April 21, 1864 (Thursday)
The action, and even the skirmishing, had died down in Eastern Tennessee, as the Federals under General John Schofield lost track of James Longstreet’s Corps. Early in the month, Schofield’s cavalry probed out from Knoxville, north toward the Confederate camps. By the middle of the month, all his cavalry could report were rumors that “the main force is still at Abington, Va., Bristol, Zollicoffer, and Kingsport.”
As it turned out, the rumors had been true. Longstreet’s command left Schofield’s front at the end of March, making their way to Bristol, over 100 miles northeast of Knoxville, on the Virginia/Tennessee border.
But as of the 12th (the day before Schofield’s scouts reported in), Longstreet was on the move again, his troops catching trains from Bristol to Charlottesvlle, where they arrived on on the 14th.
By the 15th, reports were mounting that Longstreet had slipped away. Though there was a strong cavalry screen near Kingport, twenty miles southwest of Bristol, division commander Jacob Cox reported that “the best evidence still is that the bulk of Longstreet’s command has continued its eastward movement.” Schofield, however, did not believe it, warning Cox to watch his rear, that the Rebels might try to outflank him. “If Longstreet still remains at Bristol,” concluded Schofield, “he will most likely attempt something of the kind; watch him closely.”
General Cox didn’t press the issue.
Four days later (the 19th), Schofield was finally convinced enough to inform General Sherman that “Longstreet’s three divisions of infantry have gone east as far as Lynchburg.” Schofield’s informant “is a man who was employed on the railroad, and went from Bristol to Lynchburg on the 13th and returned on the 14th. He is believed to be loyal and truthful.” Still, it was only the word of a single man.
In return, the following day, Sherman ordered Schofield to scout up to the old Rebel camps near Bristol, ensuring that the railroad was not destroyed as Longstreet moved east. Though Longstreet may have gotten away, Sherman was delighted that Schofield’s troops could be used to cover ground south of Knoxville, freeing up units from the Army of the Cumberland, so that they may return to Chattanooga and add to the numbers for the spring campaign. Sherman went a step farther, amplifying Schofield’s report to absolute certainty and allowing General Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, to order his troops back to Chattanooga.
Though Longstreet’s troops may have left, the Rebel cavalry remaining would certainly keep an eye on things, especially the railroad. If the Federals looked like they were going to use it to invade into Virginia from the southwest, they would, naturally, destroy it all they could. The same, however, was true for the Federals. Sherman had no plans at all for striking southwest Virginia, and so to cover what would soon become Schofield’s rear, he wanted the railroad out of commission. But not right away.
“I want to defer the destruction of that railroad or the bridges till the last moment,” he wrote to Schofield on the 20th, “as it will clearly reveal our plans not to operate up toward Virginia.” Clearly growing more and more impatient, Sherman couldn’t help but vent to Schofield that “We are waiting for our troops from Red River before acting offensively on the main lines.”
This had been Sherman’s fear ever since he handed one and a half corps from the Army of the Tennessee to Nathaniel Banks to use in his Red River Campaign. He had only done so with the promise that they would be returned by mid-April. That time had come and gone, but still Sherman held out some hope, not having heard from Banks in a week.
By this date, General Schofield had a much clearer picture of Longstreet’s whereabouts. Most of the corps, he reported, at least 10,000 men, had indeed taken the rails to Lynchburg and then from Lynchburg to Orange Court-House, rejoining General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Longstreet’s command had actually arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia on the 12th, and remained there for a week. General Lee ordered them towards Gordonsville, having them encamp at a small crossroads between the two towns. They were now a mere fourteen miles away from Lee’s main body.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 3, p261, 344, 368, 413-414, 422, 423, 437; Vol. 33, p1307; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander. [↩]