November 5, 1863 (Thursday)
Making their way from Memphis, Tennessee to Chattanooga, General William Tecumseh Sherman and his small Army of the Tennessee were tasked with repairing the railroad as they went. And as he went, he had to leave small commands of troops behind as guards, which further dwindled his forces.
But by the end of October, he was in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and ready to repair the next 135 miles of track, when he received an urgent call from General Grant at Chattanooga. “Drop all work on Memphis & Charleston Railroad,” read the message, “cross the Tennessee, and hurry eastward with all possible dispatch toward Bridgeport, till you meet further orders from me.”
Since the railroad from Memphis was of vital importance, this message was indeed serious. When Grant had written the order, he had just surveyed Brown’s Ferry and had given his approval of Baldy Smith’s and Hooker’s attacks. Things were heating up and now was when he needed Sherman.
To this, General Sherman quickly complied. For a spell, the march was more or less simple, as far as marches went. On the 1st much of his army crossed to the north side of the Tennessee River, where no organized mass of Rebels existed. There were, however, guerrillas in abundance. A more rambunctious band raided close to the army, even carting away a member of Sherman’s staff.
Shortly after, around the 4th, the weather turned hard packed roads to bottomless pools of mud. Soon they would reach the Elk River, which, as rumor held it, had swollen to the point that it was uncrossable. On this date, the head of his column was learning of this first hand. General Hugh Ewing, commanding the army’s Fourth Division, was convinced that it would be fordable the following morning. Sherman would disagree, and decided to send his army northeast up the Elk River Valley. They’d cross into Tennessee the next day.
It was also on this day that Grant sent another message. “Leave [Grenville] Dodge’s command at Athens until further orders,” wrote Grant, “and come with the remainder of your command to Stevenson, or until you receive other orders.” Grant wished for work on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad to be put on hold, and focus to be upon the Nashville & Decatur. This would provide his forces at Chattanooga with a fairly reliable line of supply.
But Grant understood both Sherman and Dodge. “It is not my intention to leave any portion of your army to guard roads in the Department of the Cumberland when an advance is made,” Grant concluded, “and particularly not Dodge, who has been kept constantly on that duty ever since he has been subject to my orders.”
The loss of a whole division was actually about a quarter of his entire army. That Sherman would have Dodge in any coming advance, was certainly a relief, but with the fluidity of war, what was actually certain?
Sherman’s Army was not marching in a compact unit. Work on the railroad necessarily spread them out and they had not yet concentrated. While the most advanced division, that under General Ewing, had reached the Elk, Dodge’s Division was still on the other side of the Tennessee, nearly fifty miles downriver at Eastport. The other two divisions, were closer to the advance, and on the northern banks.
Grant’s sense of urgency would be found to be fortuitous in the near future. It was also on this day that James Longstreet’s Corps left Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee to take on Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio at Knoxville. As stated, the orders sending Longstreet required swiftness, but the transportation afforded him was meager and would greatly slow down his advance of 12,000 men. For example, he was given pontoons to build a bridge, but was denied the wagons upon which the pontoons would ride. This made him wholly dependent upon a rickety railroad crossing at Louden, which he figured would be heavily guarded.
General Grant may have been urgent, but Longstreet’s march would be anything but. He would also find General Bragg to be less than helpful. By the time he would reach the river, he would have himself a completely independent command.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 3, p48, 54-55, 56, 60; Memoirs by William T. Sherman; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The Shipwreck of their Hopes by Peter Cozzens. [↩]