‘The Enemy is Still in Force; No Engagement Yet’ – Waiting in Eastern Tennessee

December 24, 1863 (Thursday)

If only there were more Fosters!
If only there were more Fosters!

The Federals had been able to withstand General Longstreet’s disjointed and stuttering attacks at Bean’s Station, buying them enough time to call reinforcements out of Knoxville, Tennessee. Now there were three corps, the Fourth, Ninth, and Twenty-third, holding Blain’s Crossroads and the Holston River. Longstreet and his Confederates were struggling to cross to safety, but had not quite fully spanned its icy waters.

The troops in the field were commanded by General John Parke, who was trying his best to get at the Rebels. There was some worry that the enemy would either slip away and out of their grasp, or would feign to do so before descending upon Knoxville, thirty some miles southwest.

While the generals plied their trade, scratching their heads and writing excited dispatches to one another, the men of the Army of the Ohio did their best to stay warm. Jacob Cox, commander of the Twenty-third Corps related their plight in his memoirs:

“The want most felt was that of clothing and shoes. The supply of these had run very low by the time Burnside had marched through Kentucky and Tennessee to Knoxville, and almost none had been received since. Many of the soldiers were literally in rags, and none were prepared for winter when Longstreet interrupted all communication with the base of supplies. Their shoes were worn out, and this, even more than their raggedness, made winter marching out of the question. The barefooted men had to be left behind, and of those who started the more poorly shod would straggle, no matter how good their own will was or how carefully the officers tried to enforce discipline and keep their men together.”

Despite the cold, the war continued. Longstreet was thought to be fortifying near Morristown or Bull’s Gap. Either were situated on the south side of the Holsten River. The Federals, like the Rebels, could cross, but carrying the supplies of war to the other side in a timely fashion was impossible. The train bridge at Strawberry Plains had been destroyed and was in the process of being rebuilt by the Fourth Corps. Once complete, the army could effectively block any attempt Longstreet might have of striking out toward Knoxville.

Approximate Map!
Approximate Map!

From Nashville, General Grant had inquired how things were transpiring on the Knoxville front. “The enemy is still in force; no engagement yet,” replied John Foster, overall commander in Eastern Tennessee. “A movement is in progress which will bring on a partial one soon.” In a dispatch quickly following, Foster reminded Grant, “We want ammunition, and cannot fight a general engagement until supplied.”

Grant was growing tired of such excuses, ever growing in number from General Foster. “In a terse and uncharacteristic telegram to Washington, Grant said simply: “I will go to Knoxville in person immediately. If Longstreet is not driven from Tennessee soil, it shall not be my fault.” He would arrive in Knoxville on December 30th.

Until then, the Federals were more or less stalled, waiting for a way to relocate to Strawberry Plains. There was an additional column under Orlando Willcox that had come out of Cumberland Gap and very slowly made their way to the Clinch River. On this date, they were wandering around the ford that crossed on the road to Maynardsville, on the other side of the Clinch Mountains. Willcox, along with Foster, were both tasked by Washington to drive Longstreet out of Tennessee.

The slow shuffle of men to Strawberry Plains, however, was already underway. There, Foster had his temporary headquarters, and Cox’s Corps was ordered to start for the place the following day “for the purpose of constructing earth-works for the defense of the railway bridge and the ford in that vicinity.”

We're glad to see the return of Jacob Cox!
We’re glad to see the return of Jacob Cox!

It was a mostly disjointed day, as can clearly be seen. Movements were afoot, but to what end nobody seemed to know. The Federals were to drive Longstreet out of Tennessee and back into Virginia, but they were making no such plans, instead preparing for Longstreet to attack.

Longstreet, on the other hand, had a disorganized army that was currently being shaken by a very unsteady officer’s corps. It will be remembered that he dismissed division commander Lafayette McLaws, as well as brigade commander Jerome Robertson. Following, Evander Law resigned as he did not wish to serve under Micah Jenkins, put forward for division command by Longstreet. It was all a mess.

Because of this and the state of his own army, Longstreet elected to go into winter quarters halfway between Russellville and Morristown. His chief of artillery, E. Porter Alexander, ordered to select a spot, described it in his post-war writings: “It was on the southern and western slope of extensive hills, covered with a virgin forest of oak and hickory, and with a fine mountain stream close by, a few hundred yards east of the road between the two towns. A better site could not be desired, and the very next day [December 24], every mess in camp, including our own, began work on a hut, of some sort, according to its own ideas.”

So certain was Longstreet that there would be no fight with the enemy that he granted Alexander a sixty day furlough so he could go home to see his family. The Confederates, as it happened, were more than willing to wait out the winter in Eastern Tennessee. General Grant, however, was of the opposite mind.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 1, p285; Part 3, p479, 480, 481, 482-483; Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Volume 2 by Jacob Dolson Cox; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander. []
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