January 15, 1864 (Friday)
Confederates under James Longstreet, still hovering north of Knoxville, Tennessee had really begun to worry General Grant, who had made his headquarters in Nashville. A couple of weeks earlier, Grant had visited Knoxville, reviewing the Army of the Ohio. The only good he could see was that the deplorable conditions in which the Union soldiers languished were, no doubt, shared by the Rebels not far off.
Originally, Grant had wanted to drive Longstreet back into Virginia. But when he saw for himself that the army was “suffering for want of clothing, especially shoes,” as he told General-in-Chief Henry Halleck on this date, he realized that an advance could not be made. While he was there, all he could really do was place the forces near Knoxville in better defensive positions so that if Longstreet made a stab soutward, they might be more or less prepared.
But more than anything, they needed supplies. After leaving Knoxville, Grant traveled northwest across Cumberland Gap. He had hoped to use this old road as another supply line, but from all the trouble the path gave him, he realized that “no portion of our supplies can be hauled by teams” across the gap.
What supplies could be received in Knoxville had to come up the Tennessee River from Chattanooga – a long and ruthless ride aboard one of two unreliable steamers. Grant admitted that whatever could be so sent would be little indeed.
Foraging off the country around Knoxville was certainly possible, but with two armies living off the land, pickings were obviously thin. Of course, if they could hold out until Spring, this was not a problem at all. But could they? Grant stopped short of that prediction.
Still, Grant saw the largest problem with the situation in East Tennessee to be the Rebels. He vowed, if they could be supported, to send a force in the Spring to expel Longstreet. He could, however, do little now.
Now he had other objectives holding his attention, the most important of which seemed to be William Tecumseh Sherman’s expedition into the heart of Mississippi. Sherman had arrived in Vicksburg on this date with the plans to take 20,000 troops to Meridian and perhaps even Selma to drive the Confederate Army of Mississippi out of their namesake state.
Sherman’s original plan had been to travel both up the Yazoo River, northeast of Vicksburg, and the Red River, to the southwest, and punish the people of Mississippi and Louisiana for firing into the shipping lanes. As Grant was now reporting, the Red River and all the streams to the west of the Mississippi were too low for navigation. Officially, the mission was to destroy as many of the railroads in the state as he could. He was to dismantle them so effectively “that the enemy will not attempt to rebuild them during the rebellion.” If Sherman really got on a roll, Grant hoped that he could even make it as far as Mobile.
And still that was not everything Grant had before him. At Chattanooga, there was the question of what to do about Joe Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. Unfortunately, he had to send the camp into winter quarters. The troops had responded to the request for reenlistment with such vigor that many were on furlough. While this bolstered their numbers for the Spring campaign season, it depleted them for the present. All he could do was stop whatever advance Johnston might attempt.
But the present was not everything for Grant. Already, he was peering into the future. “I look upon the next line for me to secure to be that from Chattanooga to Mobile, Montgomery and Atlanta being the important intermediate points,” wrote Grant with the near certainty that the task would be a simple one. But it was not actually that simple. “To do this,” he admitted, “large supplies must be secured on the Tennessee River, so as to be independent of the railroads from here to the Tennessee for a considerable length of time.” Mobile, he reasoned, could be a second base, as it was a seaport.
Perhaps fearing that Halleck might object to the change of plans for Sherman, Grant asserted that the destruction of the Southern railroads was as instrumental to his plans as was the driving out of the Rebels from Meridian. He then went on to praise both Sherman and fellow general, James McPherson, either of whom could be entrusted to command at Mobile.
And so Grant adeptly displayed a complete control over the West. This had so impressed Halleck over the previous weeks that on January 8th, the General-in-Chief had sought out Grant’s opinion on what might be accomplished outside of his own department. Specifically, Halleck wanted Grant’s opinion on how Generals Nathaniel Banks in New Orleans and William Steele in Arkansas might be helped by Sherman’s troops.
In essence, he was asking Grant what he would do if he commanded not just his department, but all departments west of the Allegheny Mountains. He even went as far as to bring up the Army of the Potomac. “As an interchange of views on the present condition of affairs and the coming campaign will be advantageous,” wrote Halleck to Grant, “I hope you will write me freely and fully your opinions on these matters.”
To this, Grant would not yet reply, stating only that he would write Halleck “in a day or two, going outside of my own operations.”
Things seemed to be going fairly well for Grant at the moment. Sherman’s move was building, the army at Chattanooga was resting, and the plans for the Spring were set. He even had plans to visit his family over the next several days. But then there was Longstreet. Though only 16,000 Rebels were under his command just north of Knoxville, Grant could hardly ignore them.
Though neither Longstreet nor the Federals under General John Parke at Knoxville had displayed much of a desire to advance upon the other, Union cavalry had been probing a bit too close for Longstreet’s liking. In return, and on this date, he cast off any desires for waiting until Spring and immediately determined to advance upon Knoxville.
He began by advancing most of his infantry to the town of Dandridge in an apparent attempt to outflank the Army of the Ohio and once more besiege Knoxville. Of this, Grant in Nashville had not a clue, but would find out soon enough.