December 19, 1863 – Federal forces were reluctant to hunt down the Confederates in such horrible weather, and Lieutenant General James Longstreet looked to punish subordinates for the failed Knoxville campaign.
After the clash at Bean’s Station, the Federals fell back and formed a defensive line between Bean’s and Rutledge. Major General John G. Parke, commanding the Federal expedition from Rutledge, sent more troops from his IX Corps to support this new line. Longstreet advanced, still hoping to cut the Federals off from Knoxville and destroy them so his Confederates could subsist in eastern Tennessee for the winter unmolested.
Longstreet dispatched Major General Micah Jenkins’s division to probe the Federal defenses while Major General William T. Martin’s cavalry worked its way around the Federal right. Jenkins reported that the enemy right was vulnerable to an attack, but Longstreet would not authorize a full-scale assault because he feared that both IX and XXIII corps from the Army of the Ohio had arrived on the field. Meanwhile, Martin’s troopers rode around the right, and according to Martin:
“A high hill was gained from which my artillery could enfilade the enemy’s breastworks. With great labor the guns were placed in position and rapidly and effectively served. My guns were in sight of, and only 400 or 500 yards from, our infantry skirmishers, who it was expected would attack in front. My fire was continued for 1 1/2 hours, and the enemy began to retire, but was able to detach a large force to hold my men in check, as he was not pressed in front.”
Martin believed that had Jenkins launched a frontal attack, his troopers could have flanked and routed the Federals. He concluded, “With concert of action, great damage could have been done the enemy on this day.” The Federals continued their fighting retreat, joining the rest of the expeditionary force at Rutledge on the 16th. From there, they fell back to Blain’s Crossroads, about 15 miles from Knoxville. Longstreet continued pursuing, but his men were hampered by freezing rain and mud.
Major General John G. Foster, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio from Knoxville, informed Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, that he would “take up the most advantageous position and accept battle.” Grant told Foster to drive Longstreet “as far to the east as possible.” Foster’s plan to stay on the defensive forced Grant to devote resources to eastern Tennessee that could have otherwise been used to invade Georgia and the Deep South.
For Longstreet, the fighting in mid-December amounted to an empty victory. The Federals had been driven back toward Knoxville, but Longstreet could do little more now that they held strong defensive positions with superior numbers. Even worse, the Confederates lacked adequate supplies, and winter was approaching in the forbidding country of eastern Tennessee. One of Longstreet’s aides, Moxley Sorrel, wrote, “It is distressing in the extreme that we should lose so great an opportunity to lift up our poor country, merely for the lack of shoes and clothing for our men.”
All told, the Knoxville campaign was a dismal failure for the Confederacy, with Longstreet losing 1,296 men and the Federals losing 681. As criticism of Longstreet’s performance mounted, he turned to his subordinates for blame. He relieved one of his division commanders (and former close friend), Major General Lafayette McLaws, because “throughout the campaign on which we are engaged you have exhibited a want of confidence in the efforts and plans which the commanding general has thought proper to adopt, and he is apprehensive that this feeling will extend more or less to the troops under your command.”
Longstreet also accused Brigadier General Evander Law of being too slow in leading his brigade at Bean’s Station on the 14th. Law responded by submitting his resignation, which Longstreet “cheerfully granted.” Longstreet dismissed another brigade commander, Brigadier General Jerome Robertson, for alleged slowness at Bean’s Station. Robertson had been accused by Jenkins, his division commander, of “conduct highly prejudicial to good order and military discipline.”
Finally, Longstreet lashed out at Richmond for its lack of support:
“I am here without authority to order courts-martial or any other authority which is necessary to a separate command. I am entirely cut off from communication with General (Braxton) Bragg’s army, and cannot get from those headquarters orders for courts, boards of examination, or anything else. I desire to be assigned as part of some other officer’s command, whom I may reach with less trouble and in less time.”
In fact, Longstreet was so out of touch with Bragg’s Army of Tennessee that he did not know that Bragg had been removed as commander over two weeks earlier. Longstreet wrote that if Richmond could not grant his request, “it will give me much pleasure to relinquish” his command. Ultimately, Longstreet’s offer to resign was rejected, and the charges against McLaws, Law, and Robertson were dropped. With his command structure crippled and his freezing men short on supplies, Longstreet took up winter quarters between Russellville and Morristown. His artillery chief, Colonel E. Porter Alexander, later wrote:
“It was on the southern and western slope of extensive hills, covered with a virgin forest of oak and hickory, and with a fine mountain stream close by, a few hundred yards east of the road between the two towns. A better site could not be desired, and the very next day, every mess in camp, including our own, began work on a hut, of some sort, according to its own ideas.”
Grant did not want Foster to allow Longstreet to settle in for the winter, but Foster informed Grant that his men were also short on supplies: “The men are suffering for want of shoes and clothing. Ammunition is also becoming scarce; of some arms entirely expended.” To accomplish the “sharp work” of driving Longstreet out of eastern Tennessee, Foster needed “5,000 pairs of shoes, 10,000 pairs of socks, 5,000 shirts, 5,000 blouses, 10,000 overcoats, 10,000 shelter tents, 1,000,000 rifle cartridges,” and other supplies.
Meanwhile, the Federals endured hardships of their own. Major General Gordon Granger, whose IV Corps had been detached from Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland to reinforce Foster at Knoxville, complained to Thomas:
“The suffering and privations now being undergone by our troops are most cruel, I assure you. We have been now nearly a month without tents and clothing, and from the limited quantity of our transportation–only one wagon to a regiment–and being obliged to live upon the country, our rations have been very irregular and limited… many of the command are falling sick with pneumonia, diarrhea, &c… The stock of medicines and stationary in Knoxville is entirely exhausted…”
The lack of food compelled Federals to raid private homes and businesses, and as Provost Marshal General S.P. Carter reported, “Many of the citizens thus troubled are as loyal and patriotic as the soldiers of the United States Army, and in some cases have been stripped of their all by men wearing the garb of Federal soldiers.”
Major General Jacob D. Cox, commanding XXIII Corps, explained:
“The want most felt was that of clothing and shoes. The supply of these had run very low by the time (former army commander Ambrose) Burnside had marched through Kentucky and Tennessee to Knoxville, and almost none had been received since. Many of the soldiers were literally in rags, and none were prepared for winter when Longstreet interrupted all communication with the base of supplies. Their shoes were worn out, and this, even more than their raggedness, made winter marching out of the question. The barefooted men had to be left behind, and of those who started the more poorly shod would straggle, no matter how good their own will was or how carefully the officers tried to enforce discipline and keep their men together.”
When Grant asked Foster for a progress report in late December, Foster replied, “The enemy is still in force; no engagement yet. A movement is in progress which will bring on a partial one soon. We want ammunition, and cannot fight a general engagement until supplied.” Grant angrily replied, “I will go to Knoxville in person immediately. If Longstreet is not driven from Tennessee soil, it shall not be my fault.”
In the meantime, Foster directed Cox to bring his corps to Strawberry Plains “for the purpose of constructing earth-works for the defense of the railway bridge and the ford in that vicinity.” There would be no offensive operations until next year.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 352; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 51