December 4, 1863 (Friday)
James Longstreet’s little army had caught wind that Federal troops under William Tecumseh Sherman were streaming toward Knoxville to break the siege. Not desiring such a battle, General Longstreet quickly packed up his force and retreated northeast. Even by the dawn, the besieged Union troops under Ambrose Burnside still believed that Longstreet was in force before them.
Fresh from the victory at Chattanooga, Sherman was dispatched with upwards of 30,000 men by General Grant to rescue Burnside. Leading the elements of three corps, they had arrived at the Tennessee River and expected soon to do battle with Longstreet’s Rebels. For the approach to Knoxville, Sherman arranged his army into three wings. The Fourth Corps under Gordon Granger, made up the right. The center was under Frank Blair and his Fifteenth Corps, while the left was held by the Eleventh Corps, helmed by Oliver Otis Howard. An additional division, under Jefferson C. Davis (from the Fourteenth Corps), was the reserve.
“The whole army will move direct on the enemy at Knoxville and fight them at the earliest moment,” ordered Sherman to his corps commanders. Each wing was given specific roads to use and cautioned to be timely.
Food had become a problem for Sherman’s men. Immediately following the Battle of Chattanooga, they were on their feet and in pursuit of the enemy. They had but two days of rations, a blanket and an overcoat. Now, over a week later, very little sustenance had caught up with them. In his orders, Sherman wished for each man to have not only all his ammunition on his person (with a caution to “use it with great prudence”), but also that each have three days’ cooked rations. For many, this was impossible, but their dear commander remembered them as well: “If rations are not to be had, the men will cheerfully live on meal till their fellows in Knoxville are released from their imprisonment.” They were, after all, on a mission.
Sherman was well aware of the shortage of food, and was doing everything he could to sustain his troops. To a division commander in the Fourth Corps, Sherman urged him to “use every effort to procure corn and wheat, and to grind all you possibly can.” The three small mills that his army had commandeered were hardly sufficient.
Though Longstreet was by this time in flight, Sherman was convinced otherwise. He had captured letters that indicated as such. “Longstreet is yet at Knoxville,” agreed one of the army’s Inspector-Generals. “He assaulted Burnside on Sunday and was badly whipped…. Longstreet is evidently badly puzzled.” Of course, Longstreet wasn’t puzzled at all. He was simply aware that Sherman’s columns were coming and knew he was outnumbered.
Bridging the river, however, was no easy task. For all Sherman and his men knew, time was of the essence. The river had been up when the Fifteenth Corps tried to cross it at Morganton. With water as deep as five feet, the General concluded that while the cavalry might be able to cross, the men and artillery could not. And so fording the river was out, and “a bridge was indispensable.”
Sherman was without an engineer, but “we had our pioneers, but only such tools as axes, picks, and spades. But General Wilson, working part with crib-work and part with square trestles, made of the houses of the late town of Morganton, progress apace, and by dark of December 4, troops and animals passed on the bridge….” If Morganton could not yield to Sherman a ford, he would build a bridge out of it.
All through the day in Knoxville, it seemed as if Longstreet’s presence remained. The skirmishers and pickets were even more active than usual on this date. There were some signs of the Rebels’ retreat, such as a line of wagons spotted moving toward the northeast, but even after a quick probe by Burnside’s infantry, the Confederate line seemed sound enough. After darkness, Longstreet began to move in earnest. By 10pm, the campfires were dimming or flickering out.
It would be hours until anyone was certain, but the Confederates had just made good their escape.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 2, p578; Part 3, p330-331; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess. [↩]