Foster Told By Grant to Be Prepared to Take Offensive in East Tennessee

January 29, 1864 (Friday)

The three sides of John Sedgwick.
The three sides of John Sedgwick.

While Union and Confederate cavalry skirmished to the east of Knoxville, Tennessee, there was a much larger question looming in cold air. On January 27, John Sedgwick, who was in command of the Army of the Potomac while General Meade was on a short leave, sent an urgent message to Washington: “Two brigades of Rodes’ division, Ewell’s corps, have been sent recently either to Johnston or Longstreet; one on the 20th instant, the other on the 25th.” That this message came from Sedgwick was telling. He had personally disproved several previous rumors, insisting that General Lee had sent no troops to the west. With Sedgwick’s name attached to the intelligence, Washington was taking it seriously.

The following day, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck wired General Grant in St. Louis, where he was visiting his son who had become seriously ill, relaying Sedgwick’s message. Grant was given permission to visit his son on the condition that his entire headquarters go with him to St. Louis. Washington did not trust to place anyone else in Grant’s position, even on a temporary basis. In turn, Grant wired General George Thomas in Chattanooga, explaining that if the two brigades were sent to reinforce Longstreet, “the moves indicated before I left should commence as soon as possible.” Grant was, of course, speaking of the move to reinforce John Foster in Knoxville, Longstreet’s obvious target.

To Foster, Grant mentioned nothing, but addressed his concern over Foster’s unwillingness to launch an offensive against Longstreet. “While you may deem it impracticable to immediately assume the offensive against Longstreet,” wrote Grant, “keep at least far out toward him active parties to watch his movements and impede any advance he may make by positive resistance.”

Grant knew nothing of the skirmishing over the past few days, but told Foster to “be prepared at any moment on receipt of orders for offensive operations.” Longstreet, bade Grant, had to be driven out of East Tennessee.

General Thomas also tried to get in contact with Foster, but had heard nothing in several days. The last news to reach him was that Longstreet was falling back, but Thomas had bigger things on his mind. “I am trying to get up forage enough for a ten-days’ expedition,” he wrote Grant, “and if successful will make a strong demonstration on Dalton and Resaca, unless Longstreet’s movements compel me to go to East Tennessee.”

Dalton was where Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was encamped. Word had it that several brigades had been sent to Mobile, Alabama, and Thomas wanted to take advantage of their absence.

You didn't have very long to miss Schofield, did you?
You didn’t have very long to miss Schofield, did you?

Both Grant and Thomas would soon be dealing with another officer, however. On the 28th, Foster’s request for a leave to recuperate from his wound was granted. Foster was relieved from command of the Department of the Ohio, and John Schofield was placed in command. Schofield wasn’t really any body’s first choice for the position. Grant, for instance, wanted William Smith, his chief engineer and former corps commander to fill the slot. James McPherson, commanding the Seventeenth Corps in Vicksburg, also made the shortlist. Grant didn’t despise Schofield, however, and made no fuss at all about the promotion. It would take well over a week for General Schofield to arrive in Knoxville.

In the time remaining, Grant didn’t want Foster to simply sit idly by and allow Longstreet to do whatever it was that Longstreet was doing. Foster would soon receive Grant’s orders to be ready for an offensive, and would do just that.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, vol. 32, Part 2, p246, 247, 251, 253; Vol. 34, p397; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Volume 2 by Jacob Dolson Cox; From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America by James Longstreet. []
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