American Civil War: Tennessee and Kentucky

Back: Clearing the Mississippi

Less well known than the Virginia or Mississippi theatres, Tennessee and Kentucky saw some significant fighting, with Tennessee eventually serving as the jumping off point for Sherman’s March to the Sea. Kentucky was one of the Union’s shakiest border states. The state governor was strongly pro-Southern, and public opinion started off strongly in favour of neutrality. Lincoln was determined to keep Kentucky within the Union (he had been born in the state). His approach was to keep Union armies out of the state, and avoid taking any provocative action in the hope that Unionist opinion in the state would grow, or that the Confederates would make a mistake and force the state on to the Union side.

The Confederates blinked first. On 3 September 1861, General Leonidas Polk moved to occupy the key rail terminal at Columbus, Kentucky, a strong point on the Mississippi River. The same local opinion against invasion that could have forced Kentucky into the Confederacy now worked the other way, and the state government declared for the Union. Over the next few months there was an exodus of Confederate sympathisers, many of whom signed up to fight in Confederate armies (this early movement probably explains why later Confederate invasions found so little support in the state), but the vast majority of the state passed into Union control.

A significant feature of Kentucky and Tennessee are their rivers. The Ohio River forms the northern border of Kentucky, before joining the Mississippi at Cairo, the southernmost town in Illinois, and an important Union base. From Cairo, the Mississippi flows south, marking the western border of Tennessee Kentucky. Confederate control of Kentucky would have given them a very strong northern border, and probably denied the Union use of Cairo.

Instead, the Union was able to use the rivers to penetrate deep into Tennessee and the Deep South. The Tennessee River flows through northern Alabama before crossing the heart of Tennessee to join the Ohio, while the Cumberland River runs through northern Tennessee, passing the state capital and important Confederate industrial base at Nashville.

The successful Union campaign of early 1862 saw both river and railroad play their part. From Cairo, General Ulysses S. Grant led the campaign up the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, while from the north General Buell used the railways to approach Nashville.

At the start of 1862, the Confederates had 70,000 men, commanded by General Albert Sidney Johnston, stretched out along a 500 mile front between the Ozark Mountains and the Appalachians. They faced some 100,000 Union soldiers. However, the Union forces were split between two commands – General Henry Halleck’s Department of Missouri and General Don Carlos Buell’s Department of the Ohio. The two commands met at the Cumberland River. This divided command nearly gave Johnston the chance to defeat the two Union forces in detail. Halleck and Buell were not ready or willing to cooperate at the start of 1862, despite repeated attempts by Lincoln to make them do so.

While the senior Union commanders prepared, one of Halleck’s subordinates was eager to attack. Ulysses S. Grant was now commanding the Union forces at Cairo, where he was developing a good working relationship with the local naval commander, Andrew Foote. Confederate control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers was defended by a series of weak forts, quite unlike the impressive constructions on the Mississippi. Grant proposed to take his troops, supported by Foote’s gunboats, to attack Fort Henry just inside Tennessee on the Tennessee River.

After dithering, Halleck finally gave permission for the venture. Fort Henry was a good target for attack. It was poorly sited, overlooked by higher ground, and threatened by the river it was meant to be defending! The garrison of 2,500 would be outnumbered six to one by Grant’s soldiers. Grant decided on a combined assault. Foote’s gunboats would bombard the fort, while Grant’s 15,000 men marched round to attack the fort from the rear. The attack did not quite go to plan. The Confederate commander recognised that he was going to be overwhelmed, and sent most of his men overland to Fort Donelson. Meanwhile, heavy rain delayed Grant’s men (and also flooded part of the fort!). On 6 February Foote’s gunboats found themselves in an artillery duel with the fort’s remaining defenders. After two hours of fighting, the defenders surrendered, having succeeding in their main aim, of winning time for the rest of the garrison to escape.

Having taken Fort Henry, Grant was now determined to move on Fort Donelson. Meanwhile, Johnston’s thin front line had been broken. He had 25,000 men at Bowling Green (Kentucky), 80 miles north east of Fort Donelson and another strong force at Columbus on the Mississippi (Kentucky). The Union commanders could attack either of those positions, or sail up the Cumberland River to Nashville and in each case would be able to outnumber their opponents. Johnston had to choose between either gathering as large a force as possible to retake Fort Henry or retreating to Nashville to concentrate on the defence of that vital Confederate city.

Inexplicably, Johnston decided to attempt both, ensuring that he could succeed at neither. He dispatched 12,000 men to reinforce the 5,000 men already at Fort Donelson. When Grant’s 15,000 men arrived on 12 February 1862, they were temporarily outnumbered. However, on 14 February another 10,000 Union soldiers arrived, trapping the Confederate garrison. On the following day, they attempted to break out, but having managed to create the required hole in the Union lines, they then withdrew back into the fort!

The Confederate commanders now decided that the only option was surrender, but the two most senior Confederate Generals at Fort Donelson, Generals Pillow and Floyd, did not want to be captured, so they passed the command on to General Buckner before escaping. On the following morning, 16 February, Buckner asked for surrender terms. Grant famously replied that ‘No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.’, gaining the nickname ‘Unconditional Surrender’ Grant. The 13,000 or so Confederate soldiers lost at Fort Donelson represented one third of Johnston’s available troops.

With a third of his army lost, and the rest separated by the enemy, Johnston was forced to abandon Nashville, making it the first Confederate state capitol to fall to the Union. It fell to Buell’s Army of the Ohio, advancing down the railroads from the north east (25 February). Another Union army, the Army of the Mississippi, under General Pope, was threatening Columbus, whose garrison also pulled out.

The loss of the rivers seems to have depressed Johnston. Fortunately for him, he was ably supported by General Beauregard, recently arrived in the west, who managed to pull together an army 42,000 strong at Corinth, Mississippi. This army was made up of the 27,000 men still remaining from Johnston’s original army and 15,000 commanded by General Braxton Bragg, brought up from the Gulf Coast, where they had been defending New Orleans and Mobile.

This demonstrates the Confederacy's biggest problem. Lincoln felt that the Union’s best chance for victory was to confront the Confederates with powerful attacks at several points around their borders, forcing them to either choose where they would defend in strength, or lose at every location. In this case, the Confederates made their decision, choosing to leave the Gulf Coast vulnerable while defending the important railway junction at Corinth. They were to loose both.

Grant’s successes had gained his superior a promotion. General Halleck now commanded all Union forces west of the Appalachians, including Buell’s army now occupying Nashville. He decided to combine his forces and attack Corinth. Accordingly, Grant was sent up the Tennessee River to Pittsburg Landing, twenty miles north east of Corinth. There his 40,000 men were to be joined by Buell’s 35,000, and then Halleck would take command of the attack on Corinth.

Beauregard had other plans, and he was able to persuade Johnston to approve them. The newly formed Confederate army would attack Grant while they had the advantage of numbers, allowing them to deal with Buell later. Beauregard drew up a complex plan for getting the army to Pittsburg Landing that inevitably caused chaos. His hope was that the army could cover the 20 miles between Corinth and Pittsburg Landing in a single day, ready to fight Grant on 4 April. Instead, confusion amongst the army combined with heavy rain meant that the Confederate army was not in place until the afternoon of 5 April. Now Beauregard was the one counselling caution, convinced that the two day delay would mean that Buell must have arrived, but Johnston was now determined to attack.

Beauregard overestimated the Union commanders’ sense of urgency. Grant and Buell felt entirely secure convinced that Johnston was already beaten. They were planning for the attack on Corinth, not to defend their camp. When the Confederate army launched their attack on 6 April, Grant had five divisions camped west of the Tennessee River, another one five miles to the north, while the first of Buell’s divisions was nine miles away, at Savannah (as was Grant).

The Confederate attack hit two inexperienced divisions near Shiloh Church (the battle is known as both Shiloh and Pittsburgh Landing). Johnston committed his entire army as quickly as possible (a rare feat during the civil war), hitting two inexperience Union divisions that happened to be camped a little further west than the rest of the army. Unfortunately for Johnston, one of those divisions was commanded by William Tecumseh Sherman, who made his reputation at Shiloh.

While Sherman and his men were fighting, Grant was rushing up-river towards the sound of the guns. By the time he arrived, at 9.00 am, the fighting was already the fiercest yet seen in the war. Between then Grant and Sherman were able to hold off everything that Johnston and Beauregard could throw at them, although they were slowly pushed back towards the river. For a large number of Union soldiers, Shiloh was their first taste of combat, and for many it was too much. Amongst Grant’s most important contributions on the first day of Shiloh was that he was able to steady many of these fleeing soldiers, and form new units that could be sent to plug potential gaps in the line or used to form a new defensive line along the line of a waterlogged creek.

Shiloh presents yet another of the Confederacy’s ‘if only’ moment. While attempting to encourage one of his units to charge, Johnston was shot through the leg. He refused to stop for treatment, until eventually almost falling off his horse as he died of blood loss. Johnston was considered to have been the best soldier of his generation (although had yet to prove it), and his lose is often blamed for the defeat at Shiloh. In reality, the Confederate army was almost exhausted by this point, while the Union army had a strong line to fall back on, as well as tens of thousands of reinforcements who started to arrive as evening fell.

Having been on the defensive on 6 April, Grant went on to the offensive on 7 April. The battered Confederates managed to hold on for a couple of hours of fighting that matched that of the previous day, but eventually Union numbers and freshness won out. Beauregard was forced from the field, and began a dispirited march back to their base at Corinth.

The true nature of Grant’s victory at Shiloh took some time to sink in. After the first day, the Confederates were already claiming a victory, and it was the first days fighting that most influenced early opinion in the North as well. When the scale of Grant’s victory eventually sank in, his reputation rose to unprecedented levels, although not with Halleck.

Unfortunately, it was Halleck who now took over command of the combined Union army of over 100,000 men. Facing him, Beauregard at Corinth managed to scrape together 70,000 men, ready to defend what he at first felt to be the most important position in the Mississippi valley, crucial to the success of the Confederacy. However, as Halleck slowly (very slowly!) approached Corinth, Beauregard changed his mind, and on 25 May pulled out of the city, before Halleck could close his siege.

This was probably wise. Corinth was turning into a lethal trap, with dirty water and disease causing as many deaths as Shiloh. Standing and fighting against a larger Union army must surely have lost Beauregard his army. However, while some (Grant amongst them) had already realised that what mattered was the defeat of the Confederate armies, most people were still obsessed with defending territory. Jefferson Davies was certainly not willing to see the retreat from Corinth as the triumph that Beauregard portrayed it as, and replaced him with Braxton Bragg.

The events of the next few months were to suggest that Beauregard’s view of his escape from Corinth was correct. Halleck was now faced with a difficult situation. He now found himself in charge of large areas of Confederate territory, with long supply lines that needed defending, major towns to garrison, a series of conflicting priorities and a large Confederate army still in the field against him. The most obvious aftermath of Shiloh and Corinth turned out to be a Confederate offensive.

Halleck was faced with difficult summer conditions. Water was scarce, the rivers low (often too low to be used by shipping). Grant’s army was dispersed on occupation duties in Tennessee, while Buell with the Army of the Ohio was sent east towards Chattanooga. Eastern Tennessee was fairly pro-Union, although as Buell was to find out, that did not mean that there was any shortage of Confederate raiders in the area. Unlike Grant, Buell still hoped to avoid a remorseless struggle, and so his march east was slowed down by attacks on his supply lines that he was ill prepared to deal with. Confederate cavalry raids lead by Nathan Forrest and John Hunt Morgan almost immobilised Buell, who was simply not prepared to live off the land.

Buell’s troubles encouraged the new Confederate commander, General Braxton Bragg. He decided to split his army into two. 32,000 men were to remain in Mississippi, to defend against any attack by Grant. Bragg would take the other 34,000 men available to him east to Chattanooga, from where he would invade Kentucky. Bragg confidently expected Kentucky to join the Confederacy if given the chance. Another 18,000 Confederates, under General Edmund Kirby Smith were already in East Tennessee.

Only Buell’s slow progress allowed Bragg to launch his attack.  The Confederate army had to take a 776 mile round trip to travel 200 miles to Chattanooga. Bragg’s army was finally in placed in early August, well after Buell should have reached the place. Instead, Bragg and Kirby Smith were able to launch a large scale invasion of Kentucky.

On 14 August Kirby Smith moved out of Knoxville and moved north with commendable speed. On 30 August he defeated a sizable Union garrison at Richmond, Kentucky, before reaching Lexington, close to the state capitol. Meanwhile, Bragg was also on the move, another hundred miles to the west. Throughout September, Buell fell back before the Confederate army, moving towards his original base at Louisville, just inside Indiana, which he reached on 29 September.

This demonstrates Bragg’s main problem. When he started the campaign he had 52,000 men to oppose Buell’s 40,000. By early October, Bragg had 40,000, while Buell had been reinforced up to 60,000 with as many more men being trained just to the north. Bragg’s hopes for Kentucky had not been realised. A Confederate invasion had pushed the state into the Union camp in the first place, and Bragg’s hoped for flood of volunteers failed to materialise (probably because anyone that keen to fight for the Confederacy had already gone south).

While Buell was preparing to launch his counterattack, Bragg and Smith met at Frankfort to inaugurate a Confederate Governor of Kentucky (4 October). Their two armies were drawing together in preparation for what Bragg hoped would be the decisive battle that would ensure the success of his invasion. Instead, Buell spoilt their party. One Union division was sent towards Frankfort, with the hope that it would force Bragg to keep a large part of his army there. Not only did it succeed in this, it also interrupted the inauguration.

Meanwhile, the rest of Buell’s army was heading toward 16,000 of Bragg’s men at Perryville. On 8 October the two sides met in one of the more confused battles of the Civil War. While Bragg took most of the day to realise that the main Union army was at Perryville and not approaching Frankfort, freak ground conditions meant that Buell couldn’t hear the sounds of fighting, and missed a chance to cripple the Confederate army. Once Bragg realised how many Federal troops were present, he withdrew.

Although he had repulsed the invasion, having missed his chance to destroy Bragg’s army, Buell now failed to pursue with any speed. Lincoln finally lost patience with yet another slow General, and replaced him with William S. Rosecrans. Rosecrans had just defeated a Confederate invasion of western Tennessee (battles of Iuka, 19 September and Corinth, 3-4 October 1862) before the Confederates had even entered the state.

At first Rosecrans seemed to be no quicker than Buell, but in reality he was preparing carefully for what was to be a successful if bloody campaign. During November and December he remained at Nashville, preparing to attack Bragg, who had stopped at Murfreesboro, around 25 miles to his south east. Finally, on 26 December 1862 Rosecrans moved. On 30 December he reached Murfreesboro, and prepared to attack the Confederate forces.

However, Bragg’s forces were not so much smaller than Rosecrans (34,700 to 41,400). On 31 December, while Rosecrans was preparing to attack the Confederate right, Bragg launched an attack on the Union right. After a great deal of initial success, this attack eventually bogged down and the Union forces were able to form a new defensive line at right angles to their original positions. After a quiet day on 1 January 1863 Bragg resumed the attack on 2 January. Once again the Union line held. Finally, on 3 January, as Union reinforcements began to arrive, Bragg was forced to withdraw.

The Battle of Stones River or Murfreesboro saw some of the highest casualty figures of the war. Union losses were 1,677 killed, 7,543 wounded and 3,686 missing; compared to Confederate losses of 1,294 killed, 7,945 wounded and 2,500 missing. Neither army was in a fit condition to continue campaigning in the immediate future.

Once again, Rosecrans was prepared to take his time getting ready for his summer offensive of 1863, although this time he almost certainly took too long to prepare, allowing Bragg to send some of his men to help in other threatened areas. However, when he did move his plan succeeded perfectly. On 24 June he launched his attack on the Confederate lines around Tullahoma, and within a week Bragg had been forced to withdraw to Chattanooga.

Another long delay (to 16 August) followed while Rosecrans prepared to cross the Tennessee River. Once again he outmanoeuvred Bragg, launching a feint to the east of the city, before crossing over almost unopposed to the west. Bragg was forced to evacuate Chattanooga, and on 9 September Rosecrans’ army entered the city, a crucial Confederate railway junction. Further north, Knoxville had also fallen. Eastern Tennessee was finally in Union hands.

Having crossed the Tennessee River, Rosecrans’ route was now blocked by Lookout Mountain. Convinced that Bragg was in full retreat, Rosecrans split his army into three and prepared for a leisurely crossing of the mountain. However, Bragg was being reinforced by Longstreet’s Corps from the Virginia theatre, and he was preparing for his own counterattacks. From 10 to 13 September Rosecrans presented Bragg with a series of chances to defeat isolated units from his army, but on each occasion Bragg’s subordinates managed to ignore his orders. Never concerned with popularity, by now Bragg had alienated just about all of his unit commanders. Warned by these failed attacks, Rosecrans reassembled his army along Chickamauga Creek. Bragg looked to have missed his chance.

However, by now reinforcements were beginning to arrive. Bragg soon outnumbered Rosecrans (both armies weighed in at around 60,000 men). If he could turn Rosecrans’s left wing, the Union army would be cut off from Chattanooga, and sealed into a dead end valley leading into the mountains. His best chance to achieve this was probably on 18 September, but Rosecrans’s excellent cavalry warned him of this move, and delayed the Confederate advance long enough for Rosecrans to move troops into place.

The first day of the Battle of Chickamauga (19-20 September) was not promising for Bragg. Repeated attacks against the Union left failed to achieve anything other than causing and suffering heavy casualties. However, that evening Longstreet arrived with two more divisions. Aware that Rosecrans had been shifting troops to his left, Bragg decided to launch a staggered attack, starting on his right, and working towards the left, in the hope that the weakened Union right wing would give way.

This plan failed because the Confederate commander on the right, Leonidas Polk, was slow into the attack. At 11.30, Bragg ordered Longstreet to attack anyway, and had one of the greatest stokes of luck of the entire war. A mistake on the Union side had resulted in a temporary gap in the line, and Longstreet marched straight into it. The entire Union right wing collapsed, and one third of Rosecrans’s army, along with Rosecrans himself, whose headquarters had been overrun, fled back towards Chattanooga. Bragg now had the chance to win the major battlefield victory that every Confederate general in the west had been searching for, but his chance to trap Rosecrans’s army was now gone – the wrong wing had collapsed for that to happen and most of the fleeing Federals stopped once they reached Chattanooga.

Meanwhile, a complete victory on the battlefield eluded Bragg and Longstreet. General George Thomas (The Rock of Chickamauga), the commander of the Union left, was forced to take command of the entire army. With help from the reserves, he managed to hold a new line until nightfall, when the rest of the army withdrew to Chattanooga.

There, Rosecrans found himself at the centre of the only major siege of a Union held city. Chattanooga’s position made it very vulnerable to blockade. Bragg placed artillery on Lookout Mountain, in a commanding position to the south of the town and fortified Missionary Ridge, east of the town. He also blocked all the decent roads west along the Tennessee River. The only supply route open to the Union was a mule track across the Cumberland Mountains north of Chattanooga.

The Union reaction demonstrated the increasing disparity between Union and Confederate resources. Four divisions were already heading east from Vicksburg under Sherman. 20,000 men were detached from the Army of the Potomac, travelling over 1,200 miles in just eleven days. Finally, General Grant was appointed to command a new Division of the Mississippi, stretching from the Appalachians to the Mississippi with the authority to go wherever he needed to be.

While the Union was flexing its muscles to retain Chattanooga, their opponents were in chaos. Bragg’s subordinates had once again complained about him to President Davies, who visited his headquarters in early October in an attempt to sort out the mess. He failed, and in the process made Bragg’s job even harder by ‘suggesting’ that Longstreet should be sent to attack Knoxville, where he was defeated on 29 November. Bragg retained his command, while some of his subordinates were moved.

Grant’s first job was to strength the supply lines into Chattanooga. He found a plan already in place to create a route west that cut across a series of loops in the Tennessee River, thus avoiding Confederate fire from Lookout Mountain. This plan was successfully carried out, creating the ‘cracker line’, getting crucial supplies into Chattanooga. Next he turned his attention to the besieging army.

After a minor battle on 23 November (Orchard Knob or Indian Hill), Grant launched the first part of his plan, an attack on the Confederate position on Lookout Mountain led by General Hooker (also known as the Battle above the Clouds, 24 November). Bragg was forced to withdraw his troops from the mountain, so during the fighting on the following day the Stars and Stripes on Lookout Mountain were visible from the entire battlefield!

The following day, Grant launched his attack on the main Confederate position (Battle of Missionary Ridge, 25 November 1863). His plan was for Sherman to attack Braggs right, and Hooker his left, while General Thomas (who had replaced Rosecrans) and the survivors of Chickamauga held the Union centre. The flank attacks were both badly delayed, and so Grant ordered Thomas’s troops to attack some Confederate trenches at the base of Missionary Ridge. To everyone’s surprise, Thomas’s troops didn’t stop at the base of the ridge, but instead kept on charging. Inexplicably, the Confederate troops on Missionary Ridge, in strong positions that they had been working on for two months, fled from the Union assault, and didn’t stop for thirty miles!

With the defeat of Bragg’s army, Tennessee was secured for the Union (other than the cavalry raids that continued to plague the area for some time), although there was one more scare before the war ended. While Grant moved on to become Commanding General of the Union armies, and concentrate on defeating Lee, Sherman spend the spring and summer of 1864 attempting to capture Atlanta, Georgia (see below). When he finally captured the city, the Confederate Army of the Tennessee (now under General Hood) had not been defeated. After attempting to catch this army, Sherman eventually decided that he was wasting his time, and persuaded Lincoln and Grant to let him abandon his supply lines and march to the sea.

Hood did not follow Sherman. His plan was to launch an invasion of Tennessee and Kentucky, where he too expected to find eager recruits, and then move east to join Lee, where they could combine to crush Grant and win the war. Unfortunately, Hood’s plan ignored the relative weakness of his army. He had 40,000 men to defeat General Thomas’s 60,000 strong army in Tennessee. After a brief attempt to outmanoeuvre his opponents, Hood launched a futile frontal assault on a strong Federal position (battle of Franklin, 30 November 1864). His army suffered 7,000 casualties, three times those suffered by the Union defenders.

Despite these losses, Hood advanced towards Nashville, where he formed a defensive line, and waited for reinforcements. Thomas prepared carefully for his next move – so carefully that Grant was on the verge of replacing him when he launched his attack. The Battle of Nashville (15-16 December 1864) saw Hood’s army virtually destroyed after two days of fighting against two to one odds. Only half of his army returned to Confederate territory. Hood resigned from what was left of his command on 13 January 1865.

Next: Sherman's March through the Confederacy

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A Great Civil WarA Great Civil War, Russel F. Wiegley, Indiana University Press, 2004, 648 pages. This is a superb account of the civil war years. Weigley has produced a book that combines a good understanding of the military aspects of the war with a clear grasp of the wider issues at stake. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 May 2006), American Civil War: Tennessee and Kentucky , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_american_civil_war07_tennessee.html

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