East Tennessee Soldiers at Camp Nelson

Open ground and building across a water source with tents in the foreground during the Civil War.
View from the south bank of the Tennessee River during the Siege of Knoxville, TN, November-December 1863.

Library of Congress

From Liberated to Liberators

I am along ways from home.
- Private William H. Chapman of the 9th Tennessee Cavalry

As the staging area for the Knoxville Campaign, tens of thousands of soldiers who comprised the Army of the Ohio marched through Camp Nelson while moving south to liberate East Tennessee in August 1863. Some of the military units that headed to war did not only pass through Camp Nelson, but also were partly or fully organized at the US Army base. Despite the camp’s location in Central Kentucky, the men in these regiments were not Kentuckians, but East Tennesseans.

Although Camp Nelson became more well-known as a recruiting center for African American soldiers in 1864-1865, the first regiments organized at the site were actually composed of white soldiers. Many of these men were refugees from East Tennessee who supported the US and fled to Kentucky to escape the Confederate occupation of their part of the state. Camp Nelson was one of the US Army bases across the region that offered displaced East Tennesseans the opportunity to fight to reclaim their homes. As William H. Chapman, an enlistee in a Camp Nelson unit, wrote in a letter home to Confederate-occupied East Tennessee in August 1863, “when I left home I did not have much notion of volunteering for I [did] not know hardly what I would do but I thought it best to volunteer because I could not stay at home.”

The number of refugees from East Tennessee who fled from their homes and enlisted in the Federal army at Camp Nelson at the time of the Knoxville Campaign was large enough to fill several units. As Chapman commented, “There is a great many of our neighbour boys here boys that I have been raised with.” One of the East Tennessean units partly organized at Camp Nelson was the 8th Tennessee Infantry. Many of this regiment’s companies were raised at Camp Nelson itself, while the other companies were formed at Camp Dick Robinson, an earlier Federal recruiting camp in nearby Garrard County that was in many ways a precursor to Camp Nelson. Another regiment from Camp Nelson that participated in the liberation of East Tennessee was the 8th Tennessee Cavalry, which was fully formed at the Federal military base.

View across water source with buildings, trees, and fields in the background during the Civil War.
View of Knoxville, TN across the Tennessee River during the Civil War.

Library of Congress

Marching Home

Marching into East Tennessee with the Twenty-third Corps, the 8th Tennessee Infantry and 8th Tennessee Cavalry fought in various engagements throughout the Knoxville Campaign. The cavalry unit also had the distinction of being some of the first Federal forces that occupied Knoxville on September 2, 1863. East Tennessee contained a large population of Unionists who were loyal to the United States and had suffered under Confederate occupation since the start of the war in 1861. When the bulk of the Army of the Ohio entered Knoxville on September 3, they received a jubilant welcome from the local populace. According to Major General Jacob D. Cox, a high-ranking officer in the Army of the Ohio, the East Tennesseans’ “joy had an exultation which seemed almost beyond the power of expression.”

The success of the opening phase of the Federal offensive and the seizure of Knoxville allowed many of the Tennessean soldiers in the Army of the Ohio to reunite with their loved ones. Cox recalled the joyous homecoming for these men and their families:

Women wept with happiness as their husbands stepped out of the ranks of the loyal Tennessee regiments when these came marching by the home. These men had gathered in little recruiting camps on the mountain-sides and had found their ways to Kentucky, traveling by night and guided by the pole-star…Their families had been marked as traitors to the Confederacy, and had suffered sharpest privations and cruel wrong on account of the absence of the husband and father, the brother, or the son. Now it was all over, and a jubilee began in those picturesque valleys in the mountains, which none can understand who had not seen the former despair and the present revulsion of happiness.

The East Tennessean soldiers had returned home from Camp Nelson, but their military journey had not ended, as the campaign to secure the region for the US was only just beginning, and the war would not conclude for over a year and a half. The 8th Tennessee Infantry and 8th Tennessee Cavalry were two of the most prominent white regiments formed at Camp Nelson, but they were not alone. Several companies of two other units, the 9th and 11th Tennessee Cavalry, were also organized at the Federal base at the time of the Knoxville Campaign. For many of the men from East Tennessee who enlisted at Camp Nelson, service in the US Army would stretch well into the middle months of 1865 and take them across the war-torn country.

Brick chimney in the foreground and bridge over water source with a fort in the background during the Civil War.
View of military bridge at Strawberry Plains in the vicinity of Knoxville, TN, during the Civil War.

Library of Congress

Far From Home

In this serious charge the officers and men of the regiment exhibited in the highest degree the bravery, discipline, presence of mind which characterizes veteran troops.
- Captain James W. Berry, commanding 8th Tennessee Infantry, August 6, 1864.

With five of its nine companies formed at Camp Nelson, the 8th Tennessee Infantry was one of the most active regiments raised at the Federal base, fighting in some of the most important campaigns of the war. Following its service in East Tennessee, the 8th Tennessee Infantry participated in the Atlanta Campaign and particularly distinguished itself in a battle at Utoy Creek near Atlanta on August 6, 1864. Captain Berry, reported:

The Eighth was ordered to and did charge in gallant style, advancing in good line until within five or six rods of the rebel works, a strong line of earth-works with head-logs, where they were compelled to stop, being subjected to a deadly direct and cross fire, which had already decimated their ranks. Though unable to advance farther they here held their ground, bravely continuing in their exposed position the unequal fight until ordered to retire, which they skillfully did.

Though unable to seize the enemy defenses, the 8th Tennessee Infantry received nothing but praise from superior officers. Brigadier General James W. Reilly asserted, “Where all behaved so gallantly, it is very difficult to give especial mention to any, but I cannot, in justice, neglect to bear official testimony to the gallant and heroic conduct of the Eighth Tennessee Infantry officers and men, without any distinction.”

The 8th Tennessee Infantry went on to serve in the Nashville Campaign, and in the fighting at the Tennessee capital in mid-December 1864, the regiment successfully charged a portion of the enemy earthworks and helped capture a battery of artillery and a number of prisoners. In early 1865, the unit was transferred to North Carolina and took part in the Federal operations that secured control of Wilmington, Goldsboro, and Raleigh. The 8th Tennessee Infantry’s active service finally ended at Bennett’s House in late April. The men of this regiment went from fleeing the Confederate occupation of their homes to campaigning across more than four states and witnessing the surrender of one of the principal enemy armies.

Civil War sketch of General John Hunt Morgan.
Sketch of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan.

Library of Congress

Defending Home

Like the 8th Tennessee Infantry, the three Tennessee cavalry units fully or partially organized at Camp Nelson also served admirably in the last two years of the war. For much of 1864, the 8th and 9th Tennessee Cavalry guarded important sites in East and Middle Tennessee and patrolled the railroad lines in the region, protecting them from enemy raids. In the autumn, both regiments participated in a series of battles against Confederate forces that launched expeditions into East Tennessee to contest US control of the area.

On September 4, a Federal force that included the 9th Tennessee Cavalry surprised and routed a Confederate column led by Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan at Greenville and killed the famed enemy raider. Lieutenant Colonel John B. Brownlow, one of the leading officers of the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, was proud of the regiment’s performance at Greenville and other recent skirmishes with the enemy. He asserted “Braver men, I don’t think, ever fired a shot” and even though “They were never under fire before…They fought like men who had been in many engagements.”

The 9th Tennessee Cavalry and the other regiments involved in the fight at Greenville also received praise from the Unionists of Tennessee for their actions. Brownlow declared:

I am glad to have additional evidence from it that the labors and efforts of the East Tennessee soldiers are duly appreciated by our friends at home…[W]e concluded we have accomplished more and made more reputation for E. Tenn. troops than we had imagined…Considering the disparity in numbers I think our friends at home have a right to feel proud of what we have done, as well as ourselves. Nothing can be made for our cause by attempting to conciliate rebels.

The 9th Tennessee Cavalry was not alone in proving itself in the battles in East Tennessee. While fighting at Morristown in late October, the 8th Tennessee Cavalry was part of a charge that helped rout the Confederates and capture an enemy battery. In another engagement at Bull’s Gap on November 12, the 8th Tennessee Cavalry defended a position from a Confederate attack alongside a fellow US regiment. According to Brigadier General Alvan C. Gillem:

The enemy…assaulted with great fury, many of them actually entering the rude works behind which our troops were posted, but every man knew that if these hills were taken all was lost, fought with desperation, and finally repulsed the enemy, who left 27 dead and many wounded in front of our lines. Some of their dead were inside of our breast-works.

The 9th Tennessee Cavalry once again fought with distinction in these autumn battles. In a clash at Russellville on November 14, Gillem reported, “The enemy soon after attacked and were met with great gallantry by Colonel Parsons with the Ninth Tennessee Cavalry, who held them in check for upward of an hour, until his ammunition was entirely exhausted.”

Brigadier General Alvan C. Gillem in US Army uniform during the Civil War.
US Army Brigadier General Alvan C. Gillem, commanding a brigade that included Tennessee Cavalry troops during the Civil War.

Library of Congress

No Place Like Home

The Confederates ultimately withdrew from East Tennessee, and the 8th and 9th Tennessee Cavalry joined a raid against the enemy industrial infrastructure in southwestern Virginia in December 1864. The mission was a success, with the 8th and 9th Tennessee Cavalry and the other regiments of the expedition, including Kentucky and African American units also organized at Camp Nelson, defeating the Confederate forces in the region and destroying numerous industrial facilities, including the saltworks at Saltville.

For the 11th Tennessee Cavalry, 1864 was mainly spent in guarding East Tennessee, particularly the area around Cumberland Gap and Knoxville, and skirmishing with enemy troops. The regiment suffered a significant defeat in late February, when a Confederate force surprised, surrounded, and captured a large number of men. Despite this setback, the 11th Tennessee Cavalry continued to perform its duties in East Tennessee until it was consolidated with the 9th Tennessee Cavalry in early January 1865.

In 1865, the primary responsibility of the 8th and 9th Tennessee Cavalry was still patrolling and defending East Tennessee. As the war entered its closing stages in April 1865, the two units participated in a Federal raid on southwest Virginia and western North Carolina that destroyed Confederate infrastructure and demoralized the local population.

Although the Knoxville Campaign liberated East Tennessee, the US Army’s control of the area was repeatedly contested by Confederate forces. The actions of the 8th, 9th, and 11th Tennessee Cavalry were critical in opposing enemy threats and protecting the region. For the East Tennesseans of these cavalry units, military service gave them the chance to not only fight to liberate their homes and families from Confederate oppression, but also to ensure that an enemy occupation would never occur again.


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