American Civil War: The Kentucky Campaign


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Looking at the strategic situation after the Seven Days’ Battles, the Confederates decided to mount twin offensives. The first was in the Western Theater, with troop movements from Mississippi up through Tennessee and into Kentucky in August 1862. Let’s take a look how the two Confederate armies fared.

Soldiers passing through the Cumberland Gap
The Cumberland Gap was a key passageway for the Confederate forces entering Kentucky during the Kentucky campaign, and used by the Confederate forces commanded by Kirby Smith en route to capturing the Union garrison at Richmond, Kentucky in August 1862. (Image: Sgt. Brennan/Public domain)

Early Confederate Success in the Western Theater

Let’s look at the beginning part of the campaign. It went splendidly for the Confederates, initially. Kirby Smith moved first. He marched quickly northward. He bypassed Cumberland Gap on his way north and struck deep into Kentucky, where on August 30, 1862 he defeated and captured most of a 6,000-man Union garrison at Richmond, Kentucky.

Braxton Bragg followed shortly thereafter. They didn’t move on the same track. Bragg was actually moving on a line of march about 100 miles west of Kirby Smith’s, but Bragg followed through Tennessee and eventually entered Kentucky.

With two Rebel armies in Kentucky, Don Carlos Buell did what Bragg had hoped he would do. He left a garrison at Nashville and set out with the bulk of his army after Bragg. On September 17, 1862, Bragg captured a small Federal force at Munfordville, Kentucky.

That was a town on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. He thought that he was in precisely the position that he wanted to be in. He was going to force Don Carlos Buell now, whose line of communications to Louisville had been cut, to come after him.

The Fall of Munfordville

There had been an almost farcical episode at Munfordville when the Confederates surrounded the place. The Union commander was a man named Wilder, who was not a professional soldier, and was really quite beside himself as to what he should do.

The Confederates came up in manifestly more strength than Wilder had, and they said, “We want you to surrender.” Wilder, under a flag of truce, parlayed with the Confederates, in effect, and said, “Well, I’m not sure whether I should surrender. I’m not sure what the circumstances are,” and he, in effect, asked the Confederates if he should surrender.

The Confederates responded—in this case it was Simon Bolivar Buckner—“Well, I don’t know how many men you have. I don’t know what your position looks like. I can’t tell you whether you should surrender.” And Wilder said, “Well, this is how many men I have, and this is what my position is. Now do you think I should surrender?” And they said, “Yes,” and so he did, and Munfordville fell.

Learn more about the war in Virginia, winter and spring 1862-63.

The Cat and Mouse Game Between Bragg and Buell

Portrait of Don Carloss Buell, looking straight at the camera with a stern, slightly antagonistic look in his eyes, with   thinning blonde hair brushed back, wearing the Union uniform.
The Confederate forces under the command of Braxton Bragg were in control of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. (Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

And there is Braxton Bragg controlling this position on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. He expected Buell to come and attack him. He underestimated Buell’s capacity for lethargy. The thing that Buell was best at, really, was not doing anything, and that’s what he did here. He sat and he waited. And Bragg waited and Buell waited.

People came up to reinforce Buell from the south. He eventually had nearly 50,000 men. Bragg became impatient. He ran out of food in the area, and he left. He left the line of the L&N and drew his army eastward into the lush Bluegrass region, where food and fodder were plentiful to feed his men and his animals. Buell then simply moved on to Louisville.

So Bragg had done what he wanted to do, but then he hadn’t waited and forced the issue. He’d moved out of the way. Buell had gone on to Louisville.

Now that Buell had committed himself to Kentucky, however, Bragg hoped that the troops he left behind under Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price would be able to march out of northern Mississippi and recapture Nashville. Bragg thought, I’ve drawn the major Union force with me. They’re out of the way. Now maybe my compatriots back in northern Mississippi will be able to liberate Nashville and parts of middle Tennessee.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Confederate Campaign into Kentucky Was a Success

A political dimension entered the campaign at this point in early October. On the second day of the month, Bragg decided to go to Frankfurt, the capital of Kentucky, which Kirby Smith had captured and where the Confederates planned to inaugurate a Secessionist governor.

They’re continuing this charade that Kentucky’s really a Confederate state: There’s a star in the Confederate flag for Kentucky; let’s go over and officially inaugurate a Confederate governor in the capital of the state. So he heads over to do that.

Meanwhile, back in Mississippi there’s a battle at Corinth, another battle at Corinth, on the third and fourth of October. Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price fight a bloody contest there against a Federal force that they cannot defeat.

It’s a Union victory in the Battle of Corinth, which means that Braxton Bragg’s hope that something would happen at Nashville is not going to come to fruition. That part of the campaign is over. Those Confederate troops are going to remain far away from the scene of principal action in that campaign.

Still, if we look at the Confederate campaign into Kentucky, down to that point, down to the point of the Battle of Corinth, it would have to be considered a success.

Bragg and Kirby Smith had captured 8,000 Federals, they had drawn another 50,000 out of Tennessee, and they were menacing Louisville and perhaps even Cincinnati. No one knew where they were going to go. They were getting close to the Ohio River, and they could have moved in any one of a number of directions.

The inauguration of a Confederate governor was intended to give legitimacy to the presence of these Confederate soldiers in the state and also, as I said earlier, to send the message that it was not just a sham, that Kentucky was counted as one of the states of the Confederacy. Both Bragg and Kirby Smith also hoped that, by inaugurating this governor, it would encourage more Kentuckians to come in.

Bragg had gone north with more than 15,000 extra muskets, which he hoped to distribute to the Kentuckians he hoped would come to his army. The men hadn’t been coming to his army. Those muskets remained in the wagons they’d been in all the way into Kentucky.

He hoped that this inaugural ceremony would encourage more Kentuckians, embolden them, to come forward and cast their lot with the Confederacy.

Learn more about Shiloh and Corinth.

Common Questions about the Kentucky Campaign

Q: Was Kentucky part of the Confederate?

Kentucky was largely neutral, though it was under Union control. The Confederacy believed that the Union had kept Kentucky under its control by force, and also believed that if they could show up in the state to fight for them, then Kentucky would sign up with the Confederacy.

Q: Where was Confederate General Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky stopped?

At one point during the Kentucky campaign, Braxton Bragg had captured a town called Munfordville on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, and was controlling this position, waiting for Don Carlos Buell to come and attack him. But Buell didn’t make a move and he waited for reinforcement. Bragg allowed his advantage to slip and left the line of the L&N, which allowed Buell to move on to Louisville.

Q: Who commanded the Union forces in Kentucky?

When Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith began the two-pronged Confederate campaign in Kentucky, the Union forces closest to the action were being commanded by Don Carlos Buell.

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