Prelude to the East Tennessee Campaign
On June 8, 1861, Tennessee became the last Southern state to secede from the Union. The decision, however, was far from unanimous. In the eastern part of the state, the referendum on secession lost by some 20,000 votes at the polls. Starting an independent secessionist movement, citizens of East Tennessee petitioned the state legislature to form a new state that would remain in the Union. The governor responded by sending military personnel to Knoxville to enforce the statewide vote for secession from the Union. Despite attempts to coerce the population, East Tennessee and Knoxville remained pro-Union throughout the American Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln considered the liberation of East Tennessee to be of paramount importance. Beyond the moral and political duty to support the loyal citizens of that part of the Union, East Tennessee was strategically valuable. The main railway connecting the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and on to the Deep South, ran through Knoxville. In addition, East Tennessee farmers produced large amounts of food supplies that either side could use to sustain their army if they controlled the area. Despite its strategic importance, and being high on the president’s list of priorities, events in other theaters of the war delayed any major Union action in the area until the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside, moved to occupy East Tennessee in the summer of 1863.
Ambrose Burnside and the Department of the Ohio
Lincoln reassigned Burnside as commander of the Department of the Ohio on January 26, 1863, following Burnside’s brief and unsuccessful tenure leading the Army of the Potomac. Burnside arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio in March, and following some controversial confrontations with Copperheads, he turned his attention to Knoxville. Burnside left Cincinnati on June 2, 1863, and marched two corps, the 9th and 23rd, to Lexington, Kentucky. Upon arriving in Lexington, Burnside delayed his plans when Major General Ulysses S. Grant ordered the 9th Corps to reinforce his attempt to capture the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi. While awaiting the return of the 9th Corps, Burnside ordered a small force of cavalry and infantry on raids near Knoxville, to destroy railroads and communications lines. On August 6, Burnside resumed the advance from Lexington to Knoxville, planning to reunite with the 9th Corps in transit.
Burnside Takes Knoxville
The most direct route from Lexington to Knoxville passed through the Cumberland Gap, which Confederate soldiers commanded by Major General Simon B. Buckner defended. Instead of launching a direct assault on the Confederate defenders, Burnside wisely marched two divisions of his army over forty miles of rugged terrain around the Cumberland Gap toward Knoxville. Events occurring in the Chickamauga Campaign had forced Buckner to move most of his army to southern Tennessee, leaving only a token force to defend Knoxville. Thus, Burnside’s cavalry reached Knoxville on September 2, almost unopposed. On September 3, Burnside marched his army into Knoxville and where the citizenry warmly received them.
Burnside Seizes the Cumberland Gap
With Knoxville occupied, Burnside returned his attention to the 2,300 Confederate holdouts at the Cumberland Gap who refused to surrender, despite being threatened by a division Burnside had left behind. On September 7, Burnside marched a brigade sixty miles in fifty-two hours from Knoxville to the Cumberland Gap. The Confederate commander there, Brigadier General John Frazer, realized that the Yankees greatly outnumbered him and thus surrendered on September 9.
Clearing East Tennessee
After taking seizing the Cumberland Gap, Burnside hatched an aggressive plan to clear the northeast corner of Tennessee of Confederates. To achieve his goal, Burnside deployed Brigadier General James Shackelford to that part of the state to take control of railroads, bridges, and other infrastructure. On September 22, 1863, Union forces commanded by Colonel John J. Foster defeated Confederate soldiers commanded by Colonel James E. Carter at the Battle of Blountville.
Two weeks later Burnside personally led a large force of Union soldiers out of Knoxville to reinforce Brigadier General Samuel P. Carter and his cavalry brigade that had been skirmishing with Confederate Brigadier General John S. Williams and his men for nearly a week near Blue Springs (present-day Mosheim), Tennessee. On October 10, 1863, Burnside’s soldiers overran the outnumbered Confederates, forcing them to abandon Blue Springs.
For the next three days, the two sides sparred as the Federals pursued the Confederates who were forging their way north-eastward toward Virginia. On October 13, 1863, the weary Confederates crossed the state line near Abingdon, Virginia. Having accomplished his goal of ridding northeast Tennessee of hostile forces, Burnside called off the chase.
Outcome of the East Tennessee Campaign
Except for some Confederate cavalry raids, things remained relatively quiet in East Tennessee until Confederate General James Longstreet launched his Knoxville Campaign in November 1863.