Edmund Kirby Smith was ready to strike. He had gathered his men, made his plans for outflanking Cumberland Gap, and set his sights on even greater achievements. A mere three weeks before, he had been frantically sending pleas to Braxton Bragg for help to defend East Tennessee. Now he was about to launch the first move in a major Confederate invasion of Kentucky.
The geography of this theater of war would be an important factor in the coming campaign. Eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky were dominated by the southern portion of the Appalachian Highlands, which separated the eastern seaboard from the western states. The highlands stretched for over a thousand miles from New England to northern Alabama and were about three hundred miles wide with a varied topography. The eastern half of the highlands consisted of long, high ridges and jumbled mountains, the most prominent among the latter being the Great Smokies. Just west of the center of the highlands rolled the wide and fertile Tennessee River valley. With Knoxville and Chattanooga nestled in its bucolic landscape, the valley had the heaviest concentration of population and the most important railroad and river routes in southern Appalachia.
Bragg and Smith would traverse the western third of the Appalachian Highlands. There were two dominating ridges that stretched northeast to southwest through Virginia and Tennessee. One of these ridges, Cumberland Mountain, formed the boundary between Virginia and Kentucky. At a point on its top, just south of Cumberland Gap, the state lines of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee intersected. The mountain continued to the southwest for another forty miles to LaFollette, Tennessee. Here it connected with a much larger geographic feature, the Cumberland Plateau, which sliced diagonally across the state to separate eastern Tennessee from