Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Department of the Ohio, sought to follow up the victory at Mill Springs in south-central Kentucky by ordering a pursuit of the retreating Confederates. This would bring the Federals closer to achieving the greater goal of either securing eastern Tennessee or capturing Nashville. He directed Brigadier General George H. Thomas, commander of the victorious force, to cross the swollen Cumberland River and advance toward the new Confederate base at Monticello, 10 miles southwest. Thomas responded:
“I have every reason to believe that the roads leading into Tennessee are in the same condition as the one over which my division has just passed, and the enemy having passed over these roads our chances for subsistence and forage would be but poor. I would therefore again respectfully suggest that I may be permitted to move down the (Cumberland) river with my troops, taking our subsistence and forage in flatboats, and co-operate with the main army against Bowling Green.”
Bowling Green was occupied by a Confederate force under Major General William Hardee. Since heading that way would go against the wishes of the Lincoln administration to advance into eastern Tennessee, Thomas instead proposed sending a smaller Federal force under Brigadier General Samuel P. Carter into that region. If Carter went there, no “stronger force will be needed, especially if Middle-Tennessee is threatened by my force.”
Buell took Thomas up on his offer and sent orders to Carter: “I have ordered your brigade to return to the Cumberland Gap route.” Carter was directed to lead four regiments, four cannon and cavalry, and, “by a prompt movement, seize and hold Cumberland Gap, fortifying yourself strongly.”
Buell advised Carter against excessive fighting with Confederates, “unless the enemy is weaker than is probable,” and issued specific orders to oversee “the destruction of the railroad line through Tennessee.” Buell stated that this “must be done by management or the rapid movement of a small force, rather than by any movement of your main force.”
Finally, Buell instructed Carter’s men “to refrain from any unnecessarily harsh course” towards Confederate officials to avoid “increased persecution of the loyal people by way of retaliation. Restrain your troops from committing outrages upon persons or property, and make no arrests, unless of those who are engaged in war against your command or who are otherwise working actively against its comfort or safety.”
Buell then issued orders for Thomas to dispatch Carter’s force to London, Kentucky, about 60 miles north of Cumberland Gap, supplying them with “three days’ rations in haversacks and five in wagons.” Carter’s men were to “move as rapidly as possible, without absolutely forcing their march.” Thomas replied that he could only provide two days’ rations because “subsistence stores are still behind and come in very slowly.” This delayed Carter’s mission and virtually assured that President Abraham Lincoln’s hopes to secure eastern Tennessee would not come to fruition.
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.