December 4, 1863 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals hurried from Chattanooga to aid the Federals at Knoxville, only to find that they were not in as desperate shape as anticipated.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant, overall Federal commander in the Western Theater, had rushed Federals under Sherman on an 85-mile forced march to rescue Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio besieged in Knoxville. The siege had not been as destructive as the Confederates hoped, but by December it was starting to take its toll on the Federal defenders.
Sherman quickly assembled about 25,000 men from three different corps into a small army of relief. According to his orders, “The whole army will move direct on the enemy at Knoxville and fight them at the earliest moment.” Regarding ammunition, the men were to “use it with great prudence.” And, “If rations are not to be had, the men will cheerfully live on meal till their fellows in Knoxville are released from their imprisonment.”
The relief force arrived at the Hiwassee River on the 1st, poised to advance on Loudon and Knoxville the next day. Sherman wrote Grant, “Recollect that East Tennessee is my horror. That any military man should send a force into East Tennessee puzzles me. Burnside is there and must be relieved, but when relieved I want to get out, and he should come out too.”
Meanwhile, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the Confederate siege force, remained at Knoxville despite failing to capture Fort Sanders outside town. Longstreet hoped to lure as many Federals as possible away from the recently defeated Army of Tennessee regrouping at Dalton, Georgia. A captured Federal messenger indicated that Sherman was on his way with six divisions, giving the Federals 10 total divisions against Longstreet’s three.
Longstreet held a council of war to consider his next move. The Confederates would need to leave Knoxville before Sherman arrived, but Longstreet was unsure where to go. The Davis administration wanted him to return to the demoralized Army of Tennessee, but his men would have to move through the forbidding terrain of eastern Tennessee in freezing cold, all the while avoiding Sherman’s Federals heading his way.
It was ultimately decided to stay outside Knoxville until Sherman was upon them, and then withdraw northeast toward the Virginia border. Sherman’s men entered Loudon on the 3rd. That night, Longstreet’s 15,000 Confederates began preparing to move northeast to Greeneville. From there they could continue to either operate in eastern Tennessee or move northeast to rejoin General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
By the morning of the 4th, neither Burnside nor Sherman were aware that Longstreet had abandoned Knoxville, as messages and prisoners taken indicated that the siege was still on. A Federal inspector general reported, “Longstreet is yet at Knoxville. He assaulted Burnside on Sunday and was badly whipped… Longstreet is evidently badly puzzled.”
Sherman’s Federals reached the Tennessee River, but it had swelled too high for a crossing. Without an engineer to build a bridge, Sherman sent his pioneers to take apart houses in Morganton to lay a makeshift span. By the night of the 4th, Sherman was approaching Knoxville just as the last of Longstreet’s men were leaving. Longstreet’s artillery chief, Colonel E. Porter Alexander, recalled, “About sundown it began to rain cats & dogs.” He continued:
“It was a hard night’s march. Not that the distance covered was great, but the killing feature is perpetual halting and moving, and halting and moving, inseparable from either night marching or bad roads, and at its maximum when both fall together. It was quite cold too, and the officers were obliged to relax discipline, and let the men burn fence rails at will, whenever a regular rest was made… In spite of the rain they seemed to have no trouble in starting fires… We marched all night, and until about 11 o’clock on Saturday (the 5th), when we camped at Blain’s Crossroads, 18 miles from Knoxville.”
The half-hearted Confederate siege of Knoxville was over, and while Longstreet remained in Tennessee, the Federals now virtually controlled the rest of the state. Burnside learned of Longstreet’s withdrawal late on the 4th and dispatched 4,000 Federal cavalry troopers under Brigadier General James Shackelford in a weak pursuit.
As Sherman’s Federals continued their forced march on the 5th, one of Burnside’s aides, Colonel James L. Van Buren, found Sherman and informed him that Longstreet had fled with Federal cavalry giving chase. Sherman responded by writing, “I am here, and can bring 25,000 men into Knoxville tomorrow; but Longstreet having retreated, I feel disposed to stop, for a stern chase is a long one. We are all hearty but tired.”
Sherman and his staff arrived in Knoxville the next day and met Burnside at his headquarters. Sherman, whose troops had hurried to rescue Burnside’s army, was enraged upon learning that Burnside had not been in as grave danger as had been earlier reported. According to Sherman, Burnside had “a fine lot of cattle, which did not look much like starvation.”
Burnside and his staff were “domiciled in a large, fine mansion, looking very comfortable.” When Burnside invited Sherman to dinner, Sherman noted the “regular dining table, with clean tablecloth, dishes, knives, forks, spoons, etc., etc. I had seen nothing of this kind in my field experience, and could not help exclaiming that I thought ‘they were starving.’”
Burnside explained that reports of starvation had been exaggerated; Longstreet had never fully invested Knoxville, thus allowing him to keep his army well supplied. Sherman later wrote, “Had I known of this, I should not have hurried my men so fast; but until I reached Knoxville I thought his troops there were actually in danger of starvation.”
The generals toured the Knoxville defenses, which Sherman deemed “a wonderful production for the short time allowed in their selection of ground and construction of work. It seemed to me that they were nearly impregnable.” Having “rescued” Burnside, Sherman wanted to return to Chattanooga, but he needed Burnside’s permission as the ranking officer. Burnside agreed and issued a written declaration:
“I desire to express to you and your command my most hearty thanks and gratitude for your promptness in coming to our relief during the siege of Knoxville, and I am satisfied your approach served to raise the siege. The emergency having passed, I do not deem, for the present, any other portion of your command but the (IV) corps of General (Gordon) Granger necessary for operations in this section… I deem it advisable that all the troops now here, save those commanded by General Granger, should return at once to within supporting distance of the forces in front of (Braxton) Bragg’s army. In behalf of my command, I desire again to thank you and your command for the kindness you have done us.”
Granger had resisted going to Knoxville in the first place, and now Sherman would leave him there. Granger protested to Grant to no avail. Grant wanted Sherman to stay in the region longer to eventually confront Longstreet, but when he received word that Sherman was returning to Chattanooga, he did not object. Sherman’s “army of relief” arrived back in Chattanooga on the 19th.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 349-50; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 862, 865-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 381; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 441-43; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 50-51, 420-21