General Bragg's Impossible Dream: Take Kentucky
BY FRANK VAN DER LINDEN
It turned out to be a pipe dream, but while it lasted the Confederate invasion of Kentucky in the summer and fall of 1862 gave the Federal authorities a terrible nightmare. They feared losing the great expanse of Southern territory their troops had won through the capture of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Nashville, as well as the slaughter at Shiloh. They now controlled Kentucky, middle and west Tennessee, north Mississippi and north Alabama. Only after the dream ended in October did newly appointed General-in-Chief Henry Halleck realize that the Rebels had ‘boldly determined to reoccupy Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky and, if possible, invade the states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois while our attention was distracted by the invasion of Maryland.’
It is somewhat surprising to think that the Don Quixote who formulated this impossible dream was General Braxton Bragg, who is usually depicted as a grim, dour, dyspeptic martinet who could never gain the love of his troops nor the respect of the Southern people, some of whom looked down on him as a pet of President Jefferson Davis. One officer branded him 'self-willed, arrogant and dictatorial,’ and another called him ‘obstinate, haughty and authoritative’ but asserted he was the best disciplinarian in the Confederate Army.
Bragg’s swings in temperament might have been caused by his poor health. He suffered for years from fierce migraine headaches, poor digestion and rheumatism, all of which intensified his irritable personality. His black beard, streaked with gray, and sour disposition made the general seem much older, but he was only in his 40s during the war. William Russell, a British war correspondent, described him as a tall, ‘elderly’ man ‘of spare and powerful frame,’ adding, ‘His face is dark and marked with deep lines, his mouth larger and squarely set in determined jaws and his eyes look out at you from beetle brows which run straight across and spring into a thick tuft of black hair.’
A native of North Carolina, Bragg held the respect of other generals who knew that he had amply demonstrated his courage and fighting skill in the Mexican War. In the Battle of Buena Vista on February 23, 1847, Bragg’s artillery fire stopped a Mexican attack and averted defeat. General Zachary Taylor, the U.S. commander, said Bragg’s use of canister ‘saved the day.’ According to a popular myth, Taylor called for ‘a little more grape, Captain Bragg.’ Bragg recalled that Taylor actually shouted, ‘Give ‘em hell!’ Colonel Jefferson Davis, commanding Mississippi troops in the battle, admired Bragg for the rest of his life.
In April 1862, after Bragg had ably commanded a corps in the Battle of Shiloh, President Davis promoted him to the rank of full general, making him the fifth-highest-ranking officer in the Confederacy. On June 20, Davis gave him command of the Western Department, replacing General P.G.T. Beauregard, who had been the commander since the death of General Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh. Seeking medical treatment, the ailing Beauregard had slipped away to an Alabama spa — without asking the president’s permission. Furious, Davis sacked him and chose his favorite to take Beauregard’s place.
Bragg confronted a tough strategic situation. The Federal troops, numbering more than 100,000, were based at the rail center of Corinth, Miss., and scattered all the way to Memphis. The outnumbered Confederates were concentrated at Tupelo, south of Corinth. Thousands of bluecoats, led by Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, were moving slowly eastward toward the rail center at Chattanooga, Tenn., repairing the vital Memphis & Charleston railroad as they trudged along. President Abraham Lincoln demanded that Buell rescue the loyal people of east Tennessee from Rebel rule. Constantly harassed by Confederate cavalry, the Yankees in the road gang moved so slowly that Lincoln complained, and Halleck warned Buell that if he didn’t speed up he would be fired.
Colonel John Hunt Morgan, the notorious Rebel raider, staged a thousand-mile rampage across Kentucky with about 900 hell-for-leather cavalrymen, causing Union Brig. Gen. J.T. Boyle at Louisville, Ky., to warn Washington in July: ‘The state is in imminent danger of being overrun by Morgan and those joining him….There is a danger of an uprising of the traitors in our midst.’ Lincoln told Halleck: ‘They are having a stampede in Kentucky. Look to it.’
It was to encourage just such a rebellion in Kentucky that Bragg began to devise his grand scheme for invading the state and carrying the Confederacy’s frontier to the Ohio River. Since the wrecked Memphis & Charleston railroad remained as a barrier in Federal hands, there was no way the Confederates could go directly from Tupelo to Chattanooga. So Bragg devised a brilliant end run around Buell, moving about 35,000 of his troops by rail in an unusually long ‘V’ formation. They went southward nearly the entire length of Mississippi to Mobile, Ala., crossed Mobile Bay by steamboat and then traveled by rail northward through Montgomery, Ala., then Atlanta and Dalton, Ga., covering 766 miles on more than half a dozen different railroads and arriving at Chattanooga by late July.
‘Bragg had moved men farther and faster than troops had ever been moved before,’ one biographer wrote. ‘His strategic use of the railroad had reversed the direction of the war. Not only were Buell’s flank and rear exposed; all Federal armies in the lower Mississippi valley were menaced.’
Confederate Maj. Gen. E. Kirby Smith, at Knoxville, had about 12,000 troops in east Tennessee and assured Bragg that they would cheerfully cooperate in a parallel drive northward into Kentucky, the two armies moving about 100 miles apart. ‘My advance is made in the hope of permanently occupying Kentucky,’ Smith told President Davis on August 11. ‘It is a bold move, offering brilliant results.’
‘Everything is ripe for success,’ Bragg assured Smith on August 15 in a rare display of optimism. ‘Buell’s forces are much scattered and from all accounts much demoralized. By rapid movements and vigorous blows we may beat him in detail, or by gaining his rear, very much increase his demoralization and break him up.’
‘Buell has certainly fallen back from the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and will probably not make a stand this side of Nashville,’ Bragg assured Maj. Gens. Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price, who were holding the line in north Mississippi. He directed them to overcome the Union armies there, ‘threaten West Tennessee with about 25,000 men,’ join him on the Ohio River and ‘there open the way to Missouri.’ Clearly ‘Old Porcupine’ was mentally riding high, dreaming his impossible dream.
Both Bragg and Smith were marching forward on Kentucky soil in August before Buell had any idea where they were. Nobody in Washington knew either. Alarmed, Lincoln telegraphed Buell: ‘What degree of certainty have you that Bragg with his command is not now in the Valley of the Shenandoah in Virginia?’ If so, the president reasoned, he could be adding to the menace of the Rebels under General Robert E. Lee, who had stalled Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s drive on Richmond and now were threatening Washington. Finally realizing that Bragg was in Kentucky, Buell went after him in hot pursuit, leaving a small force to protect Nashville.
On August 30, the same day the authorities in Washington were thrown into panic by Maj. Gen. John Pope’s defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, Smith’s troops captured Richmond, Ky. They defeated a Federal force of about 7,000 mostly green recruits from Ohio and Indiana, hurried forward by their governors in response to pleas from Washington for somebody to defend Kentucky while the nation’s capital looked to its own defense.
Smith, in his triumphant report to the War Department declared: ‘The enemy were utterly routed and retreated in terrible confusion….The remnant of the Federal force in Kentucky is making its way, utterly demoralized and scattered, to the Ohio River….The country is rising in arms. If I am supported and can be supplied with arms, 25,000 Kentucky troops in a few days would be added to my command.’
Smith’s barefoot and hungry soldiers moved through Lexington and then arrived at Frankfort, the state capital, to find that the pro-Union governor and Legislature had fled to Louisville. Welcoming crowds convinced Smith that ‘the heart of the people of Kentucky is with the South in this struggle. They are rallying to our flag….I am pushing some forces in the direction of Cincinnati.’
Bragg’s soldiers marched into Glasgow, Ky., on September 14, outpacing Buell’s pursuing bluecoats, and he informed the War Department: ‘The troops are in good tone and condition, somewhat footsore and tired, but cheerful….With arms, we can not only clear Tennessee and Kentucky but, I confidently trust, hold them both.’
‘My army is in high spirits and ready to go anywhere the old general says,’ Bragg wrote to his wife. ‘With but one suit of clothes, no tents, nothing to eat but meat and bread and, when we can’t get that, roasting ears from the cornfields along the road, we have the most extraordinary campaign in military history.’
Bragg scored an easy victory over green Indiana volunteers on September 17 when his troops surrounded the Federal fort at Munfordville and achieved its unconditional surrender without firing a shot. He counted more than 4,000 prisoners, 5,000 rifles, a large quantity of ammunition and many horses and mules.
The prickly Old Porcupine had good reason to smile for a change. Astride the Green River halfway across Kentucky, he could imagine that his dream might really come true. From Munfordville, he issued an order thanking his men for ‘the crowning success of their extraordinary campaign,’ and he reported to Richmond, ‘My admiration of and love for my army cannot be expressed.’
General Buell later said the Confederates now had ‘virtual possession of the whole of Kentucky east of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, except within the limits of Covington and Louisville.’ Covington was an Ohio River suburb of Cincinnati, and Buell recorded that the Rebels had thrown their pickets ‘almost to the gates of Cincinnati and Louisville.’
‘If Louisville is taken, the state is gone,’ Governor James F. Robinson lamented, after fleeing there from Frankfort. The Rebels’ approach set off a panic. Frightened citizens fled across the river to Indiana loaded down with valuable possessions. Major General William Nelson, a profane 300-pound former Navy man, rallied his motley crew of greenhorns and convalescents to defend the city and ‘to give a bloody welcome to the rebel horde.’ One newspaper writer complained: ‘When the capture and the sacking of Louisville and conscription into the rebel army stares us in the face, we hang back from volunteering….We are willing to sacrifice our city and ourselves for the cause of the Union, but not to the military imbecility, ignorance and cowardice of many of the officers and men whom it is the misfortune of General Nelson to command. But all will be well pending the arrival of Gen. Buell, that notorious military sluggard.’
The ’sluggard’ was racing after Bragg, avoiding a battle, marching his weary men at a quick-step pace and trying to reach Louisville first. As usual, the Union brass complained that he was too slow. Halleck telegraphed him on September 20: ‘After Bragg had turned your left, your movement into Kentucky was probably the best thing you could do; but I fear that here, as elsewhere, you move too slowly and will permit the junction of Bragg and Smith before you open your line to Louisville.’
Actually, Bragg did not have enough troops to attack Buell’s much larger army unless Smith’s Confederates could join him — and they were far away at Lexington. Smith warned Bragg that Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was sending veteran soldiers up the river to join Buell while another army of Northern volunteers was forming to protect Cincinnati.
Imploring Bragg to attack Buell, Smith declared, ‘I regard the defeat of Buell before he effects a junction with the force at Louisville as a military necessity, for Buell’s army has always been the great bugbear to these people.’ Unless Buell could be beaten, he added, ‘we cannot hope for much addition to our ranks from Kentucky.’
The two Confederate armies did not unite in time. Instead, after trying to provoke Buell into a battle, Bragg quit the race to Louisville. He swerved suddenly to the east and encamped at Bardstown. Explaining his puzzling change of heart to Richmond, Bragg said that Buell had twice as many troops and a battle would materially cripple the Confederates even if they won, while a loss would be disastrous.
He said his troops were reduced to three days’ rations and ‘in a hostile country utterly destitute of supplies,’ so they ‘were compelled to give up the object and seek for subsistence’ at Bardstown. Others in the army, politicians in Richmond and hostile newspaper editors could not believe that this was the whole story of Bragg’s mystifying switch from aggressive pursuit of a ‘demoralized’ enemy force to the avoidance of a fight. Bragg really decided against an attack on Louisville because sources inside the city, who were in contact with him throughout the campaign, had warned him that an invasion would be ‘suicidal,’ according to a dispatch from the city to The New York Times. ‘He is in constant communication with this city through the medium of the rebel sympathizers,’ the dispatch said. ‘They have no doubt fully posted him with the formidable Federal force before this city and, dreading the fatal encounter which would follow an attack in this quarter, he may be making for the Bluegrass region in all haste.’ Even if the Rebels had captured the city, they could have held it for only a single day against the overwhelming Federal armies, the story said.
On September 24, Nelson announced that the first 12,000 men of Buell’s army had crossed Salt River. ‘Louisville is now safe. We can destroy Bragg with whatever force he may bring against us. God and liberty,’ Nelson boasted. ‘I have 35,000 men,’ he told Buell. ‘I am entrenched and believe I can hold the city….When you have brought Bragg to bay, then I will attack him.’
Two days later, Buell’s men were marching proudly along the streets of Louisville, and their commander had the satisfaction of sending a dispatch to Halleck: ‘My troops are concentrated at this place. They have made long and rapid marches and require clothing, which is being issued today. I shall immediately advance against the enemy.’
From Bardstown, Bragg reported to Richmond on September 25: ‘With only three days of provisions, we marched to this place (59 miles) and reached here after some privation and suffering. It is a source of deep regret that this move was necessary as it has enabled Buell to reach Louisville, where a very large force is now concentrated.’
Then Bragg put his finger on the main reason for the ruin of all his glorious hopes: ‘We are sadly disappointed at the want of action by our friends in Kentucky. We have so far received no accession to this army.’ Both Bragg and Smith had pinned their hopes on the solemn promises by prominent Kentuckians that thousands of their brave young men would join the Confederate armies. Colonel Morgan had predicted 25,000 recruits would come in for sure; he even talked about 50,000.
Kentucky’s delegation to the Confederate Congress had assured President Davis that the people, suffering under arbitrary Yankee rule, were fed up and ready to rebel if only a Confederate army would come into their state.
Bragg had felt so sure of their promises that he brought along 20,000 rifles in his wagons to arm the Kentuckians who were supposedly so eager to fight. He had counted on those throngs of volunteers to double the size of his army and Smith’s, so that they could defeat the combined forces of Buell, Nelson and Grant’s reinforcements and seize Louisville. Now those hopes had vanished. Capturing Cincinnati had never been a goal, but the feints in that direction had stirred up a hornet’s nest of Ohio troops, vowing to defend that city.
Smith, who had joyously forecast that the Kentuckians would rise en masse because their hearts were clearly with the South, now changed his tune. ‘The Kentuckians are slow and backward in rallying to our standard,’ he told Bragg. ‘Their hearts are evidently with us but their blue grass and fat cattle are against us.’
‘Unless a change occurs soon,’ Bragg told Richmond, ‘we must abandon the garden spot of Kentucky. Its cupidity, the love of ease and fear of pecuniary loss are the fruitful source of this evil.’ Kentucky and Tennessee could still be ‘redeemed, if we are supported, but at least 50,000 men will be necessary and a few weeks will decide the question,’ he said. ‘Had the forces in Mississippi moved as ordered, so as to have held the enemy there in check, we might have made some headway before arriving here but we find the armies of Generals Grant, Rosecrans, Curtis and Buell, with many more levies, opposed to us.’
In a final desperate appeal to the Confederate commanders in north Mississippi, Bragg sent a telegram from Bardstown on September 25 to Van Dorn: ‘General, we have driven and drawn the enemy clear back to the Ohio. Push your columns to our support and arouse the people to reinforce us. We have thousands of arms without men to handle them. Nashville is defended by only a weak division, Bowling Green by only a regiment. Sweep them off and push up to the Ohio.’
From Bardstown, Bragg issued an extraordinary proclamation to the people of the Northwest. He called upon the individual states to make a separate peace with the Confederacy and thus end ‘this useless and cruel effusion of blood.’ This was not a personal plea but, as the New York Herald noted, Bragg ‘was dispatched by Jefferson Davis’ to make this direct appeal at the head of his army as a political power move, to split the West from the East.
It was not a mere coincidence that the manifesto came out on September 26, only a few days after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had aroused a storm of criticism among the Democrats of the Northwest who said they had supported the war for the Union but opposed a war to abolish slavery.
Noting that many in the Northwest said they were fighting to keep the Mississippi River open to their trade, Bragg said the ‘great artery is yours and always has been without striking a blow.’ The Mississippi 'should never have been disturbed by the antagonisms, the cupidity and the bigotry of New England and the East,’ he said. ‘You are being used by them to fight the battle of emancipation….You are blindly following abolitionism…while they are nicely calculating the gain of obtaining your trade on terms that would impoverish your country.’
With a little verbal saber rattling, the general declared: ‘So far, it is only our fields that have been laid waste, our people killed, our homes made desolate, and our frontiers ravaged by rapine and murder, but if the war must go on, the future scenes of desolation must be in the North. With the people of the Northwest rests the power to put an end to the invasion of their homes….Their own state governments…can secure immunity from the desolating effects of warfare on their own soil by a separate treaty of peace. When the passions of this unnatural war shall have subsided and peace resumes her sway, a community of interests will force commercial and social coalition between the great grain and stock growing states of the Northwest and the cotton, tobacco and sugar regions of the South.’
Next Bragg made a move that General Buell later called ‘part of a formidable political and strategical scheme aimed at the conquest and absorption of Kentucky.’ Bragg determined to install a pro-Confederate provisional governor. Since Unionist Governor James Robinson had lately skedaddled with the Legislature to Louisville to escape the Rebels’ advance, the Confederates had a tight grip on the state capital, and the way was clear to bring Kentucky officially into the Confederacy. Leaving Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk in command of the troops near Bardstown, Bragg went to Frankfort to lend his presence to the inauguration of Provisional Governor Richard Hawes. Smith’s troops, who were concentrated there, provided the colorful escort on the day of jubilee, October 4.
Meanwhile Buell began reorganizing his army, mixing the green troops of Nelson’s command with the veterans of his long march and building up the total to nearly 80,000, nearly twice as many as the armies of Bragg and Smith combined. However, on September 29, Buell suffered a blow when Nelson was killed by an Indiana brigadier, curiously named Jefferson C. Davis, after an argument.
Buell also had plenty of trouble with discord among the officers of his own command. All along their retreat through Tennessee and Kentucky, various subordinates had expressed mounting distrust of him. "I heard a great deal of murmuring that General Buell did not want to fight General Bragg," Brig. Gen. J. B. Steedman testified later at an Army inquiry. "Some ascribed it to timidity, some to prudence, some went so far as to impugn the loyalty of General Buell."
"Don Carlos won’t do," said Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook. "George Thomas is the man. We must have him." About 20 officers met secretly at a house in Kentucky and sent a petition to Lincoln demanding that Buell be dismissed. They received a quick reply. A telegram from Washington came on September 29, ordering that the commanding general be replaced with ‘Pap’ Thomas. But Thomas declined, arguing that Buell already had his plans to move against the Confederates in place and it would be wrong to sack him now. So Buell kept the command — but with a sword of Damocles hanging over his head.
At long last Buell moved out of Louisville on October 1 with his roughly 80,000 troops in three corps spread out on separate roads. He was under orders from Washington to find the Rebels and smash them. As Buell himself recalled, his men were ‘threatening the whole of the Confederates’ front, which extended over 60 miles.’
Buell sent a couple of divisions in a feint toward Frankfort, where Bragg, with Smith’s troops, was adding a sense of military presence to the inauguration of the new provisional governor. Hawes’ day of glory soon faded, however, when a messenger brought the news that some of the Yankees were on their way to the capital, so the festivities had to be cut short. Bragg, Hawes and others had their dinner in the hotel kitchen and left just in time to escape the Union forces, the Chicago Tribune claimed.
On October 8, portions of the two rival armies blundered into each other west of the town of Perryville, where both sides were desperately trying to find water in streams that had been reduced by the summer-long drought to a brackish trickle. Taking personal command, Bragg led about 16,000 of his soldiers in an attack on approximately 25,000 Federals, mostly green recruits on the Union left under the command of McCook. Buell reported that ‘McCook fought bravely but was steadily driven back for a mile until the enemy’s pursuing line came within the infilading fire of Gen. Phil Sheridan’s artillery, which was delivered with great effect.’
An eyewitness provided this report of the attack on the Yankee division headed by a former Kentucky congressman, James S. Jackson: ‘The Rebels stealthily advanced, then suddenly deploying on the left, they occupied the whole space in front of Jackson’s division and rushed out with demoniac yells.’ With their spine-chilling Rebel yells and murderous volleys of musket fire, the battle-hardened Southerners broke the Union line and the green volunteers panicked and ran. Jackson and two brigadiers were killed.
Sheridan’s guns came to the rescue like 'a volcano belching fire and smoke and flinging deadly projectiles into the damaged and staggering traitors,' a newsman reported. He claimed that the 'shattered masses of the enemy gave way and were pursued beyond Perryville,' but the Rebels held the field when the savage battle ended at sundown.
Lieutenant General Joseph Wheeler of the Confederate cavalry insisted the fight was a Southern victory. He wrote, ‘We had engaged three corps of the Federal army; one of these, McCook’s, to use Buell’s language, was very much crippled,’ and one division ‘almost entirely disappeared.’ More than 3,000 men on each side had fallen.
After nightfall, a full moon cast its silvery beams upon the field of carnage, making the night seem almost as light as day. Some of Buell’s officers urged him to stage a night attack. He decided instead to start the assault at dawn. But by morning the Confederates were all gone. They were plodding back down the long, rough road to east Tennessee, and Buell made only a half-hearted attempt to stop them. General Wheeler’s cavalrymen fought off a series of raids on the lengthy cavalcade of artillery, horse-drawn wagons loaded with food and supplies collected from the bountiful Bluegrass country.
The decision to retreat mystified Buell, who had expected another day of fighting, and his men claimed to be eager for the kill. It enraged Smith, and tempted him to think that Bragg had lost his nerve — or even worse, his mind.
Bragg’s behavior did indicate symptoms of a man suffering from a volatile temperament that could be described by modern psychiatrists as manic-depressive. At the outset of his drive into Kentucky, he was optimistic and confident. Now he seemed to be sunk in deep pit of gloom, giving up and going home.
The Old Porcupine had believed that Price and Van Dorn could overcome Federal resistance and sweep through Tennessee to join him on the Ohio. But early October brought the disheartening news that their armies had been beaten in the battles of Iuka and Corinth, so Bragg had no choice but to leave Kentucky with his immense load of booty, reducing his vast enterprise into little more than a raid.
Bragg had not lost his mind. He had coldly realized that, although a portion of his troops had defeated a portion of the Yankee army at Perryville, the odds were heavily against defeating Buell’s entire army in an all-out battle the next day. Outnumbered by at least 2-to-1, handicapped by many sick and wounded men and having no way of replenishing their ammunition, the Rebels would be risking too much in such a conflict. The Chicago Tribune painted a realistic picture of the Confederate troops in Kentucky in early October: ‘The majority are under age and but few of them have shoes. They are miserably clothed, dirty and half starved.’
Even so, wrote a shrewd observer in the Cincinnati Commercial, Bragg’s expedition had achieved one purpose: ‘It was intended by Jeff Davis as a demonstration to keep the men of the West from being employed beyond the Alleghenies to aid McClellan, while the best of the Southern troops invaded Maryland and flanked Washington.’ Thousands of Union troops at Louisville, Cincinnati, Cumberland Gap and elsewhere ‘have been held at bay by no more than 40,000 rebels scattered throughout Kentucky.’
Wheeler maintained that the Kentucky campaign had achieved ‘great results’ despite the complaints by critics who charged that it should have done much more. ‘We recovered Cumberland Gap and redeemed Middle Tennessee and North Alabama,’ he wrote. ‘Two months of marches and battles by the armies of Bragg and Kirby-Smith had cost the Federals a loss in killed, wounded and prisoners of 26,530,’ Wheeler asserted. ‘We had captured 35 cannons, 16,000 stand of arms, millions of rounds of ammunition, 1,700 mules, 300 wagons loaded with military stores, and 2,000 horses.’
Rebel war clerk J.B. Jones recorded that Bragg "succeeded in getting away with the largest amount of provisions, clothing, etc., ever obtained by an army, including 8,000 beef cattle, 50,000 barrels of pork, and a million yards of Kentucky cloth." All of these were indeed sorely needed to help the Southern people survive the coming winter. But they provided small solace for the keen disappointment of those who had hailed their army’s early successes in Kentucky and confidently believed that it would capture Louisville and Cincinnati.
The Confederate civilians believed that Bragg and Smith had many more troops than they really did — there were no more than 40,000 in all fit for combat. That belief gave rise to the most unrealistic hopes for victory. ‘They were sorely disappointed,’ Wheeler wrote, ‘when they heard of Gen. Bragg’s withdrawal through Cumberland Gap and could not be convinced of the necessity of such a movement immediately following the battle of Perryville, which they regarded as a decisive victory. The censure which fell upon Bragg was therefore severe and almost universal.’ The Richmond Whig ridiculed Bragg’s whole campaign as a miserable ‘fizzle.’
Stung by the fusillade of criticism, Bragg blamed the Kentuckians for failing to make good on their promises to build up his army with thousands of recruits eager to fight. ‘Why should we be expected to conquer the whole Northwest with 35,000 men?’ Bragg demanded, pouring out his bitter frustration in a letter to his wife. ‘Our only hope was in Kentucky. We were assured she would be with us to a man, yet in seven weeks occupation, with twenty thousand guns and ammunition burdening our train, we only succeeded in getting about two thousand men to join us and at least half of them have now deserted.’
Bragg denounced the Kentucky ‘cowards who skulked about in the dark to say to us, ‘We are with you, only whip these fellows out of our country and let us see you can protect us, and we will join you.” In the general’s view, the timid Kentuckians had the situation backwards: They were supposed to rise first and fight, not wait for the Confederates to free them.
It is one of the ironies of warfare that both the Union and Confederate commanders suffered severe criticism and many assaults on their characters for failing to achieve a great triumph in Kentucky. Buell received no thanks for his role in thwarting the Confederates’ audacious enterprise. The official Army inquiry, in which a commission questioned many of his senior officers about their complaints, ruled that Buell had failed to keep Bragg from entering Kentucky in the first place and had failed to pursue and destroy his army on its way back to Tennessee.
Buell returned to Nashville instead of moving into east Tennessee to relieve the Union-loving people there — a project dear to Lincoln’s heart. Indiana’s Governor Oliver Morton and Tennessee’s military governor, Andrew Johnson, pursued Buell relentlessly until he was sacked on October 24 and replaced by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans. Buell never commanded troops again. He resigned his commission as a Regular Army colonel in July 1864.
Nonetheless, Kentucky remained in Union hands and was not seriously threatened for the remainder of the war. The dream of Bragg and so many other Southerners of moving their northern border to the Ohio and attacking the Northwest, or compelling its citizens to make peace, ultimately faded into the background as little more than another what-might-have-been for the Confederacy.