Read CHAPTER XXVI of Military Reminiscences of the Civil War V1, free online book, by Jacob Dolson Cox, on ReadCentral.com.

BURNSIDE IN EAST TENNESSEE

For a week after the capture of Cumberland Gap Burnside devoted himself to the pleasing task of organizing the native loyalists into a National Guard for home defence, issuing arms to them upon condition that they should, as a local militia, respond to his call and reinforce for temporary work his regular forces whenever the need should arise. The detailed reports from the upper valley reported the enemy under Jones at first to be 4000, and later to be 6000 strong. These estimates came through cool-headed and prudent officers, and were based upon information brought in by loyal men who had proven singularly accurate in their knowledge throughout the campaign. Point was added to these reports by the experience of one of his regiments. A detachment of 300 men of the One Hundredth Ohio had been sent to support a cavalry reconnoissance near Limestone Station on the railroad, whilst Burnside was investing Cumberland Gap, and these had been surrounded and forced to surrender by the enemy. This showed the presence of a considerable body of Confederates in the upper valley, and that they were bold and aggressive. It was the part of prudence to act upon this information, and Burnside ordered all his infantry except one brigade to march toward Greeneville. Two brigades of cavalry were already there, and his purpose was to concentrate about 6000 infantry, try to obtain a decisive engagement with the Confederates, and to punish them so severely that the upper valley would be safe, for a time at least, from invasion by them, so that he might be free to withdraw most of his troops to co-operate with Rosecrans in a Georgia campaign, if that alternative in Halleck’s plans should be adopted. He felt the importance of this the more, as the news received from Virginia mentioned the movement of railway rolling-stock to the East to bring, as rumor had it, Ewell’s corps from Lee to reinforce Jones. The sending of the railway trains was a fact, but the object, as it turned out, was to transport Longstreet’s corps to reinforce Bragg. Of this, however, Burnside had no intimation, and must act upon the information which came to him.

The Ninth Corps began to arrive at Cincinnati from Vicksburg on the 12th of August, half of it coming then, and the second division arriving on the 20th. It was reduced to 6000 by casualties and by sickness, and was in a pitiable condition. Being made up of troops which had served in the East, the men were not acclimated to the Mississippi valley, and in the bayous and marshes about Vicksburg had suffered greatly. Malarial fevers ate out their vitality, and even those who reported for duty dragged themselves about, the mere shadows of what they had been. General Parke reported their arrival and was then obliged to go upon sick-leave himself. General Welsh, who had distinguished himself at Antietam, reported that his division must recuperate for a few weeks before it could take the field. He made a heroic effort to remain on duty, but died suddenly on the 14th, and his loss was deeply felt by the corps. Potter’s division was as badly off as Welsh’s, and both were for a short time scattered at healthful camps in the Kentucky hills. Each camp was, at first, a hospital; but the change of climate and diet rapidly restored the tone of the hardy soldiery.

General Willcox, who commanded the Indiana district, belonged to the corps, and asked to be returned to duty with it. He was allowed to do so on the 11th of September, and the War Department sent with him a new division of Indiana troops which had been recruited and organized during the summer. Burnside had ordered recruits and new regiments to rendezvous in Kentucky, and prepared to bring them as well as the Ninth Corps forward as soon as the latter should be fit to march. Every camp and station at the rear was full of busy preparation during the last of August and the beginning of September, and at the front the general himself was now concentrating his little forces to strike a blow near the Virginia line which would make him free to move afterward in any direction the General-in-Chief should determine.

On the 16th of September Hascall’s division was echeloned along the road from Morristown back toward Knoxville; White’s division passed Knoxville, moving up the valley to join Hascall. Hartsuff, who commanded the Twenty-third Corps, had been disabled for field work by trouble from his old wounds and was at Knoxville. Burnside was also there, intending to go rapidly forward and overtake his infantry as soon as they should approach Greeneville. In the night the courier brought him a dispatch from Halleck, dated the 13th, directing a rapid movement of all his forces in Kentucky toward East Tennessee, where the whole Army of the Ohio was to be concentrated as soon as possible. He also directed Burnside to move his infantry toward Chattanooga, giving as a reason that Bragg might manoeuvre to turn Rosecrans’s right, and in that case Rosecrans would want to hand Chattanooga over to Burnside so that he himself could move the whole Army of the Cumberland to meet Bragg.

There was nothing in this dispatch which intimated that Rosecrans was in any danger, nor was Burnside informed that Bragg had been reinforced by Longstreet’s corps. On the other hand, his information looked to Ewell’s joining Jones against himself. The object Halleck had in view seemed to be to get the Ninth Corps and other troops now in Kentucky into East Tennessee as rapidly as possible, and then to move the whole Army of the Ohio down toward Rosecrans. It certainly could not be that he wished Cumberland Gap abandoned, and the trains and detachments coming through it from Kentucky left to the tender mercies of Jones and his Confederates, who could capture them at their leisure and without a blow. It was equally incredible that the government could wish to stop the organization of the loyalists just as weapons were being distributed to them, and to abandon them to the enemy when their recent open demonstrations in favor of the Union would make their condition infinitely worse than if our troops had never come to them. The rational interpretation, and the one Burnside gave it, was that the alternative which had been stated in the earlier dispatch of the 11th had been settled in favor of a general movement southward instead of eastward, and that this made it all the more imperative that he should disembarrass himself of General Jones and establish a line on the upper Holston which a small force could hold, whilst he with the rest of the two corps should move southward as soon as the Ninth Corps could make the march from Kentucky. This was exactly what General Schofield did in the next spring when he was ordered to join Sherman with the Army of the Ohio; and I do not hesitate to say that it was the only thing which an intelligent military man on the ground and knowing the topography would think of doing. To make a panicky abandonment of the country and of the trains and detachments en route to it, would have been hardly less disgraceful than a surrender of the whole. To Burnside’s honor and credit it should be recorded that he did not dream of doing it. He strained every nerve to hasten the movement of his troops so as to get through with his little campaign against Jones by the time the Ninth Corps could come from Kentucky, and if he could accomplish it within that limit, he would have the right to challenge the judgment of every competent critic, whether he had not done that which became a good soldier and a good general.

On the 17th of September the concentration of Burnside’s infantry toward Greeneville had so far progressed that he was preparing to go personally to the front and lead them against the enemy. It is noticeable in the whole campaign that he took this personal leadership and activity on himself. In Hartsuff’s condition of health it would have been within the ordinary methods of action that the next in rank should assume command of the Twenty-third Corps, and that the department commander should remain at his headquarters at Knoxville. But Hartsuff was able to attend to office business, and so Burnside practically exchanged places with him, leaving his subordinate with discretion to direct affairs in the department at large, whilst he himself did the field work with his troops. He had done it at Cumberland Gap when he received the surrender of Frazer; he was doing it now, and he was to do it again, still later, when he met Longstreet’s advance at the crossing of the Holston River.

In preparation for an absence of some days, he wrote, on the date last mentioned, a long dispatch to General Halleck, in the nature of a report of the state of affairs at that date. He explained the failure of the telegraph and the efforts that were making to get it in working order. He gave the situation of the troops and stated his purpose to attack the enemy. He noticed the report of Ewell’s coming against him and promised stout resistance, finding satisfaction in the thought that it would give Meade the opportunity to strike a decisive blow against Lee’s reduced army. He reported the condition of his trains and cattle droves on the road from Kentucky, and the contact of his cavalry in the south part of the valley with Rosecrans’s outposts. The bridge over the Hiwassee at Calhoun, he said, could be finished in ten days, and the steamboat at Kingston would soon be completed and ready for use. All this promised better means of supply at an early day, though at present “twenty-odd cars” were all the means of moving men or supplies on the portion of the railroad within his control.

Later in the same day he received Halleck’s dispatch of the 14th, which said it was believed the enemy would concentrate to give Rosecrans battle, and directed him to reinforce the latter with all possible speed. Still, no information was given of the movement of Longstreet to join Bragg, and indeed it was only on the 15th that Halleck gave the news to Rosecrans as reliable. Burnside must therefore regard the enemy concentrating in Georgia as only the same which Rosecrans had been peremptorily ordered to attack and which he had been supposed to be strong enough to cope with. No time was stated at which the battle in Georgia would probably occur. To hasten the work in hand, to put affairs at the Virginia line in condition to be left as soon as might be, and then to speed his forces toward Chattanooga to join in the Georgia campaign, was plainly Burnside’s duty. If it would be too rash for Rosecrans to give battle without reinforcements, that officer was competent to manoeuvre his army in retreat and take a defensible position till his reinforcements could come. That course would be certainly much wiser than to abandon East Tennessee to the enemy, with all the consequences of such an act, quite as bad as the loss of a battle. As matters turned out, even such instantaneous and ruinous abandonment would not have helped Rosecrans. It was now the afternoon of the 17th of September. The battle of Chickamauga was to begin in the early morning of the 19th and to end disastrously on the 20th. One full day for the marching of troops was all that intervened, or two at most, if they were only to reach the field upon the second day of the battle. And where were Burnside’s men? One division at Greeneville and above, more than two hundred miles from Chattanooga, and the other near New Market and Morristown, a hundred and fifty miles. Burnside’s “twenty-odd cars” were confined to a section of the railroad less than eighty miles long, and could hardly carry the necessary baggage and ammunition even for that fraction of the way. The troops must march, and could not by any physical possibility make a quarter of the distance before Rosecrans’s fate at Chickamauga should be decided. The authorities at Washington must bear the responsibility for complete ignorance of these conditions, or, what would be equally bad, a forgetfulness of them in a moment of panic.

But Burnside did not know and could not guess that a battle was to be fought so soon. All he could do was to prepare to carry out the wishes of the War Department as speedily as could be, without the total ruin of East Tennessee and all he had accomplished. Such ruin might come by the fate of war if he were driven out by superior force, but he would have been rightly condemned if it had come by his precipitate abandonment of the country. He did more to carry out Halleck’s wish than was quite prudent. He stopped the troops which had not yet reached Greeneville and ordered a countermarch. He hastened up the country to make the attack upon the Confederates with the force he already had in their presence, and then to bring the infantry back at once, hoping the cavalry could hold in check a defeated enemy.

The necessity of delivering a blow at General Jones was afterwards criticised by Halleck, but it was in accordance with the sound rules of conducting war. To have called back his troops without a fight would have been to give the enemy double courage by his retreat, and his brigades would have been chased by the exulting foe. They would either have been forced to halt and fight their pursuers under every disadvantage of loss of prestige and of the initiative, or have made a precipitate flight which would have gone far to ruin the whole command as well as the Tennessee people they had just liberated. It is true that this involved an advance from Greeneville upon Jonesboro, but the cavalry were already in contact with the enemy near there, and this was the only successful mode of accomplishing his purpose.

Making use of the portion of the railroad which could be operated, Burnside reached Greeneville on the 18th and rode rapidly to Jonesboro. On the 19th a brigade of cavalry under Colonel Foster attacked the enemy at Bristol, defeated them, tore up the railroad, and destroyed the bridges two miles above the town. Foster then returned to Blountsville, and marched on the next day to Hall’s Ford on the Watauga, where, after a skirmishing fight lasting several hours, he again dislodged the enemy, capturing about fifty prisoners and a piece of artillery with slight loss to himself. These were flanking movements designed to distract the attention of the enemy whilst Burnside concentrated most of his force in front of their principal position at Carter’s Station, where the most important of the railway bridges in that region crosses the Watauga. To impress his opponent with the belief that he meant to make an extended campaign, Burnside, on the 22d, notified Jones to remove the non-combatants from the villages of the upper valley. Foster’s brigade of cavalry was again sent to demonstrate on the rear, whilst Burnside threatened in front with the infantry. The enemy now evacuated the position and retreated, first burning the bridge. This was what Burnside desired, and the means of resuming railway communication to support an advance toward Knoxville being taken from the Confederates for a considerable time, he was now able to put all his infantry except two regiments in march for Knoxville. A brigade of cavalry with this small infantry support at Bull’s Gap was entrusted with the protection of this region, and by the help of the home guards of loyal men, was able to hold it during the operations of the next fortnight. Burnside’s purpose had been, if he had not been interrupted, to have pressed the Confederates closely with a sufficient force in front to compel a retreat, whilst he intercepted them with the remainder of his army, moving by a shorter line from Blountsville. He made, however, the best of the situation, and having driven the enemy over the State line and disengaged his own troops, he was free to concentrate the greater part of them for operations at the other end of the valley.

The Ninth Corps was now beginning to arrive, and was ordered to rendezvous first at Knoxville. Willcox had assembled his division of new troops, mostly Indianans, and marched with them to Cumberland Gap, where he relieved the garrison of that post, and was himself entrusted by Burnside with the command of that portion of the department, covering the upper valleys of the Clinch and Holston as well as the lines of communication with Cincinnati and the Ohio River.

In the days immediately preceding the battle of Chickamauga, Halleck had urged reinforcements forward toward Rosecrans from all parts of the West. Pope in Minnesota, Schofield in Missouri, Hurlbut at Memphis, and Sherman at Vicksburg had all been called upon for help, and all had put bodies of troops in motion, though the distances were great and the effect was a little too much like the proverbial one of locking the stable door after the horse had been stolen. As there was no telegraphic communication with Burnside, the General-in-Chief gave orders through the adjutant-general’s office in Cincinnati directly to the Ninth Corps and to the detachments of the Twenty-third Corps remaining or assembling in Kentucky, to march at once into East Tennessee. An advisory supervision of the department offices in Cincinnati had been left with me, and Captain Anderson, the assistant adjutant-general, issued orders in General Burnside’s name after consultation with me. General Parke cut short his sick-leave, and, though far from strong, assumed command of the Ninth Corps and began the march for Cumberland Gap. The guards for the railways and necessary posts were reduced to the lowest limits of safety, and every available regiment was hurried to the front.

By the end of September Burnside’s forces were pretty well concentrated between Knoxville and Loudon, the crossing of the Holston River. It had now been learned that Bragg’s army had suffered even more than Rosecrans’s in the battle of Chickamauga, and notwithstanding the rout of the right wing of the Cumberland Army, the stubborn fighting of the centre and left wing under Thomas had made the enemy willing to admit that they had not won a decisive victory. Our army was within its lines at Chattanooga, and these had been so strengthened that General Meigs, who had been sent out in haste as a special envoy of the War Department, reported to Mr. Stanton on the 27th of September that the position was very strong, being practically secure against an assault, and that the army was hearty, cheerful, and confident. Meigs was himself a distinguished officer of the Engineer Corps as well as quartermaster-general, and the weight of his opinion at once restored confidence in Washington. He saw at a glance that the only perilous contingency was the danger of starvation, for the wagon roads over the mountains on the north side of the Tennessee were most difficult at best, and soon likely to become impassable. The army was safe from the enemy till it chose to resume the offensive, provided it could be fed. He concluded his dispatch by saying, “Of the rugged nature of this region I had no conception when I left Washington. I never travelled on such roads before.” It was only too evident that Halleck shared this ignorance, and had added to it a neglect to estimate the distances over these mountains and through these valleys, and the relations of the points, he directed Burnside to hold, with the immediate theatre of Rosecrans’s operations.

On the same date as Meigs’s report, Burnside was also sending a full statement of his situation and an explanation of his conduct. The telegraphic communication was opened just as he finished his dispatch, and for the first time he had the means of rapid intercourse with army headquarters. He patiently explained the misconceptions and cross purposes of the preceding fortnight, and showed how impossible and how ruinous would have been any other action than that which he took. Halleck had said that it would now be necessary to move the Army of the Ohio along the north side of the Tennessee till it should be opposite Chattanooga and reinforce Rosecrans in that way. Burnside pointed out that this would open the heart of East Tennessee to Bragg’s cavalry or detachments from his army. He offered to take the bolder course of moving down the south side of the rivers, covering Knoxville and the valley as he advanced.

Mr. Lincoln replied by authorizing Burnside to hold his present positions, sending Rosecrans, in his own way, what help he could spare. Halleck’s answer was an amazing proof that he had never comprehended the campaign. He reiterated that Burnside’s orders, before leaving Kentucky and continuously since, had been “to connect your right with General Rosecrans’s left, so that if the enemy concentrated on one, the other would be able to assist.” If this meant anything, it meant that Burnside was to keep within a day’s march of Rosecrans; for two days was more than enough to fight out a battle like Chickamauga. Yet he and everybody else knew that Burnside’s supply route from Kentucky was through Cumberland Gap, and he had warmly applauded when Burnside turned that position, and by investing it in front and rear, had forced Frazer to surrender. He had explicitly directed Burnside to occupy and hold the upper Holston valley nearly or quite to the Virginia line, and one gets weary of repeating that between these places and Chattanooga was a breadth of two hundred miles of the kind of country Meigs had described and more than ten days of hard marching. His present orders are equally blind. Burnside is directed to reinforce Rosecrans with “all your available force,” yet “East Tennessee must be held at all hazards, if possible.” To “hold at all hazards” might be understood, but what is the effect of the phrase “if possible”? It must amount in substance to authority to do exactly what Burnside was doing, to hold East Tennessee with as small means as he thought practicable, and to reinforce Rosecrans with what he could spare.

It was, on the whole, fortunate for the country that Burnside was not in telegraphic communication with Washington sooner. Had he been actually compelled to abandon East Tennessee on the 13th or 14th of September, incalculable mischief would have followed. The Ninth Corps was en route for Cumberland Gap, and it with all the trains and droves on the road must either have turned back or pushed on blindly with no probability of effecting a junction with the Twenty-third Corps. Even as it was, the terror in East Tennessee, when it became known that they were likely to be abandoned, was something fearful. Public and private men united in passionate protests, and the common people stood aghast. Two of the most prominent citizens only expressed the universal feeling when, in a dispatch to Mr. Lincoln, they used such language as this,

“In the name of Christianity and humanity, in the name of God and liberty, for the sake of their wives and children and everything they hold sacred and dear on earth, the loyal people of Tennessee appeal to you and implore you not to abandon them again to the merciless dominion of the rebels, by the withdrawal of the Union forces from East Tennessee.”

With the evidence of the ability of the Army of the Cumberland to hold its position at Chattanooga, there came a breathing spell and a quick end of the panic. It was seen that there was time to get all desirable reinforcements to Rosecrans from the West, and Hooker was sent with two corps from the East, open lines of well-managed railways making this a quicker assistance than could be given by even a few days’ marches over country roads. The culmination of the peril had been caused by the inactivity of the Army of the Potomac, which had permitted the transfer of Longstreet across four States; and now Hooker was sent from that army by a still longer route through the West to the vicinity of Bridgeport, thirty miles by rail below Chattanooga on the Tennessee River, but nearer fifty by the circuitous mountain roads actually used. It became evident also that Burnside’s army could only subsist by making the most of its own lines of supply through Kentucky. To add its trains to those which were toiling over the mountains between Chattanooga and Bridgeport, would risk the starvation of the whole. Until a better line could be opened, Burnside was allowed to concentrate most of his forces in the vicinity of Loudon, where he guarded the whole valley. His cavalry connected with Rosecrans on the north side of the Tennessee, and also held the line of the Hiwassee on the left.

On the last day of September Burnside reported the concentration of his forces and submitted three alternate plans of assisting Rosecrans: First, to abandon East Tennessee and move all his forces by the north bank of the Tennessee River to Chattanooga. This was what Halleck had seemed to propose. Second, to cross the Holston and march directly against Bragg’s right flank whilst Rosecrans should attack in front. This was essentially what Grant afterward did, putting Sherman in a position similar to that which Burnside would have taken. Third, to march with 7000 infantry and 5000 cavalry entirely around Bragg by the east, and strike his line of communications at Dalton or thereabouts. This had a strong resemblance to the strategy of Sherman next spring, when he forced Johnston out of Dalton by sending McPherson to his rear at Resaca. Burnside added to it the plan of a march to the sea, proposing that if Bragg pursued him, he should march down the railroad to Atlanta, destroying it as thoroughly as possible, and then make his way to the coast, living on the country.

The last of these plans was that which Burnside preferred and offered to put into immediate execution. Neither of them was likely to succeed at that moment, for Rosecrans was so far demoralized by the effects of his late battle that he was in no condition to carry out any aggressive campaign with decisive energy. He declared in favor of the first (for they were communicated to him as well as to Halleck), and this only meant that he wanted his army at Chattanooga reinforced by any and every means, though he could not supply them, and the fortifications were already so strong that General Meigs reported that 10,000 men could very soon hold them against all Bragg’s army. The plans, however, give us interesting light on Burnside’s character and abilities, and show that he was both fertile in resources and disposed to adopt the boldest action. Halleck in reply said that distant expeditions into Georgia were not now contemplated, nor was it now necessary to join Rosecrans at Chattanooga. It was sufficient for Burnside to be in position to go to Rosecrans’s assistance if he should require it. He was, however, to “hold some point near the upper end of the valley,” which kept alive the constant occasion for misunderstanding, since it implied the protection and occupation of all East Tennessee, and the general there in command was the only one who could judge what was necessary to secure the object. The necessity for activity soon showed itself. About the 6th of October General Jones was reported to be showing a disposition to be aggressive, and Burnside determined to strike a blow at him again and with more force than that which had been interrupted a fortnight before. Willcox was ordered from Cumberland Gap to Morristown with his four new Indiana regiments; the Ninth Corps (having now only about 5000 men present for duty) was moved up the valley also, whilst the Twenty-third Corps, with two brigades of cavalry, was left in its positions near Loudon. The rest of the cavalry, under Shackelford, accompanied the movement up the valley of which Burnside took command in person. Leaving the cavalry post at Bull’s Gap and advancing with his little army, he found the enemy strongly posted about midway between the Gap and Greeneville. Engaging them and trying to hold them by a skirmishing fight, he sent Foster’s cavalry brigade to close the passage behind them. Foster found the roads too rough to enable him to reach the desired position in time, and the enemy retreating in the night escaped. The pursuit was pushed beyond the Watauga River, and a more thorough destruction was made of the railroad to and beyond the Virginia line. Considerable loss had been inflicted on the enemy and 150 prisoners had been captured, but no decisive engagement had been brought about, Jones being wary and conscious of inferiority of force. Willcox was left at Greeneville with part of the cavalry, while Burnside brought back the Ninth Corps to Knoxville. The activity was good for the troops and was successful in curbing the enemy’s enterprise, besides encouraging the loyal inhabitants. There was now a lull in affairs till November, broken only by a mishap to Colonel Wolford’s brigade of cavalry on the south of the Holston, where he was watching the enemy’s advanced posts in the direction of Athens and Cleveland. Burnside had sent a flag of truce through the lines on the 19th of October, and the enemy taking advantage of it, delivered an unexpected blow upon Wolford, capturing 300 or 400 of his men and a battery of mountain howitzers, together with a wagon train which was several miles from camp. Wolford heard that his train was attacked and sent two regiments to protect it. These were surrounded by a superior force, and Wolford then brought up the rest of his command, only 700 strong, and made a bold effort to rescue his comrades. This he did, with the loss of the prisoners mentioned and the howitzers, which were taken after they had fired their last cartridge. The wagons were burned, but the men bravely cut their way out. Approaching Loudon, they were met by General Julius White with infantry reinforcements. The tables were now turned on the Confederates, who fled over the Hiwassee again, losing in their turn about 100 prisoners.