When Confederate captain Thomas Spight awoke the morning of June 15, 1862, the heat of the approaching summer had already enveloped the small corner of his native northeastern Mississippi, where he had spent the night sleeping under the stars. Spight had reached the hamlet of Tupelo a day earlier, amid the hasty retreat of the Rebel army from Corinth, a strategic railroad junction fifty miles to the north. Initially separated from his regiment, the Thirty-Fourth Mississippi, Spight had sought shelter under a stand of bushes and feasted on a meal of “buttermilk, Irish potatoes, beans, bacon & c[offee],” a repast he had been lucky enough to acquire during the army’s withdrawal.1 [End Page 3]
The hearty meal revived Spight’s spirits. Despite the losses of the previous months, and the fall back to Tupelo, the officer maintained his confidence that the Confederacy would prevail. Spight, unlike many others, had also maintained his health during the series of reversals beginning at Fort Donelson in February 1862 and ending up with the Rebel army in the west defeated, underfed, and plagued by tropical disease. Writing to his future wife, Spight made a remarkable prediction, insisting that “a month from today this army will be north of the Memphis-Charleston RailRoad.” Spight believed that once “we are rested a little, we will commence moving again. . . . If so I would be willing to stake the fate of the Confederacy on the battle that will be fought. . . . I have no fear as to the present…for we know too well [the] consequences of subjugation.”2 The Memphis and Charleston Railroad to which Spight referred ran along the southern border of Tennessee through Mississippi and Alabama, linking the Mississippi River to the Atlantic coast through Corinth, Mississippi; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia. Confederate secretary of war Leroy P. Walker called the Memphis and Charleston line “the vertebrae of the Confederacy.” Over its rails just weeks before had come thousands of Confederate troops from across the Deep South to reinforce the Rebel army before Shiloh. Without it, Walker predicted, not only would the movement and supply of the Confederate army be materially hindered, but the “people will abandon the country”— both the geographic region of the Confederate heartland as well as the Confederate state—“to the occupation of the enemy.” The defeats at Shiloh and Corinth had cut the line west of Chattanooga, leaving the western Confederate states hanging on to Richmond by the flimsiest of supply and communications threads.3
When the army did move again, it would be under a new departmental commander, Braxton Bragg, and, as Spight had predicted, [End Page 4] the Rebels would get north of the vital Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Their circuitous offensive maneuver—moving down to the Gulf of Mexico to reach north into Kentucky—would underscore the strategic dangers facing a new Confederate nation whose industrial, agricultural, population, and transportation heartland was in danger of permanent loss.
This article will examine the campaign that Spight predicted, which, at around 950 miles from Tupelo to the Kentucky border (and even farther to the campaign’s decisive battlefield at Perryville), was the longest trek taken by a large-scale Confederate force during the Civil War. Although the Battle of Perryville and the subsequent retreat from Kentucky have been the subjects of previous studies, this essay will emphasize the many logistical obstacles involved in the transfer of a defeated, demoralized, and unhealthy Rebel force from Mississippi to Kentucky. Bragg’s invasion showed both the possibilities and limitations of the slaveholding South and the Confederate state which sprang up to defend it.4
Named head of the Western Department on June 20, Bragg confronted long odds.5 Even before he could utilize his army in a bid to regain territory lost to Union forces, he had to see to its health, training, leadership, and supply. In the seven weeks the Army of Mississippi spent at Tupelo, Bragg would make gains in all those areas. That might not have been enough time to complete any of those efforts, but pressing events forced Bragg to work quickly before more vital territory fell to Union forces. Between February...