Neither Army in Eastern Tennessee Able to Attack

January 25, 1864 (Monday)

The winter is wearing upon General Sturgis.
The winter is wearing upon General Sturgis.

Neither army near Knoxville was in any shape to fight. Both were decimated by lack of supplies and a shortage of food. Union commander, John Foster, had realized this and ordered two of his three corps southwest to the Tennessee River below Knoxville. James Longstreet, commanding the Confederate forces, was not so convinced.

He proposed to attack Knoxville once again. His army was east of the city in the town of Dalton. Knowing his army could hardly attack in force, he called upon Joe Johnston in north Georgia to send a brigade of cavalry to cut the Union lines of communication between Knoxville and Chattanooga. Johnston demurred, reasoning that it would exhaust his troopers before the spring campaign.

Unable to go at it alone, Longstreet turned to the task of keeping his army alive, sending out foraging parties across the countryside. But everywhere they went, and especially to the south and east, they found Union cavalry. The skirmishing between the two was an ongoing affair, each side exchanging blows with the other. On the 24th, Federal forces captured nearly thirty Confederate supply wagons, while the Rebels picked up eleven Union pickets.

General Samuel Sturgis, who led the Union cavalry (and thus the foraging parties) was sickened by what he was seeing. “I do not know that it can be avoided,” he wrote to headquarters, “but I may say that it is a pity that circumstances should compel us to entirely exhaust the country of these loyal people. If we remain here long they must suffer, and it will be impossible for them to raise anything next year. The necessity for pressing supplies leads to immediately to plundering that soldiers find no difficulty in taking the step from the one to the other, and in spite of all I can do to the contrary. It is distressing to witness the sufferings of these people at the hands of the friends for whom they have been so long and so anxiously looking. You cannot help it; neither can I, and I only refer to it because my heart is full of it.”

Approximate map.
Approximate map.

Foraging had to continue for either army to survive the winter, but all of this was coming to a head. Food and supplies were limited and each day the cavalry had to be sent farther away. Longstreet was pleased to note that his troopers were having some fortune fifteen miles east at Newport, and wanted them to try to move south to Sevierville.

“As the enemy has now a large force on the south side of the French Broad,” wrote Moxley Sorrel, Longstreet’s aide-de-camp, “it will be necessary for your operations and movements to be conducted with great caution.”

And great caution would certainly be needed. For a time, the Federals believed Longstreet was about to attack Knoxville. Now, however, they were figuring out that he was holding back. General Grant strongly suggested that the cavalry take a stab at Longstreet with the view of moving around Longstreet’s force by the south and getting into his rear to destroy the railroad.

On this date, Foster informed Grant that he directed General Sturgis to attempt such a movement, “but thus far he has found it impossible to execute it from the opposition met with and the worn-down condition of the horses.” Grant had also urged Foster to attack Longstreet in a summertime-like assault. Giving no reason, though the reason should have been obvious, Foster replied: “I do not think it practicable at this time to advance in force and attack Longstreet at Morristown.”

General Foster had been wounded months ago, and the winter was making day-to-day life nearly insufferable for him. At this point, he was completely unable to take the field. “The sooner I obtain relief by an operation,” he wrote to Grant, “the sooner I can return to active duty. Cannot I leave now for this purpose?” He suggested leaving General John Parke, who already led the infantry, in command. Grant would scramble to find a replacement for Foster, but until then, Foster would have to remain.

Moxley Sorrel (one of the greatest names ever given).
Moxley Sorrel (one of the greatest names ever given).

More than anything, Grant wanted Longstreet to be driven out of Tennessee. The day previous, he had told General Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, that he (Thomas) might have to personally go to Knoxville with reinforcements, take command of all forces and do just that. Then, Grant explained that he would send someone to Chattanooga to fill in for Thomas. On this date, however, he was ready to go himself, but only if emergency should beckon.

As it now stood, Foster couldn’t take the field, and he balked at sending his army to attack Longstreet. With only cavalry before the Rebels, it was possible that Longstreet might make an attempt upon Knoxville, though it seemed not to be presently so. The Confederates had sent their cavalry to Newport and were about to move on Sevierville, but so were the Federal troopers under General Sturgis.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p114, 127; Part 2, p193, 207, 208, 603, 606, 611; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess. []
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