Absolute Confusion in Knoxville – Longstreet Advancing?

January 31, 1863 (Sunday)

It was all beginning to make some sort of sense to General Samuel Sturgis. His cavalry had been victorious on the 27th, routing the enemy counterparts in confusion and disarray. The very next day, however, he came upon more cavalry and still more infantry – something very unexpected. Thus, he retreated. Now, as his force was nearly all together again in Maryville, a small crossroads south of Knoxville, he was finally adding up.

Sturgis couldn't tell you.
Sturgis couldn’t tell you.

His victory came as he moved from the town of Sevierville, lying east of Knoxville. His Union cavalry were a thin line of defense between General John Foster’s Army of the Ohio, based southwest of the city, and James Longstreet’s Corps to the northeast at Morristown or Russelville. He had driven the Rebels nearly to Dandridge, a major crossroads along French Broad River. The next day when he attacked again, and came upon Confederate infantry, he was taken by surprise and retreated, leaving Knoxville uncovered.

The infantry, he now concluded, was not marching to meet them, but were actually on the march. “The infantry which crossed the river against us appeared to have happened to meet us on their march, [more] than to have been sent to Dandridge to operate against,” he wrote to headquarters in Knoxville, noting: “They were well clothed and shod and equipped for traveling.”

This was horrible news. If Longstreet had simply sent the infantry to deal with Sturgis, they would probably return to their main camp for the winter. But since Sturgis was reporting that it seemed to be part of a general advance, it could easily be concluded that Longstreet was in the process of advancing upon Knoxville itself. Sturgis further confirmed that there was “a large camp of infantry and cavalry between Sevierville and McNutt’s Bridge.” This placed the Rebels closer to Knoxville than his own troopers.

But perhaps Knoxville wasn’t the enemy’s intended target. “It is understood generally among the people,” continued Sturgis, “that he [Longstreet] intends by rapid marching to fall on the Fourth Corps and destroy it (to use their own expressions).”

The Fourth Corps, commanded by Gordon Granger, was encamped along the Tennessee River opposite Loudon. Due to the rivers, falling upon it would be no easy task, but was probably seen as Longstreet’s best choice given his circumstances.

To Sturgis, Maryville wasn’t far enough away from the infantry that bested him on the 28th, and he wanted to retreat even farther to the Little Tennessee River. But all that changed when orders arrived from Foster that a general forward movement was soon coming.

General Grant, commanding the entire West, had once again ordered Forster to drive Longstreet from Tennessee. He made an initial show of complying by ordering his whole army to be ready, but ultimately declined the adventure.

A much more accurate(ish) map.
A much more accurate(ish) map.

“I have given all the necessary orders,” he wrote to Grant. “The veteran volunteers that have gone home from this army, with the re-enforcements received by Longstreet, makes his infantry force 5,000 stronger than mine. I shall have to depend on infantry principally, as very little artillery can be taken. I shall therefore require 10,000 additional infantry. A pontoon bridge is also necessary, of 1,200 feet in length. I have send Colonel Babcock to Chattanooga to endeavor to get one. I also want a force sent from Chattanooga to work on the railroad through to the Hiwassee, and to bridge that stream. If you will give me this assistance I will do all I can to drive Longstreet out of the State, and will take the field in an ambulance.”

Foster had been wounded and was in terrible pain. His request to be relieved had been granted and General John Schofield was en route to replace him. Perhaps Foster was stalling just so the advance would not happen under his command.

At any rate, Foster sent a similar message to General George Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, telling him that he “will require at least 10,000 infantry from you,” before rattling off the laundry list of things that had to occur before any advance could be made. In simple reply, Thomas asked: “Do you think the enemy intends to advance on Knoxville? If so, you should not permit any more veteran regiments to go on furlough.” He told him (again) that he was indeed working on the railroad, and requested that Foster “report fully your present situation and prospects.”

Foster the Jerk: And that's the only thing I need is 10,000 troop. I don't need this or this. Just the troops... And this pontoon bridge. - The troops and the pontoon bridge and that's all I need... And this railroad. - The troops, the pontoon bridge, and the railroad, and that's all I need... And another bridge. - The troops, and the bridge, and the railroad, and the pontoon bridge... And this lamp, and that's all *I* need. And that's *all* I need too.
Foster the Jerk: And that’s the only thing I need is 10,000 troops. I don’t need this or this. Just the troops… And this pontoon bridge. – The troops and the pontoon bridge and that’s all I need… And this railroad. – The troops, the pontoon bridge, and the railroad, and that’s all I need… And another bridge. – The troops, and the bridge, and the railroad, and the pontoon bridge… And this lamp, and that’s all I need. And that’s all I need too.

But it wasn’t that Foster was just biding his time until Schofield showed up. He really didn’t want to lose Knoxville, and really was preparing some sort of offensive. To both Generals Jacob Cox and Gordon Granger, commanding the Twenty-third and Fourth Corps respectively, he ordered that a reconnaissance be thrust forward to Sevierville the following day. It might not be too difficult to believe that Foster no longer had faith in Sturgis’ ability to deliver information. Sturgis himself said that he didn’t know the strength of the Rebels who had come against him, and it didn’t really seem like he wanted to find out.

In truth (or something close to it), General Longstreet was not at first planning an all out offensive against either Knoxville or the Fourth Corps. He had sent B.R. Johnson’s Division to reinforce his cavalry at Dandridge. Longstreet even accompanied them. He had also sent an infantry division to Strawberry Plains, the former Union camp. But there seemed to be no indication of a larger push forward to engage the Federals.

The following day, however, Longstreet would write to Richmond, requesting two brigades of reinforcements, and indicating his possible intentions. “The enemy has four corps in front of us – Fourth, Ninth, Eleventh, and Twenty-third – besides cavalry force from Middle Tennessee, under General Sturgis, Elliot, and Garrard. Our effective infantry is about 10,000. Under the circumstances, I doubt the propriety of advancing, and yet I do not, if the country is in a condition to allow so fine an opportunity to pass unimproved.”

Though Longstreet’s message was oddly worded and sort of trailed off at the end, it was clear that he, like Foster, believed himself to be outnumbered and would move only if he was reinforced. Of course, he was also mistaken about the Eleventh Corps, just as Foster (and everyone else) was mistaken about Longstreet receiving reinforcements from Virginia. And so this strange little stalemate would continue.1

Note: Foster had roughly 20,000 (based upon returns from this date). This was double Longstreet’s admitted numbers. Yet Foster was requesting an additional 10,000, and would thus outnumber the enemy 3:1. Neither numbers indicate cavalry, though Foster had around 6,000 and Longstreet probably around 4,000.



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 2, p271-3, 274-5, 282-3, 293; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess; From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet. []
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Absolute Confusion in Knoxville – Longstreet Advancing? by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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