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The Taking of Cumberland Gap

This month 154 years ago saw the culmination of a campaign that is near and dear to the heart of the author.  The Federal 1862 Cumberland Gap campaign began as early as September of 1861.  Generals Sherman and Morgan met with Reverend William Carter and Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson at Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard County Kentucky.  Reverend Carter proposed a plan to raise a local force in East Tennessee and attack a series of bridges from Bristol Tennessee to Bridgeport Alabama.  If a Federal force could then advance into the region via the Cumberland Gap, the railroads could be controlled that fed the Confederate forces then operating in Northern Virginia and in so doing, starve them out.  President Lincoln issued an order to “seize and hold a point on the railroad connecting Virginia and Tennessee, near the mountain pass called Cumberland Gap.”  The order was not dated and didn’t find its way into the War Department Order Books until the end of October. There was a lot of water to pass under the bridge between that meeting at Camp Dick Robinson and the events of June of 1862. We will likely get into those as we continue in this series of articles but today we want to tell the remarkable story that led to the Federal control of Cumberland Gap.

The end of May saw a very weak Confederate force at Cumberland Gap.  Brigadier General C. L. Stevenson’s 2nd Brigade of Major General Kirby Smith’s Dept of East Tennessee was scattered all over East Tennessee defending bridges and keeping an eye on suspected Unionists in the wake of the Unionist Rebellion six months earlier.  Colonel James Rains’ 11th Tennessee held Cumberland Gap and by that we mean he was camped there.  A sizable number of his troops were sick or had no rifles.  Kirby Smith was probably happy to see that Buell seemed to be far more interested in Middle Tennessee than actually following the orders given to him by General McClellan and moving to relieve East Tennessee.  The fact was, however, that Buell was using Middle Tennessee to move on Chattanooga.  When that reality hit Smith he began pulling every Confederate organization he could find toward Chattanooga to include Brigadier General S. M. Barton who had been patrolling and defending the Powell Valley.The complete Confederate list of forces in the Department of East Tennessee at the time may be found here.

Brigadier General George W Morgan had assumed command of the newly created Union 7th Division at about the same time that Confederate General Kirby Smith took command of East Tennessee.  He immediately set out to consolidate his forces around Cumberland Ford, now known as Pineville Kentucky.  There were Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky Infantry and Cavalry units there along with Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan Artillery units.  The complete organization can be found here.  Cumberland Ford had been the victim of army occupations and raging flooding over the last few months and the people there had to be tired of it.  Stephen Keys Fletcher of the 33rd Indiana writes of an incident with a local in his diary:

“During the day a man of about 30 and a lady of 25 I should think came up, the lady picking some stray flowers that had sprung up through the hard trodden ground.  I asked them where they were going, & as the man took out his pass he said, here is where I used to live But its all gone now.  I said something about his property being destroyed, he sighed and said, I once had a home in the hills, and it was a pleasant one.  A tear came in his eye and he turned a way.  I really pitied them.”  – Stephen Keyes Fletcher, M. K. (1958, June). The Civil War Journal of Stephen Keyes Fletcher. (P. McCandless, Ed.) Indiana Magazine of History, 54(2), 141 – 190.

The flooding in April of 1862 had been catastrophic.  Heavy spring rains had followed a particularly snowy winter and small towns throughout Eastern Kentucky had suffered even without a constant stream of military traffic as Cumberland Ford had endured.  General Morgan’s 7th Division sprawled throughout the town and the rest of the Narrows.  As more and more troops arrived, General Morgan started sending them to Flat Lick and south of Cumberland Ford to the Moss House about 4 miles south, the modern location of the Wasioto Winds Golf Course,  and even further southwest toward Clear Creek.

Morgan’s plan was to send all four of his brigades down the northern slope of the Cumberland Ridge.  He would cross Baird and DeCourcy’s brigades at Rogers Gap and Carter and Spears’ brigades at Big Creek Gap, then press up the Powell Valley where he could fight on the easier terrain should it come to it.  Cumberland Gap had proven almost impossible to assault from the north after some reconnaissance efforts in February and March by Carter’s brigade.  By using the various gaps around Cumberland Gap itself, it could be taken easily or even simply surrounded and  besieged.  This vulnerability of the Gap would prove to be the Unionists undoing come September.

While Confederates were streaming toward Chattanooga, they understood that there were still Federal forces threatening Cumberland Gap.  On June 7th, Colonel Benjamin Allston, commander of the Confederate Cavalry Brigade, was ordered to the best defensive positions should Rogers Gap and Big Creek Gap be used to reach Powell Valley.  These Confederate troopers must have just reached their positions on June 8th as General DeCourcy’s brigade began to cross Rogers Gap.  Scouts of DeCourcy had seen the Confederate Cavalry patrolling but when they started coming up the gap DeCourcy decided to set a trap.  Frank Mason of the 42nd Ohio writes in his regimental history:

“Toward noon another squad of cavalry from Powell’s Valley was seen slowly coming up the pass.  Twenty or Thirty men were posted in the bushes near the path, a few rods below the summit, while the main body lay in wait behind the crest of the hill.  The plan was to draw the horsemen into a trap and capture the entire party.  They came cautiously along and the game seemed likely to succeed, when, just as they were passing the squad concealed in the bushes, Private Shattuck of Company “A”, Forty-Second Ohio, seeing a good chance for a shot, fired without orders, and unmasked the trap.  The cavalry-men wheeled, lay close to their horses, and spurred headlong down the hill.  A volley was sent after them, killing one horse and wounding three men, but all managed to escape, and from that time they kept carefully out of range of Wilson’s[Rogers] Gap.”

Only a few companies of Confederate Cavalry were left in Powell Valley and the, now well known, presence of Federal Infantry in or near the Powell Valley kept Allston’s Cavalry out of range from the Federals for any serious action.  The prospect of armed conflict wasn’t the only danger facing the Federals as they traversed the Cumberland mountains however.  The incline from the flood plain of Clear Creek to the summit of Rogers Gap presented its own dangers.  Mr. Fletcher of the 33rd Indiana writes of a scene he witnessed on June 11th:

“During the day the artillery cavalry and all teams got up and some of the artillery went on up the mountain.  2 brass guns came up pulled by bulls, 3 yoke to each.  The driver was sitting on the cannon driving the lines to the leaders.  This created quite an excitement and those two pieces has since gone by the name of the bull battery.”

There was another threat to the success of Morgan’s plan that had nothing to do with Confederate Cavalry or harsh terrain.  It was Major General Don Carlos Buell himself.  After a day spent crossing the mountain, hauling artillery with block and tackle when even the horses and bulls failed to find traction, word arrived on the 12th of June that the Major General was halting the advance on Cumberland Gap.  Just as Baird’s men had reached the foot of the mountains on the Powell Valley side, they had to turn around and go back.  “This made the boys sware.” said Mr. Fletcher in Baird’s Brigade, “They did cuss like good fellows.  They didn’t give us time to get supper.”

As with any military movement, modern or historical, there is the ever present specter of “hurry up and wait”.  Whether by order or on his own volition, a soldier of the 1st East Tennessee Infantry in Carter’s Brigade went out to reconnoiter the Gap.  “Reynolds”, as Frank Mason mentioned, “discovered the whole Confederate garrison in confusion, destroying its tents and gun carriages, and preparing for precipitate retreat.”  When General Morgan heard this news he promptly turned the 7th Division around and sent them back across the mountain range against the orders of his Commander, Don Carlos Buell.  Baird and Carter’s brigade had just arrived.  They were exhausted and disgusted at the order to retreat.  This new order, however, gave them a second wind.  The Division took to the, now well trained, task of crossing their respective gaps with renewed energy.

Brigadier General Spears had found a letter captured from a Confederate soldier where the Federal numbers were wildly exaggerated and a general sense of fear and uncertainty in the Confederate garrison at Cumberland Gap. This information supported what “Reynolds” had witnessed among the Confederate forces at the Gap.  As Spears entered Big Creek Gap, however, he found that not every Confederate was as fearful or uncertain as the commanders at Cumberland Gap.  A small force of Confederates, likely more of Allston’s Cavalry, put up a brief fight before retiring.  These would be the last shots fired in anger during the operation to claim Cumberland Gap.

DeCourcy’s Brigade was the first to reach Cumberland Gap arriving at the southern side at noon on the 18th of June.  Mr. Mason of the 42nd Ohio writes:

“The column was now within sight of the Gap, and moving on rapidly, reached the road at the foot of the Southern slope at noon.  Not an enemy was there, and DeCourcy’s Brigade, the Forty-Second leading, marched up and took possession of the citadel, Company C raising the Regimental flag on the main parapet of the fortifications, while Lanphere’s Battery fired a trimphant salute.  Cumberland Gap had been taken without the loss of a man.”

The Federal 7th Division would occupy Cumberland Gap for three months before falling victim to a similar tactic they had used to claim the place in August.  As the Confederates began their Kentucky Campaign, Kirby Smith would surround the Federals, cutting them off from all supplies.  In September we will revisit the story of the American Gibraltar to tell the incredible story of the evacuation and retreat of General Morgan’s 7th Division.

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