August 20, 1863 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio finally began moving to occupy eastern Tennessee and protect the left flank of the Federals advancing on Chattanooga.
The Lincoln administration had urged Burnside to advance out of Kentucky in coordination with Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Chattanooga campaign. But Burnside’s cavalry had been busy dealing with Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate raid, and Burnside awaited the return of his prized IX Corps from Vicksburg to join his newly formed XXIII Corps.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant had released IX Corps in late July, along with his thanks for their effort in taking Vicksburg: “The endurance, valor, and general good conduct of the Ninth Corps are admired by all, and its valuable co-operation in achieving the final triumph of the campaign is gratefully acknowledged by the Army of the Tennessee.” However, due to limited transportation, it would take a while for the corps to return to Burnside.
In early August, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck directed Burnside to report his progress to Washington. Burnside stated that his cavalry was too scattered from contesting Morgan’s raid to advance. Moreover, until IX Corps returned, Burnside could not move without pulling troops from the various garrisons in Kentucky, which would leave that state vulnerable to another Confederate invasion. Burnside asserted that had he stripped these garrisons before Morgan’s raid, Morgan “would have broken them.”
Halleck ordered on the 5th: “You will immediately move with a column of 12,000 men by the most practicable roads on East Tennessee, making Knoxville or its vicinity your objective point.” Halleck informed Burnside that when IX Corps arrived, it would act as a reserve to this advancing force. Halleck further ordered him to “connect with the forces of General Rosecrans, who has peremptory orders to move forward.”
Under this order, Burnside was to leave his Cincinnati headquarters and personally command the troops in the field. Burnside, believing the administration implied that he disobeyed orders by not leading the army forward yet, defensively reiterated his reasons for not moving. He added, “I have never willfully disobeyed an order, but have given the Government an honest and unselfish support.” He had not questioned the “uniform refusal of my requests,” but he would not “let the imputation that I have disobeyed orders go unnoticed.” Halleck, dealing with a similar personal issue with Rosecrans, did not respond.
Another week passed, and Burnside still had not begun moving yet. One of IX Corps’ two divisions finally began arriving at Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, on the 12th. Burnside then began arranging for trains to convey his army to eastern Tennessee. Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner had just 5,000 Confederates at Knoxville to defend the region against Burnside, who was believed to have 30,000 men.
Burnside’s army advanced to Camp Nelson, south of Lexington, where he waited for the second division of IX Corps to arrive. Burnside issued General Field Orders No. 2, which announced that the offensive would soon begin and, noting that most eastern Tennesseans were Unionists, reminded the troops “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.”
By the 19th, Burnside’s army was still at Camp Nelson awaiting the rest of IX Corps. Burnside notified Rosecrans, who thought he was moving already, “We have had a serious delay in mounting the cavalry and accumulating forage and subsistence, but all the columns are in motion.” However, Burnside did not receive word that the rest of IX Corps was ready to join him until the 20th, and only then did he begin his advance on Knoxville in earnest.
Buckner scrambled to defend against Burnside’s approach. He requested reinforcements from General Braxton Bragg, but Bragg could not spare any men because he was being confronted by Rosecrans at Chattanooga. Bragg instead ordered Buckner to withdraw toward Chattanooga. Buckner endured heavy criticism because he fell back so fast that he left enormous amounts of supplies behind.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 316; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 677; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 340-41; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31-34, 101; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 397-98; Rutherford, Phillip R., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 170