December 6, 1863 (Sunday)
Late the previous evening, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was still storming northward with the hope of catching the Confederates under General James Longstreet before Knoxville, learned that the Rebels had withdrawn. Ambrose Burnside, who commanded the Federal troops inside the formerly-besieged city, had dispatched Lt. Col.
James Lyman Van Buren, a cousin of President Van Buren.
Van Buren explained to Sherman that “General Burnside’s cavalry was on [Longstreet’s] heels; and that the general desired to see me in person as soon as I could come to Knoxville.” Sherman’s three corps of troops had been poised to enter Knoxville shortly. Of course, he hoped to catch the Rebels, but now that they had fled, things had changed some.
“I am here,” wrote Sherman to Burnside, “and can bring twenty-five thousand men into Knoxville tomorrow; but Longstreet having retreated, I feel disposed to stop, for a stern chase is a long one.” He would come if Burnside insisted, but thought it best to rest most of his troops. “We are all hearty but tired,” he closed.
It was not that Sherman’s troops were too late. It was specifically because of his 25,000 that Longstreet decided to flee. His men had moved swiftly, believing all the while that they were coming to the rescue of their besieged and starving comrades. But when Sherman entered Knoxville, starvation seemed far from reality. Food wasn’t exactly abundant, but they certainly could have held out longer. Thankfully, they did not have to.
Sherman was struck by the sight of just how far from starvation the entire place seemed to be. As he first came upon the city from the south, he spied “a fine lot of cattle, which did not look much like starvation.” When he first met with Burnside and his staff, he found them “domiciled in a large, fine mansion, looking very comfortable.” Later at the evening dinner, Sherman was taken aback.
“There was a regular dining table, with clean tablecloth, dishes, knives, forks, spoons, etc., etc. I had seen nothing of this kind in my field experience, and could not help exclaiming that I thought ‘they were starving,’ etc.; but Burnside explained that Longstreet had at no time completely invested the place, and that he had kept open communication with the country on the south side of the river Holston, more especially with the French Broad settlements, from whose Union inhabitants he had received a good supply of beef, bacon, and corn meal. Had I known of this, I should not have hurried my men so fast; but until I reached Knoxville I thought his troops there were actually in danger of starvation.”
Sherman published his thoughts in his 1875 Memoirs. When General Grant read them, he chastised his old friend for being too hard on Burnside.
All that said, Burnside’s men were hardly in a condition to fight. They may not have been near death, but they were just as distant from perfect health. Presently, the only troops following Longstreet were cavalry. It was decided that most of Sherman’s troops should rest. For Gordon Granger’s Fourth Corps troops, however, there would be no respite. Granger had first been tasked by General Grant to come to Burnside’s aid. But he balked, made several excuses, and finally refused to go. When Grant then turned to Sherman, he wouldn’t let Granger off the hook completely, and placed him under Sherman’s orders. Now Sherman was placing him under Burnside.
Granger was livid, but it wasn’t his decision to make. He begged Burnside to not keep him, and shortly wrote to General Thomas (his immediate superior), explaining that Burnside had more than enough troops to handle Longstreet – though made no mention as to why that wasn’t true before they were under siege. He also wrote to General Grant, who responded by telling Burnside he could keep Granger for as long as was needed.
After Sherman’s meeting with Burnside, they both toured the Knoxville defenses. Sherman declared them “a wonderful production for the short time allowed in their selection of ground and construction of work. It seemed to me that they were nearly impregnable.”
The idea to turn most of Sherman’s command around and march back to Chattanooga was all his own, but since General Burnside outranked him, he couldn’t simply leave. Fortunately for him, Burnside was more relieved than eager to share the roost with General Sherman, and easily accepted the proposal. He even put it in writing, opening with an honest and gracious gushing.
“I desire to express to you and your command my most hearty thanks and gratitude for your promptness in coming to our relief during the siege of Knoxville,” began Burnside, “and I am satisfied your approach served to raise the siege. The emergency having passed, I do not deem, for the present, any other portion of your command but the corps of General Granger necessary for operations in this section; and, inasmuch as General Grant has weakened the forces immediately with him in order to relieve us (thereby rendering the position of General Thomas less secure), I deem it advisable that all the troops now here, save those commanded by General Granger, should return at once to within supporting distance of the forces in front of Bragg’s army. In behalf of my command, I desire again to thank you and your command for the kindness you have done us.”
With this bit of permission, Sherman would leave the following day. “Burnside ranked me,” he confided in his brother, “and it was his business not mine.”
General Grant, however, had been mostly kept out of the loop. With Longstreet still hovering near enough to Knoxville, he had wanted Sherman to stick around for a bit longer. But by the time any of this was communicated to anyone, Sherman was well on his way back to Chattanooga.
It may have been due to Granger’s grumbling that Burnside’s own troops were sent in pursuit of Longstreet’s Rebels the following day. Granger’s divisions took their place in the Knoxville defenses. Burnside himself would not make the trip, instead he placed General John Parke, his Chief of Staff, in command of the expedition.
On the 7th, after seeing Burnside’s men march northward, General Sherman turned his own army to the south. By the 19th, he would be back in Chattanooga. When completed, it would be a march of 250 miles undertaken over the span of roughly three weeks.1
- Sources:Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Major-General Ambrose Burnside and the Ninth Corps by Augustus Woodbury; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess. [↩]