January 6, 1862: McClellan tells Buell to go to east Tennessee

George B. McClellan

For the past week or so, Lincoln has been trying to get his generals in the west to coordinate their movements in a design ultimately to move on east Tennessee, where unionist partisans are fighting a guerrilla war. The Civil War Daily Gazette has a recent post outlining the whole issue. Lincoln hoped that east Tennessee might be split off, much as western Virginia had been, weakening the Confederacy further. In fact, the partisans were buoyed by the conviction that Federal troops would soon arrive. As we saw yesterday, Buell doesn’t think it’s a good idea to move on East Tennessee, as the strength of the western Confederacy is concentrated in central Kentucky. Furthermore, without an attack by Halleck from Missouri on the confederate western flank at Columbus, Buell fears that the Kentucky forces will be combined against him disastrously.

McClellan here responds to Buell’s doubts in very definitive terms. East Tennessee is crucial, the west is a sideshow, and if Halleck won’t move, Buell should move on his own. Not the sort of advice that McClellan would take for his own troops, but good enough for Kentucky, it appears.

WASHINGTON, Monday, January 6, 1862.
Brigadier General D. C. BUELL, Louisville, Ky.:

MY DEAR GENERAL: Your will have learned ere this that Colonel Cross has been ordered to relieve Colonel Swords, and that two or three active young quartermasters from the Regular Army have been ordered to report to you. Two hundred wagons from Philadelphia have been ordered to you, and Meigs is stirring up the country generally to procure means of transportation for you. There are few things I have more at heart than the prompt movement of a strong column into Eastern Tennessee. The political consequences of the delay of this movement will be much more serious than you seem to anticipate. If relief is not soon afforded those people we shall lose them entirely, and with them the power of inflicting the most severe blow upon the secession cause.

I was extremely sorry to learn from your telegram to the President that you had from the beginning attached little or no importance to a movements in East Tennessee.* I had not so understood your views, and it develops a radical difference between your views and my own, which I deeply regret.

My own general plans for the prosecution of the war make the speedy occupation of East Tennessee and its lines of railway matters of absolute necessity. Bowling Green and Nashville are in that connection of very secondary importance at the present moment. My own advance cannot, according to my present views, be made until your troops are solidly established in the eastern portion of Tennessee. If that is not possible, a complete and prejudicial change in my own plans at once becomes necessary.

Interesting as Nashville may be to the Louisville interests, in strikes me that its possession is of very secondary importance in comparison with the immense results that would arise from the adherence to our cause of the masses in East Tennessee, West North Carolina, South Carolina, North Georgia, and Alabama, results that I feel assured would ere long flow from the movement I allude to.

Halleck, from his own account, will not soon be in a condition to support properly a movement up the Cumberland. Why not make the movement independently of and without waiting for that?

I regret that I have not strength enough to write a fuller and more intelligible letter, but this is my very first effort at writing for somewhat more than two weeks.

In haste, my dear general, very truly, yours,
Major-General, Commanding.

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