December 14, 1863 (Monday)
Through the crisp and early morning hours, Union General James Shackelford expected to find Confederate cavalry massing before him. But it was not so. At his cavalry headquarters near Bean’s Station, Tennessee, he received reports that the enemy troops he had briefly skirmished with the day previous had fallen back two or three miles. “The patrols on the roads to the river saw nor heard nothing of the enemy,” he wrote to General John Parke, who commanded Federal infantry, a few miles south in Rutledge.
It had been severals days since both armies ceased their movements. James Longstreet, who commanded the Confederates in question, took an account of all he could, considering everything from the weather, the lack of shoes, and the results of an unexpected victory, before deciding to turn back south, march down the road from Rogersville toward Rutledge. His first strike was to be upon Shackelford’s position at Bean’s Station.
His men had slept little, being without tents under the deluge of a cold and bitter rain. They rose early, dripping and unable to dry, and were on the road near dawn. It became a sixteen mile forced march. Many of the men were barefooted, and many fell out, unable to keep pace with their comrades. But still they marched, and near 2pm arrived muddy and worn near Bean’s Station.
The road from Rogersville to Rutledge ran northeast to southwest, and to the north, Clinch Mountain loomed. To the south was Big Ridge, and beyond it rolled the Holston River. A small road ran from the water across the mountain. Where it met the road between Rogersville and Rutledge was Bean’s Station. The valley village consisted of a couple of dozen buildings, including a hotel and a church. From this town, Shackelford sent word of Longstreet’s arrival to General Parke.
“I am thoroughly satisfied that Longstreet’s command is in our front,” he wrote, “and I think his cavalry is moving down the river.” That was precisely what was happening. While the Confederate infantry marched along the main road, the cavalry, commanded by William Martin, moved along the southern bank of the Holston. He was to cross the river and get behind Shackelford’s Federals, cutting off their retreat toward Rutledge. Additionally, another brigade of Rebel cavalry, led by William Jones, advanced along the foot of Clinch Mountain with the same objective. In all, 12,000 Rebels were about to surround 5,000 Federal cavalrymen.
But Shackelford’s troopers were well organized, and some were armed with Spencer repeating rifles. Arrayed between Clinch Mountain and Big Ridge, he placed his troops, anchoring them to a hill east of the town, while his artillery boomed behind them.
The forward Rebel elements, under General Archibald Gracie pitched into the battle as their own artillery unlimbered. First they fell upon the Federal pickets, and then the skirmish line, and then a battery. E. Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s chief of artillery, advanced a gun in support of Gracie’s Brigade. “I… saw Gen. Gracie get a ball through his forearm,” he recorded. “It seemed to be quite a painful wound and there was a chill and a numbness in the air which suggested that even light blows would hurt on such a day.” Alexander placed the rest of his guns and played upon his Federal counterparts.
With screams they threw themselves forward, waving their hats and yelling, until Shackleford’s lead brigade emptied their rifles into their ranks. Throwing themselves now to the ground south of the road, they were pinned – held captive between the deadly bullets and their own terror. But soon both were overcome and the Rebels were on their feet, advancing with a sternness fierce to behold, and the Union brigade began to melt.
More Confederates joined, holding the ground to the right and across the road. The Yankee shells fell among their number and again they were forced to the ground. And with a shout they were up, crossing nearly a mile of open space, the other end of which held the enemy. And the town was now on fire.
Seeing the smoke, Longstreet could understand that Shackelford was burning the buildings so the Rebels could not use them for shelter. He need only push a bit more. Two Confederate brigades had thus far been engaged, and Longstreet called for all of Bushrod Johnson’s Division to be cast into the battle. This was done and the Federals retreated, though slowly. Inching themselves from one end of the small town to the other, they gave ground. When they fell back beyond the hotel, the Confederates set a small part of it ablaze. But here the Federals halted and would move no farther, turning the hotel into a fortress.
In support of Johnson’s Division, Longstreet dispatched that of Lafayette McLaws’. One brigade, under James Kershaw, was sent toward the Federal left, anchored upon a hill north of town. With only two regiments, this was done, and now there was an opportunity to break the entire line. From the hill, Kershaw pushed to the right and down upon the immovable Federals near the hotel.
But daylight was failing, and the battle was nearing its end. Though Kershaw attacked, the Federals would not give. More reinforcements were called from McLaws’ Division to attack the Federal right. In the darkening, the troops never reached the hotel. Instead, Confederate artillery punched holes in the brick and wooden walls, as the rest of the Federal infantry retreated, leaving a small band of Yankees inside. A strange and unexpected sortie undertaken by Michigan Cavalry stormed toward the hotel, throwing confusion into the Rebel ranks and allowing the Federals trapped inside to escape.
With the Federals in retreat, this seemed all in all a Confederate victory. But it was not the victory James Longstreet had in mind. Originally, his plan had been for his own cavalry to cut off the Federal escape route. Both Martin and Jones failed. The former, due to Federal cavalry at a ford across the Holston. The latter, in part because he captured a wagon train, though mostly it went unexplained.
In the end, Longstreet held Bean’s Station and the Federals were in chaotic retreat to Rutledge. But it was not the end. General Parke, commanding the Union infantry at Rutledge, ordered a division to be sent forward in the hopes that it would support Shackelford’s troopers. “The fight will probably be renewed tomorrow,” wrote Parke to department commander General John Foster in Knoxville. “If this division of infantry cannot hold them in check, I will fall back on the road to Knoxville.” A little while later, he wrote again, urging Foster to throw forward some of the troops in the city to Blain’s Crossroads, which Parke was beginning to see as a sort of last stand.
Shackelford’s retreating cavalry met the advancing division, under Milo Hascall, around 2:30am. Together, they occupied a position three miles from Bean’s Station and five from Rutledge. Once established, they called upon Parke to send the entire Ninth Corps. This, he did. If the Rebels advanced again the following day, the Federals would be ready.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 1, p327, 415-416, 529; Part 3, p406, 820; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess. [↩]