January 15, 1864 – Lieutenant General James Longstreet mobilized his Confederate forces as both his men and the Federal troops languished in the harsh winter of mountainous eastern Tennessee.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the Federal commander in the Western Theater, traveled to Knoxville to personally inspect Major General John G. Foster’s Army of the Ohio. Grant had urged Foster to drive Longstreet out of eastern Tennessee, but Foster argued that the men were in no condition to conduct such an operation in the bitter cold and forbidding terrain.
Foster’s army was stationed on Strawberry Plains, north of Knoxville and about 30 miles from Longstreet’s Confederates at Russellville. Grant visited the army on the 2nd and saw that the men suffered from a severe lack of winter clothing and footwear. They also had very little food left, having stripped the surrounding countryside of forage. Foster was right: the Federals could not be expected to confront Longstreet. Grant contacted Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga:
“Send forward clothing for this command as fast as it arrives at Chattanooga. If you have clothing on hand that can possibly be spared, send it forward and deduct the same amount from that coming forward for Foster. Troops here are in bad condition for clothing, and before making much advance must be supplied.”
In a controversial move, Grant authorized Foster to organize local blacks into what became the 1st U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. Tennessee was a slave state exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, so Foster had to get permission from the slaves’ masters before inducting them into the military, and then compensate the masters for their loss of labor.
After Grant left, Foster reported to him, “The cold weather and high rivers have made things worse, (and) many animals are dying daily.” The Holston River was flooding with water and ice, and he had to build a bridge to send men to Dandridge “to obtain forage and corn and wheat. Everything is eaten out north of Holston River, also nearly everything is eaten up at Mossy Creek.”
Foster noted that since Grant had called on Federals at both Chattanooga and Nashville to send supplies, “Some quartermaster stores have arrived, but not in sufficient quantity. No rations by last boats. Am entirely destitute of bread, coffee, and sugar.”
According to Confederate deserters, Longstreet’s main force was between Morristown and Russellville, and his cavalry was at Kimbrough’s Crossroads. Foster added that the Confederates were suffering just as much as his men: “They lack clothing, especially shoes, rations and forage. The condition is every way bad.”
The deserters dispelled rumors that Longstreet had been reinforced. They also told the Federals that their comrades had stripped the countryside of foodstuffs for 20 miles around. Foster explained, “They have now to cross to the south side of the French Broad for forage. The talk among the officers and men is that they will soon have to retreat to Bristol.” For now, the armies would battle the weather and starvation instead of each other.
Foster then wrote Thomas, explaining the “rapid destruction of our teams by death of animals from starvation.” Thomas immediately answered that “stores will be forwarded you as fast as possible, but unless great care is exercised both armies will be suffering.” In a second message, Thomas wrote, “Two of our largest steamers are up the river, with all the subsistence stores we can spare from here until they are returned.”
Grant reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that no offensive would be undertaken any time soon in eastern Tennessee, as the men were “suffering for want of clothing, especially shoes.” Grant reconnoitered the road leading through Cumberland Gap as a possible supply line, but he saw that “no portion of our supplies can be hauled by teams” along that route. Foster would have to rely on supplies being shipped up the winding Tennessee River.
Meanwhile, Federal cavalry probed the area around Longstreet’s camps, trying to gather intelligence. As the Federals inched closer, Longstreet decided that the only way to survive was to destroy the Federals and take back Knoxville. He mobilized his infantry on the 15th and put them on the march to Dandridge. This, Longstreet hoped, would secure an important point on the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, flank the Federals, and push them back into Knoxville, where Longstreet could renew his siege and this time starve them into submission.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Hess, Earl J., The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee (University of Tennessee Press, 2013); Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (Series 1, Volume 1), p. 44; OR (Series 1, Volume 2), p. 219; OR (Series 1, Volume 32, Part 2), p. 71-73