December 13, 1863 (Sunday)
James Longstreet was hardly known for taking the offensive, and his legacy shows that his name became almost synonymous with defensive warfare. And yet, defense was now the last thing upon his mind. He had been ousted from besieging Knoxville by William Tecumseh Sherman’s relief column, and retreated over sixty miles northeast. But there he stopped, resting his army in Rogersville. The Federals, then commanded by Ambrose Burnside, who had been under siege gave chase, but stopped short.
For days, both sides questioned what the other might do next. But then for Longstreet, it was decided. He learned that Sherman had returned south to Chattanooga and that the Federal troops at Knoxville and those waiting nearby were all that remained. “I presume that the enemy’s force now in East Tennessee will amount to about 27,000,” wrote Longstreet to President Jefferson Davis on this date. “Mine should reach 20,000.”
Longstreet had devised a plan that, if successful, might just force the Federals out of Knoxville. Separating the two armies was the Holston River, the Federals holding the southern banks and Bean’s Station, the Confederates more to the north. South of the river, the land was good and forage easily found. Too far south, nearing Knoxville, it had been picked clean by the siege. If he was able to force out the Federal troops from along the Holston, he believed they could not remain in Eastern Tennessee.
This was a bold plan, and Longstreet was not shy in explaining just how bold it was. “We are in some distress,” he continued, “for want of shoes and other clothing, and are in want of horseshoes, and are a little short on ammunition; yet I dislike to move farther east unless my troops are really necessary at some other point.”
This late in the season, he was nearly certain that his troops could be of little use anywhere but where they now stood. But the late season was itself a problem. “The season is so far advanced,” wrote the general, “that I can scarcely hope to get shoes in time to accomplish much, and I dislike to venture out at so late a period without shoes.”
By the end of the letter, Longstreet was again turning to the defensive. He judged his position a good one, one of great importance, even if he could do no more than drive the enemy out of Eastern Tennessee, “or force him to come out and fight us.”
It is almost always better to receive an attack than to launch one, but it was appearing as if the Union troops, led northward by General John G. Parke, were stationary. The outpost, situated at Bean’s Station, was held by Federal cavalry commanded by James Shackelford. And so Longstreet decided to strike.
But there were problems from the start. Longstreet readied his men to move early the following day. They would march along the direct road from Rodgersville to Bean’s Station with hopes of surprising the Federals. All this day and through the night, rains poured from the sky, soaking the ground, turning roads to mud and raising the level of the Holston. Still, he was determined to set out the next day.
But it would hardly be the first meeting at Bean’s Station. Federal and Confederate cavalry had been skirmishing there for a week. Little came of such scraps, but it was because of the prisoners taken during the small fights that the Federals knew the Rebel position, though they had little idea that Longstreet would launch an infantry assault.
General Shackelford read the Rebels’ movements, and determined that an attack would soon come, but figured it would be merely a concentration of cavalry. Somehow he missed that a Confederate infantry brigade commanded by Benjamin Humphreys (from Lafayette McLaws’ Division) was sent to support a cavalry probe toward Bean’s Station. They made it to within three miles of that place before returning to their camp, having marched twenty-four miles along cut up and muddied roads.
That night, the Confederates cooked three days’ worth of rations and slept best they could in the cold rain. The next morning, their march would commence, and there would be blood before nightfall.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 1, p414-415, 463, 494, 529, 533; Part 3, p540, 553; From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess. [↩]