December 15, 1863 (Tuesday)
Following the victory at Bean’s Station the day previous, Confederate General James Longstreet had high hopes, but some bad news. Micah Jenkins, led the Rebel column south, and three miles beyond the little village, with several buildings still smoldering from the wreckage of battle, his division came upon the Federals. He had been thrown toward the Federals by Longstreet with the hopes that he would coordinate with the wayward Rebel Cavalry under William Martin.
The Federals were near the Godwin farm and had established a fine defensive position. No longer were they mere cavalry, but had been joined by elements of the Ninth Corps. With his 2,500 troops, Jenkins had little desire to confront what he believed to be 6,000 Yankees. And so he found his own defensive position and dispatched scouts to reconnoiter the ground.
It was around that time that Longstreet came up to tell him that Martin’s Cavalry had not crossed as expected. Jenkins commanded John Bell Hood’s Division while its namesake recovered from yet another wound. With him, he had but three of his five brigades. Jerome Robertson’s and Evander Law’s Brigades had been kept back as a sort of ghost reserve, but mostly to guard the wagons. Longstreet had promised that both Robertson and Law would shortly arrive, but he had made similar promises the day before.
Union General John Parke, who was in charge of the Federal column that pursued the Confederates after their retreat from Knoxville, had thrown forward a division of infantry from the Ninth Corps the previous day. Early in the morning, they met the retreating Union Cavalry, whipped from Bean’s Station, and established a line of defense at the Godwin Farm. Still more infantry were on their way. The entire Ninth Corps, was either on the march or held in readiness, while the Fourth Corps, still in Knoxville, was alerted as well.
Commanding the Union line was Milo Hascall, who Parke had ordered to fall back if the enemy should attack. He had clearly decided that Bean’s Station wasn’t worth the blood, and that Godwin’s farm mattered little as a tactical position. Parke had been based out of Rutledge, but instead chose to defend Blain’s Crossroads, a village fifteen miles outside of Knoxville. There was little need to bring on a pitched battle if he could not emerge victorious.
Listening to the reports of his scouts, Jenkins concluded that if he had Robertson and Law, he could attack the enemy’s right flank. With Longstreet’s blessing, Jenkins decided to see for himself. Before he left, Longstreet promised that Robertson and Law would be present. And with hope in his eyes, General Jenkins rode off.
He saw for himself that the Union right was weak, and on the trek back to headquarters, his head was filled with dreams and visions. He would order his old brigade forward, with Law’s Brigade in support. Along with the other three, including Robertson’s “pressing concertedly the enemy’s front and left flank,” his old boys would hit the Union right and send them running for Knoxville.
Believing now that Robertson and Law had already arrived, he sent orders for his old brigade to step off. But when he returned to headquarters, Longstreet met him with the news that neither had arrived. The attack was denied.
The day was one of light skirmishing. No pitched battle evolved. Reports of a line of Union infantry swapping places with the cavalry sent chatter up and down the Rebel lines, but little came of it. Longstreet added to the confusion by telling Jenkins that the Federals had brought up both the Ninth Corps, as well as the Twenty-Third (both of which comprised the Army of the Ohio).
“I was induced to believe that they had brought their full force to the field,” Jenkins reported, “and no other troops being within supporting distance, was reluctantly obliged to recall Jenkins’ brigade and give up my intention of attacking with this division alone.”
For a time, it seemed like something might develop as wayward Confederate cavalry under William Martin finally crossed the Holston River and appeared on the Federal right. “A high hill was gained,” recalled Martin, “from which my artillery could enfilade the enemy’s breastworks. With great labor the guns were placed in position and rapidly and effectively served.”
Martin dismounted an entire division and demonstrated upon the right flank of the Federal line. But disappointment soon won the day. “My guns were in sight of, and only 400 or 500 yard from, our infantry skirmishers, who it was expected would attack in front,” he continued. Martin hoped that his demonstration would convince Jenkins to launch some kind of frontal attack – something which was already written off as impossible, though Martin could not know.
“My fire was continued for 1 1/2 hours,” Martin reported, “and the enemy began to retire, but was able to detach a large force to hold my men in check, as he was not pressed in front.” Martin was critical of Jenkins for not doing anything at all to take advantage of his arrival or the retreating of the Union line.
General Jenkins seemed oblivious to it and did nothing to coordinate with the bombardment, even though both Robertson and Law had by now wondered into camp. “With concert of action,” concluded Martin, “great damage could have been done the enemy on this day.” No movement was made, and so Martin stayed his position.
The Union troops retired with very little opposition. By dawn the following day, they reached Rutledge and General Parke. Following a brief halt, they would make their way to Blain’s Crossroads. Here, Parke was certain he could hold if attacked. But the next few days would bring rain and weariness to the Confederate troops. Jenkins would follow, but would be dogged by Union cavalry and bad roads. In all, it would be fruitless.
Writing to General Grant, John Foster, convinced that Longstreet had been reinforced from Virginia, promised to “take up the most advantageous position and accept battle.” Grant replied: “Drive him as far to the east as possible.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 1, p327, 393, 529-530, 546-547; Part 3, p416; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess. [↩]