‘It Is Distressing in the Extreme’ – Winter Rains and Dismissals End the Campaign

December 19, 1863 (Saturday)

Longstreet does some house cleaning.
Longstreet does some house cleaning.

General James Longstreet was at once victorious and beaten. “We were looking for large capture more than fight,” he admitted after the war. The Battle of Bean’s Station was to be merely the start. Flushed with conquest, he wanted his army to storm south toward Knoxville, cutting off the Federals from sustenance. Faced with the choice between starvation and holding Eastern Tennessee, they would, he felt, be inclined to retire.

But this was not to be. Though the Federals fled from Bean’s Station, they were reinforced by an entire corps of infantry. Against these numbers, Longstreet could do little. His men were ready, but were poorly equipped. They needed provisions, tents, shoes. Moxley Sorrel of Longstreet’s staff lamented on the 17th: “It is distressing in the extreme that we should lose so great an opportunity to lift up our poor country, merely for the lack of shoes and clothing for our men.”

Longstreet blamed his failure upon the weather and division commander, Lafayette McLaws. On the 17th, Longstreet relieved McLaws and sent him to Augusta, Georgia for further orders. Caught fairly unawares, McLaws demanded to know exactly why he was being relieved. Responding through Moxley Sorrel, Longstreet replied that “throughout the campaign on which we are engaged you have exhibited a want of confidence in the efforts and plans which the commanding general has thought proper to adopt, and he is apprehensive that this feeling will extend more or less to the troops under your command.”

McLaws will be waiting in Georgia if anyone needs him.
McLaws will be waiting in Georgia if anyone needs him.

The next day, Longstreet begged the same of General Jerome Robertson, whose brigade had arrived too late to take part in the battle. Camp rumor had it that Robertson called his officers together and complained that Longstreet had no idea what he was doing. Rations were quickly running out, “and God knows where more are to come from.” He had, it seemed, a long series of complaints against Longstreet, and was in general opposed to the campaign from the start. Longstreet asked Richmond for a court-martial, and sent Robertson to Bristol.

On this date, Evander Law, whose brigade tarried with Robertson’s on the day of the battle, tendered his resignation. “This was cheerfully granted,” wrote Longstreet. With a clean house, the Confederates decided to move east toward the Holston River, now several feet over its banks due to the rains.

The Federals, too, were in no shape for battle. General John Foster, heading the Department and Army of the Ohio, wrote on this date to General Grant, detailing the sad state of his command. “The men are suffering for want of shoes and clothing. Ammunition is also becoming scarce; of some arms entirely expended.” He requested of Grant “5,000 pairs of shoes, 10,000 pairs of socks, 5,000 shirts, 5,000 blouses, 10,000 overcoats, 10,000 shelter tents, 1,000,000 rifle cartridges” and plenty ordnance for his artillery. He also ordered tools such as axes and saws, as well as much-needed medicine for the hospitals.

Today's incredibly approximate map.
Today’s incredibly approximate map.

Foster worried that Longstreet was planning on occupying a portion of Eastern Tennessee. Though the Rebels might not be able to take the offensive, dislodging them would be “sharp work.” He explained that “the men and animals are in poor condition, which must be improved before I can move with the necessary effect.”

General Gordon Granger, whose division had accompanied William Tecumseh Sherman north from Chattanooga (only to be left behind when Sherman returned), loudly protested the harsh conditions. To his superior, George Thomas, commanding the Department of the Cumberland, he wrote of his trials:

“The suffering and privations now being undergone by our troops are most cruel, I assure you. We have been now nearly a month without tents and clothing, and from the limited quantity of our transportation — only one wagon to a regiment — and being obliged to live upon the country, our rations have been very irregular and limited.

General Granger is really not amused by this.
General Granger is really not amused by this.

“We are now bivouacking at this place, 22 miles east of Knoxville, in the mud and rain, and many of the command are falling sick with pneumonia, diarrhea. &c. Our officers are destitute of clothing and cooking utensils, being unable to procure them at Knoxville. A small supply of clothing and shoes has arrived, about one-third of what is needed.

“The stock of medicines and stationery in Knoxville is entirely exhausted. Our books and records having been left behind, we are unable to make any returns. If it is determined that we remain here this winter, I respectfully request that the First Division of this corps be sent up to join us, and with them can be sent our transportation, baggage, camp, and garrison equipage, to which they can act as escort.”

Due to the lack of forage and supplies, troops were finding their own rations by raiding houses and stealing horses. “Many of the citizens thus troubled are as loyal and patriotic as the soldiers of the United States Army,” complained General S.P. Carter, Provost Marshal General of Eastern Tennessee, “and in some cases have been stripped of their all by men wearing the garb of Federal soldiers.”

And so conditions in Tennessee were deteriorating so that it was impossible for either army to wage any kind of warfare in the foreseeable future. This would not, however, stop either from trying to bite and claw the other.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 1, p284-285; Part 3, p447-449; From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess. []
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