Alvis Duncan Hicks in the Civil War

Garry D. Nation.

2011,  All rights reserved.


Chapter II

Camp Dick Robinson

How Long ‘til We’re Soldiers?

September-October 1861

Camp Dick Robinson

From a sketch by T. R. Brown in Harper’s Weekly, November 1, 1862

         Upon their oath of enlistment Alvis and Will both were assigned the rank of private. Will would eventually be promoted to corporal, but Alvis would remain a private throughout his service.

The recruits who arrived at Camp Dick Robinson were entering the U. S. Army through what would later be recognized as the first modern basic training camp in its history. Alvis Hicks and his brothers had joined one of the most technically advanced outfits in the Federal Army, a unit to be shaped by the most modern theories and methods and led by some of the most able and progressive officers then living.  (Significantly this experimentation took place not in the regular army at West Point, but with volunteers and in the West.)  It would take some time to develop, however. At first it all must have seemed merely chaotic.


The effort to recruit loyal East Tennesseans to fight for the Union was one of Lincoln’s own projects.  Beyond his personal affection and regional affinity for that state, he saw it as a strategic key to victory.  He was acutely aware of the region’s Union sentiment, and owned a profound personal sympathy for citizens he felt were trapped behind the lines of rebellion.  He would have liked to reclaim that area as a separate state (as would later come in West Virginia).  That, however, was a dream even the ever-optimistic Mr. Lincoln knew was not realistic.

While Lincoln did contemplate the possibility of a political victory, he primarily looked to the military significance of that region.   Through its mountains and river valleys ran one crucial railroad line connecting the Confederacy’s East Coast to the Mississippi and the Gulf through the junction at Chattanooga. 

Moreover there was great manpower potential in East Tennessee, if only it could be assembled, equipped, and organized.  Lincoln and his Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, decided to focus on recruitment first while continuing to study the possibilities of taking the area back either politically or militarily.  On June 27 Lincoln endorsed Cameron’s order directing General-in-Chief Winfield Scott to “send an officer to Tennessee to muster into the service of the United States 10,000 men.”  Lincoln also had an idea whom to send.

Lt. William Nelson, USN, was a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, a veteran of the
Mexican War, and a native Kentuckian.  An imposing 6-foot-4, 300-pound bear of a man with a reputation for a hot temper, Nelson had the not-surprising nickname “Bull.”  The brother of one of Lincoln’s personal friends, he had gotten an appointment as a brigadier general and had already performed some military errands for Lincoln, most recently to organize home guards in Kentucky.  He seemed a logical choice for recruiting Tennesseans since he was already in that region.

Coming in on the political side of the project was U. S. Senator Andrew Johnson (a Democrat who would be Lincoln’s second-term running mate and future successor), and James P. T. Carter, the younger brother of S. P. Carter, who ran the family’s ironworks business until hostilities began breaking out.  When Johnson and Carter came to Secretary Cameron to request rifles for Tennessee Unionists, Cameron directed them to Nelson and the project got going from there.1

Carter did the footwork, returning to Tennessee in mid-July at considerable risk. He spent a couple of weeks scouting the area, headquartered in a safe house in southeastern Kentucky.  There he met up with his naval officer brother, recently returned from station in Brazil.  S. P. Carter had passed through Washington long enough to grab an assignment for special duty to East Tennessee.2  Coordinating with his younger brother, Lt. Carter wrote to Johnson, “If I had authority to muster [Tennessee men] into service here & could place arms in their hands, they might be organized & be made in a very short time efficient.” [sic]  Johnson obliged and secured him the credentials.

Having “made all needful arrangements for the union men to rendezvous in South Eastern Ky. where they could be organized, armed & drilled,” [sic] James Carter returned to Washington to report to Johnson and the White House.  Samuel Carter stayed in Barbourville to wait for the East Tennesseans to show up.  He didn’t have to wait long.  The first group, “a considerable body,” arrived on August 5, “carrying the U. S. flag at their head, some armed with long hunting rifles, & many with a rough style of bowie knife, manufactured by country blacksmiths,” he later wrote.  “All were footsore, travel stained, and bore in their torn garments evidence of the roughness of the way over which they had made their escape from the tyranny of rebel rule; but they were overflowing with enthusiasm.”
From the other side, a Confederate cavalry officer reported to his superiors, "There can be no doubt

       James P. T. Carter

  from a printed portrait of uncertain origin

that large parties, numbering from twenty to a hundred, are everyday passing through the narrow and unfrequented gaps of the mountains into Kentucky to join the army.  My courier just in from Jamestown says that 170 men from Roane County passed through there the night before ...."

The danger of the whole effort is shown by the case of John W. Thornburgh, M.D., of New Market.  A veteran of the Mexican War, Dr. Thornburgh organized a cavalry company and headed toward the rendezvous in Barbourville on August 8.  After traveling all night they stopped to rest their horses and drink coffee about 19 miles from the Cumberland Gap, then resumed their journey.  At the top of the Cumberland Mountain at Baptist Gap, Rebel troops attacked and cut off most of the group.  Only about a third of them made it to Barbourville, while Thornburgh himself was captured along with eight of his men. (Oliver Temple’s account of this troubled period alludes to Thornburgh’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment for treason. Apparently he was unaware of the warrant; he regarded the doctor’s troubles as an example of Confederate persecution, attributing to him “no crime other than being [a] Union [man].”)


While Samuel Carter was receiving fugitive Tennesseans in Barbourville, Nelson was staking out a camp near Nicolasville.  He had found his spot on the property of Capt. Richard M. “Dick” Robinson, a staunch Unionist.  Ideally situated along the crossroads of major routes through the Bluegrass (Robinson’s house was a noted stagecoach stop), there was enough space for several thousand men to billet and train. It was a reachable distance from Gen. Anderson’s headquarters in Cincinnati, and was also distant enough from the Tennessee border to discourage Zollicoffer from attacking it.
Within a week or two after the Tennessee men began arriving at the rendezvous—apparently just before the Roane County men showed up—Carter moved his operation to Camp Dick Robinson and began organizing the recruits into regiments.  Actually he let the men organize themselves according to their own familiar groups with minimal intrusion, other than to draw them into regimental numbers.

Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Carter

Harper’s Weekly describes the drawing of Camp Dick Robinson [top of page] thus: “Our picture is taken from the southwest. Captain Robinson's house is seen just over the tents, a little to the left of the centre of the picture. The road in front of the house, passing to the right of the picture, is the turnpike to Cumberland Gap….”

A number of things in this drawing give us insight into the experience of the Tennessee men who arrived here.  Though it appeared in Harper’s in November 1862 (when the camp was under Rebel control), the picture appears to date from the early days of the camp. The regular dwelling for the men was the two-man tent.  Within a few months the hills would be filled with tents, and later cabins for winter quarters.  Significantly the artist portrays “full-sized” tents, which were phased out in 1862 in favor of the smaller, cheaper, more portable, and more despised “dog tents” designed by Gen. George McClellan. (The larger tents would continue in use for base camps.)

Each unit kept to its own area—note that there are three such camps in this picture: the one in the foreground, one in the background right of center on the hill, and one left of center in the woods behind the Robinson house.  Notice also the company drilling in the mid-ground on the right, indicating the major activity of the camp.  Cooking was done over open fires. The rough wooden tables could be used for eating of course, but also for distributing supplies, and even for games like checkers, dominoes and cards during down times.

This was the ideal time to institute the ideal structure.  The basic tactical unit of the infantry regiment was the company, and each regiment had 10 companies designated by the letters A-K (skipping the letter J to avoid confusion—looks like I, sounds like A).  Each company ideally consisted of 100 men, commanded by a Captain.  It was divided into two platoons, the first commanded by the 1st Lieutenant, and the second by the 2nd, who were second and third in command respectively. 

The platoons in turn were numbered off into four sections or eight squads.  A sergeant led each platoon section, and each squad had a corporal.  The company commander was also assisted by a first sergeant who handled all the clerical duties and management details for the company.  The balance of the company comprised 80 soldiers at the rank of private.3   Each company also should have had two musicians and a drummer, but we don’t know the names of those for A Company.

Volunteer units were permitted to elect their own officers up through the company level.   John Bowman was elected commander of “A” Company and awarded the rank of Captain.  His first lieutenant was thirty-six-year-old Amos Marley, described as 6 feet tall with dark hair and dark complexion, but with blue eyes.  The second lieutenant was Doctor Franklin Kittrell, thirty-five, the only company officer of the line who would keep his same rank and post throughout the war.4

Even for volunteers, democracy rose no higher than company level—this was the U. S. Army after all.  Regimental commanders had to go through channels and be commissioned by Congress.  Samuel Carter, for the time being still acting as a Navy Lieutenant on assignment, submitted his brother James and Roane County recruiter Robert Byrd as colonels for the two regiments he now had numbers for.5   Byrd received his commission first on September 1, and his regiment—consisting primarily of men he had personally enlisted—was formally mustered as the 1st East Tennessee Volunteer Infantry.  A restless James Carter finally received his commission on September 28, and was placed in command of the sister regiment, the 2nd.

With Col. James Carter’s commission also came authorization for him to assemble a staff.  He chose as staff officers Lt. Col. Daniel Trewhitt (whose commission came in November 1), Major Eli Cleveland, 1st Lt. Daniel A. Carpenter as Adjutant, and Lt. George W. Keith as Quartermaster.  Joseph P. Gilbreath was named Sergeant Major, and Samuel C. Honeycutt Quartermaster Sergeant.  Andrew Neat was named Surgeon at the rank of Major, and John T. Jones Assistant Surgeon at the rank of Captain.  William T. Lowry was the regimental Chaplain (Protestant) from November 1861 through July 1863, and as such was numbered among the commissioned officers.

In later years regimental surgeon John Shrady, M.D. wrote the following tribute to these volunteers (emphasis mine): 6

Of these East Tennesseans it may be said they were … soldiers by birth and instinct, Indian fighters by inheritance, skilled in woodcraft, alert, tall, straight and wiry…. Of intense individuality and not much given to discipline, they expected from their leaders brave deeds as well as brave words.

These were the valorous yeomanry who tilled their own soil—“poor whites," not worth the ink of war correspondents but to whom unionism meant exile, sundered ties and devastated homes, who knew their friends by whispered pass-words, who hid by day and crawled by night, who followed the flag with the eye of faith, and who, silent warriors as they were, went down to silent graves, many of them in the hour of deepest gloom.

Dr. Shrady, I’m sure, had to come to grips with the “intense individuality” of these men, and no doubt realized early that the least efficient way to deal with this company was to pull rank.  “Not much given to discipline”?  Officers in the regular Army seemed to feel that way about Westerners in general, but the Tennesseans (especially the mountaineers) were particularly hard to handle and hard to train.  Yet if they seemed rowdy and undisciplined to the by-the-book types, they were also loyal, courageous, determined, and tough.  Moreover they were, in the words of one author, “fanatical about liberating East Tennessee.”7 Fortunately they soon came under the command of a general who understood and appreciated them, who knew how to command their respect and shape them into fighting men.  At the beginning, however, they had Bull Nelson’s glowering presence standing over them.

A story from the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1895 relates how the men remembered their first camp commander:

Full of tireless energy, he seemed to require neither sleep nor rest.  The sentinel, pacing his beat, was often startled long after midnight by the colossal form of the commander looming up in the darkness and approaching the camp from a direction from whence he was least expected. He was always an early riser, and consequently, ready for the day's duties long before the camp was astir. The troops that enlisted under Gen. Nelson remember him as boisterous and impetuous, impatient of restraint and contradiction, and utterly intolerant of the slightest infraction of discipline.

Private Jack Snow tells of being assigned to picket duty shortly after his arrival at Camp Dick Robinson.  He was given strict instructions that no one may pass without the password.  Now, guard duty is stressful in an inactive way:  there is not much to do, but one must be prepared for surprises.  After several hours at his post on that muggy August night, Pvt. Snow spotted a figure approaching him in the darkness.  “Halt, who goes there?”  “General Nelson,” the man barked.  “Advance and give the password,” the private demanded.  As the figure from the shadows drew toward the lantern light, it was indeed the unmistakable, imposing form of the commanding general.   Jack Snow was not a small lad, but the 20 year-old was dwarfed by the huge man. “I’m General Nelson. Give me your weapon, soldier.” Not really confident about what to do, Pvt. Snow stuck to his orders.  Never lowering his musket he replied something to the effect, “General, sir, I’m on guard duty.  I’d better keep my gun, but I still need that password.”  Pleased with the response the general passed on to the next station to test the other pickets.  Nine new soldiers were sent to the guardhouse that night either because they failed to require the general to give the password or they surrendered their weapons to him.

While the ragtag multitude was trying to get itself into some semblance of military order, Gen. Nelson was scrambling to get suitable equipment for his brigade—with only minimal success.  In the early months of the war most of the volunteer regiments from the states were outfitted and financed by the states themselves.  As a volunteer regiment from a state “in rebellion” the Tennessee boys weren’t backed by any state legislature, and Congress had not yet picked up the burden of funding.  Thus the new “bluecoats” began their service without blue coats—no uniforms, supplies, wagons, or any of the other equipment an army in the field properly needs.  For the first few months of their service they were poorly equipped—shockingly so.  They probably didn’t notice it much until their counterparts from Ohio and Indiana started marching in.  Compared to the crisply uniformed Midwesterners, they in their civilian dress—wide-brimmed hats, plain jackets, jeans, some wearing homespun and others buckskin—must have looked more like Home Guard militia than true soldiers.  If they had a chip on their shoulder about it, they hid it well.  All indications from contemporary testimony are that they took it all in stride.

At least they had plenty of to eat.  They also had plenty of smoothbore Harpers Ferry muskets to go around, although months would pass before they could be issued Springfield rifles.  At the beginning of the war Nelson had procured 10,000 muskets with which to arm a Home Guard in Kentucky to counter a growing secessionist militia.  From this stock he was able to arm the fighting men from East Tennessee.

By the end of August Nelson was looking after a still-growing force of over 6,000 (some sources estimate up to 8,000, but that was when the camp had reached full capacity). The 2nd Tennessee, rapidly rising to full battle strength (near 1,500) made up about one fifth of it.  Including the 1st and 2nd Tennessee, Nelson’s brigade comprised five regiments of infantry and one of cavalry from Kentucky, along with a battery of artillery.  Still, the accomplishment fell far short of the original plan to raise and arm a “loyal legion” that would reclaim East Tennessee for the Union.  Volunteers were still making the hazardous crossing, but the Confederates had succeeded in slowing down the defections and reducing the numbers getting through.

For the rest of August and throughout September the Roane County men were marking time, waiting for official designation as a regiment and for the appointment of Mr. Carter as their colonel.  Jack Snow tells us that one of the liveliest topics of conversation among the new enlistees had to do with the terms of their enlistment.  “Some of them did not understand the phrase ‘three years or the duration of the war’ and wondered if they would have been there for ‘twelve years if the war lasted that long.’”   As fierce as the argument may have gotten, most of them figured it was all just talk anyway.  Almost all believed the war wouldn’t last more than a few months, and that once they got enough soldiers for a full army they would return to their home state, drive out the Rebels, and return to their farms.


While they waited and talked and went through preliminary training, there was a good deal of shuffling in the higher levels of command.  On September 12 they were introduced to the new commander of Camp Dick Robinson, Brigadier General George Henry Thomas.  When he galloped in on horseback accompanied by a small troop, wearing his old uniform with the insignia of a cavalry colonel, everybody expected a speech like Nelson and all the other top officers and politicians gave when they came through.  They didn’t get one.  George Thomas didn’t give speeches, he gave orders.  After the briefest review of the troops they had ever received, the general dismissed them and called for all regimental officers to meet him at his headquarters set up in a nearby tavern.
The Tennesseans took an immediate liking to General Thomas.  Though not as physically impressive as General Nelson (and who else

Gen. George H. Thomas

was?), the stocky six-footer had a look of strength and self-possession.  When he passed the new soldiers in review his blue eyes did not flash like Nelson’s, but they grabbed hold of you and didn’t let go until they were through sizing you up. 

His graying beard covered an ugly scar on his chin from the only wound he ever received in all the many battles he had fought, having been pierced by a Comanche arrow the year before.  (This is the kind of detail they would learn by word of mouth as information about the general circulated among the troops.) He was physically well proportioned, except that his legs were a bit short for his size.  He walked stiffly, even painfully, the result of a spinal trauma from a railroad accident suffered only months ago.  He would carry the pain of his back injury for the rest of his life—but he carried himself with dignity nonetheless.

His manner of speech was not the rough-hewn drawl of Kentucky or Tennessee, but the measured accents of old Virginia, and the men appreciated that they were going to be commanded and trained by a true Southerner.  Sooner or later the men of Camp Dick Robinson would find out the nickname his peers had given him: “Slow Trot.”  Though many associated the nickname with his gait, it was actually a name he had gotten as a cavalry instructor at West Point from the order that became his trademark, which he barked out to keep the cadets from wearing out the tired old horses in needless runs.  Among Federal officers it was a name that got attached—neither fairly nor  accurately—to his style of command and approach to warfare, and was one reason why his superiors often underestimated him as a general.

Within days the Tennesseans observed several differences in their new commander.  They had respected Gen. Nelson, but fearfully, being afraid to cross him. Although he was highly visible in the camp (and who could miss him!), he was distant and unapproachable.  If you caught his attention it was probably for a mistake, and then he’d swear at you like, well, a sailor, and then send you to the guardhouse.  Nelson’s idea of discipline and control was harsh.  The independent-minded Tennesseans shed no tears when they heard he was gone.

A veteran of the Kentucky cavalry at Camp Dick Robinson later wrote that though Thomas “was not as much seen as General Nelson,” his “administration was agreeably felt.”  Thomas had a confident sense of his own authority, and did not need to put it on parade whenever he went out. The men felt comfortable with him and liked it when he came around them.  At the same time, he did not joke or converse with the men, but kept his relationships with them cordial but formal.  He showed a superior officer’s sincere respect for his men and required due respect from them. His voice didn’t boom like Nelson’s, although you knew he could raise it if he needed to.  He had the fierce visage of a warrior, and his right eye had a little squint as if he were always aiming a loaded weapon.  If provoked he could give a withering look that dressed a soldier down quicker than a cussing.  But he would also praise you if he saw you doing a good job, and it made you feel ten feet tall. 

Above all, though, Thomas looked and acted like an Army man.  General Nelson and their own Lieutenant Carter were doubtless good and able officers, but they were Navy men, sailors not soldiers.  The Tennessee boys may not have been able to put their finger on the difference, but they felt it and knew it.  Nelson and Carter had to digest general military principles from their Navy training, and were always adapting their methods and orders in a trial-and-error fashion.  It seemed that they had as much to learn about the infantry as the new inductees. 

George Thomas was a sharp contrast.  A West Point graduate, Mexican War veteran, career officer, and Indian fighter, he walked in with a calm confidence that instantly affected the whole camp.  Right away he began issuing new orders that seemed to cover just about everything. To everyone from the volunteer officers down to the privates his orders simply made sense, and whether they liked them or not, they knew the general was not going to alter them tomorrow.  No one was confused about his expectations.  The first day Thomas showed up there was a change in the camp, and even the marching drills had a new spirit.  Before long they would be affectionately referring to their general as “Pap Thomas.” The nickname spoke of their general as a father figure, someone they believed would bring discipline, but also take care of them.

George Thomas came to this post by appointment from Robert Anderson after Bull Nelson was transferred to Gen. Henry Halleck’s department.8  Anderson had his choice of brigadiers, and he picked William T. Sherman, Don Carlos Buell, and Simon Boliver Buckner. It was soon revealed, however, that Buckner had already given his allegiance to the Confederacy. Anderson’s nephew,  a lieutenant who had served under Thomas in the 2nd Cavalry, recommended him to replace Buckner.  Anderson put in the request, personally appealing to Lincoln for Thomas’s promotion to brigadier general. 

Lincoln, though, had been burned by the defections of other Virginians (most notably Robert E. Lee), and was leery of elevating another one.  Thomas had served in Texas under both Lee and A. S. Johnston, and Anderson had to work hard to sell Lincoln on the idea that he could be trusted.  Lincoln’s attitude is reflected in words he spoke later when the subject of Thomas’s promotion came up again: “Let the Virginian wait.”  Anderson, however, considered Thomas—who had unbroken, meritorious service in both artillery and cavalry—one of the best officers in the Army.  It did not hurt Thomas’s case that in July skirmishes in the Shenandoah Valley he had been both valiant and effective, and had given Thomas J. Jackson, Lee’s soon-to-be-outstanding lieutenant, a rare taste of defeat.

Anderson’s insistent recommendation of Thomas—boosted by an endorsement from Anderson’s protégé and Thomas’s West Point classmate W. T. Sherman—finally won Lincoln over, grudgingly.  On August 17 Thomas was promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers with the presidential notation, “At the request of General Anderson,” indicating his personal reservations.9  On August 26 he received orders to report to Anderson in Cincinnati, but was given a brief furlough to visit his wife in Connecticut.  On September 1 Anderson quietly relocated to Louisville.  Thomas arrived there on September 6 in time to fill the vacancy left by the departure of Nelson. 

The following day Anderson transferred his headquarters and staff to the Kentucky capital of Frankfort, where he appeared before the legislature to a standing ovation. Robert Anderson had just won a strategic game of political “chicken,” having timed his play masterfully.  It was a move that was of great significance for the Tennessee volunteers, for if his timing was off it could have quenched all their hopes before they even had a chance.


In the summer of 1861 Kentucky was a seesaw, and no one really knew for sure how it would tip.  The state had been tugged, lobbied, and pelted with propaganda by both North and South.  Someone has said that while its heart was in the South, its interests were in the North.  The governor leaned toward secession, the legislature toward Union, and the state had officially declared itself “neutral” in the escalating War Between the States.  Many thought that having camps like Dick Robinson to arm and train volunteers for the Union was an act tantamount to sending in Federal troops.  That is why Anderson, although he was a Kentuckian, chose to remain personally outside the state as a U. S. Army officer, directing from afar.  While that decision may have hindered the effort to build up the volunteer force, it also prevented Confederate sympathizers from having a forthright provocation to point toward.

In Missouri, however, John Charles Frémont, western commanding general and self-appointed emancipator, was about to recklessly provide that provocation by ordering Brig. Gen. U. S. Grant to seize Columbus, Kentucky.  Before Grant could get there Confederate Gen. Leonidas Polk marched in preemptively on September 4 with a strong force.  Polk’s move made military sense, but it was a political and public relations blunder of the first order. The breach of Kentucky’s vaunted neutrality set off a powder keg of stored-up indignation, but all directed against the Confederacy rather than the Union.  It gave Anderson cover to come across the Ohio—not with an armed force, but only with his staff to offer “sympathy and assistance.”  On September 11, only days after Anderson’s arrival to a warm welcome, the Kentucky legislature passed a resolution demanding that Confederate troops be withdrawn, and on the 18th it authorized military force to enforce the demand.  When Anderson officially entered Kentucky at the head of federal forces, it was at the invitation of the state.

It was in the midst of these developments that on September 19, the day following the authorization of force, Brig. Gen. George Thomas—having evaded en route from Louisville an assassination attempt by Kentucky secessionists—took command of Camp Dick Robinson and its volunteer regiments-in-waiting. Once organized, the two Tennessee regiments would be united to others from Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio, and attached to the 12th Brigade, 1st Division of the Army of the Cumberland.  (The Federal armies were named for the principal river closest to their area of operation.)

Barely had Thomas arrived at Camp Robinson that he had to deal with a brewing crisis.  It was widely reported that John C. Breckenridge (the erstwhile Democratic candidate for President) and others had called for a “camp drill” of the state guard at Lexington on September 20.  This drill, it was rumored, would be the signal for a general uprising of Kentucky secessionists who aimed to seize Lexington, Frankfort, and Louisville, and to overthrow the state legislature.  The nervous legislature therefore urgently requested Thomas to send to Lexington a regiment “fully prepared for a fight.”

Thomas’s quandary was that he did not really have a regiment so prepared.  Moreover, the political situation in Kentucky was still tenuous.  He had to be careful whom he sent, and there was no time to spare.

Fortunately there was at hand a regiment of Kentucky volunteers that was sufficiently organized and uniformed, that could march into Lexington and at least look like an army and not a gang.  Even better, it was under the leadership of District Judge Thomas E. Bramlette, now the Colonel of the 3rd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry.  Thus even now no one could make the argument that Kentucky was being invaded by the United States.  Thomas was sending Kentuckians—led by a Kentucky judge, no less—to maintain law and order in their own state.  Hopefully their presence would be enough, and they would not have to fight anybody.

Under orders to “observe” any gatherings that may take place, Bramlette marched into Lexington on the night of the 19th.  He knew the key intersections and power points of the city and had his men in position before the sun rose.  When morning came it must have looked to the townspeople that there were armed men in blue everywhere, but they were all standing under the flag of Kentucky.  The secessionists were as disquieted as the pro-Union folks were comforted.  The militia had nowhere to gather, and the camp drill never happened.  A few arrests were made, but there was no violence and no confrontation.  Breckenridge and other leaders of the would-be revolt managed to evade arrest and escape Lexington.  Some days later they showed up in Knoxville, which from that day became the rendezvous point of Kentucky Confederates fleeing south through the Cumberland Gap—a reverse exodus of the sort experienced by the East Tennessee Unionists.10

There is no doubt that the East Tennessee men had heard the news and rumors, wondering whether they would be the ones sent to stop the Rebel uprising.  No doubt also some of them had their blood up and hoped they would be called on.  In no way, however, were they ready for any kind of fight.  They still had a long way to go before they could stand as a combat-ready regiment.


The farmers from Tennessee had only begun learning the rudiments of soldiery: how to stand at attention, salute an officer, form up in ranks, count off, and (that hardest of all tricks) to step off with the left foot.  Probably they were taught by the handful of veterans in their midst.  It appears, however, that their training did not begin in earnest until the arrival of General Thomas. 

Thomas was dismayed to find that there was no systematic training and barely enough camp organization to get the men fed.  He must have wondered what Nelson had been doing the previous month.  The men were so far behind in their training that when he wrote to Sherman on September 19, a week after assuming command, he described his still-growing collection of volunteers as still an unready “mob of men.”  His problem was enormously compounded by the fact that he had no staff to assist him.  Until he could import experienced and reliable officers and non-coms, the entire task of organizing this army, from requisitions to paperwork to basic training, fell on his shoulders alone.  In contrast to Nelson who seemed to be everywhere in the camp, Thomas was seldom seen by the troops.  He did not have time.

He began the training process with his volunteer officer corps.  Making the best use he could of veterans, he began teaching them step by step how to command and drill their troops.  First he would teach them how to use Hardee’s Manual of Arms and Tactics, how to act like officers, how to give orders, and how to lead their men.  They themselves would have to learn the drill in order to teach it. Then he would instruct them to gather all the sergeants and train them in all the things they must learn to train their platoons and squads.  Finally, he oversaw their training of the troops themselves, company by company, platoon by platoon, squad by squad.  Most of the time he would just observe and evaluate how the officers and sergeants did their jobs, but occasionally he found it necessary to step  in himself to show them how it’s done.  Then the men had the rare privilege of having their general bark at them like a drill sergeant.

While doing this he was still trying to acquire for his army food, supplies, weapons, and ammunition.  Army ordnance, wagons, and animals were in high demand and scarce supply all over, and supplying Camp Robinson was not a high priority in the War Department.  Thomas still could not procure uniforms for the Tennesseans, and was concerned even to get coats for the cold weather coming on.

Despite the early privations, the Army of the Cumberland has been called the prototype of the modern army.  The standard, time-honored method for training soldiers was the parade ground drill.  The theory was that if it was good enough for von Steuben during the Revolutionary War, it’s good enough for us!  George Thomas went beyond this, however, and also directed his men through simulated practice sorties and skirmishes in small units.  As he said, “We are all cowards in the presence of immediate death.  We can overcome that fear in war through familiarity.”

An example of his methods is related by a recent biographer.  He tells of an officer in an Indiana regiment that experienced Thomas’s brand of preparation.

His regiment had already been trained at another recruiting camp, and he thought they were fairly well prepared.  Shortly after their arrival at the camp, the men were awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of the “long roll,” the alarm that called men to battle.  The men got up and tried to form ranks, only to find that they could not assemble quickly because they had left their clothing, weapons, and accoutrements scattered all over the camp and could not find them in the darkness.  Many of their officers performed poorly, failing to form the men into companies or to form the companies into a regimental formation.  When they discovered that the alarm was only a drill, the men were relieved, but they were also embarrassed by their poor performances. They worked hard to improve and responded much better in the future.11

Of course all of Thomas’s efforts to modernize the training and organization of his camp were within the constraints of the existing army system.  The one holdover from the old-style army that may have handicapped the new army’s effectiveness was the primitive approach to forming its fighting units around pre-existing relationships, grouping together soldiers from the same towns and counties.  That was an ancient tradition from which men in the field took comfort in strange surroundings.  No one ever thought of that being a problem until the Civil War, when the use of modern weapons brought about the destruction of whole regiments, in turn decimating whole communities.

It was vital that the men learn how to march.  Marching was a critical skill, both for efficient movement of large numbers of men on foot, and for getting into fighting formation in battle.  The intricate maneuvers practiced by contemporary drum-and-bugle corps are actually stylized versions of the kinds of attack and defense maneuvers used in war from the time of the first use of firearms in mass formation—and before that to the type of formation-based warfare practiced in ancient times by Alexander the Great and the Roman war machine.  An enormous amount of precision is required to achieve the desired results, and while today’s marching bands have to do it while playing instruments, yesterday’s soldiers had to attain it while under enemy fire.  The only way to get there is to drill, drill, drill.

While most of the men knew how to handle firearms, they all had to be taught the Army way.  The standard round for the smoothbore Harpers Ferry musket was the buck and ball, a .37 caliber lead ball combined with two or three buckshot—a kind of fortified shotgun. This weapon was accurate to only 50 yards, maybe 100 yards on a windless day, but used en masse its close range killing power was impressive.  The load came in paper cartridges along with the black powder charge.  Soldiers tore open the cartridge with their teeth, poured the powder and the lead straight down into the barrel using the paper as wadding, rammed the load with the rod, primed the musket with a brass firing cap, aimed the weapon, and fired. All these steps had to be coordinated with the unit for volley fire, and they would drill in order to achieve a goal of getting off 3 to 4 rounds per minute.  They practiced loading and shooting from different positions, including lying down (extremely difficult because gravity works against pouring in the powder), and drilled so thoroughly that, years later as old men, they would be able to recite the procedure without hesitation or error.

Along with this they also learned the use of the bayonet, which in those days was not knife-like (as the bayonets of the World Wars), but a long, sharpened spike butted by a slotted ring that locked on the end of the musket barrel.  A spear is a simple and primitive weapon, but to use it effectively one must learn its techniques and drill until it becomes second nature.  That, of course, is the reason for all the repetitive training, so that in the heat of battle soldiers will not think about what they have to do but simply react according to their training.  Alvis Hicks and his brothers would reflect on the fact that the enemy would be coming at them with a bayonet also, and recoil in the horror of being stuck in the gut with one.  In fact, however, relatively few casualties in the war were from the cold steel.  The vast majority of them were inflicted by the minié ball fired from rifled muskets.  In hand-to-hand combat they were more likely to be bashed by a rifle butt than run through by a bayonet.  Even so, the bayonet was always an effective psychological weapon to strike primal fear in the heart of the enemy.

The men would also learn that the bayonet is a useful (but not very efficient) tool for many mundane tasks, from staking out a tent to grinding coffee beans.

Not only did they have to learn the arts of war, they also had to learn the disciplines, procedures, and customs of living, cooking, cleaning, grooming, and socializing in an army camp.  They were paid 50 cents a day, and in camp paydays were regular and monthly (once they got started).  Some soldiers tried to send some of the money back home, but most of it was spent buying various things from the sutlers, vendors of all the sundries the boys might want or need, who usually operated out of a well-stocked wagon and sold goods at inflated prices.

The men also learned that one unfortunate and unavoidable by-product of gathering large numbers of men from various places together in a close environment is disease.  Very soon after his arrival Thomas had to contend with an outbreak of measles that swept the camp and killed some. Typhoid and dysentery were also common. Medical personnel and medicines were in short supply, and there was as yet no camp surgeon or hospital.   Thomas authorized sick leave for those who had a home or friends close by, which alleviated the stress on the minimal camp facilities and doubtless prevented much further spread of disease.  For those who had nowhere else to recuperate, local women gave much needed service as nurses.  Paul Grogger is one of those who experienced it firsthand.  He writes, “On October 16th, I took sick caused by cold and exposure, no doubt, and went to the hospital.” Later records indicate he had come down with measles.  “We was a great deal visited by the generous ladies of that neighborhood and most cordially attended to.  By their kind treatment, I soon revived again and began to feel able to accompany my regiment.”

Life at Camp Dick Robinson was not really hard or strenuous.  Physical fitness was incidental to everything else and would not become part of Army training until a later era.  The men had to drill four hours a day, but the rest of the day they usually had to themselves.  The greatest hardships related to coping with the elements (but in early fall the weather was still relatively mild), insects, and vermin, while the most laborious task was preparing food.  They were well fed and gained weight—some of them enough to be teased: “Why, you’re gettin’ fatter than a town dog.”  Speaking of dogs, the soldiers were not permitted to keep pets but they often had them anyway, and dogs were the most popular.  It’s easy to excuse a dog’s presence. (“Gosh, Cap’n, we’ve tried to run him off but he won’t go.  It’d be wrong just to let him starve.  Besides, he keeps the varmints down.”)

The worst part of camp life was homesickness, and it got to some of the boys enough to make them go absent without leave—but in those days there was no distinction made between AWOL and desertion.  Those that left “always came back unless the Rebels caught them,”  but they still faced stout punishment.  One of the most common penalties for minor offenses was to be tied to a tree for a period.  I have not found any reference to flogging, even though it was prescribed in the Army manual; I think it unlikely to have been used in the Tennessee regiments simply because these men would not stand for it.

The training at Camp Robinson continued through September and into October.  Thomas finally began to see the volunteers become soldiers, and the ragtag regiments form the core of a division.  He had put together a regiment of cavalry, and finally managed to acquire enough artillery to form a small battery.  He was already formulating a plan for the invasion of East Tennessee, but there were still many obstacles.  Supplies were still only trickling in.

On October 8 the command of the Army of the Cumberland changed at the top. Robert Anderson’s already frail health took a beating at Ft. Sumter, and now was failing under the stress of the current command.  He was given an honorary promotion to the Army General Staff as he entered a semi-retirement, and was replaced by his second in command, Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.


While the lads from Tennessee were slowly being made into an army at Camp Dick Robinson, barely 25 miles away in Lexington—the same town where Thomas had forestalled a Confederate uprising—another group of men also drilled and trained in the art of war on horseback.  Their leader was a charismatic, 36-year old veteran of the Mexican War.  A successful businessman whose business included the buying and selling of slaves, he was not surprisingly a staunch believer in the cause of Southern independence.  Incensed that a federal army base had been built in the heart of his state as a station for “traitors,” he would later become the nemesis of the regiments that were training there.  His name was John Hunt Morgan.

Hundreds of miles would be trod and several battles fought before the Union men of Tennessee would chase after Morgan, however.  Their more immediate concern was a Confederate general with whose name they were already all too familiar.


  1. 1. Nelson and Carter did not get along well and did not trust one another.  Nelson was agitated by Carter’s “blabbing” and complained that the “chatterbox” was jeopardizing the whole project.  Carter, however, was unimpressed by Nelson’s security arrangements for the weapons and felt he exposed them to capture.

  2. 2. Within a year Samuel P. Carter would hold the rank of Brevet Major General in the U. S. Army.  After the war he would be appointed Rear Admiral, USN, becoming the only officer in the history of the US Armed Forces to hold both of those high ranks.

  3. 3. Very few companies retained full battle strength for long, however, due to desertion, disease, and discharge (honorable or not)—even before taking casualties in combat.  There was not an orderly system of replacement, and throughout the war most units fought at half strength or less.  The 2nd Tennessee was no exception, and its numbers fluctuated throughout the war until November 1863 when almost two thirds of the regiment was captured at Rogersville, Tennessee.  Afterward the remainder of the decimated regiment was assigned to various functions in Knoxville and the Cumberland Gap, mostly provost duty, and off the front line of combat until mustered out August 3, 1865.

  4. 4. “Doctor” was his first name, not his occupation, of which there is no public record.  (Do you suppose they called him “Doc”?)  In some later civil records he’s listed as “D. F.”  He survived the war and lived until 1906 in Loudon County, Tennessee.

  5. 5. Carter’s own rank was a matter of official confusion for months.  For the time being he was still acting as a Navy Lieutenant on assignment. In October he was awarded a commission as “acting brigadier general of United States Volunteers,” but he did not resign from the Navy and continued for some time in correspondence to use his Naval rank.  At least once he was mistakenly referred to as “Col. S. P. Carter” in an apparent mix-up with his brother.

  6. 6. John Shrady, “Reminiscences of Libby Prison,” Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries, Volume XVI, July-December, 1886. Emphasis mine.

  7. 7. Larry J. Daniel, Days of Glory: Army of the Cumberland (Louisiana State University Press, 2004), 6.

  8. 8. Nelson went on to respectable though not distinguished service as a division commander until he was killed a year later—murdered, shot through the heart at point blank range by a fellow Union general he had openly insulted and literally slapped in the face.  That general, whose unlikely name was Jefferson Davis, was convicted by court martial but never punished for his crime.  Davis went on to serve with some distinction (and also more controversy) later in the war,commanding a division in Sherman’s March to the Sea.  Nelson’s sizable remains were brought back to Camp Robinson for interment, but were removed to his hometown of Maysville after the large flagpole that stood over his grave was cut down by unknown persons on the night of July 4, 1865.

  9. 9. At this rank Thomas had the same status in the army that would be granted to S. P. Carter.  Most officers in the “Regular” Army considered a Volunteer commission inferior, and some (early on) declined the advancement in rank since they would have to surrender it after the mustering out of the volunteers from service. Thomas accepted it gladly, rose rapidly to the rank of Major General of Volunteers, by which he would eventually command the Army of the Cumberland.  At that time, while he still Major General of Volunteers, he was also promoted to the permanent rank of Brigadier General of the Army, which he held concurrently with his command rank.  At the end of the war Thomas was eventually granted a regular commission as Major General.

  10. 10. Judge Thomas E. Bramlette served as Colonel of his regiment until February 27, 1863 when he resigned in order to accept President Lincoln’s appointment as U. S. District Attorney for Kentucky.  In that capacity he led the prosecution and conviction of Thomas C. Shackelford for treason, the only such trial during the war (or in U. S. history up to that time, for that matter).  Later that year he accepted a Major General’s commission in the U. S. Army, meanwhile campaigning also for the governorship of Kentucky—which he won.

  11. 11. Christopher J. Einolf, George Thomas, Virginian for the Union (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 106.


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