Grant Visits Knoxville – Hopes to Attack Longstreet

January 3, 1864 (Sunday)

General Grant had left his headquarters in Nashville before the end of December. Arriving by rail at Chattanooga, he took a steamer up the Tennessee River to Knoxville. It had been hoped that James Longstreet’s Corps, detached from the Army of Northern Virginia, would have been driven back into their home state by General John Foster’s Federal forces. And yet, Longstreet remained, apparently going into winter quarters thirty miles to the north near Russellville.

Happy New Year, Grant!
Happy New Year, Grant!

Arriving on New Year’s Eve, Grant stayed in Knoxville for two days, as the temperatures dropped below zero each night. Though Grant spoke little about it, he was planning a major offensive. He consulted locals about the terrain of the area and was clearly mulling something over in his mind.

On the 2nd, Grant visited the Army of the Ohio, arrayed along Strawberry Plains, between Knoxville and Longstreet’s Division. There, he saw for himself the poor condition of the troops. They were living in abject poverty and most were still in their summer clothes – it was all they had. Many were without shoes, and almost all were without overcoats. The rations were low and the forage scarce.

Over the several days, Grant realized that there was really no way that he could launch an offensive against Longstreet. The army was suffering, and in no shape to step off on a campaign this winter.

But his time in Knoxville was hardly wasted. While there, he allowed General Foster to recruit local black men into the army, creating the 1st United States Colored Heavy Artillery. The regiment would mostly stay in the Knoxville area manning the forts and allowing the white soldiers to go out into the field, but would see some action in the coming summer.

Their recruitment was a rather big deal. Since Tennessee was a slave state that was once more in the Union, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had no jurisdiction in the state. Free black men were, of course, welcomed into the ranks, but slaves were a different matter. For a Tennessee slave to join the regiment, he had to have permission from his owner. If he were taken by the army without permission, the government had to compensate the master.

Grant also ordered Foster to do some winter cleaning. Knoxville was a mess following the failed Confederate siege, and little had been done to rectify that following Longstreet’s retreat.

On this date, because of the suffering of the troops, Grant sent a quick telegram to General George Thomas in Chattanooga, asking for his help. “Send forward clothing for this command as fast as it arrives at Chattanooga. If you have clothing on hand that can possibly be spared, send it forward and deduct the same amount from that coming forward for Foster. Troops here are in bad condition for clothing, and before making much advance must be supplied.”

He would stay until January 7th, when he was fully convinced that there was little chance of making much headway over the next few months.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 1, p44; Vol. 2, p19; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess. []
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5 thoughts on “Grant Visits Knoxville – Hopes to Attack Longstreet

  1. When had Tn become part of the Union? I had always assumed the states went back after the war ended. I hadn’t realized that some could have been grafted back in earlier. Please share more info on this. Especially where it concerns TN. Thanks!

    1. This is something that I sadly don’t know enough about to give an answer. Hopefully someone (unbiased, please) could fill in the details.

      Basically, Lincoln ordered that if 10% of a state’s population swore allegiance to the Union, they could set up a Unionist government and start to bring the state back into the fold. Tennessee had been doing this for a long time (so long, in fact, that they were exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation).

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