November 13, 1863 (Friday)
Union General Ambrose Burnside’s career thus far in the war wasn’t exactly one that might be fondly recalled. His mistep as a corps commander at Antietam, plus the Battle of Fredericksburg – not to mention the Mud March – told many all they needed to know about this bewhiskered officer. Now, he was in Knoxville, Tennessee with a force numbering around 20,000. To the south and across the Tennessee River, was James Longstreet’s Corps, detached from General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and detached again from Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee.
Longstreet had arrived near the south bank a few days prior, but was now clearly planning to assault the Federals at Knoxville. Burnside received word that the Rebels were “placing guns in positions this evening in the works on the south side of the river” near Loudon. He deduced that Longstreet was about to cross, but wasn’t exactly sure where.
While he had fumbled in the past, he wanted to make certain that he did not do it again. “I think it would be advisable to concentrate the forces in East Tennessee and risk a battle,” wrote Burnside to General Grant downriver at Chattanooga. He even mused that if Longstreet was brash enough to attack, it would give Grant’s troops a chance to attack Bragg before the detached Rebel force could be recalled.
To assess the situation, Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana dropped by Knoxville to see for himself, and to report back to Grant. There had been rumors that even more Confederate troops had been detached from Lee’s Army in Virginia to be sent to Longstreet. Dana was happy to report that no such proof existed. But, if Dana’s figures were accurate, the Rebels might not need additional forces.
“It is certain that Longstreet is approaching from Chattanooga with from 20,000 to 40,000 troops,” Dana relayed to Grant. He was, however, mistaken. Longstreet’s numbers totaled 10,000, with 5,000 or so cavalry. Still, it appeared that the Confederates were determined to attack, as Dana reported that they were building pontoon bridges nearby.
Unlike Burnside, Dana wasn’t so sure that they should “risk a battle.” He believed that “with Burnside’s present forces he is unable to resist such an attack.” Somehow or another, Longstreet had to be stopped, or Burnside had to look to “what is the most advantageous line of retreat.”
As far as stopping the Rebels, Dana placed that upon Grant’s shoulders. He suggested throwing some kind of force between Bragg and Longstreet, cutting off their line of communications. This would, held Dana, “compel Longstreet to return and allow Burnside not only to hold his present positions, but to advance and occupy the line of the Hiwassee,” seventy miles closer to Chattanooga.
He batted around a few other ideas, but in the end, if Grant couldn’t help out in some way, Burnside would have to retreat. But this posed an even greater problem. Since Longstreet was nearly upon him, if he planned on joining Grant in Chattanooga, he would have to step off immediately. This meant that he couldn’t collect enough forage for his troops and animals. It also meant that it left the untouched forage for Longstreet’s men.
Grant had wanted Burnside to join him if he couldn’t hold Knoxville, but against this Dana counseled, and Burnside concurred. If there was to be a retreat, moving north toward Cumberland Gap would be the most advantageous. If falling back in that direction, he would have more time to collect supplies and remove the excess before Longstreet could retrieve them.
It was, of course, wise to consider the options for your retreat, but as the day went on, it seemed as if Burnside was looking north. In a letter written by Dana early the following day, he told of how, at midnight Longstreet’s men had begun to build two bridges across the Tennessee River near Loudon.
“Burnside has determined to retreat toward the gaps,” informed Dana. “Ninth Corps at Lenoir’s and [Julius] White’s Division [of the XXIII Corps] near Loudon ordered to fall back on Knoxville, 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.”
While ultimately ready for a retreat, Burnside was trying to make it seem not so bad. Rather than crossing the Cumberland Mountains all together, he though that perhaps he might be able to hold the gaps, “and not entirely abandon East Tennessee.”