The population of East Tennessee has been so much reduced, and the people so much disheartened by the depredations of the rebel army, that not over one-third the usual product of that country will be harvested. Therefore, it would not do to base any calculations of movements upon the obtaining of full supplies of food and forage for an army there. I have taken pains to make inquiry from refugees from all the counties, and am satisfied that the above estimate is correct. We must, therefore, provide stores in advance. To do this, the only means commensurate with the undertaking is the constructions of the railroad, and, until it is done, the occupation of the line to the rear, where our energies will not be wasted in a contest with nature as well as rebels. If posted at Cumberland Gap, a force would have to be kept also at Big Creek Gap, or Williamsburg, to protect our long line of communications from the depredations of the enemy's mounted troops. That force would also have to be supplied with everything from the rear, at a similar expense.
If you will order my other regiment, the One hundred and third Ohio, now at Somerset, to join me, and add the Forty-fifth Ohio to my command, I believe we can take either Cumberland or Big Creek Gaps at any time. It would have to be done with a dash, and the preparations concealed carefully from the enemy, as they are so close to their reserves and we are so far from ours. A failure might prove a disaster; and, if taken we could hold either position against anything but starvation; but to hold those advanced positions would, I think, be a mistake until, by the extension of that railroad, increased and certain means of transportation are supplied.
Fortified positions at Wild Cat and Big Hill will just as well protect Kentucky from invasion over those routes, and would keep the troops where they can be more easily supplied, and be more available for emergencies that may arise in other parts of the States.
A thousand mounted men can afford full protection to these mountain counties, and consume all their surplus products. As no army can be supported there, the rebels are not going to try to occupy it, and, therefore, no good can result from our exhausting our energies in its occupation at present. They had better be devoted to the production of the means, i. e., the railroad. That will enable us to make a permanent lodgment when we do advance. Until the road reaches Crab Orchard, the enemy will not know where it is designed to cross the river. That should be the first section. Then, until it passes London, its exact location would be unknown. That should be the second section. Having arrived there, we would be very nearly as close to the two gaps with our railroad as the rebels are with theirs, and should establish ourselves in the mountains at the point we intended to pass through them. Our distance from our supplies would not then be so great but what an army could be supplied in the field in East Tennessee.
Your dispatch directed me to answer after due consideration. I have done so, probably more at length than you expected, but certainly not more so than the importance of the subject demands. I do not know that I have been able to advance any new ideas or throw any light on the subject. They are my thoughts and conclusions, which you can take for whatever they may be worth.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
SAMUEL A. GILBERT,
Colonel, Commanding Second Brigadier, Fourth Div., Army of Central Kentucky.
(Forwarded by General Willcox to General Burnside, May 23, 1863.)