The Tazewell Scrap: A Voice from the 42nd Ohio

     The Battle of Tazewell, Tennessee fought August 6, 1862 was a small-scale engagement fought in the vicinity of Cumberland Gap in the opening stages of Kirby Smith’s 1862 offensive into Kentucky. Both sides suffered a loss of about 70 men (reports varied widely) and while the battle itself decided nothing, the prisoners taken by both sides gave their captors valuable information that had an important impact on the forthcoming campaign.

          The proximity of Tazewell to Cumberland Gap is the key to the story. In June 1862, General George W. Morgan’s division drove south from Kentucky and took possession of the gap after Confederate troops abandoned it and pulled back towards Knoxville. Morgan set his men to work fortifying the position, and by early August Morgan was confident that he could hold the Gap against any assault the Confederates might stage. However, Morgan believed that it was more likely that Confederates under Humphrey Marshall would strike westwards from Virginia to cut his supply line rather than risk a direct assault at the Gap. Refugees from eastern Tennessee also brought disturbing rumors that Confederate reinforcements were moving into eastern Tennessee aiming to march into Kentucky.

          To secure forage for his troops and develop Confederate intentions, General Morgan ordered Colonel John DeCourcey of the 16th Ohio (see here) to lead a reconnaissance in force of approximately 1,500 men south from the Gap towards the Clinch River. The third day out, DeCourcey marched into Big Springs with most of his force, leaving a covering force to hold the line of retreat. Confederates under General Carter Stevenson clashed with DeCourcey’s rearguard near the Clinch River and that night, the entire Union force pulled back to the town of Tazewell where the following morning Stevenson attacked with two of his three brigades.

          Corporal Basel G. Hank of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry was among the Union soldiers at Tazewell and wrote this compelling account of the fight to the readers of the Cleveland Morning Leader the day after the fight.


The frayed and torn colors of the 42nd Ohio give some clue as to the hard service these men saw in the western theater. 

Cumberland Gap, Tennessee

August 7, 1862

          Saturday last [August 2nd] the 16th Ohio, 42nd Ohio, 14th Kentucky, 22nd Kentucky, and Foster’s 1st Wisconsin Battery under the command of Colonel DeCourcey started out in the direction of Clinch River on a five days’ foraging expedition. The third day out, when within four miles of the river where a Rebel force was encamped, the brigade (with the exception of four companies of the 42nd and one piece of artillery) turned off towards Knoxville in quest of forage. The detachment left was ordered to check all advancing Rebels till dark so as to prevent them cutting off the retreat of our forage trains.

Soon the picket firing heralded the approach of a regiment of infantry with some cavalry for a vanguard, and the detachment of the 42nd, seeing the extreme necessity of holding the place, prepared for a stubborn defense. The cavalry boldly approached, but the well-directed Minie balls sent many horses back riderless and they all retreated to the infantry reserve. By this time, the artillery had begun hurling its death-dealing shells at a force of infantry advancing by a circuitous route, and they, too, were repulsed. Cannonading was then briskly going on from both sides and continued until almost dark when the enemy ceased firing, after which, and in accordance with our instructions, we fell back to Tazewell where the remainder of our brigade and the heavily laden forage train had arrived.

The following morning, a squadron of cavalry charged on the pickets but were forced to retreat with a loss of two killed and three wounded. But the fifth day proved to be the last and most eventful one of all. Detachments of the 16th Ohio and 14th Kentucky formed the advance and occupied an important strategic position on the south side of the village. About noon, a terrific roar of musketry was heard, and it was soon discovered that a large force of the enemy had approached to within rifle range by an unfrequented path and by a flank movement were driving our forces and surrounding one piece of artillery. But the brave gunners instantly put a double charge of canister and having hurled it through the solid column of the advancing foe, mounted their horses and escaped with the piece although the bullets flew around them like hail.


 “In the early morning, the rebels surprised the 16th Ohio stationed on a high hill about one quarter mile east of town. The fight was desperate, but the 16th boys were overwhelmed and obliged to retreat. As the rebels came down in a splendid line of battle, howling like demons, the two guns just had time to give them two doses of grapeshot. This made them waver and the guns were saved.” ~First Sergeant Thomas Corwin Parsons, Co. A, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry


Our infantry force then began to retire slowly; the enemy then made a determined bayonet charge which sent our inferior numbers flying down the hill in confusion. Soon as the enemy advanced to the village, our artillery reserve opened fire on them, and they retreated up the hill leaving scores of bloody dead and wounded behind them. The artillery fire on both sides than began its work, and a terrific cannonading was continued until sunset when the guns of the enemy were either dismounted or withdrawn, and the conflict ceased.

Sergeant Norman W. Cady
Co. I, 42nd Ohio

I learn from semi-official sources that our loss will not exceed 70; of these, perhaps a dozen were killed, twice as many wounded, and the rest prisoners. I am confident the Rebel loss in killed and wounded is many times that of our own, but a captain and Lieutenant Colonel [George W. Gordon] of the 11th Tennessee are all the prisoners taken by us. At dark, our commanding colonel ordered a retreat which was done up in a masterly manner, and the Rebel flag left to float in triumph over the streets of Tazewell. At 2 o’clock this morning, about half of us arrived at camp, numbers having sought shelter beneath every tree on the way for the last half dozen miles.


 “The 16th Ohio and 14th Kentucky were driven from their position with so little ceremony that they had not time enough to bring away their knapsacks. Those of the 14th Kentucky had been left at the foot of the hill and it was amusing to see the Rebels creep down the hill and attempt to carry them away when a shell or two would be thrown among them, and the knapsacks would be thrown in every direction in their eagerness to escape.” ~Sergeant Norman W. Cady, Co. I, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry


Why so small a force was kept in the far advance and why, when these were heroically contending with vastly superior numbers, reinforcements were refused them by Colonel DeCourcey are points of military strategy which your correspondent is unable to appreciate. Why also if our command intended to fight them, he confronted but did not attack until the enemy had an abundance of time to get reinforcements from Chattanooga are also matters of interest which can be comprehended only by the transcendently brilliant intellect of some “military genius.” Whether such generalship as this will bring the war to a speedy conclusion is not for me to say, but this much I will say: if the government expects the boys in the field to win victories, it must place over them commanders who will occasionally blunder into a success and not convert every attainable victory into a disaster, every possible success into a defeat.


Colonel John F. DeCourcey, 16th Ohio Infantry

General Morgan equated the expedition as a success as it secured 200 wagonloads of forage, 1,200 pounds of tobacco, and 30 horses and mules at a cost of 3 dead, 15 wounded, and 50 prisoners, most of these from two companies of the 16th Ohio who were caught out on the hill on the morning of August 6th. The prisoners taken by both sides proved quite talkative. Lieutenant Colonel Gordon and the unnamed captain of the 11th Tennessee spoke with General Morgan after their capture and Morgan passed along the substance of their conversations to General Don Carlos Buell who at that moment was eagerly trying to grasp Confederate intentions in eastern Tennessee. Morgan learned from his prisoners that “the enemy has 12,000-15,000 men in my front and 60,000 at Knoxville” [gross exaggerations as Kirby Smith had at most 20,000 men] but more importantly “he will probably invade Kentucky by way of Jamestown and Big Creek Gap. Rebel officers at Tazewell declare that your supplies will be cut off and the line of railroad broken up in your rear.” It proved to be the first piece of solid intelligence Buell received that correctly predicted the upcoming Confederate offensive.

General Edmund Kirby Smith also learned from the prisoners his army took at Tazewell, and he adjusted his future campaign plan accordingly as explained in the following message to General Braxton Bragg. “I understand that General Morgan has at Cumberland Gao nearly a month’s supply of provisions,” he wrote on August 9th. “As my move direct to Lexington, Kentucky would effectively invest Morgan and would be attended with other most brilliant results in my judgment, I suggest being allowed to take that course if I find the speedy reduction of the Gap an impracticable thing.”

The prisoners thus gave Kirby Smith an accurate read of the Federal supply position at Cumberland Gap, which makes his decision to bypass the Gap and march straight for the Bluegrass more sensible when one realizes that Kirby Smith lacked the supplies to besiege Cumberland Gap. A quick march into the rich foraging areas of central Kentucky would  allow him to sustain his army but would also place his troops athwart Morgan’s supply line and compel Morgan’s abandonment of Cumberland Gap, which it eventually did in mid-September.


Cumberland Gap


Letter from Corporal Basel G. Hank, Co. A, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), August 16, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from First Sergeant Thomas Corwin Parsons, Co. A, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Jeffersonian Democrat (Ohio), August 22, 1862, pg. 4

Letter from Sergeant Norman W. Cady, Co. I, 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Urbana Citizen & Gazette (Ohio), August 21, 1862, pg. 2


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