‘Take the Command in Person’ – Grant Orders Thomas to Knoxville

January 24, 1864 (Sunday)

“The enemy presses vigorously,” wrote General John Foster from Knoxville, Tennessee, “and is about 7 miles from town. […] I am now satisfied that Longstreet has been considerably re-enforced, but not large enough, I think, to warrent his renewing the siege of this place.”

Foster: Why didn't you say you had plans? I'm kind of done for the winter.
Foster: Why didn’t you say you had plans? I’m kind of done for the winter.

Foster wrote to Grant on the 22nd that Longstreet was advancing with a reinforced army. Winter had set in, and yet there seemed to be no reprieve from the Rebels. The roads north of Knoxville, where both Federal and Confederate armies plied their trade, had been churned to icy bogs of mud. If Longstreet had found a few good roads and was able to outflank the scattered Federal troops, there was little Foster could do about it.

But the news was conflicting, as often it was. From scouts, Foster was able to deduce that the Rebels still held Dandridge, and that Longstreet had been reinforced by a division, but not from Lee.

The next day (the 23rd), Foster again reported to Grant, explaining that “the rebels have ceased to press vigorously.” The information came from the front, from General Jacob Cox’s Twenty-Third Corps Cavalry pickets, who had pushed forward to find nothing of the enemy. Foster concluded that the Rebels had been unable to subsist their horses and had to retire.

He also pleaded that it was “absolutely necessary that the army have rest,” and made arrangements for his troops to go into winter quarters. The Fourth Corps was moved southwest of Knoxville, to Kingston, while the Twenty-Third Corps was ordered to Louden, south of the city. Both held the Tennessee River, while the latter also held the railroad. But one corps, the Ninth, remained between the Rebels and the city. This hardly seemed to be a concern to Foster, who again on this date, explained that “the bread thus far received form Chattanooga has not amounted to one-tenth of the ration. We now have only enough for the hospitals.”

But communication was slow and misunderstandings frequent. Somehow or another, General Grant understood that Longstreet’s troops were not backing off, but driving west again to invest Knoxville. How this happened maked little sense.

At 11am, Foster telegraphed General George Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. It was from there that supplies were trickling, and he reiterated that “the enemy has retired and I am now putting the tired troops in cantonment, where they may rest a little before the spring campaign.” He detailed where each of the corps would be held and hoped that the railroad between the two cities would soon be restored.

Today's approximate map.
Today’s approximate map.

If there was any confusion on Grant’s part, it happened here. This was strange since Grant was personally in Chattanooga on this date and could converse freely with Thomas if he so choose. At 3pm, he wired Foster, asking if he could not “organize a cavalry force to work its way past Longstreet south of him, to get into his rear and destroy railroad and transportation, or cannot Willcox [with the Ninth Corps] do this from the north?” Grant was insistent that either should be accomplished “or battle given where Longstreet is now.”

At the same time, Grant wrote to General Thomas, firm in the belief that Longstreet was still moving on Knoxville. He ordered him to send the rest of the Fourth Corps, sans artillery, if it seemed necessary. If Foster needed more troops, Thomas was to send everything he could spare. Grant wished him “to take the command in person, and on arrival at Knoxville to take command of all the forces.”

Grant allowed that Foster’s condition made it “impossible for him to take the field.” But he wasn’t talking about the condition of Foster’s army – he was speaking of Foster himself. “In justice to himself,” continued Grant, “and as I want Longstreet routed and pursued beyond the limits of the State of Tennessee, it is necessary to have a commander physically able for the task.”

General Grant was again insistent that Longstreet be forced out of Tennessee. If Thomas’ reinforcements weakened Chattanooga, Grant would send reinforcements of his own to cover the city. The main point was to oust the Rebels. He ordered Thomas to prepare immediately for departure, but not to leave until the substitute reinforcements arrived.

Thomas: Oh, I suppose I could be the Rock of Knoxville, too.
Thomas: Oh, I suppose I could be the Rock of Knoxville, too.

In summation, Grant also wired General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington. “Foster telegraphs that Longstreet is still advancing toward Knoxville,” it began. No such message remains, though others to the contrary are plentiful. “I have directed him to get his cavalry to Longstreet’s rear, or give battle if necessary. I will send Thomas with additional troops in insure Longstreet’s being driven from the state.”

It had been clear for weeks now that Grant (and Washington) wanted Foster removed almost as much as they wanted Longstreet routed. They were not the only ones. Also on this date, Tennessee Governor Andrew Johnson wrote to President Lincoln: “I hope that it will be consistent with the public interest for General Burnside to be sent back to East Tennessee. He is the man; the people want him; he will inspire more confidence than any other man at this time.”

But Burnside, while nominal commander of the Ninth Corps, was ordered to recruit troops in New England. And there he would remain until spring.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32. Part 2, p173, 175, 184, 187, 194, 202; Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Ninth Army Corps by Augustus Woodbury; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess. []
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