Letter from Lieutenant Henry Curtis of the 37th Illinois Volunteer Infantry (also staff officer to Brigadier General Julius White).
November 21, 1863
Being a rainy day and nothing doing, I will write you, though when this will get through is very problematical. On the night of the 13th, we got word that the enemy were building a pontoon bridge six miles below us. I took 25 cavalry and made for it, leaving orders for a regiment section of artillery to follow.
It was very dark and there was but one road down the point, at the extremity of which the bridge was and the woods each side were impassable with undergrowth. I expected a vigorous opposition and never hated a job worse in my life. However, by scientific maneuvering, I got to within 250 yards of the bridge and to within 50 yards of a heavy picket without firing.
Sent for the infantry to come out, but they had been ordered back–could get no further than I was, as the road was a narrow lane. I waited until near daylight and fell back. Reported I could get no more men. I went down again with 30 men, about halfway, the rebels being advanced. Took a position in an old church and held it with some occasional firing. (Brigadier General Julius) White wanted me to go on, but I sent him word that I could not without more men. Burnside had now got to our position (where the brigade was). I had sent a small regiment of cavalry to my aid. They were scared and stayed some four miles back. Burnside sent me orders to go on. Of course I went with what I had, though I had told White and him a dozen times I could do nothing but should get whipped and surrounded. Charged up a big hill in front, got the fire of about 200 men and got well whipped in a very few moments. Drew back and had just formed a line when about 100 rebels opened on my rear from the only road to get off by. They were right on us, and the chance looked bad. Only one side was open and they were making for that. Away we went over fences and through brush on the full run and bullets flying thick enough. Got out at last, losing three killed, some half dozen wounded and as many horses. Lost about six prisoners, their horses being shot and they caught.
White was coming up with the brigade, but I did not know it, I could only get back by circling round some 15 miles at Lenoir, a town six miles from our camp.
Camped for the night, it being dark, and the next morning went after the brigade. Burnside had gone on the evening before with the 9th A.C. and our brigade and driven the rebels nearly to the bridgehead. I found them on the retreat again, it not appearing advisable for him to go on. We lost some 100 men or more driving them in. Hope B. got it satisfactorily into his head, that 20 cavalry couldn’t go to the bridge!
The bridge is precisely where I told the chief of engineers it would be, but he, being a West Point man, of course would not admit I would know anything! We fell back to Lenoir that night, and I went into line. Only one small brush in the night and we killed a couple of rebels…
Our brigade (one being away) took the advance at 3:00 a.m. At 12:00 p.m., we went into line at Campbell’s Station, 15 miles from Knoxville. The 9th A.C. was not fighting heavily. We were to let it pass and check the rebels. They came down thick, but we broke from lines and held them until dark. Fell back a mile, our brigade holding the enemy and coming off splendidly. General B. said he never saw troops behave so well on a field of battle.
At dark, started for this place, our brigade in rear, arrived next morning and are now in position and fortifying. Got no hits myself. One shell hit right beside my horse and two shrapnel burst right in my face but never a scratch did I get. We’re now on the defensive here–enemy are very slow and I think can’t take us in; if they do you’ll not see this. We fire occasionally and so do they. We have enough food for present purposes and are in good health.
Was pretty well worn out when I got here, having no sleep, nothing to eat, and being in the saddle day and night from the start some 24 hours longer than most of the others. Am now quite recuperated. November 29th–still besieged. The rebels made assaults early this morning but were repulsed. We took some 300 prisoners. December 4th, reinforcements arrived at last.
Tapert, Annette, The Brothers’ War: Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray (New York: First Vintage Books, 1988).