle players in today's drama.

Tossing all that aside for the time being, Bragg and Smith sat down and discussed their plans and ideas for the coming campaign. While rank was certainly an issue, it wasn’t an insurmountable one. Though it seems not to have been discussed in great detail at this meeting, Smith had longed to make an attack into Kentucky. While Bragg wanted to secure Nashville, Smith had higher goals – or at least goals a bit farther north. If Buell’s Federal army was destroyed or neutralized, it would allow him to storm into the Bluegrass State. Smith saw Bragg and his troops merely as a means to an end.3

General Bragg, in a letter to Richmond explaining the plan they worked out, described the combination as “mutual support and effective co-operation.” Though Bragg’s army was mostly up, he was still waiting for his artillery and supply wagons. Until they arrived, it was decided that Smith should gather his forces and hit George Morgan’s Yankees at Cumberland Gap.

“Should he be successful, and our well-grounded hopes be fulfilled,” related Bragg, “our entire force will then be thrown into Middle Tennessee with the fairest prospect of cutting off General Buell, should that commander continue in his present position.”

Nowhere in his letter to Richmond did he mention an invasion of Kentucky. Even if Buell was reinforced, Middle Tennessee was still the target: “Van Dorn and Price can strike and clear West Tennessee of any force that can be left to hold it.”4

The plan was a fine one – if timing was on the side of the South. It was fairly likely that Smith, with some of Bragg’s troops, could secure Cumberland Gap. But the rest of the plan – the crux of it – involved Bragg’s supplies and artillery arriving in time to attack Buell’s Union army. It, of course, relied upon Buell staying where he was. The addendum, throwing Generals Price and Van Dorn into the mix, made timing even more critical and difficult.

Facing Price and Van Dorn were two spread out Union armies, either one of which outnumbered all of the Rebels in the area. However, all Price and Van Dorn had to do was hold General Grant in check, making it impossible for him to reinforce Buell.

Cumberland Gap

Price, near Tupelo, was fairly close to the Federal lines. All he had to do was apply a bit of pressure. Van Dorn, on the other hand, was in Vicksburg, far from Grant’s army spreading out from Memphis, his attention focused south, rather than north. General John Breckinridge, under orders from Van Dorn, had set off with 4,000 troops to retake Baton Rouge, Louisiana.5

And so Bragg would have to herd three widely separated commands towards Middle Tennessee, taking advantage of Smith’s hoped-for victory at Cumberland Gap. To add more problems to the mix, Smith wanted to pull troops from Western Virginia to aid him in his attack.6 On paper, the plan constructed by Bragg and Smith seemed perfect, but it required almost perfect conditions for it to come even close to succeeding.

  1. Army of the Heartland by Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Louisiana State University, 1967. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, Part 2, p734. []
  3. War in Kentucky by James Lee McDonough, University of Tennessee Press, 1994. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, Part 2, p742. []
  5. Army of the Heartland by Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Louisiana State University, 1967. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, Part 2, p743. []
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Bragg and Smith Plan to Take Most of Tennessee… or Maybe Kentucky by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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2 thoughts on “Bragg and Smith Plan to Take Most of Tennessee… or Maybe Kentucky

    1. Thanks! I try my best to cover it, though I admit, during the Antietam Campaign, you’ll see less of the West. Still, I’ll even dip my toes a bit in the Trans-Mississippi. 🙂

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