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The Course of History Turns on “Little” Things

This week of August 8-14, 1862, marked a major milestone and turning point in the War Between the States that is often overlooked or minimized. This week marks the 154th anniversary of the beginning of the ill-fated Confederate invasion of Kentucky.

Kentucky had started the war proclaiming its official neutrality. Although it did not join the Confederacy, neither did it want to participate in the subjugation of its Southern neighbors. In reality, the people of Kentucky were deeply divided. Both sides’ armies invaded and despoiled the state, and both sides engaged in recruitment activities and set up training camps there. The state became the site of vicious partisan warfare that included many acts allegedly sparked by the desire for personal revenge (e.g., the private war waged by Champ Ferguson along the Kentucky-Tennessee border).

The Confederacy’s invasion came as a preemptive measure. If they had not invaded, it’s likely that Union troops soon would have done so. The Ohio River was the direct supply line for all Union forces in the Western Theater, and Louisville, Kentucky, was the key to that route. The side that controlled Kentucky controlled the river.

Strategically, the Confederacy had three goals that it hoped to achieve by invading Kentucky. First, it hoped to pull Union general Don Carlos Buell and his forces away from Chattanooga, which he was threatening at the time. Second, it hoped to elicit the support of Kentuckians for the South. Third, in conjunction with two other armies (the northward movement of the Army of Northern Virginia and the westward movement of Confederate troops in western Virginia, coordinated with the foray into Kentucky) to gain significant victories that would convince France and Great Britain to recognized the Confederacy diplomatically.

Don Carlos Buell
Braxton Bragg

Left to right: General Don Carlos Buell (USA); General Braxton Bragg (CSA); General Kirby Smith (CSA)

Tactically, the ultimate failure of the Confederate invasion of Kentucky turned on much less lofty circumstances: the failure of the Confederates to gain the expected support of Kentuckians, foot-dragging and poor decision-making by Bragg, the desperate search for water in a drought-parched land, and an acoustic shadow that prevented the sounds of battle from reaching those whose movements needed to hear them.

Kirby Smith, commander of Confederate forces in East Tennessee, initiated the invasion on August 14 after consultations and planning sessions with Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Tennessee, near Chattanooga. Smith took Cumberland Gap and moved into Kentucky. Bragg moved through central Tennessee toward Kentucky, but Don Carlos Buell, fearing that Bragg was moving against Nashville, hesitated. When Bragg bypassed Nashville and Buell, it became a race to see which army could get to the Ohio River first. Bragg was supposed to join forces with Smith, take Louisville, recruit troops, and bring Kentucky into the Confederacy.

Bragg succeeded in drawing Buell away from Chattanooga. But then several “little” things intervened. Bragg delayed the race of his army by pausing to set up a Confederate governor and attend his inauguration. Buell won the race to Louisville.

Although the Confederate army had won a decisive battle at Barbourville earlier, it became desperate for water, which it finally found at Perryville. There the Confederates had a “chance” encounter with Union forces (like the “chance” encounter that Lee would later have with Meade at Gettysburg) that technically ended in a draw but that Buell claimed as a Union victory and that Bragg perceived as a defeat. That’s where the “acoustic shadow” prevented Buell from hearing the raging battle although it was occurring less than two miles from his headquarters. Thus stung, unable to drum up support from the Kentuckians, and seemingly unable to maintain his supplies, Bragg returned to Tennessee. The Confederacy was never again a serious threat to the Union in Kentucky.

Seemingly little things can make a huge difference in life as well as in warfare. Examples of this truth are replete in the history of the Confederacy. (You can read about many of them in my book Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, published by McFarland & Company and available at But they are also evident in everyday life.

The Bible warns against despising “the day of small things” (Zech. 4:10). It pays to attend closely to the “little” details in life because big things–both good and bad–can result from them.

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