Organized by Major General Kirby Smith from soldiers of the Department of East Tennessee, the short-lived Confederate Army of Kentucky participated in the Confederate Heartland Campaign of 1862.
Prelude to Formation
On February 25, 1862, the Confederate War Department issued Special Orders, Number 45 placing Major General Kirby Smith in charge of the “troops in East Tennessee.” Smith arrived in Knoxville on March 8 and reported that he had “assumed command of the District of East Tennessee.” The troops he inherited were relatively undisciplined recruits populating widely dispersed units. Smith spent the next several months trying to unify and provision his forces in the face of the generally hostile local populace.
On July 31, 1862, Smith traveled to Chattanooga and met with the newly named commander of the Army of the Mississippi, General Braxton Bragg. There, the two generals developed plans to end the string of Federal successes in the West by launching a two-pronged invasion of Kentucky. To facilitate the offensive, Bragg loaned Smith two brigades commanded by Brigadier General Patrick R. Cleburne and Colonel Preston Smith. Augmented by Bragg’s soldiers, Smith’s forces comprised four divisions and one cavalry brigade:
- 1st Division — Brigadier General Carter Stevenson
- 2nd Division — Brigadier General Henry Heth
- 3rd Division — Brigadier General Thomas Churchill
- 4th Division — Brigadier General Patrick R. Cleburne
- Cavalry Brigade — Colonel John S. Scott
Confederate Heartland Campaign
The Confederate Heartland Campaign began on August 14, 1862, when Smith headed north out of Knoxville with a force of roughly 15,000 soldiers. On August 24, he reported to General Samuel Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector General of the Confederate armies, that he had “commenced the passage of the Cumberland Mountains on the 16th instant.” Leaving 9,000 soldiers behind to hold the Cumberland Gap, Smith preceded northward into Kentucky with 6,000 infantrymen and 850 cavalry troopers. In the same report, Smith informed Cooper that he had taken “possession of the town of Barboursville [sic] (Barbourville, Kentucky) on the morning of the 18th instant.”
Upon occupying Barbourville, Smith discovered that he occupied genuinely hostile territory. With little prospect of receiving comfort or much-needed supplies from the local populace, Smith informed Bragg on August 20, 1862, that “I find I have but two courses left me—either to fall back for supplies to East Tennessee or to advance toward Lexington for them. The former course will be too disastrous to our cause in Kentucky for me to think of doing so for a moment. I have therefore decided to advance as soon as possible upon Lexington.”
Origin of the Army
It was at about this time that the nomenclature of the Army of Kentucky came into use. Until the occupation of Barbourville, Smith did not apply any specific name to his forces. All of his correspondence originated from “Headquarters, Department of East Tennessee.” That changed on August 21, 1862, in a letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in which Smith referred to his command as the Army of East Tennessee. The nomenclature changed again on August 26, 1862, in another letter to Davis when Smith referred to his forces as the Army of Kentucky. That name prevailed for the rest of the campaign.
Battle of Richmond
In the same letter that Smith began using the name Army of Kentucky, the general reported to President Davis that “I have the honor to inform your excellency that I have commenced my movement into Middle Kentucky.” Three days later, on August 29, 1862, as Smith’s forces marched toward Lexington, they encountered Major General William “Bull” Nelson’s Union Army of Kentucky defending the town of Richmond, Kentucky. At the conclusion of the ensuing two-day battle on August 30, 1862, (the same day as the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run in Virginia) Smith’s Rebels soundly defeated Nelson’s Federals, capturing over 4,300 Union soldiers and asserting control over most of central Kentucky.
Occupation of Lexington
On September 2, 1862, Smith rode into Lexington unopposed, announcing that “We come not as invaders but as liberators.” The next day, the Army of Kentucky marched into Frankfort and hoisted the Confederate flag over the state capitol building. Smith’s triumph at Frankfort marked the only Confederate occupation of a Union capital during the Civil War.
Retreat from Kentucky
Throughout the next month, the Army of Kentucky engaged in several skirmishes while maintaining control of central Kentucky as Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi worked its way north through the state. By mid-September, Bragg had moved nearly unopposed to Glasgow, Kentucky, approximately thirty-five miles east of Bowling Green. On September 17, Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi captured an important rail station at Munfordville, Kentucky, along with 4,000 Union soldiers, at the Battle of Munfordville (September 14–17, 1862). By October 4, Confederate prospects in Kentucky appeared so promising that Bragg traveled to Frankfort and joined Smith for the inauguration of Richard Hawes as the provisional Confederate governor of Kentucky.
The Confederate euphoria was short-lived. A small artillery contingent from Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Union Army of the Ohio disrupted the proceedings and sent Bragg scurrying back to his army at Munfordville. On October 8, Buell’s army engaged Bragg at Perryville — the largest Civil War battle fought on Kentucky soil. Although the engagement was a tactical draw, Bragg withdrew during the night and retreated to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where he finally joined forces with the Army of Kentucky. The combined Confederate army was now comparable in size to Buell’s forces.
Nevertheless, Bragg lost his enthusiasm for the campaign. The Kentucky recruits that he expected never materialized, and he believed that his supply lines were too vulnerable and insufficient for his army to remain in the state. Over the objections of Smith, Bragg ended the campaign and evacuated Kentucky. By October 23, 1862, the Confederates had passed through the Cumberland Gap back into Tennessee, leaving the state in Union control for the rest of the war.
Dissolution of the Army
On October 20, 1862, Smith formally resumed his duties as commander of the Department of East Tennessee. Later that month, Confederate officials in Richmond approved Braxton Bragg’s plan for a new offensive in middle Tennessee. To implement his campaign, Bragg requested the addition of troops from Smith’s department. Although Smith harbored intense bitterness toward Bragg for his decision to retreat from Kentucky, he agreed to accompany the troops from his department that joined Bragg’s offensive.
Under Smith’s command, much of the Army of Kentucky headed to Tullahoma to augment Bragg’s forces. On November 20, 1862, Bragg issued General Orders, No. 151 (Department No. 2) announcing the formation of the Army of Tennessee. Bragg folded the soldiers of the Army of Kentucky who accompanied Smith to Tullahoma into the Army of Tennessee as Smith’s Corps. Those who had remained behind in east Tennessee reverted to the Army of East Tennessee and played only a small role during the rest of the war.