January 12, 1864 (Tuesday)
When Ambrose Burnside at Knoxville, Tennessee was besieged by Confederates under James Longstreet, the cry went up to save the troops from certain starvation. Now that Longstreet had been driven back, the cares for their survival seemed distant and hollow, even though their very survival was in question.
“The cold weather and high rivers have made things worse,” wrote General John Foster to General Grant, “many animals are dying daily.” He went on to detail how things had grown worse since Grant’s visit a week earlier. Even keeping the pontoon bridge operational was an incredible feat, with rushing water and ice choking the Holston River.
The troops were north of the city at Strawberry Plains, and when the weather improved, with the help of a bridge not yet completed, he would move the two corps to Dandridge “to obtain forage and corn and wheat.”
“Everything is eaten out north of Holston River, also nearly everything is eaten up at Mossy Creek,” he continued. Before Grant left, a call was put out to Nashville and Chattanooga to hurry along supplies for the starving men. But since then, few items had appeared.
“Some quartermaster stores have arrived,” Foster reported, “but not in sufficient quantity. No rations by last boats. Am entirely destitute of bread, coffee, and sugar.” He trusted that Grant could somehow fix this.
Foster echoed these statements to General George Thomas, commanding at Chattanooga, describing the “rapid destruction of our teams by death of animals from starvation.”
Thomas replied the same day, promising that “stores will be forwarded you as fast as possible, but unless great care is exercised both armies will be suffering.” In a follow up telegram, he continued. “Two of our largest steamers are up the river, with all the subsistence stores we can spare from here until they are returned.”
It probably did little to lift General Foster’s spirits to learn that Longstreet’s Rebels were suffering just as much, or even more, than his own troops. Two deserters from Barksdale’s Brigade had come into the Federal camp. With them, they brought news of the enemy’s position, strength and condition.
Forster learned that Longstreet’s main body was between Morristown and Russellville, with the cavalry near Kimbrough’s Cross Roads. There had been rumors that Longstreet had been reinforced from Virginia. The deserters proved those claims to be false.
“They lack clothing, especially shoes, rations and forage,” Foster relayed to Grant. “The condition is every way bad.” The deserters described how the country around them for twenty miles in any direction had been picked clean. “They have now to cross to the south side of the French Broad for forage. The talk among the officers and men is that they will soon have to retreat to Bristol.”
But even if the enemy fled, Foster’s men still needed food and clothes. For the perceivable future, the true enemy wasn’t the Rebels, but the bitter cold, the threat of starvation, and time.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 2, p71, 72, 73. [↩]