Tag Archives: E. Porter Alexander

Petersburg: The Tunneling Expedition Continues

July 15, 1864 – As the Federals outside Petersburg settled in for long-term siege operations, Confederates finally began digging countermines to try to find the Federals supposedly tunneling under their lines.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

During the first half of July, the combined Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James settled into fortifications running from northeast to southeast of Petersburg. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, issued orders declaring that operations would be conducted according to “regular approaches.”

This meant initiating siege tactics and gradually extending the Federal line until the defensive line of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia broke. Federal crews began building railroad lines around the Petersburg perimeter, which would bring in supplies from City Point, at the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers.

However, technically this campaign was not a siege because siege tactics were traditionally undertaken when an enemy was surrounded, and the Confederates were not. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, sought to eventually move around the Confederate right flank and surround the enemy, but the Confederates were too strong to allow it.

Meanwhile, northern dissatisfaction with Grant’s performance increased. A cavalry raid in late June had failed, and it seemed that no real progress was being made outside Petersburg. An article in the New York World asked, “Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed on the opening of Grant’s campaign?” Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck confided in his friend, Major General William T. Sherman:

Entre nous, I fear Grant has made a fatal mistake in putting himself south of the James River. He cannot now reach Richmond without taking Petersburg, which is strongly fortified, crossing the Appomattox, and recrossing the James. Moreover, by placing his army south of Richmond he opens the capital and the whole North to rebel raids. Lee can at any time detach 30,000 to 40,000 men without our knowing it till we are actually threatened. I hope we may yet have full success, but I find that many of Grant’s general officers think the campaign already a failure.”

The enormous number of casualties shocked the administration so much that President Abraham Lincoln felt it necessary to respond to a message Grant had sent Sherman:

“In your dispatch of yesterday to General Sherman I find the following, to wit: ‘I shall make a desperate effort to get a position here which will hold the enemy without the necessity of so many men.’ Pressed as we are by lapse of time, I am glad to hear you say this; and yet I do hope you may find a way that the effort shall not be desperate in the sense of a great loss of life.”

Lincoln issued a proclamation on the 18th calling for 500,000 more volunteers to replenish the Virginia losses. To avoid another Wall Street crisis like that in May, Lincoln encouraged men to volunteer before the draft, which Lincoln ordered to take place after September 5 to fill any remaining quotas. This unpopular move endangered Lincoln’s reelection chances in the upcoming presidential election; a Democratic editor even said, “Lincoln is deader than dead.”

Gen W.F. Smith | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith, whom Grant respected due to his work on the “cracker line” into Chattanooga last year, was removed as XVIII Corps commander. His blunder at Petersburg on June 15 would have been enough cause for removal, but Smith had also feuded with his superior (Major General Benjamin F. Butler) and criticized Meade, which reflected on Grant. Smith’s lobbying in his own defense only made matters worse for him. He was replaced by Major General E.O.C. Ord.

The only potentially positive development for the Federals was the tunneling expedition, which had begun in late June. The 48th Pennsylvania, a regiment consisting mainly of anthracite coal miners, worked through most of July to tunnel under the Confederate lines at Elliott’s Salient, southeast of Blandford Cemetery.

Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the chief Confederate artillerist, had warned that the Federals were tunneling under their lines, but the Confederates did not start digging countermines until over two weeks later. They dug around Elliott’s Salient and other nearby redans, but they could not find the Federals beneath them.

The Pennsylvanians completed the tunnel on the 23rd. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th, later asserted that had his men been furnished with the proper mining tools, they “could have done it in one-third or one-fourth of the time.”

The main gallery was 511 feet long and five feet high. It was reinforced to withstand the weight of Confederate batteries overhead, and it was dug at a slight angle for drainage. Two lateral chambers extended on either side of the gallery for 75 feet at the end, enabling the Federals to detonate gunpowder directly below the enemy trenches. With the tunnel ready, the Federals now had to wait for approval up the chain of command to proceed with their plan.

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References

Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-93, 116-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 434; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9611-42, 9803-13, 11331-51, 11154-64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 463, 468, 471, 473; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7809; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 540-42, 545; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 833; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 757-58; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 699; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 179-80; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 190; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q364

Petersburg: The Tunneling Expedition Begins

June 25, 1864 – A Federal colonel proposed opening a gap in the Confederate siege lines by digging a tunnel under them and detonating explosives.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac held the center of the Federal siege line outside Petersburg. In their front, about 150 yards away, troops of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia held a strong redoubt on high ground called Elliott’s Salient. A soldier of the 48th Pennsylvania (a regiment of anthracite coal miners from Schuylkill County) remarked, “We could blow that damn fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it.”

The 48th’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, himself a mining engineer, overheard the soldier and developed a plan that he submitted to his superior, Brigadier General Robert B. Potter. In later congressional testimony, Potter said:

“About the 24th of June, the idea of mining under the enemy’s works in my immediate front was suggested to me; in fact, I had thought of it before, and several others had thought the same thing… Pleasants… came to my quarters and suggested to me that he was familiar with mining, and that many of the men in his regiment were miners, and that they thought they could undermine one of the enemy’s works in my immediate front. After some conversation with him, I wrote a communication to General Burnside… suggesting this plan of mining the enemy’s works, and giving some of the details.”

Potter wrote Burnside that Pleasants–

“–is of the opinion that they could run a mine forward at the rate of from 25 to 50 feet per day, including supports, ventilation, and so on. It would be a double mine, for as we cannot ventilate by shafts from the top, we would have to run parallel tunnels, and connect them every short distance by lateral ones, to secure a circulation of air, absolutely essential here, as these soils are full of mephitic vapors.”

Burnside summoned Potter and Pleasants to his headquarters on the night of the 24th. Pleasants later testified that he “explained to him carefully the mode of ventilating the mine and everything about it. He seemed very much pleased with the proposition, and told me to go right on with the work.”

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Burnside then sought approval from Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding all Federal armies. According to Meade:

“I sanctioned its prosecution, though at the time, from the reports of the engineers and my own examination, I was satisfied the location of the mine was such that its explosion would not be likely to be followed by any important result, as the battery to be destroyed was in a re-entering part of the enemy’s line, exposed to an enfilading fire, and reverse fire from points both on the right and left.”

Grant later wrote in his memoirs that he approved it only “as a means of keeping the men occupied.” Many Federal engineers called the project “claptrap and nonsense” because ventilation limitations prevented shafts from being longer than 400 feet. However, Pleasants devised an innovative and undetectable ventilating system for this shaft, which would eventually stretch 511 feet.

Digging started on the 25th, with the men using makeshift tools; a civilian’s theodolite enabled Pleasants to survey for direction and distance. As he testified, “My regiment was only about 400 strong. At first I employed but a few men at a time, but the number was increased as the work progressed, until at last I had to use the whole regiment, non-commissioned officers and all.”

A soldier of the nearby 13th Ohio watched the Pennsylvanians and later wrote:

“The dirt was carried out in cracker boxes and jute bags which had contained grain for the commissary department. The men working in the mine had only shirt and drawers on, and some were minus shirt even. I used to watch them popping in and out of the hole like so many brown gophers.”

The tunneling originated in a steep embankment behind the Federal picket line, out of Confederate view. Even so, on the last day of June, Confederate Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, wounded by a sharpshooter, warned before taking leave that Federals were tunneling under Elliott’s Salient. But Confederate engineers, like their Federal counterparts, did not believe that men could dig a tunnel long enough to reach their lines. The work continued into July.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67-68; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9305-15, 11144-54; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 461; Linedecker, Clifford L (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 76; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 528; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 758; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 190

The Second Battle of Petersburg: Day Three

June 17, 1864 – Federal forces from the Armies of the Potomac and the James launched another assault on Petersburg’s eastern defenses, as General Robert E. Lee was uncharacteristically slow to respond.

General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates south of the James River had held firm against repeated Federal assaults on Petersburg, the vital railroad city 22 miles south of Richmond. The Confederate line ran northeast of Petersburg to south of the city. The Federals, under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s overall command, held opposing positions to the east:

  • Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps/Army of the James held the right (northeastern) flank.
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps/Army of the Potomac held the center (east).
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps/Army of the Potomac held the left (southeastern) flank.
  • A division of Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps/Army of the Potomac was to support Smith’s exhausted Federals.
  • The remainder of Wright’s VI Corps was to move northeast and break the rest of Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James out of Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the James and Appomattox rivers.
  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps/Army of the Potomac was to come up on Burnside’s left and extend the Federal line to the Jerusalem Plank Road, south of Petersburg.

The Federal force numbered about 80,000 men. The main portion of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia still had not crossed the James River, leaving Beauregard with only about 15,000 troops. But two of Lee’s divisions sealed off the Bermuda Hundred peninsula, effectively trapping Butler’s army once more.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Burnside’s Federals opened the day’s fighting when Brigadier General Robert B. Potter’s division charged just before sunrise and captured nearly a mile of the Confederate line, along with about 600 prisoners, four guns, and 1,500 small arms. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, notified Burnside at 7 a.m., “I am satisfied the main body of Lee’s army is not yet up, and it is of the utmost importance to do all we can before they get up.”

However, the Confederates fell back to another line of fortifications, and Potter’s Federals were pinned down by enfilade fire. The rest of Burnside’s corps came up to join the fray around 2 p.m.; this included a division led by Brigadier General James Ledlie, who was noticeably drunk during the battle.

Burnside made no progress because he was not supported by the other corps. Warren did not come up on Burnside’s left because Confederates blocked his men along the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad. Hancock, who had been struggling with a wound from Gettysburg that had not yet healed, was forced to relinquish command of II Corps to Major General David B. Birney. Confederates in the northeastern sector repelled disjointed assaults by Smith and Wright.

Burnside and Birney launched a strong assault at 6 p.m., but the Confederates eventually drove the Federals back. Meade halted the fighting and issued orders for an attack all along the Confederate line the next morning. Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the chief Confederate artillerist, later wrote:

“The fighting was continuous and severe all day. Parts of our line were taken and retaken, but when the struggle finally ceased, which it did not do until near midnight, our lines were practically intact and Beauregard and what were left of his splendid little force had covered themselves with glory. For they had successfully stood off Grant’s whole army for three days.”

Beauregard established a new defense line closer to Petersburg, which ran along Taylor’s Creek to the Appomattox River. Meanwhile, Lee remained unconvinced that the entire Army of the Potomac was at Petersburg. He wired Beauregard that morning, “Can you ascertain anything of Grant’s movements? I am cut off now from all information.” That afternoon, Lee asked Beauregard, “Has Grant been seen crossing James River?”

Beauregard telegraphed Lee at 12:40 a.m.: “All quiet at present. I expect renewal of attack in morning. My troops are becoming much exhausted. Without immediate and strong reinforcements results may be unfavorable. Prisoners report Grant on the field with his whole army.” He dispatched three messengers to find Lee and tell him in person to hurry his army to Petersburg.

Beauregard later expressed frustration with Lee’s indecision: “The Army of Northern Virginia was yet far distant, and I had failed to convince its distinguished commander of the fact that I was then fighting Grant’s whole army with less than 11,000 men.”

Lee finally received positive confirmation that Grant and Meade had crossed the James from his son, Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee of the cavalry. Lee prepared to send his army to Petersburg, led by Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps. Anderson’s advance elements arrived before dawn on the 18th and immediately began strengthening the fortifications before the next Federal attack came.

As the sun rose, Beauregard now had about 20,000 Confederates in strong defenses. But they still faced 80,000 Federals preparing to launch a massive, overwhelming assault.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 497-98; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22168; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 46-48; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 427; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9100-36; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 457; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7566-77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 524; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 740; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 428, 577-79

The Second Battle of Petersburg Begins

June 15, 1864 – Federal forces advanced on the vital transportation center of Petersburg, south of Richmond, and missed a prime opportunity to capture the city.

Gen W.F. Smith | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

As the Federal Army of the Potomac began crossing the James River on the 14th, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, steamed up the James to confer with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the James and Appomattox rivers. Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps was also arriving at Bermuda Hundred to reinforce Butler’s army.

Grant expected Butler to break through the Confederate defense line in his front, move southwest, and attack Petersburg, the key railroad city 22 miles south of Richmond. If the Federals took Petersburg, they could starve Richmond into submission. Butler had tried doing this on the 9th with a portion of his force, but now Grant instructed him to use a much larger force, including Smith’s entire XVIII Corps.

Smith would have 16,000 men in four divisions to face less than 5,500 Confederates spread out between Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg. Smith would also be reinforced by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps from the Army of the Potomac, which had crossed the James and would be marching toward Petersburg from the east. As Grant prepared to return to the Army of the Potomac, he informed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at Washington that the Federals would capture Petersburg before the Confederates could hurry reinforcements to save the city.

Butler’s Federals built a pontoon bridge spanning the Appomattox River. They would begin their advance the next morning, led by Brigadier General August V. Kautz’s cavalry. This was the same cavalry force that had come up late and was driven off by a much smaller force in the failed attack on the 9th.

Meanwhile, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederates south of the James River, reported Smith’s arrival at Bermuda Hundred:

“Return of Butler’s forces sent to Grant renders my position more critical than ever, if not reinforced immediately; for the enemy could force my lines at Bermuda Hundred Neck, capture Battery Dantzler, now nearly ready, or take Petersburg, before any troops from Lee’s army or Drury’s Bluff could arrive in time. Can anything be done in the matter?”

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defending Richmond north of the James, sent Beauregard two divisions, but they would not arrive until late on the 15th. Until then, Beauregard had to hold Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg on his own, even though “I fear my present force may prove unequal to hold both.”

At Petersburg, Captain Charles H. Dimmock had designed a ring of fortifications that surrounded the city on three sides. The semicircular line ran from the Appomattox River to the northeast, south and west around town, and then back to the Appomattox west of Petersburg. With just 2,200 Confederates, Beauregard placed them all in the northeastern sector of the “Dimmock Line,” spaced 10 feet apart. Beauregard’s remaining 3,000 troops remained at Bermuda Hundred.

Kautz’s troopers advanced on the morning of the 15th as planned, but they met unexpected Confederate resistance northeast of Petersburg. The Federals were held up for two hours, during which Kautz decided that “our line was really weaker than the enemy’s in men.” Kautz withdrew just as he had done on the 9th, leaving the infantry to make the main assault on Petersburg without cavalry support.

Action northeast of Petersburg | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Brigadier General Edward W. Hinks’s division was the first to arrive. This included untested men of the U.S. Colored Troops who made two assaults and captured a cannon. Captain Charles F. Adams, Jr. recalled that several black men had vowed to avenge Fort Pillow, where Confederates had allegedly murdered black soldiers. Adams wrote, “The darkies fought ferociously. If they murder prisoners, as I hear they did… they can hardly be blamed.”

Smith arrived with his other two infantry divisions in front of northeastern Petersburg late that afternoon and assessed the defenses. They consisted of breastworks and trenches 20 feet thick, with 55 artillery redans. These defenses were much stronger than those at Cold Harbor, where Smith saw many of his men shot down 12 days before. He therefore proceeded cautiously, unaware that he faced just 2,200 defenders on the other side.

Smith ordered his guns forward to bombard the Confederate defenses before launching an infantry assault. However, the artillery was in the rear and took two hours to be brought forward. Meanwhile, Beauregard still had not received word from his superiors on whether to defend Bermuda Hundred or Petersburg, so he decided to begin pulling troops from the Bermuda Hundred line to reinforce the Dimmock line.

The Federal assault began at 7 p.m. Smith only sent forward skirmishers, which the Confederates would not fire on because they were expecting a large attack force to follow. According to Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the chief Confederate artillerist:

“Smith’s device was eminently successful. Our artillery would not fire at the skirmishers at all. They reserved their fire for the storming columns which they expected to follow. The skirmishers over ran and captured two redans at a salient where the line crossed the railroad to City Point, capturing about 250 prisoners and four guns.”

The Federals seized about a mile of fortifications and 16 guns; the black troops took five redans alone. This was enough to knock the Confederates out of the Dimmock line; they fell back to weaker defenses closer to Petersburg along Harrison’s Creek. According to Beauregard, “Petersburg at that hour was clearly at the mercy of the Federal commander, who had all but captured it.”

Hinks requested permission to lead his division into Petersburg. Smith, having heard rumors that Lee’s Confederates would soon arrive to reinforce the defenses, refused. Others urged Smith to use the bright moonlight to renew the assault, but he declined. Smith telegraphed Butler, “Unless I misapprehend the topography, I hold the key to Petersburg.”

Hancock soon arrived with advance elements of his II Corps. Although he outranked Smith, Hancock was unsure of his orders and unaware of how vulnerable Petersburg was. He therefore deferred to Smith’s judgment and planned to launch a joint attack with him the next day. A Federal soldier recalled that “the rage of the enlisted men was devilish.”

After midnight, Beauregard transferred the rest of his troops from Bermuda Hundred to Petersburg. This allowed Butler’s X Corps, led by Major General Alfred H. Terry, to advance and seize the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. Butler could have continued forward and strategically wedged his army between Richmond and Petersburg, but he did not.

The Confederates from Bermuda Hundred and those from Lee north of the James arrived during the night to increase the Petersburg defense force to about 14,000 men. One of the Federals’ greatest opportunities to starve Richmond into submission and possibly end the war was lost. Grant told Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, “Unless my next move brings on a battle, the balance of the campaign will settle down to a siege.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 465; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 87-91; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22151-60; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 38-44, 57; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 426-27; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8923-9006, 9017-67; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 455-56; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7506-19; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 200-02; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 521-23; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 740, 795; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 699; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177, 179-80; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 304-05; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 141-42, 577-79

Eastern Tennessee: Winter Sets In

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.

Confederate Lt Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

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.

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References

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

The Campbell’s Station Engagement

November 16, 1863 – Elements of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederate corps and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio clashed as both forces raced to get to Knoxville first.

Longstreet’s 15,000-man force, having been detached from General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, crossed the Tennessee River west of Loudon and moved northeast toward Knoxville. In eight days, the Confederates covered just 60 miles due to the harsh terrain and supply delays. Burnside, fearing that his 25,000-man army was outnumbered, pulled his 5,000-man detachment out of Loudon and prepared to abandon Knoxville.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Burnside initially planned to fall back to Cumberland Gap, but Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Burnside’s superior, wrote him from Chattanooga on the 14th:

“(William T.) Sherman’s advance has reached Bridgeport. If you can hold Longstreet in check until he gets up, or by skirmishing and falling back can avoid serious loss to yourself, and gain time, I will be able to force the enemy back from here and place a force between Longstreet and Bragg that must inevitably make the former take to the mountain passes by every available road to get back to his supplies.

“Every arrangement is now made to throw Sherman’s force across the river, just at and below the mouth of Chickamauga Creek, as soon as it arrives. (George H.) Thomas will attack on his left at the same time, and together it is expected to carry Missionary Ridge, and from there push a force on to the railroad between Cleveland and Dalton. (Joseph) Hooker will at the same time attack, and, if he can, carry Lookout Mountain. The enemy now seems to be looking for an attack on his left flank. This favors us.”

Thus, Grant hoped for Burnside to hold Longstreet in check long enough for Grant’s Federals to break out of Chattanooga. Once that was done, Grant would send Sherman’s four divisions northeast to help Burnside defeat Longstreet. Grant told Burnside that he planned to attack on the 19th, adding, “Inform me if you think you can sustain yourself until that time. I can hardly conceive of the enemy’s breaking through at Kingston and pushing for Kentucky.”

Based on this, Burnside began reconsidering his plan to retreat to Cumberland Gap. He was further emboldened to hold his ground when one of his officers reported that “the rebel soldiers were all through the country for food. They said they must get to Kentucky or starve.” Burnside decided to fall back to his fortifications inside Knoxville and conduct a delaying action against Longstreet.

Meanwhile, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck sent a message to Grant that seemed a bit redundant since he did not yet know about Grant’s plan:

“He (Burnside) ought not to retreat. Cannot Thomas move on Longstreet’s rear and force him to fall back? A mere demonstration may have a good effect. I fear further delay may result in Burnside’s abandonment of East Tennessee. This would be a terrible misfortune, and must be averted if possible.”

Grant followed up with a second message to Burnside: “Can you hold the line from Knoxville to Clinton for seven days? If so, I think the whole Tennessee Valley can be secured from all present dangers.” Burnside’s Federals began falling back to the northeast along the railroad line at 4 a.m. on the 15th. Burnside hoped to reach Campbell’s Station, a strategic crossroads just before Knoxville, ahead of Longstreet.

The Confederates advanced on the Hotchkiss Valley Road, a parallel route about a mile west of the Federals and separated by a bend in the Tennessee. Longstreet hoped to flank the enemy, but the Federals were moving too fast. Both sides spent the day racing for Campbell’s Station in heavy rain and mud.

Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry, detached by Longstreet to ride ahead and seize the heights outside Knoxville, approached that day but was blocked by Federal cavalry under Brigadier General William P. Sanders. Wheeler finally broke through, but when he reached the Holston River south of Knoxville, he discovered the Federals had the heights heavily guarded.

Burnside’s Federals rested at Lenoir’s Station and resumed their rush to Campbell’s at 2 a.m. on the 16th. Longstreet’s troops continued moving as well, using a shorter route that a Confederate sympathizer had shown them. As the troops raced through heavy rain, Burnside left much of his wagon train and some artillery behind to gain speed.

The Federals began arriving at the intersection of the Kingston and Concord roads in front of Campbell’s Station around noon, just 15 minutes before Longstreet’s vanguard. Both sides deployed in line of battle, with Longstreet sending Major General Lafayette McLaws’s division against the Federal right-center. The Federals repelled two attacks.

Longstreet then sent Brigadier General Evander M. Law’s brigade around the enemy flank to try getting between Burnside and Knoxville. However, Burnside anticipated this maneuver and fell back a half-mile, under the cover of his artillery, to repel it. Colonel E. Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s artillery commander, recalled that a 20-pound shell “cut both arms and one leg off a man”:

“He was kneeling behind a limber on his right knee, facing to the right, and was putting a fuse in a shell placed on the ground, and using both hands. This shot struck one of the wheel horses in the chest, ranged through the length of his body a little downward, wrecked the splinter bar of the limber, and passed just under the axle and struck this poor fellow’s left leg above the knee, his left arm above the elbow, and his right arm at or below it leaving all three only hanging by shreds.”

By nightfall, the Federal line held and Longstreet disengaged, expecting the fight to continue the next day. The Federals sustained 318 casualties (31 killed and 211 wounded, and 76 missing), while the Confederates lost 174 (22 killed and 152 wounded). Having won the race, Burnside had no intention of fighting again the next day; he began falling back into the Knoxville fortifications.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 341; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 838; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 371-72; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 106-07, 109; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 434; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 108-09, 420-21

Longstreet’s Knoxville Campaign Begins

November 4, 1863 – Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederate corps left the Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga to confront Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio at Knoxville.

Confederate Lt Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Longstreet moved out with two divisions under Brigadier General Micah Jenkins and Major General Lafayette McLaws, Colonel E. Porter Alexander’s two artillery batteries, and Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry. The force totaled 15,000 men. Their mission was “to destroy or capture Burnside’s army” and restore the Confederate supply line between Virginia and the west.

Another unstated objective was to ease tensions between Longstreet and General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Army of Tennessee. In fact, Bragg was so eager to get rid of Longstreet that he sent him to try to destroy a force numbering 25,00 men while Bragg’s army tried starving 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. Longstreet 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.”

The Confederates headed out and immediately had trouble advancing along the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad. In six days, some of Longstreet’s forces were still at Tyner’s Station, just 15 miles from Chattanooga. 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 the 10th. 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.”

Longstreet had no wagons to carry pontoons for building bridges, so the troops were delayed until suitable crossing points could be found on the rivers. Also, rations had not yet arrived at Sweetwater as promised, causing further delays. Longstreet telegraphed Bragg on the 11th, “The delay that occurs is one that might have been prevented, but not by myself… As soon as I find a probability of moving without almost certain starvation, I shall move, provided the troops are up.” Bragg responded the next day:

“Transportation in abundance was on the road and subject to your orders. I regret it has not been energetically used. The means being furnished, you were expected to handle your own troops, and I cannot understand your constant applications for me to furnish them.”

Meanwhile, Longstreet gathered his forces at Loudon in foul weather that impeded their progress. He dispatched three of Wheeler’s cavalry brigades to advance on Knoxville ahead of the struggling army. Wheeler moved east to Maryville, south of Knoxville, and then rode north to probe the city’s southern approaches. Longstreet ordered Wheeler to take the heights across from Knoxville on the south bank of the Holston River.

On the 13th, Burnside was informed that enemy forces were “placing guns in positions this evening in the works on the south side of the river.” Burnside wrote Major General Ulysses S. Grant, his superior at Chattanooga, “I think it would be advisable to concentrate the forces in East Tennessee and risk a battle.”

However, Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, observing Federal operations at Knoxville on behalf of the War Department, disagreed. He wrote Grant, “It is certain that Longstreet is approaching from Chattanooga with from 20,000 to 40,000 troops,” and “with Burnside’s present forces he is unable to resist such an attack.” Dana believed that Burnside should consider “what is the most advantageous line of retreat.”

Dana suggested that Grant send a force between Longstreet and Bragg, which could “compel Longstreet to return and allow Burnside not only to hold his present positions, but to advance and occupy the line of the Hiwassee (closer to supporting Grant at Chattanooga).”

The next morning, Dana reported that the Confederates had built two bridges across the Tennessee River at Loudon, and “Burnside has determined to retreat toward the gaps” to the north. The Federals were “destroying cotton factory at Lenoir’s and delaying the enemy as much as possible. All workshops and mills will be destroyed here and elsewhere on the line of retreat.”

Falling back toward Cumberland Gap would give Burnside more time to gather supplies and avoid the supposedly larger Confederate force approaching Knoxville. It would also enable the Federals to “not entirely abandon East Tennessee.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 338; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 833, 837-38; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 368, 371; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 99-117, 154-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 430; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 676-77; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 108-09, 133-35, 420-21