Surrender of the Cumberland Gap

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 "Cumberland Gap" in the American Civil War

 

General Ulysses S. Grant, while traveling through the Cumberland Gap in 1864, noted: "With two brigades of the Army of the Cumberland I could hold that pass against the army which Napoleon led to Moscow."

 

Introduction

 

General Grant knew the importance of securing the Cumberland Gap during the Civil War, having resided in neighboring states for most of his life he was also familiar with its strategic history. The Army of the Cumberland, a Union army, was also named for the region. As a direct result of Confederate Gen. John W. Frazer surrendering his command without any attempts of fighting the enemy or evading capture, 44% of the 62nd North Carolina's soldiers died within 18 months of their incarceration in a single Union prison.

 

Major B. G. McDowell, 62nd North Carolina, stated that "When I was told by General Frazer that I had been surrendered, and that I and my regiment were prisoners of war my indignation and that of my regiment knew no bounds. I informed him that I would not be made a prisoner of war that it took two to make such a bargain as that under the circumstances, and that he could not force me to do so. Sharp words were exchanged, and I called up all of the Sixty-second Regiment who were willing to take their lives in their hands and all of the other commands in the Gap who were willing to join us, and said to them, "If you will go with me we will go out from here, and let consequences take care of themselves."

 

In late December 1862, while guarding bridges and railroads in East Tennessee, three poorly armed companies (295 soldiers) of the 62nd North Carolina Regiment were captured by a Union cavalry force of 3,000. The 62nd continued to serve and fight in East Tennessee until 442 of its men were surrendered to Union forces in the Cumberland Gap on September 9, 1863, by General Frazer, who many consider a coward for not fighting nor trying to evade capture, but as many as 200 soldiers from the 62nd evaded capture and in April 1864 the unit mustered 178 men in Asheville. The bulk of the fighting at the Battle of Asheville one year later, April 6, 1865, and just three days prior to Lee surrendering to Grant, was shouldered by the remaining 175 steadfast warriors who formed the ranks of the depleted unit for its final mustering.

Cumberland Gap and the Civil War
Cumberland Gap and the Civil War.jpg
The Majestic Cumberland Gap and the Civil War

Confederate General John W. Frazer surrenders the Cumberland Gap

 

Frazer believed that he was outnumbered by Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's army by a margin of at least 5-to-1. Frazer, however, refused to obey orders to "fight or retreat." Since hundreds of Confederates under Frazer's command evaded capture in the Cumberland Gap, it is fair to say that Frazer could have, at the very least, evaded capture.

 

…Lining up along the Harlan Road, the Confederates were amazed to see the small force to which they had surrendered…

 

General Frazer was a West Point Graduate, New Yorker, and Union Army General John Buford contemporary. According to the Official Records of Union and Confederate Armies (hereinafter cited as O.R.), General Frazer had the opportunity to fight, retreat, or evacuate from the Cumberland Gap and save his command from a "long imprisonment and death." According to several Confederate officers, Frazer displayed "treachery and cowardice which led to the unconditional surrender of the strongest natural position in the Confederate States." And with it, "2,026 prisoners, 2,000 small arms, 12 pieces of artillery, and the stores of ammunition and provision. They also surrendered 200 horses and mules, 50 wagons, 160 cattle, 12,000 pounds of bacon, 2000 bushels of wheat, and approximately 15,000 pounds of flour." 

 

According to the Official Records, on September 9, 1863, General Frazer was credited for surrendering 2,026 soldiers (including the Sixty-second and Sixty-fourth North Carolina Infantry Regiments) defending the Cumberland Gap. Some believed that Frazer was "bribed to surrender" the Gap. Major, later Lt. Col., Byron Gibbs McDowell was the only 62nd North Carolina Regimental field officer present during the surrender of the Cumberland Gap. During the surrender, Commanding Colonel Love was ill and not present and Lt. Col. Clayton had contracted typhoid fever and was in a hospital in Greenville, Tennessee. In O.R., I, 30, II, pp. 636-637, McDowell discusses the Cumberland Gap's surrender and exclaims that Frazer's report is "slanderous." Jefferson Davis endorses the report by writing that Frazier's surrender "presents a shameful abandonment of duty."

Map of Cumberland Gap during the Civil War
Map of Cumberland Gap during the Civil War.jpg
Civil War Map of Cumberland Gap and its proximity to adjoining regions and states

Battle of the Cumberland Gap
Battle of the Cumberland Gap.jpg
Why was the Cumberland Gap important during the Civil War?

Sequential official correspondence with General John Wesley Frazer
 
Below are excerpts from the Official Records: O.R., I, 30, II, 602, O.R., I, 30, IV, 571O.R., I, 30, IV, p. 572, O.R., I, 30, II, p. 617O.R., I, 30, II, p. 624O.R., I, 30, II, pp. 629-639, and O.R., I, 30, II, pp. 607-615. Also, for its entirety, see General John Frazer's comments regarding why he surrendered the Cumberland Gap, and Lt. Colonel B. G. McDowell's official report for the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in O.R., I, 30, II, pp. 607-639  

KNOXVILLE AUGUST 21, 1863 (RECEIVED 22ND)

…. My orders to General Frazer are to defend Cumberland Gap to last.

S. B. BUCKNER

Major-General

 

 

KNOXVILLE, AUGUST 21, 1863

The 65th Georgia is ordered to reinforce you from Jacksborough [Jacksboro] with the artillery now at Big Creek Gap. You [General Frazer] are expected to hold your position to the last.

V. SHELIHA

Chief of Staff

 

 

LOUDON [TN], AUGUST 30, 1863—p. m.

General Frazer received message and will carry out your order…

                                                                            General MacKall

Chief of Staff; Chattanooga

 

 

Loudon [TN], August 30, 1863

Brigadier-General Frazer

Cumberland Gap:

You overrate [General] Burnside’s forces…

V. SHELIHA

Chief of Staff

 

 

Loudon [TN], August 30, 1863

General J. W. Frazer

Commanding Cumberland Gap:

Hold the Gap according to my first instructions a week ago…

                                                                                     S. B. BUCKNER

                                                                                     Major-General

 

 

Loudon [TN], August 30, 1863

Brigadier-General Frazer

Cumberland Gap:

Evacuate your position at once….notifying Major-General [Sam] Jones of the move. Destroy all stores for which you cannot find transportation.

V. SHELIHA

Chief of Staff

                                                    

General Frazer:

Evacuate all your forces as speedily as possible…retire [retreat] to Abington [Abingdon, Virginia, Cumberland area]. Report your movements by courier and telegraph to General Jones.

                                                                                     S. B. BUCKNER

                                                                                     Major-General

(Duplicate of above sent to General A. E. Jackson, Jonesborough, Tenn.)

 

 

Maj. Gen. S. Jones                                                CHATTANOOGA, TENN.

Dublin, Va.:                                                          September 6, 1863

Send an order to General Frazer, at Cumberland Gap, to evacuate the gap…

                                                                                          S. B. BUCKNER

                                                                                          Major-General

 

 

Brig. Gen. John S. Williams,            Abington [VA], September 11, 1863    

Commanding, &., Jonesborough:

GENERAL: Since writing to you this morning I received a dispatch… General Frazer and Cumberland Gap capitulated… I hope that the report is not true…

Civil War Battles for control of Cumberland Gap
Cumberland Gap Civil War History.jpg
One must travel through the Cumberland Gap - or spend weeks going around it

Colonel B. G. McDowell

 

By 12 o’clock on September 9, 1863, Union officers had already sent four letters to General Frazer "demanding surrender of the Commanding Confederate forces of the Cumberland Gap." Frazer inquired of Burnside, “To what is the strength of your army?” Burnside declared, “I can not tell, surrender.”

 

Major (his rank at the time) McDowell insisted, "We want to fight! We waited and waited! Then at 4 p.m. we were informed that we were prisoners of war."

 

McDowell (a native of Macon County, N.C.) and about 600 soldiers refused to surrender, and they evaded capture, reformed in Asheville, N.C., and fought until the bitter end of the Civil War.

 

General John W. Frazer

 

According to Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Brigadier General John W. Frazer stated the most treacherous and slanderous remarks about the 62nd North Carolina Regiment: "The discipline and organization were utterly worthless… the greater part of officers were totally unfitted for command…Colonel Love and Major McDowell, I do not think were qualified for command…My opinion is this regiment would have broken or thrown down their arms on the first fire from the enemy…There were numerous desertions…In fact not a week passed without several desertions…We had insufficient arms to fight...I believed we were greatly outnumbered...I was unsure of the enemy's strength...I thought surrender would save lives...General Buckner was no where to be found, I wondered what became of him..."

 

General Frazer died March 31, 1906, in New York, NY., and perhaps was not credible with his contradictory remarks about the surrender of the 62nd North Carolina and the Cumberland Gap. (He underscored his initial contradictory account for the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.) He had ample time to make a retraction or state that he was under duress when he made the statements. Frazer opined that Union forces numbered 10,000-30,000 under Burnside. Burnside also sent at least four letters to Frazer demanding surrender and insisted, “We expect your [Frazer] unconditional surrender.” (O.R., I, 30, II, p. 638 and O.R., I, 30, II, p. 624). General Frazer, moreover, had been ordered to retreat to a very advantageous position, the high ground; however, he surrendered without a shot. (O.R., I, 30, II, p. 602).

How to win a battle without firing a shot...
Civil War Surrender of Cumberland Gap.jpg
General Burnside's Union army passing through Cumberland Gap in September 1863, Harper's Weekly

Closing Remarks

 

Lt. Col. Byron Gibbs McDowell a coward? Even after being shot while fighting bushwhackers, McDowell fought valiantly and bravely until the end of the conflict, and he was also recorded on muster rolls and troop rosters in April 1865. McDowell was a leader and inspiration to the men who served in his command and he was quick to lead by example. The men who evaded capture, of their own free will they too fought until the end of the conflict. Their actions were not indicative of cowardice. Frazer made his blistering remarks while in Union captivity, and, if he was only trying to gain favor while incarcerated, he could have made a retraction after the war-- but he didn't. Perhaps out of fear for his life, it explains why he lived his remaining years in New York. Did Frazer sell out as some have suggested? Perhaps. Regardless of Frazer's motives or excuses, it is evident by the hundreds who had evaded capture, he also could have led many, if not all, of his command to another position.  Frazer was similar to the possum at the Cumberland Gap, and his inaction and disobedience to orders from his superiors, as well as his lack of leadership, "presents a shameful abandonment of duty," said Jeff Davis bluntly. There is a lot of truth to that old saying, run away and live to fight another day. But of the 442 men of the 62nd who were captured in the Cumberland Gap and incarcerated in Union prisons, 44% died. Nearly 750 of the regiment's 1,000 had been captured during the war, but the remaining 175 who formed the shattered unit were present for the daring defense of Asheville on April 6, 1865.

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Surrender of the Cumberland Gap, Civil War Tennessee, Civil War Battle Cumberland Gap History, Details, Kentucky, North Carolina, Regiments in the Cumberland Gap Battles, General Ambrose Burnside

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