The command of Lieutenant-General James Longstreet was detached from General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Longstreet’s force consisted of 17,000 men, and its mission was “to destroy or capture” Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville and restore the Confederate supply line between Virginia and the west.
Another unstated objective was to ease tensions between Longstreet and Bragg. In fact, Bragg was so eager to get rid of Longstreet that he sent him to try to destroy a force numbering 25,000 men while Bragg’s army was trying to starve 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. East Tennessee was forbidding, not only in its terrain but its predominantly pro-Union populace as well. Longstreet later 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.”
Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander in the Western Theater, was looking to break the Federals out of Chattanooga. Grant was also receiving panicked messages from Washington to aid Burnside. Grant explained that the Federals in Chattanooga were not yet in any condition to fight. They had been under siege for nearly a month before a new supply line had finally been opened to feed them. Grant therefore concluded that the best way to help Burnside would be to strengthen the Chattanooga troops enough so they could defeat Bragg’s army.
Burnside was experiencing supply shortages because Confederates controlled the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad between Knoxville and Chattanooga. Grant responded by establishing a new supply route up the Cumberland River to southern Kentucky, where Burnside could collect what he needed via wagon train.
Grant was also waiting for reinforcements from Major-General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, which were on their way to Chattanooga. Grant informed Burnside on November 5 that Sherman was still four days away from the Federal right flank at Bridgeport, Alabama. Sherman’s troops continued struggling to move through mountains, rain, and mud to get there.
Meanwhile, Longstreet’s Confederates started out toward Knoxville and immediately had trouble advancing along the railroad. After six days, some of Longstreet’s forces were still at Tyner’s Station, just 15 miles from Chattanooga. Longstreet’s artillery chief, Colonel E. Porter 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 November 10. 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.”
On the 6th, a Confederate deserter entered the Federal lines and claimed that Bragg had sent Longstreet’s corps to destroy the Federals at Knoxville. Grant had not yet received confirmation that this was true, but if it was, it severely depleted Bragg’s army and provided an opening for Grant to try breaking out of Chattanooga. But the Federal high command was extremely worried that Longstreet could destroy Burnside’s army, mainly because they were unaware of how small Longstreet’s force was. Pressure therefore increased on Grant to aid Burnside.
The next day, Grant wrote to Major-General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, that “it becomes an imperative duty for your forces to draw the attention of the enemy from Burnside to your own front.” Grant therefore ordered Thomas to attack Bragg’s right flank on Missionary Ridge “with all the force you can bring to bear against it.”
Once Thomas broke through the Confederate line, he was to “threaten, and even attack, if possible, the enemy’s line of communications between Dalton and Cleveland.” Moving against Dalton, Georgia, would put the Federals between Longstreet and Bragg, and threaten the railroad line between Knoxville and Chattanooga that the Confederates needed for supplies.
Acknowledging the fact that some 10,000 army horses had died of starvation, Grant advised Thomas that “where there are not horses to move the artillery, mules must be taken from the teams or horses from ambulances; or, if necessary, officers dismounted and their horses taken.” Grant concluded, “Immediate preparations should be made to carry these directions into execution. The movement should not be made one moment later than to-morrow morning.”
Grant informed Burnside of Thomas’s impending attack and assured him that this “must have the effect to draw the enemy back from your western flank.” Grant then wrote Sherman, “The enemy have moved a great part of their force from this point toward Burnside. I am anxious to see your old corps here at the earliest moment.”
Thomas doubted that his army, which had been on the verge of starvation before the “cracker line” had been opened, was ready for combat. He reconnoitered the lines with Brigadier-General William F. “Baldy” Smith, chief Federal engineer, and then met with Grant to explain that such a movement was impossible. Thomas argued that it would be better to attack the Confederate left on Lookout Mountain. This would open the Tennessee River even further, ensuring that the Federals would be permanently well supplied. Then, according to Thomas, Sherman could come up and attack Missionary Ridge.
Grant, who did not have a very high opinion of Thomas, thought that he might have been stalling, but he respected Smith and agreed to suspend the attack. Grant notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck on the morning of the 8th that “General Thomas cannot make the movement telegraphed yesterday for several days yet.” Grant then explained the change of plans:
“When Sherman crosses at Bridgeport, (Oliver O.) Howard (commanding the Federal Eleventh Corps) will drive the enemy from the west side of Lookout and get possession of the road leading across the foot of the mountain; then join Sherman in his movement up the valley. Thomas will attack vigorously in this valley, and, if the enemy give back, follow them up. Although a large force has gone up the Tennessee Valley that may annoy us, I feel that a decisive movement of the enemy in that direction must prove a disaster to them.”
Grant then vented his frustration with the situation: “I have never felt such restlessness before as I have at the fixed and immovable condition of the Army of the Cumberland.” To Burnside, Grant wrote that he could unfortunately expect no relief until Sherman arrived, which would likely take at least a week. In the meantime, Grant could only hope to retain the status quo in both Knoxville and Chattanooga.
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