‘Thus We Found Ourselves in a Strange Country’ – Longstreet Almost Arrives Near Knoxville

November 10, 1863 (Tuesday)

E. Porter Alexander is making the best of a bad situation. You should too.
E. Porter Alexander is making the best of a bad situation. You should too.

General Grant feared that James Longstreet’s Corps, sent forth from Chattanooga to attack Ambrose Burnside’s Federals at Knoxville, would arrive before he was able to stop it or even draw it back. But on the morning of this date, some of Longstreet’s Corps was still waiting at Tyner’s Station, no more than fifteen miles outside of Chattanooga. They had been there since November 4th.

The move was to be one of quick secrecy, but word had already leaked out, and Longstreet was making horrible time. “My recollections of the place,” wrote Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s artillery chief, “are only those of the struggled we had to get enough to eat, for no preparations had been made for any such delay.”

Most of Longstreet’s Corps had already moved, arriving by train at Sweetwater, sixty miles northeast, as early as the 6th. Some units were forced to march to Cleveland, about thirty miles down the line from Chattanooga, and weren’t picked up by the trains until the 8th and 9th.

Still at Tyner Station, Alexander and his artillery were finally entrained in the early afternoon. They loaded the guns, caissons, themselves and their baggage on flat cars, sending the horses by land. The whole ordeal was a chore indeed, but by 3pm, they were on their way, but the sorry state of the railroads soon became evident.

“Before we had gone very far the engine got out of wood,” recalled Alexander. “We stopped and cut up fence rails enough to go on, and we had this to do several times. As night came on it was quite cool, riding out on the flat cars, but we wrapped up in blankets and laid in under and among the guns, and managed to sleep with some comfort, arriving at Sweetwater about midnight and disembarking in the morning.”

The area around Sweetwater had felt little of the ravages of war. Thus, the larders were full, and in many cases, ripe for the picking. Longstreet’s men had been on short rations, but promised that the land to which they were headed was one of milk and honey (or at least vegetables). Even Longstreet, who in his memoirs had very little nice to say about anything, concurred.

Today's approximate map lives up to its name.
Today’s approximate map lives up to its name.

He and Army of Tennessee commander, Braxton Bragg, had not seen eye to eye since his arrival just before the battle of Chickamauga. By the time Bragg sent Longstreet away, the reasons for the move were clouded more in bitter disdain
than military strategy. Both generals waged a war of letters that reverberated long after the smoke of war had settled.

“Thus we found ourselves in a strange country,” wrote Longstreet after the war, “not as much as a day’s rations on hand, with hardly enough land transportation for ordinary camp equipage, the enemy in front to be captured, and our friends in the rear putting in their paper bullets.”

With most of his corps at Sweetwater, Longstreet turned to his next challenge – that of getting at Burnside in Knoxville. From the depot at Sweetwater, they were still nearly fifty miles away. The troops would still have to march to Louden, where Longstreet planned to establish his base of operations.

The defenses of Knoxville.
The defenses of Knoxville.

Originally, the plan had been to his Knoxville from the south. “Anticipating proper land transportation,” Longstreet continued, “plans were laid for march across the Little Tennessee above its confluence with the greater river, through Marysville to the heights above Knoxville on the east bank, by forced march. This would have brought the city close under fire of our field batteries and forced the enemy into open grounds.”

But the plan was much more sound than Longstreet’s anticipation of proper transportation. For the construction of a bridge, he was given pontoon, but not the wagons to carry them. Over the next couple of days, Porter Alexander would poke around the countryside, map in hand, searching for some way to cross the Tennessee River.

For Burnside, the waiting was tiresome. Rumors were filtering in that Longstreet was already up, but he rightly discounted them. Longstreet’s troops, however, we’re the only ones in the area. A division under Frank Cheatham had been sent a week or so prior to Longstreet, but would be returning to Chattanooga soon enough. Another division, commanded by Carter Stevenson, had been there a few weeks longer. All told, before Longstreet’s arrival, the Confederates had 11,000 troops before Knoxville. Longstreet had already argued to keep Stevenson, but Bragg denied it. The battle between the two would lumber on, inhibiting both, for weeks.1

  1. Sources: Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; From Manassas to Appamattox by James Longstreet (use wisely); Mountains Touched with Fire by Wiley Sword; The Shipwreck of their Hopes by Peter Cozzens; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. []
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