Brig. Gen. John W.
Frazer was in an awkward position. As Braxton Bragg stripped Confederate forces
from east Tennessee to strengthen the Army of Tennessee prior to attacking the
Federals around Chattanooga, Frazer’s brigade, posted at Cumberland Gap, was
left behind. Frazer was a native of Hardin County, Tennessee, and received an appointment
from Mississippi to the United States Military Academy, graduating in 1849. He
performed garrison duty in New York, California, Virginia, and Washington State
before resigning and joining the Confederate States army. He was commissioned lieutenant
colonel of the 8th Alabama Infantry, and then colonel of the 28th
Alabama Infantry. On May 19, 1863, he was appointed brigadier general and
assigned to command the 5th brigade, Army of East Tennessee. His
command, composed of the 55th Georgia Infantry, the 62nd
and 64th North Carolina Troops, the 64th Virginia
Infantry, and the 1st Tennessee Cavalry regiment, was assigned to
guard various gaps in and around Cumberland Gap.
Brig. Gen. John W. Frazer
Simon Buckner, Frazer’s immediate commander, wrote on August 21, asking Frazer if he needed ammunition or other supplies. “Matters do not look gloomy,” the letter stated. Toward the end of August, it appears that Frazer was getting ready to evacuate Cumberland Gap. But that same day, August 30, Buckner ordered Frazer to “hold the gap…” and if he evacuated Cumberland Gap, to fall back to Abington. With Buckner gone, Major General Samuel Jones assumed commander of the department. From surviving correspondence, it appears that Frazer had not taken any action on the matter, for on September 7, Jones asked the War Department “Shall I order the evacuation of Cumberland Gap?” James Seddon proposed to Jefferson Davis that same question the next day: “Shall I authorize the gap to be held?” Davis, wanting to “save the railroad and the valuable position at Cumberland Gap,” allowed Jones to make that decision. Davis did not believe that the Federals in east Tennessee, filling the void left by the redeployed Confederates, were a serious threat.
But they were. Bypassing the Confederate stronghold at Cumberland Gap, Federal forces used a gap fifty miles southwest of the area. The attacking Federal force in East Tennessee was under the command of Major General Ambrose Burnside. He sent one brigade to approach Cumberland Gap from the south, while another Federal brigade was slated to move south from Crab Orchard along the old Wilderness Road toward Cumberland Gap. The two Federal forces appeared about the same time on opposite sides of Cumberland Gap. On September 7 came the first demand to surrender, a demand that Frazer rejected. Under the cover of darkness the Federals burned the mill Frazer was using to grind corn for his command, along with some of the meal. The next morning came another demand for surrender. While Frazer weighed his options, another demand of surrender was received, this one from Burnside, who had just taken Knoxville. At 3 o’clock on September 9, Frazer surrendered his entire force, except about four hundred men who had slipped off into the woods.
Frazer’s surrender to a smaller force was not without controversy. He was rumored to be drunk. “Two thousand men and guns & ammunition have also been given away at Cumberland Gap, where a drunken Brigadier named Frazer commanded,” Josiah Gorgas wrote in his diary on September 17, 1863. War Department Clerk J. B. Jones wrote that the “country is indignant at the surrender of Cumberland Gap by Brig.-Gen. Frazier, without firing a gun, when his force was nearly as strong as Burnside’s. . . The country did not know there was such a general until his name became famous by this ignominious surrender. Where did Gen. Cooper find him?” Frazer apparently did not consult the officers of the regiments in his command on September 9. He surrendered between 1,700 and 2,300 men, and most of those men were sent to Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois. Many of these men died of illness. Frazer was criticized by Jefferson Davis, and in February 1864, the Confederate senate voted unanimously against confirming his nomination as a brigadier. From Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, Frazer wrote an official report on November 27, 1864. Frazer criticized the troops under his command. They were “in a deplorable condition.” One of his regiments, the 62nd North Carolina Troops, the current brigade commander had been “for some time. . . trying to get rid of it.” Frazer considered this regiment “badly disciplined and badly drilled” One captain was under arrest for “disseminating papers hostile to the Confederacy among the command.” The 64th North Carolina Troops was small, “having been reduced by desertions. . . the colonel and lieutenant colonel had left in disgrace for dishonorable conduct.” The 55th Georgia Infantry, Frazer thought, was the best regiment he had, although the soldiers had recently ridden their colonel on a rail. His two artillery batteries had no experience. The “character, confidence, and condition of the troops hastily collected to defend the gap were such as to justify no hope of a successful defense against an equal number of the enemy. . . It is proper to state that the want of confidence in the troops was of gradual conviction in my mind. . .”
Frazer spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. After his release in April 1865, he moved to Arkansas, and then to New York City where he died in 1906. James D. Porter, writing in 1899, believed that “when all the facts were made known,” Frazer was exonerated. John W. Frazer remains one of those little-discussed Confederate generals and probably deserves more of our attention. Was he drunk while Cumberland Gap was surrounded? Maybe. The Federal colonel commanding the brigade moving from Crab Orchard thought so. Were the troops he had to work with subpar? When it comes to the 62nd and 64th North Carolina Troops, well, they were not the best the Confederacy had to offer.
 Davis, The Confederate Generals, 2:146-47.
 Official Records, vol. 30, pt. 4, 528, 568, 571, 572, 616.
 Kincaid, The Wilderness Road, 262-73.
 Wiggins, The Journals of Josiah Gorgas, 81.
 Robertson, A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary, 2:43.
 Official Records, vol. 30, pt.2 610-612.
 Evans, Confederate Military History, 8:309.