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By George W. Morgan, Brigadier-General, U.S.V.
On the 11th of April, 1862, with the Seventh Division of the Army of the Ohio under my command, I arrived at Cumberland Ford with orders from General Buell to take Cumberland Gap, fourteen miles to the south- ward, and occupy east Tennessee, if possible; if not, then to prevent the Confederates from advancing from that direction. [See map, p. 6.] This movement and Mitchel's advance into northern Alabama formed detached parts of the general plan of operations arranged between General Buell and General Halleck.
The division under my command consisted of four brigades, commanded by Brigadier-Generals Samuel P. Carter and James G. Spears, Colonel John F. De Courcy, 16th Ohio regiment, and Colonel John Coburn, 33d Indiana regiment. (Coburn's brigade was afterward commanded by Brigadier-General Absalom Baird.) During the preceding winter, Carter, who joined me here, had occupied a position near the ford and threatening the Gap.
The condition of Carter's brigade was deplorable. The winter's storms, converting the narrow roads into torrents, had practically cut him off from his base of supplies, and, in spite of all he could do, his troops were half- famished and were suffering from scurvy. Of the 900 men of the 49th Indiana regiment, only 200 were fit for duty.
Reconnaissances at once satisfied me that the fastness could not be taken by a direct attack, nor without immense loss. I determined to try to force the enemy to abandon his stronghold by strategy.
The position of the Confederate commander in east Tennessee, Major General E. Kirby Smith, was a difficult one. A large majority of the people of east Tennessee were devoted to the Union, and the war there had become a vendetta. The Union men regarded the Confederates as criminals, and were in turn denounced by the Confederates as insurgents. Kirby Smith recommended the arrest and incarceration in Southern prisons of leading citizens, not in arms, as a means of converting the majority to the Southern cause. fn(1)
For a distance of eighteen miles north of Big Creek Gap, a pass southwest of Cumberland Gap, the Confederates had heavily blockaded the narrow and abrupt defiles along that route. The work of clearing the blockades was thoroughly done. But while Spears was thus engaged Kirby Smith advanced with a large force of infantry through a bridle-path called Woodson's Gap, to cut him off. The attempt might well have succeeded but for the heroic act of Mrs. Edwards, a noble woman, whose heart was wholly in the Union cause, although she had a son in each of the opposing armies. Well mounted, she passed the mountains by another path, and, by incredible efforts reached my headquarters in time to enable me to send couriers at full speed with orders for Spears to fall back toward Barboursville, until his scouts should report that Smith had recrossed the mountains.
In order to succeed in the task committed to me it was necessary to compel Kirby Smith, who was at this time concentrating his whole army in my immediate front, to divide his forces. To this end I urged General Buell to direct General O. M. Mitchel to threaten Chattanooga, and thus draw the main force of the Confed- erates in that direction.
About four miles south of Cumberland Gap [Cumberland Ford] is a narrow defile formed by an abrupt mountain on one side, and the Cumberland River on the other, through which passes the State Road to Cumberland Gap, and on the edge of the defile was an abandoned cabin, known as "The Moss House," situated at the junction of the State Road and a pathway leading to Lambdin's on the main road to Big Creek Gap. On the morning of May 22d I sent forward the brigade of De Courcy, with a battery, with orders to occupy the defile, and, as a stratagem intended to puzzle Smith, to construct a fort at the junction of the pathway and road.
I threw forward a strong party of pioneers to widen the path leading to Lambdin's, so as to enable my artillery and train to move forward. The mountain was steep and rugged, and skill and toil were necessary to the accomplishment of the work. Twenty-two guns, 2 of them 30-pounder and 2 20-pounder Parrott's, had to be dragged over the Pine and Cumberland mountains, at times by means of block and tackle, at others by putting in as many horses as could be used, and again by men (about) 200 at a single piece -- hauling with drag-ropes. The pathway leading from the Moss House had been made the width of a wagon, but two teams could not pass each other there.
On the 6th and 7th of June Buell caused diversions to be made by an advance of part of Mitchel's command to the river opposite Chattanooga, and Smith, with two brigades, hastened to its rescue. The brigade of De Courcy had gone forward; Baird occupied the defile at the Moss House, and Carter was assigned to hold the defile till the last moment, and then bring up the rear of the column. On the 9th of June General Buell telegraphed me from Booneville, Mississippi:
The force now in Tennessee is so small that no offensive operation against east Tennessee can be attempted, and you must therefore depend mainly on your own resources.
And on the 10th:
Considering your force and that opposed to you, it will probably not be safe for you to undertake any offensive operations. Other operations will soon have an influence on you designs, and it is better for you to ran no risk at present.
It was, however, next to impossible to change my plans at this moment and move back on a road such as described. We therefore continued to go forward over the almost impassable mountains.
Thinking that the series of feints against Chattanooga that were being made at my request indicated an advance in force, Kirby Smith now concentrated for defense at that point, after evacuating Cumberland Gap and removing the stores. This was just what I wanted. On the evening of the 17th of June, General Carter L. Stevenson of the Confederate forces sent Colonel J. E. Rains to cover the evacuation of Cumberland Gap, fn(2) which had been commenced on the afternoon of that day; Rains withdrew in the night and marched toward Morristown. Unaware of that fact, at 1 o'clock on the morning of June 18th we advanced in two parallel columns, of two brigades each, to attack the enemy; but while the troops were at breakfast I learned from a Union man who had come along the valley road that Rains had withdrawn and that the gap was being evacuated. The advance was at once sounded, the Seventh Division pressed forward, and four hours after evacuation by the Confederates the flag of the Union floated from the lofty pinnacle of the Cumberland Range. The enemy had carried away field-guns, but had left seven of his heavy cannon in position, dismantling the rest.
At the request of Carter, his brigade was sent forward in pursuit of the enemy as far as Tazewell, but the enemy had fallen back south-eastward to the Clinch Mountains. Cumberland Gap was ours without the loss of a single life. Secretary Stanton telegraphed the thanks of the President, General Buell published a general order in honor of this achievement of the Seventh Division.
Lieutenant (now Colonel) William P. Craighill, of the Corps of Engineers, a soldier of distinguished merit and ability, was sent by Secretary Stanton to strengthen the fortifications at the Gap, and he soon rendered it impregnable against attack.
My hope and ambition now was to advance against Knoxville and arouse the Union men of east Tennessee to arms. I urgently asked for two additional brigades of infantry, a battery, and two regiments of cavalry, and, thus reenforced, pledged myself to sweep east Tennessee of the Confederates. My guns were increased from 22 to 28, and a battery of east Tennessee artillery was raised, commanded by Lieutenant Daniel Webster, of Foster's 1st Wisconsin battery. Four thousand stand of arms, destined for east Tennessee, but left at Nicholasville and Crab Orchard during the winter on account of the impassable state of the roads, were now sent forward to Cumberland Gap with a large supply of ammunition, and magazines and on arsenal were got ready for them. A vast store-house, capable of containing supplies for 20,000 men for 6 months, was also built by Captain W. P. Patterson. The nerves and muscles of every man were stretched to the utmost tension, and the Gap became a vast workshop. Captain S. B. Brown, assistant quarter-master and acting commissary of subsistence, a man of fine intelligence and great energy, put on the road in small trains over four hundred wagons, and by this means the various munitions of war were dragged from the bluegrass region through the wilderness to Cumberland Gap.
Colonel De Courcy and Captain Joseph Edgar (afterward killed in action under De Courcy at Tazewell) were detailed as instructors of tactics for the officers of the new regiments of east Tennessee troops, who were brave, ambitious men and anxious to learn. Forage was collected with difficulty by armed parties.
About the middle of August Stevenson went into position in my immediate front. On the morning of the 17th I received intelligence, probable in its character, that Stevenson would attempt to carry the Gap that night. At 2:30 a.m. on the 18th reveille was sounded, and the lines were manned, If the enemy did not attack. It was evident that he intended a siege.
On the 16th Kirby Smith crossed the mountains south of us, into Kentucky, occupied Cumberland Ford, and sent a demand for the surrender the Gap, to which I replied:
If you want this fortress, come and take it.
Smith's position was critical. He had no base of supplies; the valley which his troops were concentrated was soon exhausted; the longer he delayed pushing toward the blue-grass region, the greater would be the force he would have to meet on reaching there. Having completely cut me off from my base, he therefore pushed forward toward Lexington, leave Stevenson still in front of me.
The Confederates were invading Kentucky in three columns: Bragg the left, Smith in the center, Humphrey Marshall on the right, while John H. Morgan hovered like an eagle on the wing, ready to pounce upon a weak point. They now regarded the capture or destruction of my division certain. Our situation was indeed critical. We had been three months this isolated position. Our only reasonable hope of succor had been destroyed by the defeat and dispersion of Nelson's force at Richmond on the 30th August. [See p. 4.] We were destitute of forage. The horses of the 9th Ohio Battery literally starved to death, and their skeletons were dragged outside the lines. Our supplies of food were rapidly becoming exhausted. De Courcy had been sent to Manchester, sixty miles distant, in the hope obtaining supplies, but there was scarcely sufficient for his own brigade.
Enveloped on every side by the enemy, absolutely cut off from my base of supplies, and with starvation staring us in the face, I assembled a council of war, and, stating the situation in a few words, asked for the opinions of the members. Spears, Carter, and Baird (De Courcy being absent) gave it as their opinion, in which I concurred, that retreat was inevitable. In fact, I already marked out in red chalk on the map of Kentucky my line of retreat, just as it was afterward carried out. Holding out the idea that we were seeking to obtain supplies by way of the barren wilderness through which I purposed to reach the Ohio, I had previously caused Lieutenant-Colonel George W. Gallup, of the 14th Kentucky, a soldier of rare merit, to send me at intervals men of his command familiar with the country through which each day's march would have to be made. The information given me by those mountaineers was discouraging. The want of water, the rugged character of the defiles, the almost absolute want of supplies, were stated by every one, but the opinion was expressed that a few wagons, laden with half a ton might get through. My topographical engineer, Captain Sidney S. Lyon, a man of fine intelligence and skill, had been the geologist of Kentucky, and was familiar with every foot of the State. Pointing out to him the region I had marked across the map I said,
Can I take my division by that to the 0hio River?
Yes, possibly, by abandoning the artillery and wagons. However, there was practically no choice. To retreat on Lexington would have placed my division, with its reduced numbers, between Stevenson in our immediate rear, Smith in our front, Bragg on our left, and Humphrey Marshall on our right, with the passes of the Wild Cat or of the Big Hill to overcome. I therefore determined to retreat by the red-chalk line, and at all hazards to take my artillery and wagons with me. fn(3)
Stevenson, who knew as well as I did that I must attempt a retreat, was vigilant and energetic. From a knob on the east flank of Baptist Gap, with the aid of a good telescope, he could see all that was going on in Cumberland Gap. His line was nearly a semicircle, the opposite points of the diameter resting on the mountain's base to the right and left of the Gap. His policy was to starve us out.
During the night of the 16th of September, a long train of wagons was sent toward Manchester under the convoy of Colonel Coburn's 33d Indiana, two companies of Garrard's 3d Kentucky regiment, and the 9th Ohio Battery. This entire night and the following day, every preparation was made for the retreat. Mines had been constructed to blow up the magazines and arsenal and fire the vast store-houses constructed and under construction. Everything moved with the precision of a well-constructed and well-oiled piece of machinery, until late in the afternoon of the 17th, when a report came from our signal station on the crest of the mountain that a flag of truce from the enemy was approaching. This was in reality a party of observation. I therefore sent Lieutenant-Colonel Gallup, with a small escort and a few shrewd officers, to meet the enemy's flag outside our picket lines. The officers on either side were laughing and joking together, when suddenly a glare of fire shone from the valley at the foot of the Gap and a volume of smoke curled over Poor Valley Ridge. One of the Confederates exclaimed,
Why, Colone4 what does that mean? It looks like an evacuation. With admirable coolness and address Gallup replied,
Not much. Morgan has cut away the timber obstructing the range of his guns, and they are now burning the brush on the mountain-side. This off-hand explanation was apparently satisfactory, but the fact was that some reckless person had fired a quartermasters buildings - criminal blunder that might have cost us dear.
On the night of the 17th, Gallup, with a body of picked men, was left to guard the three roads leading from the camps of Stevenson, and to fire the vast quartermaster buildings, as well as the enormous store-house, nearly completed, on the crest of the mountain, and near the gap. The arsenal, containing four thousand stand of small-arms, and a large amount of shells and grenades, had been mined, and trains had been laid to the magazines.
At 8 o'clock that night my command wheeled into column with the coolness and precision of troops on review; and without hurry, without confusion, with no loud commands, but with resolute confidence, the little army, surrounded by peril on every side, set out on its march of more than two hundred miles through the wilderness. Toward morning Gallup fired the vast buildings and the trains leading to the mines. The shock of the explosion was felt fourteen miles away; the flaming buildings lighted up the sky as though the Gap and mountain crests were a volcano on fire, and from time to time till after dawn we heard the explosion of mines, shells, or grenades. At Manchester we halted for a day and a half, to concentrate the command, and to organize for the march before us. A day or two before a soldier had murdered a comrade in cold blood, under circumstances of great aggravation. I had ordered a court to try him. The sentence, of course, was death, and at the very moment of the execution the firing of our troops could be heard repelling the dash of Stevenson's cavalry on the wagon train of Spears.
I fully expected to be met by the enemy in force at Proctor, where the deep and abrupt banks would have rendered the passage of the Kentucky River perilous and difficult if disputed. We accordingly moved by two nearly parallel roads, and the two columns reached Proctor almost simultaneously. I at once threw a brigade, with a battery, across the river, and gave the command half a day's rest. The previous day and night the ever-vigilant John H. Morgan, with his daring followers, had been at Proctor, had burned the steam flouring-mill and its valuable contents, and had then withdrawn to Irvine, thirteen miles away.
In order to deceive the enemy as to my intended line of march, I directed Captain George M. Adams, Commissary of Subsistence, to send an officer toward Mount Sterling with written authority to purchase supplies. He set out, wearing his uniform, and attended only by two or three soldiers, knowing with certainty that he would be taken prisoner, and his papers seized. He was, of course, captured, since the Confederates wore concentrating at Mount Sterling, believing my objective point to be Maysville.
Two roads run from Proctor to Hazel Green: the Ridge Road, then destitute of water, and the North Fork road, which had water, but which the torrents of the previous rainy season had greatly damaged and in parts destroyed. De Courcy and Spears marched by the former, while Baird and Carter, with the wagon train, took the latter. It was largely through the energy of Baird that the wagon train was saved. After a day's halt at Hazel Green to rest and refresh the half-famished men and animals, the march was resumed toward West Liberty, supposed to be occupied by Humphrey Marshall. However, he was not there. During this march, John H. Morgan attacked the rear of De Courcy's brigade and scattered a lot of cattle intended for the use of the retreating column. Morgan then passed around us and commenced blockading the defiles between West Liberty and Grayson and destroying everything that could feed man or beast. He did his work gallantly and well. Frequent skirmishes took place, and it several times happened that while the one Morgan was clearing out the obstructions at the entrance to a defile, the other in was blocking the exit from the same defile with enormous rocks and felled trees. In the work of clearing away these obstructions, one thousand men wielding axes, saws, picks, spades, and block and tackle, under the general direction of Captain William F. Patterson, commanding his company of engineer-mechanics, and of Captain Sidney S. Lyon, labored with skill and courage. In one instance they were forced to cut a new road through the forest a distance of four miles in order to turn a blockade of one mile. At Grayson, however, on the 1st of October, John Morgan abandoned the contest, to seek a new field for the exercise of his superior partisan skill and high courage; and on the 3d we reached the Ohio River at Greenup [see map, p. 6]. Without the loss of a gun or a wagon, and with the loss of but eighty men. Not only that, but, as General Bragg states in his report, we had detained General Kirby Smith, and thus prevented the junction of Confederate armies in Kentucky, long enough to save Louisville.
(1) On our side acts not less vigorous were resorted to. A few days after our occupation of Cumberland Gap, June 18th, General Spears, without authority, sent out in the night, captured and wanted to hang a number of Confederate citizens, whose offense was that they had arrested T.A.R. Nelson, while on his way to take his seat in the United States Congress, and had sent him to Richmond. Their lives were saved by my interposition, and they were sent as prisoners to Indianapolis. --- G.W.M.
(2) The Confederate forces covering the mountain and river passes north of Knoxville at time were under General C.L. Stevenson, First Division, Department of East Tennessee.--EDITORS
(3) The retreat was made across Kentucky by the way of Manchester, Booneville, and West Liberty to Greenup on the Ohio River. [See map, p. 6.] - EDITORS.
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