Battle of Blue Springs

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Battle of Blue Springs
Tennessee and Civil War

Battle of Blue Springs
 
Other Names: None

Location: Greene County

Campaign: East Tennessee Campaign (1863)

Date(s): October 10, 1863

Principal Commanders: Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside [US]; Brig. Gen. John S. Williams [CS]

Forces Engaged: Department of the Ohio [US]; 1st Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, 4th Kentucky Cavalry Regiment, and some home guard troops and artillery [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 316 total (US 100; CS 216)

Result(s): Union victory

Battle of Blue Springs Interpretive Marker
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Battle of Blue Springs History

Battle of Blue Springs
Battle of Blue Springs.jpg
(Historical Marker)

Tennessee Civil War Railroads
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Tennessee Civil War Railroads

Introduction: Two battles in East Tennessee would be fought shortly after Union Maj. Gen. Burnside captured Knoxville in September 1863. In an effort to take control of the railroads east of Knoxville, Union units began assailing nearby Confederate forces encamped at various key railroad junctions. The East Tennessee Campaign, September-October 1863, as it was known, consisted of the fight at Blountsville (September 22, 1863) and the battle of Blue Springs (October 10, 1863). On the morning of Oct. 10, stubborn Union troops met stiff Confederate resistance in Blue Springs. But after several hours of fighting, it was superior Federal numbers that soon proved too much as thin Rebel lines would be stretched before breaking. At 5 p.m. the Federals concentrated and launched an assault on the enemy's center causing it to break, throwing Confederate units into a running yet fighting retreat toward southwestern Virginia.

Confederate forces would not be removed however, and soon Lt. Gen. Longstreet arrived with reinforcements to launch the Knoxville Campaign (November-December 1863). While Longstreet's army was determined to move on and push Burnside out of Knoxville and East Tennessee, it would never materialize. Longstreet's forces would engage in a series of battles throughout East Tennessee during the winter of 1863, but would never be in a position to press an offensive and attempt to retake Knoxville, the objective. The exigencies of war would next demand Longstreet to return to Virginia. For the remainder of the conflict, Southern commands in the region would continue to be swept aside, but not destroyed. Union forces would hold Knoxville until the war ended, but many smaller battles would be fought as each side strived to remove the other from the region.

Railroads: Railroads allowed an army to rapidly move troops and supplies and to contest an enemy's advance, and the rails were vital for the smaller force needing reinforcements for an imminent fight. Remove the East Tennessee railroad, and the nearest line was south and through Georgia and the Carolinas, a costly delay that could quickly spell defeat. East Tennessee, one of the three Grand Divisions of the Volunteer State, was host to the only track which connected the state to southwest Virginia, making it prime real estate and a battlefield of wills. Practically every battle of consequence was fought along the railroads of this mountainous terrain, and while the railroad bridges which spanned its peaks and valleys were set ablaze only to be rebuilt again, the locals would see a grand effort between the blue and gray as one destroyed and the other rebuilt during a vicious four year cycle of destruction and reconstruction as each army was determined to best the other. Lee said of a single railroad that it was the lifeline of the Confederacy. Once the remaining railroad in North Carolina was captured, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia would soon capitulate to Grant.

Battle of Blue Springs
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Tennessee Civil War Map of Battles

Battle: Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio, undertook an expedition into East Tennessee to clear the roads and passes to Virginia, and, if possible, secure the Saltworks beyond Abingdon. In October, Confederate Brig. Gen. John S. Williams, with his cavalry force, set out to disrupt Union communications and logistics. He wished to take Bull’s Gap on the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad. On October 3, while advancing on Bull’s Gap, he fought with Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Carter’s Union Cavalry Division, XXIII Army Corps, at Blue Springs, about nine miles from Bull’s Gap, on the railroad. Carter, not knowing how many of the enemy he faced, withdrew. Carter and Williams skirmished for the next few days.

On October 10, Carter approached Blue Springs in force. Williams had received some reinforcements. The battle began about 10:00 am with Union cavalry engaging the Confederates until afternoon while another mounted force attempted to place itself in a position to cut off a Rebel retreat. Captain Orlando M. Poe, the Chief Engineer, performed a reconnaissance to identify the best location for making an infantry attack. At 3:30 pm, Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s 1st Division, IX Army Corps, moved up to attack, which he did at 5:00 pm. Ferrero’s men broke into the Confederate line, causing heavy casualties, and advanced almost to the enemy’s rear before being checked. After dark, the Confederates withdrew and the Federals took up the pursuit in the morning. Within days, Williams and his men had retired to Virginia. Burnside had launched the East Tennessee Campaign to reduce or extinguish Confederate influence in the area; Blue Springs helped fulfill that mission. Confederate casualties were reported as 66 killed and wounded and 150 captured, and Union losses were stated as 100, namely in killed and wounded.

Aftermath: After Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans was defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga, September 19-20, 1863, Burnside was pursued by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, against whose troops he had battled at Marye's Heights. Burnside skillfully outmaneuvered Longstreet at the Battle of Campbell's Station, Nov. 16, and was able to reach his entrenchments and safety in Knoxville, where he was briefly besieged until the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Fort Sanders, Nov. 29, outside the city. Tying down Longstreet's corps at Knoxville contributed to Gen. Braxton Bragg's defeat by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga. Troops under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman marched to Burnside's aid, but the siege had already been lifted; Longstreet withdrew, eventually returning to Virginia. Whereas small scale Confederate offensives would ensue, none would become a serous threat to Union forces operating in East Tennessee. Longstreet was gone, but Burnside would now have to contend with Confederate raiders such as John Hunt Morgan. See also Tennessee Civil War History.

East Tennessee Campaign Map
Civil War East Tennessee Campaign Map.jpg
East Tennessee Civil War Map

 

(Sources and related reading are listed below.)

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Sources: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; National Park Service; Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-684-84944-5; Hartley, William. "Knoxville Campaign." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. ISBN 0-393-04758-X; Hess, Earl J. The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-57233-916-3; Korn, Jerry, and the Editors of Time-Life Books. The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1985. ISBN 0-8094-4816-5; Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. ISBN 0-671-70921-6.

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