November 4, 1863 – Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederate corps left the Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga to confront Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville.
Longstreet moved out with two divisions under Brigadier General Micah Jenkins and Major General Lafayette McLaws, Colonel E. Porter Alexander’s two artillery batteries, and Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry. The force totaled 15,000 men. Their mission was “to destroy or capture Burnside’s army” and restore the Confederate supply line between Virginia and the west.
Another unstated objective was to ease tensions between Longstreet and General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Army of Tennessee. In fact, Bragg was so eager to get rid of Longstreet that he sent him to try to destroy a force numbering 25,00 men while Bragg’s army tried starving a force twice its size into submission at Chattanooga. This was a desperate gamble that many high-ranking Confederates–including Longstreet–believed would end in disaster.
Longstreet consulted with Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner, former head of the now-dissolved Confederate Army of East Tennessee, on how best to handle the rough terrain of the region he was about to enter. Longstreet concluded that “it was to be the fate of our army to wait until all good opportunities had passed, and then, in desperation, seize upon the least favorable movement.”
The Confederates headed out and immediately had trouble advancing along the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad. In six days, some of Longstreet’s forces were still at Tyner’s Station, just 15 miles from Chattanooga. Alexander later wrote, “My recollections of the place are only those of the struggles we had to get enough to eat, for no preparations had been made for any such delay.”
Some troops boarded trains at Tyner’s and traveled to Sweetwater, 60 miles northeast of Chattanooga. Others had to march farther down the line to catch trains. The artillery was finally loaded onto railcars at Tyner’s on the 10th. Alexander recalled:
“Before we had gone very far the engine got out of wood. We stopped and cut up fence rails enough to go on, and we had this to do several times. As night came on it was quite cool, riding out on the flat cars, but we wrapped up in blankets and laid in under and among the guns, and managed to sleep with some comfort, arriving at Sweetwater about midnight and disembarking in the morning.”
Longstreet later wrote, “Thus we found ourselves in a strange country, not as much as a day’s rations on hand, with hardly enough land transportation for ordinary camp equipage, the enemy in front to be captured, and our friends in the rear putting in their paper bullets.” From Sweetwater, Longstreet planned to continue advancing to Loudon, where he would set up a supply base and then launch his assault on Knoxville from the south. He stated:
“Anticipating proper land transportation, plans were laid for march across the Little Tennessee above its confluence with the greater river, through Maryville to the heights above Knoxville on the east bank, by forced march. This would have brought the city close under fire of our field batteries and forced the enemy into open grounds.”
Longstreet had no wagons to carry pontoons for building bridges, so the troops were delayed until suitable crossing points could be found on the rivers. Also, rations had not yet arrived at Sweetwater as promised, causing further delays. Longstreet telegraphed Bragg on the 11th, “The delay that occurs is one that might have been prevented, but not by myself… As soon as I find a probability of moving without almost certain starvation, I shall move, provided the troops are up.” Bragg responded the next day:
“Transportation in abundance was on the road and subject to your orders. I regret it has not been energetically used. The means being furnished, you were expected to handle your own troops, and I cannot understand your constant applications for me to furnish them.”
Meanwhile, Longstreet gathered his forces at Loudon in foul weather that impeded their progress. He dispatched three of Wheeler’s cavalry brigades to advance on Knoxville ahead of the struggling army. Wheeler moved east to Maryville, south of Knoxville, and then rode north to probe the city’s southern approaches. Longstreet ordered Wheeler to take the heights across from Knoxville on the south bank of the Holston River.
On the 13th, Burnside was informed that enemy forces were “placing guns in positions this evening in the works on the south side of the river.” Burnside wrote Major General Ulysses S. Grant, his superior at Chattanooga, “I think it would be advisable to concentrate the forces in East Tennessee and risk a battle.”
However, Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, observing Federal operations at Knoxville on behalf of the War Department, disagreed. He wrote Grant, “It is certain that Longstreet is approaching from Chattanooga with from 20,000 to 40,000 troops,” and “with Burnside’s present forces he is unable to resist such an attack.” Dana believed that Burnside should consider “what is the most advantageous line of retreat.”
Dana suggested that Grant send a force between Longstreet and Bragg, which could “compel Longstreet to return and allow Burnside not only to hold his present positions, but to advance and occupy the line of the Hiwassee (closer to supporting Grant at Chattanooga).”
The next morning, Dana reported that the Confederates had built two bridges across the Tennessee River at Loudon, and “Burnside has determined to retreat toward the gaps” to the north. The Federals were “destroying cotton factory at Lenoir’s and delaying the enemy as much as possible. All workshops and mills will be destroyed here and elsewhere on the line of retreat.”
Falling back toward Cumberland Gap would give Burnside more time to gather supplies and avoid the supposedly larger Confederate force approaching Knoxville. It would also enable the Federals to “not entirely abandon East Tennessee.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 338; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 833, 837-38; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 368, 371; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 99-117, 154-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 430; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 676-77; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 108-09, 133-35, 420-21