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. ([i]NPS summary[/i])
[b]Blue Springs – 10 October[/b]
The Union campaigns for Chattanooga and Knoxville were intended to be mutually supportive. Burnside’s efforts were planned to threaten Bragg’s right and rear thereby creating a diffusion of Confederate strength. In an effort to affect the unification of Union forces Burnside has pushed cavalry forward as far as Cleveland. The Confederate victory at Chickamauga dashed any hopes of a quick unification and following the battle Burnside was forced to retract his dangerously exposed forward elements to the vicinity of Loudon.
Before Longstreet’s expedition against Knoxville got underway Burnside was busy expanding his position in the far eastern portion of Tennessee. Not content to simply wait out developments he sent BG Samuel Carter’s cavalry to secure the avenues of approach from Virginia and, if possible seize the important salt works at Abington. By coincidence the remaining Confederate division in the area, under MG Robert Ransom, was moving to interdict the Union supply line at Cumberland Gap. Ransom sent BG John S. Williams ahead with his troopers “[i]to cover a movement…upon Cumberland Gap”.[/i] The opposing riders made initial contact in a meeting engagement on 3 October at Blue Springs, Tennessee. Both sides recoiled from the initial contact and spent the better part of the next week sparring with skirmishers and awaiting reinforcements.
Unfortunately for Williams his aggressiveness had moved his force too far ahead of and without adequate support. MG Ransom had not planned on advancing beyond Greenville and sent an order for Williams to assume command of all troops lest communication be severed between them. Williams mistakenly believed that the advance on Cumberland Gap would continue while he occupied the Federal troops at Blue Springs. Carter had no such trouble understanding his role. Burnside was personally leading a cavalry division and troops from Ferraro’s infantry division to his assistance. Attempting to match the extension of the ever growing Union line Williams extended his force into a position that covered over two miles. The Confederate defense was stretched until it comprised [i]“nothing but a line of skirmishers[/i].” On October 10th, after a reconnaissance by Chief Engineer, Captain Orlando Poe, the Union attack was launched at the Confederate center while cavalry, under Colonel Foster, attempted to gain their rear by sweeping around the right flank of Williams’ position. The Union attack pushed to the very rear of the Confederate line before being repelled by a barrage from a judiciously placed battery. Foster’s column did not make it into position in time to render assistance or cut off the line of retreat. The Union forces fled under the deluge of canister. Darkness and the absence of Foster’s men allowed Williams to conduct a retreat. After the battle Williams discovered the expedition to Cumberland Gap had been cancelled and his fight had been unnecessary. All that remained to be done was to march out of Tennessee to safety. After uniting with a small force under BG Alfred E. Jackson at Greenville they began their escape. In the darkness the artillery took a wrong turn and while the main column waited for them to catch up the Federal troopers caught them at Rheatown and again on the 13th at Blountsville. These small actions delayed but did not stop the retreat into Virginia. Losses for the unnecessary fight totaled 216 Confederates and 100 Federals. As a postscript to the affair Williams requested and was granted relief from command.