Knoxville Campaign - Part I

 
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 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 General 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. As the Ninth Corps was suffering from sickness and exhaustion due to its recent operations in Mississippi, Burnside turned to the Twenty-third Corps to spearhead the march into East Tennessee. They would be joined over the course of the campaign by the Ninth Corps.

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 Tennessee and Federal forces operating 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. At Camp Nelson on September 3, 1863, Massachusetts private George Hitchcock observed, “A large squad of negroes were conducted into camp and reported at Gen. Fry’s Headquarters for work on the railroad.” Burnside eventually abandoned the railroad construction plan due to the vast challenges involved in such a project, but impressed enslaved men were forced to continue to labor on the roads stretching south from Camp Nelson for months.

Bypassing 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 led 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. But the advance was not easy for the troops. Rhode Island artillery captain William W. Buckley reported, "The march over the mountains was extremely hard on both men and animals. Distance marched, 230 miles."

 
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 2, forward elemenets of 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 southwest. Confederate troops near Knoxville did skirmish with US cavalrymen at Loudon Bridge, but they 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.

 
Men standing around wagons with wooden buildings in the background during the Civil War.
Civilian employees standing outside the Government Shops at Camp Nelson.

National Archives and Records Administration

Supplying the Army

We find great difficulty in transporting supplies over the long line between here [Knoxville] and Camp Nelson.
- General Ambrose Burnside to Major General Ulysses Grant, October 20, 1863

The Army of the Ohio spent the next couple months consolidating its control of East Tennessee, occasionally battling Confederate forces that launched incursions into the region, such as in engagements at Blue Springs and Philadelphia in October. All the while, Camp Nelson was expected to provide General Burnside’s army with the diverse materials – rations and equipment, horses and draft animals, men and wagons – needed to wage war in East Tennessee. The shipments of supplies were enormous. For example, in October 1863, one wagon train sent out from Camp Nelson to Knoxville included: “1020 Shelter Tents, 5000 Caps and covers, 1025 Blouses, 144 Hatchets and handles, 755 pair Cary Trousers, 2700 blankets, 3600 Pairs Bootees, 156 pairs boots, 600 Cav Great Coats, 1010 pairs Infantry trousers, 340 artillery Jackets.” It was reported that another similar load of supplies would depart soon after.

Supplying the army in the field was a massive undertaking, and the quartermasters at Camp Nelson struggled to meet all the needs of Burnside’s army. One early problem was acquiring the thousands of horses and mules, as well as the forage to feed them, required to outfit cavalry and artillery units and pull wagons loaded with supplies. Once US officials managed to gather enough horses and mules at Camp Nelson, they had a hard time finding enough teamsters and drivers to actually take the animals south to Tennessee. In mid-September, Captain Theron E. Hall, the assistant quartermaster of Camp Nelson, complained, “I am having a large lot [of horses] to send to General Burnside, and have no men to take them.” The need for men to transport supplies became so serious in October that convalescing soldiers at the hospital facilities in Camp Nelson were ordered to serve as drivers because it was “impossible to procure a sufficient number of teamsters to take charge of teams required to transport stores to front.”

Some of the greatest challenges facing Camp Nelson involved the regional geography and the distance between the military base and Knoxville. It was around 160 miles between the two places, and there was no railroad connecting Central Kentucky to East Tennessee. This meant that everything had to move along the roadways, many of which were made of dirt, through a rugged and mountainous landscape. When inclement weather set in, the roads deteriorated and became essentially impassable for wagon teams, preventing sufficient food and equipment from reaching the soldiers in the field.

 
Four mule-team and wagon during the Civil War.
Four-mule army team and wagon during the Civil War.

Library of Congress

Rocky Road to Rocky Top

There is great want of transportation from this [Camp Nelson] to Knoxville, and the very bad state of the roads forces me to the belief that unless some other route than that now used, by the Cumberland Gap, be substituted, there will be great danger of our troops in East Tennessee suffering from the want of commissary supplies.
- Brigadier General Joseph P. Taylor to Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, November 19, 1863

As a result of the logistical problems, many of the men in the Army of the Ohio suffered hardships and deprivations in the period following Knoxville’s capture. Near the city in late September, Private George Hitchcock of the 21st Massachusetts Infantry journaled, “Half rations were dealt out to us tonight for the first time. We learn that transportation of supplies is very uncertain and great economy will have to be used.” The situation had not improved by early November, with Hitchcock writing, “Commissary continues to issue but half rations which seem light for hearty men.” Writing from Cumberland Gap later in the month, Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox, a division commander in the Ninth Corps, observed: “After a rain storm the weather has turned severely cold & frozen up the roads & the dreadful mud, but the men & the horses & mules suffer both with the cold & short rations…The men have been sometimes two & three days without bread & a few scanty ears of corn without hay have to do for the horses.” Besides insufficient food, some regiments were not issued any new clothing and shoes for months due to the limited number of wagons from Camp Nelson that could make it over the mountain roads, leaving men ragged and barefoot.

The poor road conditions and lack of forage took a heavy toll on the horses and mules – both those pulling supply wagons and those utilized by the cavalry and artillery in the field. Artillery captain Buckley lamented in mid-October, “I lost 12 horses from no other cause than their being totally exhausted for want of rest and food.” Throughout the fall of 1863, draft animals that could not complete the arduous journey from Kentucky to East Tennessee perished along the route. “It is almost literally true that the whole line of march from Camp Nelson to Knoxville was strewn with his dead comrades [mules],” Massachusetts corporal James Madison Stone recalled, “what one of the boys said in that connection as we reached Knoxville was not wide of the mark, namely, that he could in the darkest night smell out his way back to Camp Nelson by the odor of the dead mules lying along the way.” Stone acknowledged the important service performed by the army mules, understanding that the soldiers stationed in and around Knoxville depended on these animals to bring them supplies. “I do not believe we shall ever know how much we owe to that toughest and most patient creature,” Stone asserted, “To me he was as near being the martyr of the Tennessee campaign as the men who fought the battles.”

Despite the many difficulties and hurdles that it encountered, Camp Nelson managed to keep the Army of the Ohio supplied with enough materials to endure in East Tennessee and retain control of the region. The offensive to liberate Knoxville and the surrounding area was a swift and stunning success for the Army of the Ohio, but the campaign was not over. In November 1863, a Confederate army would return to challenge Burnside’s forces and try to recapture East Tennessee, culminating in several battles.

Learn about the second phase of the Knoxville Campaign here.

Last updated: August 20, 2023

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