December 5, 1863 (Saturday)
“About sundown it began to rain cats & dogs,” wrote E. Porter Alexander, General Longstreet’s Chief of Artillery. He was writing about the night of the 4th, the night that the Confederates besieging Knoxville, Tennessee began their swift departure for the hills to the northeast. Longstreet had learned that William Tecumseh Sherman was bounding his way from Chattanooga with 30,000 troops. Rather than wait for a battle he was almost certain to lose, the Rebel general decided to break off the siege. Rather than attempting to break through to the south to reunite with Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee (where he had never really been wanted), he decided to march north with an eye upon getting back to Virginia.
Alexander had limbered the last of his howitzers, shortly after bidding the Yankees a bitter farewell. Soon, they were on the road. “It was a hard night’s march,” he remembered. “Not that the distance covered was great, but the killing feature is perpetual halting and moving, and halting and moving, inseparable from either night marching or bad roads, and at its maximum when both fall together. It was quite cold too, and the officers were obliged to relax discipline, and let the men burn fence rails at will, whenever a regular rest was made. The men would set fire to the fences as they stood, at the angles where the rails crossed. In spite of the rain they seemed to have no trouble in starting fires in these corners, and during that night we frequently saw miles of fence on fire at a time. We marched all night, and until about 11 o’clock on Saturday [this date], when we camped at Blain’s Crossroads, 18 miles from Knoxville.”
At Blain’s Crossroads, Longstreet’s men bivouacked, and there they stayed until the following morning. They also took on more infantry in the form of General Robert Ransom’s Division, in from southwest Virginia. Traveling with Ransom’s column was a message from President Davis urging Longstreet to slide back into Virginia. Originally, he had wished for him to reunite with Bragg, but now the President thought better.
As Longstreet’s men rested mostly out of the range of the roving Federal cavalry, President Davis had a major problem on his hands. Braxton Bragg had completely failed him as a commanding general of the Army of Tennessee, now holed up at Dalton, Georgia. He had already replaced him with William Hardee, but it was only a temporary arrangement. He needed someone he could trust, and had very few officers that fit the description.
For starters, there was P.G.T. Beauregard. General Lee himself had put forward the name with the suggestion that the Army of Tennessee be reinforced from all over the Confederacy (though probably not from the Army of Virginia). Davis had never really liked Beauregard and so gave this only a passing thought before writing Lee directly: “Could you consistently go to Dalton, as heretofore explained?”
Lee replied two days later. “I can if desired, but of the expediency of the measure you can judge better than I can. Unless it is intended that I should take permanent command, I can see no good that will result, even if in that event any could be accomplished. I also fear that I would not receive cordial co-operation.” General Lee wasn’t exactly the most optimistic of people. When it came to venturing too far out of Virginia, his feet tended to grow exceedingly heavy.
Additionally, Lee had a point when he asked who might command the Army of Northern Virginia. He mentioned only Richard Ewell, but stated that he was “too feeble to undergo the fatigue and labor incident to the position.”
With Beauregard and Lee both off the table, Davis was slowly turning to Joe Johnston, yet another commander for whom he cared little. Bragg, officially out of the army, but still in Davis’ good graces, hoped and almost assumed that Johnston would be his permanent successor. Leonidas Polk, one of the army’s corps commanders, even petitioned Davis to make it so. But the President was not yet ready for such a move.
But what other choice did he have? Only four officers in the army ranked high enough to accept the charge: Samuel Cooper, Davis’ Adjutant General, who was too old for the post; Robert E. Lee, who was clearly not interested; P.G.T. Beauregard, who was generally distrusted by Davis; and Joe Johnston, who Davis also distrusted, though not nearly as much. This would take some time and a rather heated cabinet meeting before being ironed out.
In the meantime, Longstreet would wire Richmond hoping for the allowance to retreat to a rail connection at least for the winter. The troops and horses were hardly in a condition to forage – besides, there wasn’t much forage here. Many of the soldiery believed themselves to be marching not only back into Virginia, but back into General Lee’s Army. They would soon uncover their disappointment.
Late in the evening, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was still storming northward with the hope of catching Longstreet before Knoxville, learned that the Rebels had withdrawn.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 3, p784, 785, 792; The Knoxville Campaign by Early J. Hess; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander. [↩]