One feature of the American Civil War was that many states were strongly divided between North and South. One of those divided states was Tennessee, where most of the state was strongly pro-Confederate, while the mountainous east was pro-Union. Unfortunately for these Tennessee Unionists, they lived in a remote and isolated part of the country, best approached from strongly Confederate areas. It would take until almost the end of 1863 before Union forces were finally able to reach the area.
For the previous two years, President Lincoln had pressured a series of Union commanders to make a move into east Tennessee. Each in turn had examined the problems of crossing over the mountains into East Tennessee and then found other things to do. However, early in the war one move was made in the direction of east Tennessee.
Since 8 October 1861, command of the Department of the Cumberland had been held by General Buell. From his base at Louisville, on the northern border of Kentucky, Buell preferred to look south towards Nashville, Tennessee, rather than south east across the mountains towards Knoxville, the main city in Unionist east Tennessee.
Early in 1862, Buell made his one move in the direction of east Tennessee. The Confederates still held one position north of the Cumberland River, opposite Mill Springs, Kentucky (on the south bank of the river). This position was held by about 4,000 men commanded by Major-General George B. Crittenden. Buell sent a similar sized force, commanded by Brigadier-General George H. Thomas, to push Crittenden south of the river.
Crittenden was not willing to be tamely pushed back across the Cumberland. On 19 January he attacked Thomas’s men at Logan Cross Roads. The attack was an abject failure. Thomas defeated Crittenden’s attack, forced the Confederates into a precipitate retreat, and then even managed to organise a proper pursuit. Thomas lost 39 dead and 207 wounded, Crittenden twice that many (125 dead, 309 wounded and 99 captured or missing, for a total of 533). In the pursuit Thomas captured twelve artillery pieces and a great deal of Crittenden’s supplies. Crittenden was heavily criticized after the battle. After a court of enquiry he was demoted, continuing to serve as a colonel, appearing in south west Virginia in 1864.
Having made his gesture towards east Tennessee, Buell returned to his original plan. The passes into East Tennessee were entirely unsuitable for a large army in winter. However, the most important factor in Buell’s movements was the sudden prospect of success that opened up further west after U.S. Grant’s capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862. Buell was soon drawn into General Halleck’s plans, and was summoned west to Pittsburg Landing, arriving just in time to take part in the second day of fighting at Shiloh.