Where is Lincoln Memorial University? What Was One of Lincoln’s Biggest Tactical Errors of the Civil War? What’s the Connection Between The Two?

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Lincoln Memorial University must be in Illinois or Washington, D.C. or Kentucky, right? No, no, and no, Lincoln Memorial University is in one of the strongest of Confederate states, Tennessee.

Ah, but located where in Confederate state of Tennessee? Lincoln Memorial is in East Tennessee of course, and more specifically in the Cumberland Gap. The new $300 million dollar highway US 25E tunnel from Tennessee to Kentucky goes within a whisker of the campus of Lincoln Memorial University.

Oliver O. Howard

How did a college named after the leader of the enemy, Abraham Lincoln, get started in Tennessee? Several people were involved but the most recognizable to us Civil War buffs is Union General O.O. Howard. Howard remembered his commitment to fulfill Lincoln’s request in 1863 that after the war he build a great university in the gap for the people of the area.

The University received its charter from the State of Tennessee naturally on February 12, 1897. The college today (2019) prospers with about 4,700 students but Lincoln would be surprised to see his University of Illinois more than 10 times larger.

Marker noting the history of the founding of Lincoln Memorial University

One of Lincoln’s biggest tactical errors in the Civil War was that he committed thousands of men and material to take and, more important, hold the Cumberland Gap. He thought you could not win the war without controlling the Gap.

At the beginning of the War, he sent telegram after telegram telling Kentucky commanding General William T. Sherman to take and occupy the Gap. Sherman asked field General George Thomas to do it. Thomas said he had green troops and no supplies to do the job.

After four months of inactivity, the Confederates made the first move. They marched 3,000 men into the Gap and dug in. Lincoln was furious. He made Sherman’s life so miserable that Sherman gave up his Kentucky command and went home to Ohio very depressed.

Lincoln thought he had a big break three months later when the 3,000 Confederate troops, for no apparent reason, pulled out of the Gap and returned to Knoxville. It was now a year into the War and with Sherman not blocking Lincoln’s fury, George Thomas had to act. He took 5,000 men into the Gap and dug in. At first, Thomas was surprised that the Confederates did not attack. However, after three weeks he understood why the Confederates had left. The enemy became food and supplies. The mountain roads were but twisting ruts, not roads that could support thousands of troops. After a heavy rain, supplies might not arrive for two weeks.

Thomas finally got the War Department to let his troops cover the flank of Buell’s invasion of Tennessee and marched his troops off to Nashville.

“General Burnside’s Army occupying Cumberland Gap – Sketched by Sergeant Brennan, Eighth Michigan Cavalry” – Harper’s Weekly, October 10, 1863

In the spring of 1863, Ambrose Burnside came through the Gap with his Ninth Corps (which included Cleveland units). He did not stop but proceeded to Knoxville. Yes, this same Ninth Corps that had such a hard time taking the bridge at Antietam Creek in 1862. This would prove to be the only large troop movement through the Cumberland Gap during the Civil War.

During the balance of the War, both Confederate and Union troops occupied the Cumberland Gap for short periods. At the end of the war in 1865, a few hundred colored Union troops occupied the clearly militarily worthless Gap. By then, Lincoln and the War Department had learned that new technologies, such as railroads and steam-powered ships, had made the Cumberland Gap useless.