August 31, 1862 (Sunday)
While events in the East were spiraling out of control for the Federals, things in the West were just picking up. Two Confederate forces in Eastern Tennessee had recently begun separate moves towards Kentucky. The first, under Kirby Smith, had been on campaign for over two weeks. While the other, 27,000-strong, commanded by Braxton Bragg, was just now getting started.
Kirby Smith had split his 18,000 men into two commands. He left one below Cumberland Gap, commanded by 10,000 Federals under George Morgan. With the remaining 9,000, he swung around to Barboursville,above Cumberland Gap, completely cutting Morgan’s Yankees from their bases in Louisville and Nashville.
Comparing himself to Cortez and Moses, Smith swiftly moved his force in the direction of Lexington, roughly 100 miles north. Through sweltering heat and scant provisions, his men made over sixty miles in three days.1
Originally, Kirby Smith and Braxton Bragg were to coordinate their forces for an attack upon Lexington. Smith was to liberate Cumberland Gap and return to Chattanooga when Bragg would begin the campaign in earnest. Unfortunately for Bragg, Smith never dreamed of returning.
All through August, Bragg had been preparing to move out for a drive – possibly into Kentucky, but just a likely towards Nashville. As his supplies arrived in Chattanooga and as he rearranged his command structure, he wavered to and fro. Sometimes, he seemed more in favor of Smith’s idea of a huge raid into Kentucky. Other times, we seemed more willing to fight the Union Army of the Ohio, commanded by Don Carlos Buell, in Middle Tennessee.
Finally, after a bit more prodding from Smith, Bragg decided that Kentucky’s bluegrass was more appealing than whatever was in Middle Tennessee. His Army of Mississippi stepped across the Tennessee River on August 28th.2
Union General Don Carlos Buell, however, believed that Bragg had crossed much earlier. He also thought his foe was headed towards Nashville. This last bit is forgivable, since Bragg himself didn’t seem to know where he was going until he was ready to step off.
To better defend against Kirby Smith’s machinations, Buell sent General William “Bull” Nelson with 7,000 men to Lexington, Kentucky. There, he was to find and defeat Smith.
As for Bragg’s westward move, Buell had scattered his 50,000 men across four towns west of the Sequatchie Valley and Nashville. For days, the Rebel army sat at Chattanooga, unmoving. Some speculated that they were merely holding the Federals in place while Kirby Smith ran rampant in Kentucky.
Buell spent much of his time wondering if Bragg would march to Altamont and then to Decherd, or might it be the other way around. Through the last week of August, he shifted troops accordingly, while Bragg just sat there.
General George Thomas, one of Buell’s commanders, insisted that Bragg would move through McMinnville on the Union left. The entire army should be concentrated there, he said. Thomas believed Bragg’s numbers to be closer to 30,000 than 50,000 and requested a mere 24,000 to defend the town. From there, troops could be sent to either Altamont or Sparta to the north, if the Rebels were really bent on outflanking the Union army. Buell thought Thomas was simply obsessed with a Confederate flanking maneuver.3
But as Bragg began to move, Rebel cavalry under Joe Wheeler hit Buell at Altamont, the center of his line. This convinced him that the Confederates would stroll all 27,000 of their men (which Buell believed to be twice that number) through the town. To meet this supposed threat, he moved a division under Alexander McCook to defend the pass.
McCook, siding with Thomas, declined the offer, stating that supplies were so low that there was no way his men could hold it. After being attacked by Wheeler, McCook left the mountain town of Altamont and never looked back.
This was mostly fine, since by that time Buell had already decided to abandon his Altamont line. It became obvious that Thomas’ obsession with a Rebel flanking maneuver was more than justified. Bragg now seemed to be bypassing even McMinnville on the Union left, for the more northerly Sparta. Buell now wanted to concentrate his army at Murfreesboro. This town, along a protected rail line, could be easily supplied from their base at Nashville.4
All the while, two other Confederate Generals in Mississippi, Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price, were trying to figure out what was going on. Originally, they were both to bring along their commands at Vicksburg and Tupelo, respectively, to join with Bragg in a campaign through Middle Tennessee. Nothing was ever really set in stone, and so Van Dorn and Price were left hanging.
Both had been trying to figure out where and when to join forces. Price had been trying to get Van Dorn to come to Tupelo, but was having little luck on that front. On August 29th, Bragg informed Price that Buell’s Union forces were retreating towards Nashville. He believed that the Federals nearest Price, in Corinth, Mississippi, would soon follow suit. Bragg wanted Price to stop that juncture. Price would again turn to Van Dorn, and would again face the same luck.5
Back in Kentucky, Kirby Smith’s army of 9,000 crossed that last mountain range on their way to Lexington. Before them on the 30th, was nothing but bluegrass and blue-clad Yankees. At the town of Richmond, “Bull” Nelson had assembled his 7,000 or so very raw recruits to check Smith’s advance.
Smith attacked in a vicious assault, commanded by General Patrick Cleburne. They hit the Federals hard, but they turned out a stubborn defense. As more and more of their comrades in blue fell, confusion became the rule of the day. The Union line broke, was reformed, and broke again. Again and again, they would try to make a stand, retreating, to be sure, but turning around to fight like veterans. Each time, the Rebels overpowered them.
“Bull” Nelson had been absent for most of the battle, believing that Kirby Smith would never be so bold. When he arrived amidst the retreating, he was able to stem the tide. Soon, however, he was wounded and hefted off the field. His army fell into an even more complete disarray.
Smith ended up trapping most of Nelson’s green army in the streets of Richmond and they surrendered by the thousands. So many laid down their muskets that the most accurate figure Smith could gather was that they “had a ten acre lot full” of Yankees.
Only about 800 Federals, including Nelson, escaped. Kirby Smith’s force lost around 100 killed and 500 wounded, while the Federals lost a total of 6,353 (206 killed, 844 wounded, and 5,303 captured or missing).6
- Perryville by Kenneth W. Noe, University Press of Kentucky, 2001. [↩]
- Army of the Heartland by Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Louisiana State University Press, 1967. [↩]
- Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel, Louisiana State University Press, 2004. [↩]
- Perryville by Kenneth W. Noe, University Press of Kentucky, 2001. [↩]
- War in Kentucky by James Lee McDonough, University of Tennessee Press, 1994. [↩]
- All for the Regiment by Gerald J. Prokopowicz, University of North Carolina Press, 2001. [↩]