With George Morgan's Foot Cavalry: Taking and Losing Cumberland Gap

    In June 1862, General George Morgan's division drove the Confederates from Cumberland Gap in southeastern Kentucky along the Appalachian Mountain Range. The historical importance of Cumberland Gap to the settlement of Kentucky cannot be overestimated, but its strategic value in the Civil War derived the fact that at the Gap, the Wilderness Road had been built connecting southwestern Virginia with the Kentucky Blue Grass. Federal control of Cumberland Gap would prevent Confederate reinforcements or incursions into eastern Kentucky from either southwestern Virginia or eastern Tennessee along the Wilderness Road.

Federal troops marching through Cumberland Gap during the Civil War

    But just a few months later, Morgan's division, threatened with capture as a result of Union reverses in the opening weeks of the Kentucky campaign, had to abandon Cumberland Gap without a fight. The division made a 16-day trek through the mountains of eastern Kentucky to safety at Greenup on the Ohio River. Private Daniel Cook of Co. G of the 34th Indiana Infantry served with Morgan's division as part of the Signal Corps and took part in both the capture of the Gap and the retreat to the Ohio River. His letters describing these operations were published in the Indiana Herald of Huntington, Indiana and provide an interesting eyewitness view of the 1862 campaigns for Cumberland Gap. I've supplemented Cook's account with snippets written by other members of Morgan's division describing the campaign.

Cumberland Gap, Tennessee

July 14, 1862

    Of course you have long ere this learned of the evacuation of this Rebel stronghold and of the manner it which is was accomplished by our forces, but a few words on the subject may not be uninteresting to your readers even at this late date.

    The Rebels had held the Gap for over a year and so well satisfied had they become of their location and position and so confident were they that they could hold it that it is currently reported in high circles that the Rebel commander made the blasphemous declaration that "If Christ was to come from Heaven and take command of the Union army, he could not take the Gap."

    This division of the army has been encamped during the spring and summer on the Cumberland River near the Ford about 14 miles north of the Gap. Several reconnoitering expeditions and skirmish fights took place between our boys and the Rebels during the months of April and May, but nothing worthy of special notice was accomplished. In the meantime, we found that a passage might be made across the mountain some 18-20 miles south of the Gap, and as soon as reinforcements arrived, the word forward march was given and to the very agreeable surprise of the loyalists and utter astonishment of the Rebels, the morning of the 14th of June found nearly our whole safely safely anchored in Powell's Valley on the south side of the Cumberland Mountains. The band of the 33rd Indiana immediately struck up the tune of 'Red, White, and Blue' and they are the boys who can play it.

    We soon learned that the Rebels in the Gap were moving part of their force up the valley to within nine miles of our camp in order to watch our movements. They did not have to wait very long. On the night of the 18th of June, our whole force began to move off in the direction of the Gap. On the day before we heard that they were throwing up breastworks and digging entrenchments and intended to give us a fight. Our advance guards reached the place about 9 a.m. but lo, the enemy had fled! Everything indicated a hasty retreat. Their camp fires were still burning while old kettles, tin pans, and camp equipment were strewn in every direction. At noon, we made a halt on the farm of Z. Gibson, a regular Secesh, who was and is yet in arms against the government. We turned our horses on pasture for an hour. In the meantime, the boys discovered that the Shanghai roosters about the barn on the premises were very tall with pretty long legs; but it seemed that they stood in great need of them at that particular time for in a few moments we could see the members of the feathered tribe running and squawking in every direction with a score of Yankees after them.

    The bugle sounded and our columns moved on. In a few moments a messenger arrived who stated that the Rebels were leaving the Gap in full force and that many had left during the previous night. At this some three or four regiments started at the double quick thinking that perhaps they might cut off part of the Rebels in their retreat, but they were too late. At 5 o'clock our advance guards reached the far-famed Cumberland Gap, but the Rebels discovered that we were about to cut off their supplies by way of Knoxville and that they must either fight or skedaddle. They chose the latter course and at 6 p.m. our army took peaceable possession of the Gap and occupied the same ground which the Rebels had left only three or four hours before. Thus you see that notwithstanding the flurry and bombast of a wicked commander, the Gap was taken without the Savior coming down to command our army, or at least he was seen to take command in person.

"We soon arrived within sight of the Gap and to our surprise found it covered with tents. Some of the boys suspected that we had been led into a trap although assured by every citizen that the enemy had left. The number of the enemy's force is not known, but their force must have been large as the number of barracks and tents here would shelter 10,000 men. Their tents and camp equipment were all left behind but in such a mutilated condition as to be worthless. Five cannon of large caliber were left, three 64-pounders and two 44-pounders, but they were spiked and the carriages hacked to pieces." ~Private Charles Zink, Co. B, 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry


Drawing of Cumberland Gap by John F. McClelland of Co. B of the 16th Ohio Infantry. Image from the 16th O.V.I. homepage

    It is thought by our best military men that the movement of General Morgan who has command of this division in taking the Gap was the most cautious and successful of any that has been made since the inauguration of the Rebellion. The General is highly honored and esteemed by all in this division; he is the right man in the right place.

    Cumberland Gap is without doubt the best natural fortification in the country. Our army never could have taken it by storm, especially from the north side, without sustaining a very heavy loss. There are five or six high round points on the north side which are good fortifications of themselves while innumerable gulleys and deep ravines, high hills, and rocky cliffs would have to be passed and scaled before reaching the foot of Cumberland Mountain. Indeed no army could have approached the main fortifications from the north side without being literally cut to pieces.

    The timber is chopped down for more than a mile on each side of the road and the rifle pits encircle the entire fortification. The fortification on the north or east side of the Gap is the highest point on Cumberland Mountain and this point overlooks all other mountains and hills as far as the eye can reach in every direction. The view from this point with the aid of a glass at sunrise or sunset is beautifully romantic, grand, and sublime.

"The view from this point with the aid of a glass at sunrise or sunset is beautifully romantic, grand, and sublime," wrote Private Daniel Cook in 1862. 

    These hills, mountains, and valleys are well supplied with good spring water. You can see pure, sparkling water gushing out from the highest peak and from every hillside and the health of the army is excellent. 

"We have found five pieces of artillery [three 64-pounders and two 44-pounders] all of very large caliber and very inferior quality. A quantity of shell and canister was destroyed and left on the ground. A large quantity of bacon, lard, and flour was thrown into a cistern in one promiscuous heap. They had also removed a large amount of commissary stores to adjacent villages and country houses which is now falling in our hands." ~ Second Lieutenant Silas H. Corn, Co. B, 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

    I must not forget to inform you that the Signal Corps has become an important branch of the army. True, its general movements cannot be known beyond the limits of the General's quarters. The mysterious waving of flags can be seen every three or four miles in almost any direction. The stations are generally located upon eminent points all on the look out, watching the movements of the foe. The Rebels can hardly move without the fact being known to our officers in a few moments through the Signal Corps. Our enemies have sworn revenge against the Corps and yet it still survives. Two stations can hold communication ten miles apart provided they select points from which they can detect the motions of the flags or torches at night. Figures or numbers are made by certain motions of the flag, and from those motions are made letters which form words which none can know save those who belong to the school. Thus you will see that the Corps now operate under the riveted gaze of thousands and none understand but the members. The Corps has been of great utility in this division during its movements among the mountains and General Morgan has spoken of it in the highest terms. It is speedily gaining a reputation second to none in the army.

    The wheat in this section of the country is not more than half a crop. Corn is very backward owing to the drought We have not had any rain for nearly three weeks. Oats are an entire failure, and as there has been a Rebel army here for over a year, the country is stripped of everything and the citizens, many of whom are very poor, are suffering for the necessities of life. Berries of all kinds are to be found in the mountains in great abundance and as they are now ripe, we enjoy and make proper use of them.

    How long we are to remain here I cannot say, perhaps until the weather becomes cooler for its very warm at this time. But one thing I do know- the 7th Division with General Morgan commanding is ready to move against the Rebels and thrash them at any point and on the shortest possible notice.

Cumberland Gap: Morgan's Division defended this position for several months in the summer of 1862 but was flanked out of the fortress by Confederate troops that passed through Rogers' Gap 20 miles to the southwest. With his supplies from Lexington cut off by Confederate possession of the Wilderness Road, Morgan had no option but to retreat in September 1862. Morgan's retreat was skillfully conducted but did not sit well with the Lincoln administration as possession of the Gap kept alive the administration's aim of freeing Unionist eastern Tennessee from Confederate domination. 

    Three months later, Cook again addressed the Indiana Herald but this time writing from Portland, Ohio, exhausted by the 16-day march that saved Morgan's division from capture but once again gave possession of Cumberland Gap to the Confederates. The evacuation of the Gap was precipitated by the opening moves on the part of General Edmund Kirby Smith's invasion of Kentucky. Moving through Rogers' Gap, Smith's men made a rapid march towards Lexington, Kentucky but before reaching the center of the Blue Grass region, they fought a sharp battle at Richmond and routed the force of Federal rookies mustered to contest their advance. With Confederates firmly in place in his rear and right flank and others threatening to move from western Virginia, General Morgan saw that he was in a tight spot and resolved to get back to Union lines; unfortunately, that meant abandoning the Gap and marching more than 200 miles through mountain roads and passes to reach safety at Greenupsburg, Kentucky on the Ohio River. Private Cook describes this march:

Headquarters, General Morgan's Division, Portland, Ohio

October 7, 1862

    We have just returned to the land of the free and I learn that Madam Rumor has been busy in speculating and circulating various reports in regard to our fate at the Gap. Some are correct, while others are note; this being the case, I have thought it not our of place to give you the facts briefly.

    On the night of the 17th of August, it became known to us that the enemy was determined to surround us. They commenced to cross over on the 16th and were busily engaged in passing over the mountain for three or four days and nights. The place of entrance into Kentucky was Rogers' Gap 18 or 20 miles south and west of Cumberland Gap. They kept a heavy picket force at our front on the south side of the Gap. We knew all about their movements, but our situation was such that we dare not weaken our forces and march that distance to fight such overwhelming numbers while a heavy force was hovering in our front.

    I learn that a correspondent of the Cincinnati Enquirer has said that General Bragg's forces had passed through the famous Cumberland Gap. This is an error. The whole Southern Confederacy could not have passed through the Gap proper so long as we desired to hold it. At present I have no idea that a battle will ever be fought at that strong fortress. I think the fortifications at Cumberland Gap really make that place the Gibraltar of America.

    At the time we were surrounded, we had not half rations of bread on hand for 20 days, and but 30 days of half rations of bacon, rice, beans, sugar, and coffee. The Rebels had captured a number of our wagons heavily laden with provisions on the road from Lexington. Being thus surrounded on every side by the enemy, our supplies and mail were cut off. But we were not the least alarmed believing that our friends would come to our relief and assist in raising the blockade. However, when we heard that they had been repulsed at Big Hill and at Richmond, we readily discovered that evacuation was inevitable. On the 17th of September at 6 p.m., our army moved out. Every tent was destroyed and all the property that could not be conveniently brought away was served in a like manner. No artillery was left behind except four 30-pound Parrott siege pieces and these were rendered entirely useless. 

The magazine at Cumberland Gap detonates as Morgan's division in the foreground retreats north towards safety at the Ohio River. 

"All the division left except the provost guards and a blockading squad who were left behind to finish the work of destruction and obstruct the road so as to retard any movement of the enemy against our rear. At about 2 o'clock, the magazine was blown up and the flames of the burning commissary building lit up the valley for miles. Tents, cooking utensils, clothing, wagons, gun carriages, rations, ammunition, arms and accoutrements in two days' time passed from a useful and well-ordered stock to a mass of ashes and broken fragments. Cumberland Gap was left a mass of smoldering ruins. Nothing but ammunition and a few of the most useful cooking utensils were brought away. Quite a large quantity of bacon, beans, and rice were destroyed. It made my heart sick to witness the destruction, but we were nearly 250 miles from assistance with a large Rebel force between us and our friends and we had been warned that if we waited much longer we would hardly be able to live at all." ~ Captain Burr H. Polk, Co. F, 33rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry

    We marched by way of Cumberland Ford to Flat Lick where we made our first encampment. We then took a northerly direction passing through Manchester, Clay County, and Onsley, Wolf, Morgan, and Carter Counties. The country through which we passed is a mountainous wilderness and extremely poor, nothing but rocks, hills, and vales where poverty alone prevails. The greater portion of the country through which we have traveled has been a barren and thirsty land alike destitute of food and water. We have traveled several whole days and nights in succession with only the small amount of water we could obtain from stagnant pools. Occasionally we would pass a small hut built by a mountaineer surrounded by a small patch of corn, but which was invariably stripped by our advance guard.

"At Manchester on September 21st at 5 p.m. we witnessed a military execution. One of the 3rd Kentucky boys shot his comrade on the 18th and was sentenced by a court martial to be shot. It was a solemn sight to see a man marching to the death march escorted by guards with arms reversed following his coffin to the newly-made grave while he was yet enjoying good health. He seemed to be perfectly indifferent to what was going on and kept step to the music perfectly while the mournful sound of the death march brought tears to the eyes of many." ~ Sergeant Pembroke M. Cowles, Co. A, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry
General George W. Morgan

   Some of the Rebel General [Carter] Stevenson's force dogged after us for three or four days and nights, but finding that they could accomplish nothing, they gave up the chase. A few days after this, we discovered that the Rebel John Morgan and his land pirates were hovering on our rear and flank and finally they succeeded in driving off some of our cattle, killing one man and dangerously wounding another. They mustered up courage enough to give us one fire and then skedaddled. This Rebel band blockaded the road at 15 different places and burned several bridges, but we succeeded in cutting through and passing around all obstacles. They finally left us at Grayson, the county seat of Carter County, calling us "George Morgan's foot cavalry."

 "This morning I washed my face in the Ohio River. Night and day have the weary troops plodded along. Nearly every man carried with him his grater made of a tin plate and he grated his own meal for bread or mush. A halt has hardly been made but that the men would have out their mills and be at work. We have traveled between 225 and 250 miles with John Morgan's force hovering around us night and day, annoying us both in front and rear, destroying mills and grain and blockading in front of us and picking up any hungry soldier whose hope of getting fruit, potatoes, or paw-paws tempted him from the roadside. We have had to dig new roads around burned bridges, cut out trees for miles, dig and dam for water, and bivouac for 19 nights without a solitary tent. We have nothing left us but our guns, ammunition, and some wagons. Many of our troops are bare-footed and nearly naked, hardly fit to be seen in respectable society." ~ Captain Burr H. Polk, Co. F, 33rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry

    We were 16 days and nights on the march from Cumberland Gap to Greenupsburg [modern-day Greenup] on the Ohio River. There are many facts connected with this march which would be interesting to the public but time and space prevents me from speaking of them. We are now stationed at this place but for how long I know not. But we hope it will be long enough to heal sore feet, rest weary soldiers, and get new clothes of which many stand in great need. 


Letter from Private Daniel Cook, Co. G, 34th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Indiana Herald (Indiana), July 30, 1862, pg. 2; also October 15, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from Private Charles Zink, Co. B, 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Holmes County Farmer (Ohio), July 3, 1862, pg. 3

Letter from Second Lieutenant Silas H. Corn, Co. B, 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Holmes County Farmer (Ohio), July 17, 1862, pg. 2

Diary extracts from Captain Burr H. Polk, Co. F, 33rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), October 11, 1862, pg. 1

Letter from Sergeant Pembroke M. Cowles, Co. A, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Jeffersonian Democrat (Ohio), October 17, 1862, pg. 2


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