Civil War Ballads: Cumberland Gap

The Cumberland Gap is a narrow pass through the Cumberland mountain range, which is part of the Appalachian Mountains, near the junction of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Appalachia gave birth to bluegrass music, so it’s not surprising songwriters would chronicle the cultural and historic significance of the Cumberland Gap.

There are many versions of this popular bluegrass tune. Some only briefly mention events from the Civil War. This version, performed by the Cumberlands on the album Appalachian Mountain Bluegrass – 30 Vintage Classics (2007), devotes the first five stanzas to the Union occupation of the Cumberland Gap in 1862.

Union Brigadier General George W. Morgan

Union Brigadier General George W. Morgan

Lay down boys, take a little nap
Lay down boys, take a little nap
Lay down boys, take a little nap
14 miles to the Cumberland Gap

September mornin’ ’62
September mornin’ ’62
September mornin’ ’62
Morgan’s Yankees all withdrew

Burned the hay, meal*, and the meat
Burned the hay, meal, and the meat
Burned the hay, meal, and the meat
All the rebels had nothin’ to eat

Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Run George Morgan in the Bluegrass land

Confederate General Braxton Bragg

Confederate General Braxton Bragg

Rebels now give a little yell
All you rebels give a little yell
All you rebels give a little yell
Scare the Yankees all to Hell

*Flour or cornmeal

Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Union Army of the Ohio, ordered Brigadier General George Washington Morgan’s 7th Division to enter southeastern Kentucky with his four brigades (roughly 8,000 men) and seize and secure the Cumberland Gap. Morgan defeated a small Confederate force under Brigadier General Carter L. Stevenson at the Battle of the Cumberland Gap on June 18, 1862.

In September, Confederate General Braxton Bragg invaded Kentucky with an army of 30,000 men. His supply routes cut off, Morgan retreated towards the Ohio River, with Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s Kentucky guerrillas harassing him along the way. They marched over 200 miles from the from Cumberland Gap to Greenup, Kentucky in sixteen days, marching between 12-13 miles a day.

As the song suggests, Brigadier General Morgan likely burned his excess supplies before withdrawing to keep them from falling into rebel hands. However, it doesn’t sound like they had time to wage a scorched earth campaign. This stanza, sung by the 2nd South Carolina String Band, elaborates:

They spiked their guns and let them drop
Over the cliffs of the mountain top
They burn the hay, the meal, and the meat
And left the rebels with nothing to eat

According to one historic marker located near Beattyville, Kentucky, Confederates burned a local flour mill to prevent Morgan’s men from capturing it. A skirmish between George Morgan’s Yankees and John Morgan’s guerrillas near Sandy Hook, Kentucky in  late September 1862 left seven soldiers dead, the only casualties of the retreat.

Major General Ambrose Burnside recaptured the Cumberland Gap the following September after Confederate Brigadier General John W. Frazer surrendered in the face of overwhelming odds.

General Burnside's Army Occupying the Cumberland Gap Harper's Weekly, October 10, 1863,

“General Burnside’s Army Occupying the Cumberland Gap.” Harper’s Weekly, October 10, 1863.

About Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

Posted on March 9, 2017, in History, Music and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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