November 14, 1863 (Saturday)
General Ambrose Burnside’s dread over being attacked and routed by Confederates under James Longstreet had not yet abated. Through the night, the Confederates had built a bridge and put at least a regiment across the Tennessee River. Rather than fight, Burnside pulled his troops back to Knoxville. Through the day, light skirmishes erupted here and there.
Burnside’s first notion was to risk a battle, but when he learned for certain that it was Longstreet’s men attempting to cross the river, he thought better, and made preparations to retreat back towards the gaps in the Cumberland Mountains. But for General Grant, commanding at Chattanooga, this was all happening too quickly. After hearing from Burnside that Knoxville was soon to be abandoned, he replied with another option.
Confederate General Braxton Bragg, leading the Army of Tennessee, which was before Grant’s troops at Chattanooga, had divided his small army, sending Longstreet against Burnside, while he held Grant at bay. Almost everyone was certain that Burnside couldn’t hold against Longstreet (except, perhaps, Longstreet). Bragg knew that he need only buy Longstreet enough time. Grant, as well, understood time to be a factor.
“If you can hold Longstreet in check until he gets up, or by skirmishing and falling back can avoid serious loss to yourself, and gain time,” wrote Grant to Burnside, “I will be able to force the enemy back from here and place a force between Longstreet and Bragg that must inevitably make the former take to the mountain passes by every available road to get back to his supplies.”
To Burnside, this must have made sense. One of his officers had stumbled upon some of Longstreet’s men the previous night, and relayed that “the rebel soldiers were all through the country for food. They said they must get to Kentucky or starve.” With that in mind, Grant’s idea to hold until a force could cut off Longstreet’s connection to Bragg seemed at least sound.
The force Grant had in mind was that of William Tecumseh Sherman. With four divisions from the Army of the Tennessee, Sherman had marched from Memphis, and was now at Bridgeport, twenty miles downstream from Chattanooga. Grand figured it would take a week for the entirety of Sherman’s troops to make it to Chattanooga and be ready to launch an attack.
“Every arrangement is now made to throw Sherman’s force across the river, just at and below the mouth of Chickamauga Creek, as soon as it arrives,” Grant explained. “Thomas [with the Army of the Cumberland] will attack on his left at the same time, and together it is expected to carry Missionary Ridge, and from there push a force on to the railroad between Cleveland and Dalton. Hooker will at the same time attack, and, if he can, carry Lookout Mountain. The enemy now seems to be looking for an attack on his left flank. This favors us.”
And so Grant gave Burnside the basic outline for his all out attack with a combined force of nearly 80,000 troops. Grant placed November 19th as the earliest he could make the assault. “Inform me if you think you can sustain yourself until that time,” Grant pleaded. “I can hardly conceive of the enemy’s breaking through at Kingston and pushing for Kentucky.”
Though Grant’s attack was to be made to throw Braxton Bragg’s Army back or even destroy it, aiding Burnside was a definite benefit. In the afternoon, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck explained just how important it was to Washington that Knoxville, and thus East Tennessee, be held.
“He ought not to retreat,” wrote Halleck. “Cannot Thomas move on Longstreet’s rear and force him to fall back? A mere demonstration may have a good effect. I fear further delay may result in Burnside’s abandonment of East Tennessee. This would be a terrible misfortune, and must be averted if possible.”
Halleck, just a little behind, would not know of Grant’s plan until the following day. But by this time, Burnside knew of it and was willing to follow suit. At the closing of the day, Grant reiterated his deal to Burnside: “Can you hold the line from Knoxville to Clinton for seven days? If so, I think the whole Tennessee Valley can be secured from all present dangers.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 2, p30; Part 3, p145-146, 147; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Mountains Touched with Fire by Wiley Sword; The Shipwreck of Their Hopes by Peter Cozzens. [↩]