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East Tennessee Campaign

June 2–October 13, 1863

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside's East Tennessee Campaign was a Union offensive that resulted in the pacification of East Tennessee in 1863.

On June 8, 1861, Tennessee became the last Southern state to secede from the Union. The decision, however, was far from unanimous. In the eastern part of the state, the referendum for secession lost by some 20,000 votes at the polls. Initiating an independent secessionist movement, citizens of East Tennessee petitioned the state legislature to form a new state that would remain in the Union. The governor responded by sending military personnel to Knoxville to enforce the statewide vote for secession from the Union. Despite attempts to coerce the population, most residents of East Tennessee and Knoxville remained pro-Union throughout the American Civil War.

President Abraham Lincoln considered the liberation of East Tennessee to be of paramount importance. Beyond the moral and political duty to support the loyal citizens of that part of the Union, East Tennessee was strategically valuable. The main railway connecting the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia to Chattanooga, Tennessee and on to the Deep South ran through Knoxville. In addition, East Tennessee farmers produced large amounts of food supplies that could be used to sustain whichever side controlled the area. Despite its strategic importance and being high on the president's list of priorities, events in other theaters of the war delayed any major Union action in the area until the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside, moved to occupy East Tennessee in the summer of 1863.

Lincoln reassigned Burnside as commander of the Department of the Ohio on January 26, 1863, following Burnside's brief and unsuccessful tenure leading the Army of the Potomac. Burnside arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio in March, and following some controversial confrontations with Copperheads, he turned his attention to Knoxville. Burnside left Cincinnati on June 2, 1863, and he marched two corps, the 9th and 23rd, to Lexington, Kentucky. Upon arriving in Lexington, his plans were delayed when Major General Ulysses S. Grant ordered the 9th Corps to reinforce his attempt to capture the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi. While awaiting the return of the 9th Corps, Burnside ordered a small, combined force of cavalry and infantry to conduct raids in the vicinity of Knoxville, destroying railroads and communications lines. On August 6, Burnside resumed the advance from Lexington to Knoxville, planning to reunite with the 9th Corps in transit.

The most direct route from Lexington to Knoxville passed through the Cumberland Gap, which was strongly defended by Confederate soldiers commanded by Major General Simon B. Buckner. Instead of launching a direct assault on the Rebel defenders, Burnside wisely chose to march two divisions of his army over forty miles of rugged terrain around the Cumberland Gap toward Knoxville. Events occurring in the Chickamauga Campaign had forced Buckner to move most of his army to southern Tennessee, leaving only a token force to defend Knoxville. Thus, Burnside's cavalry reached Knoxville on September 2, almost unopposed. On September 3, Burnside marched his army into Knoxville and was warmly received by the citizenry.

With Knoxville occupied, Burnside returned his attention to the 2,300 Confederate holdouts at the Cumberland Gap who refused to surrender, despite being threatened by a division Burnside had left behind. On September 7, Burnside marched a brigade sixty miles in fifty-two hours from Knoxville to the Cumberland Gap. The Confederate commander there, Brigadier General John Frazer, realized that he was greatly outnumbered and, thus, surrendered on September 9.

Ohio units that participated in the East Tennessee Campaign included:

Infantry units:

  • 44th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 100th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 103rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 104th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Artillery units:

  • Battery D, 1st Ohio Light Artillery Regiment
  • 19th Ohio Artillery Battery

Cavalry units:

  • 2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
  • 7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
  • 45th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Mounted Infantry

With the exception of some Rebel cavalry raids and Federal actions to clear the area, events remained relatively quiet in East Tennessee until Confederate General James Longstreet launched his Knoxville Campaign in November 1863.

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