Army of the Cumberland (USA)

October 24, 1862–August 1, 1865

During the American Civil War, the Union Army of the Cumberland participated in nearly all of the major campaigns in the Western Theater.

William Rosecrans, Portrait, Civil War General

Major General William Rosecrans commanded the Army of the Cumberland from October 30,  1862, to October 19, 1863. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The Union Mobilizes

On April 15, 1861, one day after the surrender of Fort Sumter propelled the nation into civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 state militiamen to suppress the Southern rebellion. Thousands of loyal men throughout the Midwest were quick to respond. The rapid buildup of local regiments required the United States War Department to create structure out of chaos.

As Northern states mobilized for war, Kentucky officials attempted to avoid involvement in the insurrection. Despite Kentucky’s efforts to remain neutral, recruiters on both sides were busy throughout the state. By May 28, 1861, the Union had raised enough loyal regiments to prompt the United States War Department to organize the Department of Kentucky. The new department included as much of the state of Kentucky that lay within one hundred miles of the Ohio River. Brigadier-General Robert Anderson, who had recently surrendered Fort Sumter, commanded the new department.

Department of the Cumberland Created

On August 15, 1861, the War Department issued General Orders No. 57, which replaced the Department of Kentucky with an expanded department that included all of Kentucky and Tennessee. The department named the newly created unit the Department of the Cumberland.

End of Neutrality

Three weeks later, on September 3, 1861, troops commanded by Confederate General Leonidas Polk invaded Columbus, Kentucky, ending all illusions that the state would escape the War Between the States. Within one week, Kentucky’s newly elected Unionist legislature voted to end the state’s neutrality.

Department of the Cumberland Becomes Department of the Ohio

During the month after Polk’s invasion, Anderson became ill. On October 7, the War Department issued General Orders No. 6, directing Major General William T. Sherman to relieve Anderson. One month later, when Sherman began to act erratically due to stress, he asked army officials to relieve him of his command.

On November 9, 1861, the War Department issued General Orders No. 97, which dissolved the Department of the Cumberland and expanded the Department of the Ohio to include the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, and Kentucky east of the Cumberland River. Army officials selected Brigadier-General Don Carlos Buell to command the department, with headquarters at Louisville, Kentucky. Buell issued General Orders No. 1 on November 15, 1861, officially taking command of the department.

After Buell assumed command, he found the structure, discipline, and training of his troops to be lacking and he immediately set about remedying the situation. By December, Buell had organized the forces into five divisions designated as the Army of the Ohio.

Operations in Tennessee

On January 19, 1862, the Army of the Ohio defeated Confederate troops commanded by Major General George B. Crittenden at the Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky. The Union victory forced the Rebels to abandon eastern Kentucky and to retreat into Tennessee.

Buell’s army then moved southeast toward Nashville. On February 25, 1862, the Army of the Ohio marched into the Tennessee capital unopposed, making Nashville the first Confederate state capital to fall into Union hands during the Civil War.

Department of the Mississippi Created

Shortly after the occupation of Nashville, President Lincoln issued War Order No.3, which merged three western departments, including the Department of the Ohio into the Department of the Mississippi, commanded by Major General Henry Halleck. The Army of the Ohio, still under Buell’s command, comprised 94,783 men, with 73,472 of these soldiers combat-ready.

Battle of Shiloh

While Lincoln was reorganizing his armies in the west, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston gathered his forces at Corinth, Mississippi, where the Western and Charleston Railroad and the Ohio and Mobile Railroad intersected. Preparing for a general move against Corinth, Halleck ordered Buell to move the Army of the Ohio to Savannah, Tennessee, on the eastern bank of the Tennessee River, approximately thirty-five miles north of Corinth. From there, the Army of the Ohio moved nearly ten miles downstream, on April 6, 1861, to support Major General Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh. Buell’s arrival near sunset boosted the morale of Grant’s weary troops and enabled Grant to take the offensive and to win the battle on the next day.

Operations against Corinth

Following the Battle of Shiloh, Halleck arrived at Pittsburg Landing on April 11, and he took field-command of all federal forces in the area. Halleck organized his troops into left, center, and right wings. Buell’s Army of the Ohio comprised the center wing. Halleck then advanced cautiously toward Corinth over the next two weeks. Following a short siege, he occupied Corinth, after the Rebel forces, commanded by General P. G. T. Beauregard, escaped unscathed.

In the wake of the loss of Corinth, Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved Beauregard of command of the Army of Mississippi on June 27, 1862, and replaced him with Braxton Bragg. After Bragg’s appointment, the focus of the war in Tennessee moved east to Chattanooga. Halleck ordered Buell to capture the important rail hub, but facing fewer logistical obstacles, Bragg beat him there.

Confederate Heartland Campaign

As Buell approached Chattanooga, Bragg went on the offensive and launched an invasion of Kentucky, threatening Buell’s supply lines back to Louisville. Bragg left Chattanooga in August with nearly 34,000 men, with plans to unite with Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith’s 18,000 soldiers, stationed near Knoxville, Tennessee, and then to move against the Army of the Ohio.

Initially, events went well for the Confederates. Smith left Knoxville on August 14, 1862, and he defeated a Union garrison at Richmond, Kentucky on August 30. Bragg’s army captured an important rail station, along with 4,000 Union soldiers, at the Battle of Munfordville (September 14–17, 1862). Throughout September, the two-headed Rebel onslaught forced Buell back towards Louisville, Kentucky. There, soldiers from across the Cumberland River reinforced the Army of the Ohio. In early October, with up to 60,000 men under his command, Buell left Louisville and became the pursuer. Smith and Bragg had still not combined their armies, and the Confederates were unprepared for Buell’s advance.

On October 7, 1862, Buell’s army approached the small crossroads town of Perryville, Kentucky in three columns. There, the first column to arrive, commanded by Major General Alexander M. McCook, engaged 16,000 of Bragg’s men, commanded by Major General Leonidas Polk. Bragg rushed to Perryville and took command by 10:00 a.m. on October 8. Facing stubborn resistance, the Rebels gradually drove the Federals back. As the day progressed, however, more of Buell’s army arrived on the scene. Running short of supplies and ammunition and faced with the prospect of squaring off with the bulk of the Army of the Ohio on the following day, Bragg withdrew during the night, despite suffering fewer casualties and earning a tactical victory at the Battle of Perryville.

After the Battle of Perryville, Bragg retreated to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where he finally joined forces with Kirby Smith. The combined Confederate force was now comparable in size to the Army of Ohio. Nevertheless, Bragg lost his enthusiasm for the campaign. Over the objections of Smith, Polk, and other subordinates, Bragg called off the Confederate Heartland Campaign and evacuated Kentucky, leaving the state in Union control for the rest of the war. In November, Bragg established a defensive position along the west fork of Stones River, near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, intent on preventing a Union advance on Chattanooga.

Department and Army of the Cumberland Re-created

Buell’s half-hearted pursuit of Bragg as the Confederates withdrew from Kentucky, combined with his slow advance toward Chattanooga during the summer, triggered a great deal of criticism from Washington. Consequently, on October 24, 1862, the War Department issued General Orders No. 168, which re-created the Department of the Cumberland, encompassing all of Tennessee east of the Tennessee River, plus any parts of northern Alabama and Georgia that United States troops might capture. Furthermore, the directive placed Major General William Rosecrans in charge of all US forces within the new department, including the Army of the Ohio. A dispatch from Halleck to Buell on the same day relieved Buell of his command.

General Orders No. 168 also designated all of Rosecrans’ forces as the 14th Corps, thus ending the existence of the Army of the Ohio. The 14th Corps soon became known as the Army of the Cumberland, re-acquiring its designation from the days of Anderson’s and Sherman’s command in 1861.

Battle of Stones River

In December 1862, the Army of the Cumberland approached Murfreesboro along the Nashville Turnpike and Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. On December 30, the two armies were facing each other in parallel lines approximately four miles long. Over the course of the next three days, Bragg attacked Rosecrans’ lines, but the Federals held. On January 3, Union reinforcements convinced Bragg that further assaults would be fruitless, prompting him to withdraw to Tullahoma, Tennessee, thirty-six miles to the south. The Union victory at the Battle of Stones River was a significant morale booster in the North. Rosecrans chose not to pursue Bragg until June. Instead, Rosecrans set about reinforcing his position at Murfreesboro, training his troops, and establishing a supply depot that served the Union for the rest of the war.

Tullahoma Campaign

Rosecrans’s preparations during the winter and spring proved fruitful. Fearing that the Federal cavalry was over-matched, Rosecrans and Colonel John Wilder devised a plan to mount infantry troops on horses, deploy them rapidly to advantageous positions, and then have them dismount for battle. Rosecrans and Wilder added to the firepower of this “Lightning Brigade” by arming them with newly introduced Spencer Repeating Rifles.

On June 23, Rosecrans feigned an attack against the western end of Bragg’s line before making his main thrust against the gaps in the mountains. The next day, Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade” attacked Hoover’s Gap and easily dislodged the Rebel defenders, forcing Bragg to withdraw over the mountains to Chattanooga on July 3. The Tullahoma Campaign was a brilliantly planned success for the Army of the Cumberland. Unfortunately for Rosecrans, events happening at Vicksburg and Gettysburg at the same time overshadowed his success.

Rosecrans pursued Bragg after his withdrawal from Tullahoma, and by mid-August, the Army of the Cumberland was on the outskirts of Chattanooga. Once again, Rosecrans outmaneuvered Bragg, and by September 1, the Army of the Cumberland had crossed the Tennessee River with no resistance. Realizing that his army was again in peril, Bragg abandoned Chattanooga on September 9, 1863, marching his army into northern Georgia.

Battle of Chickamauga

Rather than securing Chattanooga and regrouping as he had done after Murfreesboro, Rosecrans pursued Bragg’s army into Georgia, deploying the Army of the Cumberland as three isolated corps. During the second week of September, Bragg went on the offensive and to attack the isolated 21st Corps, commanded by Major-General Thomas M. Crittenden.

After skirmishing on September 18 near Chickamauga Creek, Bragg launched a full-scale attack against Crittenden’s men the next day. Despite repeated attacks from the Confederates, the Federals held their lines throughout the day. That night, they pulled back and constructed log breastworks along a new line.

On September 20, Bragg renewed the attack, exploiting a gap created in the center of the Union lines. When Confederate General James Longstreet drove one-third of the Union army, including Rosecrans, from the field, Major General George H. Thomas took command of the remaining troops and withstood Rebel assaults until nightfall. Afterward, the Union forces then retreated to the safety of the mountains.

On September 21, the Army of the Cumberland withdrew to Chattanooga and established defensive positions. Bragg responded by seizing the high ground overlooking Chattanooga and laid siege to the city. The combined losses suffered at the Battle of Chickamauga were the highest total for any battle in the Western Theater of the American Civil War and second only to Gettysburg for the entire war. Bragg earned a tactical victory at the Battle of Chickamauga by forcing Rosecrans to retreat from Georgia, but he did not achieve his strategic goal of recapturing Chattanooga.

Siege of Chattanooga

With Chattanooga under siege, Northern authorities sent 20,000 soldiers under the command of General Joseph Hooker, and 16,000 men led by General William T. Sherman, to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland. On October 16, 1863, the War Department issued General Orders No. 337, naming Grant to command the newly created Military Division of the Mississippi, encompassing the departments of the Ohio, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee—nearly all Union forces between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. The orders also relieved Rosecrans of his command and named Major General George H. Thomas to command the Army of the Cumberland.

Upon assuming command of the Division of the Mississippi, Grant immediately traveled to Chattanooga to suppress the Confederate investment of the Union garrison. He arrived on October 23, 1863, and quickly approved Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s plan to open a “cracker line” to supply the city from the north. Grant then began planning a breakout.

Battle of Missionary Ridge

On November 23, 1863, soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland easily overpowered six hundred Confederates at the Battle of Orchard Knob, giving the Federals a foothold southeast of the city. Bragg concentrated his Confederate soldiers on Missionary Ridge farther to the east. On November 25, Grant ordered a major assault against Bragg’s army. Sherman, who did not have his entire force on the battlefield, was to attack the Confederate right flank. Hooker was to demonstrate against Bragg’s left flank but was not to launch a determined assault. Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland, positioned across from the center of the Confederate line, were to assist Sherman’s assault.

Unfortunately for Grant, stiff Confederate resistance slowed Sherman’s advance. Late in the afternoon, Grant ordered Thomas to capture the Southern rifle pits at the bottom of Missionary Ridge. Thomas’s men, still stinging from their defeat at Chickamauga, seized the rifle pits, and then, against their original orders, drove the Confederates from Missionary Ridge. The impromptu Union rout forced Bragg’s army into northern Georgia and secured Chattanooga for the Union for the rest of the war.

Grant’s successes in Tennessee and Mississippi propelled him to new heights. On February 29, 1864, President Lincoln approved legislation reviving the rank of lieutenant general — the highest rank in the Army. On the same day, Lincoln nominated Grant for the position. The Senate confirmed Grant’s nomination on March 2, 1864. On the next day, Grant traveled to Washington. On March 10, Lincoln issued an executive order appointing Grant, “to the command of the armies of the United States.” On March 12, the War Department issued General Orders No. 98, naming Sherman to succeed Grant as commander of the Division of the Mississippi.

Atlanta Campaign

Soon after assuming control of the Division of the Mississippi, Sherman launched his Atlanta Campaign (May 7–September 2, 1864). Throughout the drive toward the Georgia capital, the Army of the Cumberland served as the center of Sherman’s forces, flanked on the left by the Army of the Ohio and on the right by the Army of the Tennessee.

During the summer of 1864, Thomas’s soldiers took part in many engagements in Georgia including:

After evacuating Atlanta on September 1, 1864, Confederate General John Bell Hood hatched a plan with President Jefferson Davis that would have the Confederate Army of Tennessee move north toward Chattanooga, destroying Sherman’s supply lines along the way, and then invade central Tennessee. Hood and Davis hoped to draw Sherman out of Georgia, but the Union general did not take the bait. Instead, Sherman convinced Grant to allow him to make Georgia howl on his March to the Sea than by chasing Hood around the South. Afterward, Sherman divided his forces.

Army of the Cumberland Divided

Franklin-Nashville Campaign

Sherman sent the 4th Corps and part of the Army of the Cumberland’s cavalry, along with the Army of the Ohio, under the command of Thomas in pursuit of Hood. Hood’s shattered army proved no match for the combined Union forces. On November 30, 1864, the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General John M. Schofield inflicted a devastating loss on the Confederates at the Battle of Franklin. Included in Hood’s 6,000 casualties were fourteen generals (six killed, seven wounded and one captured), plus fifty-five regimental commanders.

When Thomas merged his forces two weeks later, he dealt a crushing blow to the Confederacy at the Battle of Nashville (December 15–16, 1864). Following the Union victory, Thomas pursued Hood for the next ten days, but except for a cavalry encounter south of Pulaski, on December 25, known as the Battle of Anthony’s Hill, the Federals never caught the retreating Rebels. On December 25, Hood’s main army re-crossed the Tennessee River into northern Alabama and limped back to Tupelo, Mississippi.

Sherman’s March to the Sea

While Hood was moving into Tennessee, Sherman was preparing to march through Georgia. On November 9, 1864, he issued Special Field Orders No. 120, establishing the chain-of-command, objectives, and directives for the Savannah Campaign. Sherman divided his forces into two wings. The left-wing, commanded by Major General Henry W. Slocum, comprised the components of the Army of the Cumberland that did not accompany Thomas to Tennessee—the 14th and 20th Corps along with the rest of the cavalry. These men met little resistance as they cut a swath of destruction from west to east across Georgia and capturing the city of Savannah on December 21.

Carolinas Campaign

On February 1, 1865, Sherman embarked on a campaign through the Carolinas aiming to cut off supplies and reinforcements to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia facing Grant’s Army of the Potomac near Richmond, Virginia. Once again, Slocum’s forces served as the left-wing of Sherman’s army group.

Sherman’s men continued to practice their scorched-earth tactics as they moved north nearly unopposed. In late February, Confederate President Jefferson Davis succumbed to political pressure and placed General Joseph E. Johnston in charge of the remaining troops in the Carolinas, despite a long and bitter feud between the two men.

On March 16, 1865, Slocum’s men attacked Johnston’s entrenched Rebel’s north of Averasboro, North Carolina north. Slocum’s soldiers flanked the Confederates, forcing them to withdraw to a second defensive line. The Grey Coats made a brief stand at the second line, before falling back to their third and final line of defense. Despite several Union assaults, the Confederates held their position until nightfall and then withdrew to Bentonville under the cover of darkness.

By mid-March, General Joseph Johnston had assembled an army of perhaps 21,000 soldiers at Bentonville. On March 19, 1865, Johnston made a stand, entrenching his army at Cole’s Plantation, blocking the road to Goldsboro. Once again, Slocum’s wing was the target. That afternoon, Johnston launched an assault on the Federals, forcing them to fall back temporarily. By nightfall, Slocum’s men checked the Rebel advance, and the first day of fighting at the Battle of Bentonville ended in a stalemate. On the next day, Federal reinforcements arrived, and Slocum gradually pushed Johnston’s men back. Johnston held on until March 21, when he withdrew during the night.

Army of Georgia Created

A few days after the Battle of Bentonville, Sherman requested General Grant to separate Slocum’s wing (the 14th and 20th Army Corps) from the Army of the Cumberland and to designate them as the Army of Georgia. On March 28, 1865, the War Department issued General Orders No. 51 granting Sherman’s request.

Following the Battle of Bentonville, Sherman pursued Johnston only briefly the next day. Instead, of forcing the issue with Johnston, Sherman waited until completing a rendezvous with the Army of the Ohio, which had traveled east from Tennessee after dispatching Hood’s army. The expected showdown between Sherman and Johnston’s forces never took place. After receiving news of General Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Johnston contacted Sherman on April 16 to discuss capitulation. The generals met the next day near Durham, where Johnston surrendered the troops under his command, ending the Carolinas Campaign.

Wilson’s Raid

Although the fighting was over in the Carolinas, portions of the Army of the Cumberland, under General Thomas’s command were still engaged farther to the west. In the spring of 1865, Brevet Major General James H. Wilson led over 13,000 Federal cavalrymen, well-armed with Spencer repeating carbines, into northern Alabama. Wilson’s cavalry crossed the Tennessee River on March 22, 1865, targeting coal mines, ironworks, mills, munitions manufacturers, and anything else that could aid the Confederate cause.

Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who commanded approximately 2,500 regulars from the Cavalry Corps of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana opposed Wilson. Augmented by poorly trained and ill-equipped state militia, which included local old men and boys, Forrest commanded no more than 5,000 soldiers. Outnumbered and outgunned, Forrest’s troops offered little resistance to Wilson’s cavalry as it moved in blitzkrieg fashion into Alabama.

Wilson’s progress was nearly uncontested until Forrest mounted a spirited but futile stand approximately twenty miles from Selma on April 1. Following a decisive Union victory, Wilson’s cavalry launched an assault against the Confederates defending Selma on April 2, forcing Forrest to retreat. After the Battle of Selma, the Federals spent several days destroying the city’s arsenal, foundries, and ironworks, depriving the South of one of its major manufacturing centers. While occupying Selma, Wilson also ordered a detachment at Tuscaloosa to burn most of the University of Alabama on April 4.

On April 10, Wilson left Selma and rode toward Montgomery. Two days later, his soldiers occupied the Alabama state capital unopposed. Wilson’s men spent the next two days destroying the city’s arsenal, train depot, foundries, mills, munitions works, and railroad property, but they largely spared civilian possessions.

Upon leaving Montgomery, Wilson headed east into Georgia. On Easter Sunday, April 16, the Federals easily routed Rebel defenders at the Battle of Columbus, in what many historians consider as the last major battle of the Civil War. On the same day, Wilson’s men seized an under-manned Fort Tyler at the Battle of West Point, making that outpost the last Confederate fort captured during the Civil War. Also during that battle, a Federal sharpshooter mortally wounded Confederate Brigadier General Robert C. Tyler, making him the last general officer killed in the Civil War.

Wilson next moved toward Macon, where he learned from General Howell Cobb, commanding the Rebel forces that Johnston had surrendered to Sherman in North Carolina. Howell, being part of Johnston’s command, thereupon surrendered Macon to Wilson.

For the next few weeks, Wilson dispatched cavalry patrols, to hunt down fleeing Confederate leaders. On May 10, 1865, at Irwinville, Georgia, a group of his men apprehended the former president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

Mustering Out and Dissolution of the Army of the Cumberland

With the war nearly over, the federal government moved quickly to dismantle the volunteer army. On 26 May 1865, Thomas led the Army of the Cumberland past President Andrew Johnson during the final Grand Review in Washington. In June, the War Department briefly sent 4th Corps to Texas, to deal with the last remnants of Confederate resistance.

Between June 1 and August 1, 1865, all the corps that had made up the Army of the Cumberland mustered out of service, and the army ceased to exist.

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  • Article Title Army of the Cumberland (USA)
  • Date October 24, 1862–August 1, 1865
  • Author
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024