December 14, 1863 – Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederates attacked a Federal detachment in the hopes of gaining more foraging ground for winter.
After Longstreet abandoned his siege of Knoxville, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio, had dispatched 4,000 cavalry troopers under Brigadier General James M. Shackelford to pursue him. When that proved ineffective, Burnside dispatched Major General John G. Parke’s IX Corps to join the pursuit.
(During this time, Burnside’s request to be removed as army commander was finally granted; he had long since grown tired of the intense criticism about his leadership. He was replaced by Major General John G. Foster.)
Longstreet continued his withdrawal from Knoxville under Federal pursuit, reaching Rogersville in northeastern Tennessee on the 9th. There his Confederates stopped to rest and gather supplies. Longstreet also took the time to file charges against several of his staff officers who questioned his conduct during the Knoxville campaign.
Meanwhile, Parke’s Federals headed out from Knoxville to Rutledge. From there, Shackelford led a combined force of 4,000 cavalry and infantry in search of Longstreet. Shackelford periodically clashed with Confederate cavalry along the Holston River over the next few days, particularly around Bean’s Station, south of the Holston.
After receiving word that Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals had returned to Chattanooga, Longstreet wrote President Jefferson Davis, “I presume that the enemy’s force now in East Tennessee will amount to about 27,000. Mine should reach 20,000.” He originally had just 15,000, but General Robert Ransom’s Confederates in West Virginia were moving south to join him. Longstreet continued:
“We are in some distress for want of shoes and other clothing, and are in want of horseshoes, and are a little short on ammunition; yet I dislike to move farther east unless my troops are really necessary at some other point. The season is so far advanced that I can scarcely hope to get shoes in time to accomplish much, and I dislike to venture out at so late a period without shoes.”
Longstreet hoped to last the winter by living off the forage south of the Holston River. To do so, he needed to drive the pursuing Federal force away, “or force him to come out and fight us.” But the Federals seemed content to remain at Bean’s Station. Longstreet resolved to assume the offensive, reversing his withdrawal by moving southwest on the road from Rogersville to Rutledge.
Shackelford had been observing Confederate movements and expected an attack, but he only expected a cavalry attack, not one from both cavalry and infantry. The Confederates cooked three days’ rations on the night of the 13th and moved out before dawn the next morning on a 16-mile forced march. The men moved through pouring rain that turned the roads to mud.
Shackelford reported to Parke at Rutledge, “The patrols on the roads to the river saw nor heard nothing of the enemy.” But when the Confederates approached around 2 p.m., skirmishing began and Shackelford wrote, “I am thoroughly satisfied that Longstreet’s command is in our front, and I think his cavalry is moving down the river.” Shackelford was right.
Longstreet sent four cavalry brigades under Major General William T. Martin down the Holston to get behind the Federal right and rear at Bean’s Station while the infantry and artillery kept the front occupied. Two cavalry brigades under Brigadier General William “Grumble” Jones would move around the Federal left and cut their line of retreat to Rutledge.
Shackelford had just 5,000 men to face Longstreet’s 12,000, but the Federals had Spencer repeating rifles that helped even the odds. Shackelford positioned his men on a defensive line between Clinch Mountain to the north and Big Ridge to the south. Both sides began trading artillery fire as two Confederate infantry brigades advanced.
The Confederates were stopped by the deadly artillery fire at least twice, but they resumed their advance after each time. When Longstreet saw the Federal line waver, he sent in Brigadier General Bushrod R. Johnson’s division. The Federals fell back but then held firm once more. Longstreet then committed Major General Lafayette McLaws’s division. This finally broke the Federal line and sent the enemy in retreat.
Casualties were remarkably low for such a violent engagement, with both sides losing less than 200 men. Longstreet claimed victory, but he soon learned that it was not the complete victory he hoped for. Martin’s cavalry was blocked from the Federal rear by enemy troopers, and Jones’s cavalry was held up capturing a wagon train. Consequently, the line of retreat to Rutledge remained open for the Federals to escape.
When Parke learned of the engagement, he sent his forces at Rutledge forward to support Shackelford. He reported to Foster at Knoxville, “The fight will probably be renewed tomorrow. If this division of infantry cannot hold them in check, I will fall back on the road to Knoxville.” The Federals set up defenses between Bean’s Station and Rutledge as Parke sent the rest of IX Corps forward to support them. Action would continue.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 352; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 382-83; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 51, 420-21