Burnside’s Egress and the Pursuit of Longstreet

December 10, 2013 (Thursday)

Burnside: It's been swell, but I really didn't want to be here in the first place.
Burnside: It’s been swell, but I really didn’t want to be here in the first place.

Certain things had been moving slowly in Eastern Tennessee for some time now. During the Siege of Knoxville, General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio, asked President Lincoln that he be relieved. The request was granted, and on November 16, John G. Foster was placed in command.

It would take nearly a month for the new commander to make his appearance. General Foster was no stranger to the Ninth Corps, a unit which was practically synonymous with Burnside. Foster commanded a brigade in the corps in late 1861 (when it was still called Burnside’s Expeditionary Force). By the following summer, Foster took over Burnside’s former position as commander of the Department of North Carolina. He was also no stranger to sieges or to James Longstreet. During the Tidewater Campaign, he led the garrison troops before escaping from the siege and leading a column of relief. From the start of the war, Foster not only had a fine record, but seemed to be able to pick up after Burnside with fine skill.

Though the order was issued on November 16, Foster did not arrive on the field until November 30. His first stop was Cumberland Gap, sixty miles north of Knoxville. There, he took immediate command of the Federal troops under Orlando Willcox, and began to move them south in cooperation with William Tecumseh Sherman’s push northward. This thrust south kept Longstreet on the north side of the Tennessee River in an effort to protect his flanks. The Rebels were able to stop them, but had to deal with Sherman’s advance, and in the end, slipped northeast away from Knoxville.

With the siege lifted on December 5, it gave General Foster the opportunity to take over for Burnside. And while Burnside sent his own men in pursuit of Longstreet, Foster remained relatively distant fiddling with Willcox’s troops. After a few hard days of marching, Longstreet removed his army to a relatively safe location near Bean’s Station. There he remained to see what might transpire.

Today's approximate map of things.
Today’s approximate map of things.

General Foster didn’t arrive in Knoxville until this date, and didn’t assume command of the Department and Ninth Corps until the next. Each wrote beautifully flowing letters praising the other and the troops. Burnside’s third person glorification stated that “he takes leave of this army, not only as soldier to whose heroism many a victorious battle field bears witness, but as well tried friends, who in the darkest hours have never failed him.”

Likewise, General Foster accepted “with pride a position which his predecessor has rendered illustrious. After a long period of unbroken friendship, strengthened by the intimate relations of active service with him in a campaign which is prominent in the history of the war, he can add to the general voice his tribute to the high worth and stainless name of the recent commander of the Army of the Ohio.”

Burnside’s name may not exactly have been stainless, but the point was made. Burnside loved his troops, respected Foster and was glad the two were together again at last. Foster, respected Burnside and would do everything in his power to see them through.

Foster: Oh, this again.
Foster: Oh, this again.

But things were also afoot on the Confederate side of the campaign. It was on this date that Jefferson Davis offered James Longstreet command of all troops in Eastern Tennessee, installing him as a de facto department commander. By this time, his command had reached Rogersville, sixty-five miles northeast of Knoxville. With the letter from Davis, Longstreet quickly shifted his cavalry between his main force and the pursuing Yankees, whose own cavalry had made it as far as Bean’s Station fifteen miles away – though their infantry still floated around Rutledge, nine miles more distant.

Longstreet was unaware that General Sherman’s Federals had moved south to rejoin Grant at Chattanooga. Uncertain of what was behind him, he decided to remain at Rutledge. It would take a couple more days for this information to reach the Rebels, and so they remained, replenishing their supplies as they could and waiting for something to happen.

Meanwhile, the Federals at Rutledge and Bean’s Station needed to rest. They were low on rations and really in no shape to wage a chase. They had been huddled behind entrenchments for weeks and had become unaccustomed to the march. From Cumberland Gap, General Foster’s column made poor time and failed to intercept Longstreet.

In Knoxville, the command was changing. Foster was now to lead the campaign against Longstreet, while Ambrose Burnside temporarily retired to his home in Rhode Island. Now, it was up to Foster to deal with Longstreet as the winter set in.1

  1. Sources: The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Ninth Army Corps by Augustus Woodbury; From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet. []
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Burnside’s Egress and the Pursuit of Longstreet by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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