Knoxville Campaign

A white house with people standing and sitting on the front steps and second floor balcony during the Civil War. There are horses and a carriage next to the house. Trees can been seen on the right and a dirt road in the foreground.
The Oliver Perry House [White House] at Camp Nelson during the Civil War. The home served as US Army headquarters starting in 1863, including Major General George L. Hartsuff, commanding the Twenty-third Corps, prior to the start of the Knoxville Campaign in August 1863.

Camp Nelson Photographic Collection, 1864, University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center

Camp Nelson Prepares for War

The general commanding calls upon all members of his command to remember that the present campaign takes them through a friendly territory, and that humanity and the best interests of the service require that the peaceable inhabitants be treated with kind kindness, and that every protection be given by the soldiers to them and to their property.
- Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, Camp Nelson, August 14, 1863

Central Kentucky was bustling with activity in August 1863 as Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Army of the Ohio prepared for their grand offensive into East Tennessee. Camp Nelson served as the launching off point for the advance. Over the course of two weeks, 25,000 men, thousands of horses and draft animals, and hundreds of wagons passed through the supply base on their way south toward the Volunteer State. The US Army's liberation of Knoxville was fueled at Camp Nelson.

The Army of the Ohio was organized into two corps: Twenty-third and Ninth. The Twenty-third Corps was commanded by Major George L. Hartsuff and consisted of all troops in Kentucky not assigned to the Ninth Corps. The Twenty-third included several units of Tennessee Unionists formed at Camp Nelson, such as the 8th Tennessee Infantry and 8th Tennessee Cavalry. The famed Ninth Corps was transferred East from the Army of the Potomac to the Department of Ohio with their beloved commander Burnside in March 1863. After delays caused by ongoing campaigns in other areas of the war-torn country, Burnside readied to launch his offensive in late summer.

Burnside arrived at Camp Nelson on August 11. He made his temporary headquarters at Cliffs Cottage at Polly's Bend just northwest of Camp Nelson. The Oliver Perry House [White House] served as Hartsuff's headquarters prior to the campaign. The Army of the Ohio massed supplies, ordnance, forage, and animals at Camp Nelson for their arduous march into the East Tennessee. On August 14, Burnside issued General Field Orders No. 2 from the camp, detailing his expectations for the army during the campaign, especially their treatment of civilians and the protection of private property. The orders concluded "with appropriate prayers for the protection and assistance of Divine Providence." The army departed Camp Nelson two days later.

The long-awaited Knoxville Campaign, envisioned by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, had commenced.

Civil War sketch of a gap between a mountain pass with tents and trees in the foreground.
"View of Cumberland Gap from the South" - Elements of the US Army occupied the gap in 1862 prior to the establishment of Camp Nelson.

Library of Congress

"We shall go into East Tennessee..."

Regarding the construction of a railroad in the direction of Knoxville as a great military necessity and of the greatest importance to the Government, I have ordered General Boyle to impress 8,000 negro laborers to construct the road.
- General Ambrose Burnside to President Abraham Lincoln, Danville, Kentucky, August 17, 1863

One day after departing Camp Nelson, General Burnside messaged President Lincoln from Danville, located approximately 16 miles southwest, informing him of his plan to construct a railroad that connected the army base to Knoxville, Tennessee. The railroad would supply his army's offensive into East Tennesee and Federal forces operating in along the Tennessee-Georgia border. Enslaved African Americans were impressed from local counties in Central Kentucky to expand the road system and construct the railroad. Burnside abanonded the railroad construction plan after occupying Knoxville in September 1863.

To Cumberland Gap

We have had a serious delay in mounting the cavalry and accumulating forage and subsistence, but all the columns are in motion.
- General Ambrose Burnside, Crab Orchard, Kentucky, August 18, 1863

The direct route from Camp Nelson to Knoxville ran through Cumberland Gap, but the defensible pass through the Cumberland Mountains was held by Confederate forces. Rather than attack Cumberland Gap in his movement south, Burnside instead chose to flank the position. The Army of the Ohio was divided into two major marching columns: Burnside lead one column through Crab Orchard, London, and Williamsburg, Kentucky, to Montgomery, Tennessee; Hartsuff moved his command through Somerset, Kentucky and Chitwood, Tennessee to meet at Montgomery. United once more, the Twenty-third Corps continued its advance to Kingston, less than 40-miles southwest of Knoxville by early September 1863. Despite supply problems, the rugged mountain terrain, and poor road conditions, the army's offensive into East Tennessee proceeded rapidly.

Tall trees in the foreground with a bridge crossing water during the Civil War. Buildings and roads can be seen in the background.
View of Knoxville, Tennessee, during the Civil War. The Tennessee River can be seen in the middle of the photograph.

Library of Congress

Knoxville Captured

I have the honor to inform you that our forces now occupy Knoxville, Kingston, and other important points.
- General Ambrose Burnside to Major General Henry W. Halleck, September 3, 1863

On September 2nd, the Army of the Ohio entered Knoxville and captured the city without a fight. Confederate forces had mostly withdrawn from the area due to the Chickamauga Campaign unfolding to the southeast. Confederate troops near Knoxville did skirmish with US cavalrymen at Loudon Bridge, but were driven back. US troops seized a considerable amount of military supplies from the enemy.

When Burnside and the bulk of his army entered Knoxville on September 3, they received a jubilant welcome from the city’s residents. 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. According to Major General Jacob D. Cox, a high-ranking officer in the Army of the Ohio, the entrance of the army into Knoxville was “a resurrection from the grave” for the civilian inhabitants, whose “joy had an exultation which seemed almost beyond the power of expression.” In his message reporting the occupation of Knoxville, Burnside repeatedly complimented the men under his command, writing: “Great praise is due to the troops of the command for their patience, endurance, and courage during the movement." The Twenty-third Corps, which bore the brunt of the advance into East Tennessee, “has proved itself to be one of the best in the service." Following his success in liberating the Unionists of Knoxville, Burnside turned his attention to Cumberland Gap.

Battle of Cumberland Gap

The garrison here, consisting of over 2,000 men and fourteen pieces of artillery, made an unconditional surrender about 3:00 p.m. today without a fight.
General Ambrose Burnside, September 9, 1863

Since the Knoxville Campaign began, Confederate force held Cumberland Gap. Rather than spend time trying to gain control of mountain pass, Burnside marched around the gap with most of his forces and swiftly advanced south. Once Knoxville was captured on September 2-3, Burnside commenced operations against Cumberland Gap, where the Confederate garrison remained and continued to block the direct route from Camp Nelson, the Army of the Ohio’s primary supply base, to East Tennessee.

To secure Cumberland Gap, some units from the Army of the Ohio advanced on the Confederate defenders from the north while others approached from the south in the days after Knoxville’s occupation. A standoff between the opposing forces ensued, but only after Burnside personally led additional regiments from Knoxville to Cumberland Gap, completing a march of 60 miles in 52 hours, did the Confederate garrison agree to an unconditional surrender on September 9. The strategic pass was taken without a fight and would remain in the control of the US Army for the rest of the war. Supplies, animals, wagons, and men dispatched from Camp Nelson to support the campaign in East Tennessee could now utilize Cumberland Gap rather than having to use the more roundabout route.

Last updated: December 17, 2022

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