Chapter 36: strategic importance of the field.
- Longstreet again considers relief from service -- General Grant at Knoxville -- Shoeless soldiers leave bloody trails on frozen roads -- a Confederate advance-affair at Dandridge -- Federals retreat -- Succession of small engagements -- General Grant urges General Foster's army to the offensive -- General Foster relieved -- General Schofield in command of Federals -- General Grant's orders -- General Halleck's estimate of East Tennessee as a strategic field -- affair of cavalry -- advance towards Knoxville -- Longstreet's command called back to defensive for want of cavalry.
During the last few days of the year 1863 the cold of the severest winter of the war came on, and constantly increased until the thermometer approached zero, and on New Year's dropped below, hanging near that figure for about two weeks. The severe season gave rest to every one. Even the cavalry had a little quiet, but it was cold comfort, for their orders were to keep the enemy in sight. The season seemed an appropriate one for making another effort to be relieved from service,--that service in which the authorities would not support my plans or labors,--for now during the lull in war they would have ample time to assign some one to whom they could give their confidence and aid. But this did not suit them, and the course of affairs prejudicial to order and discipline was continued. It was difficult under the circumstances to find apology for remaining in service. The President asked Congress to provide for another general officer when he had five on his rolls,--one of whom was not in command appropriate to his rank,--and appointed Lieutenant-General Smith, of the Trans-Mississippi Department, of lower rank than mine, to hold rank above me. A soldier's honor is his all, and of that they would rob him and degrade him in the eyes of  his troops. The occasion seemed to demand resignation, but that would have been unsoldierly conduct. Dispassionate judgment suggested, as the proper rounding of the soldier's life, to stay and go down with faithful comrades of long and arduous service. On the other side of the picture affairs were bright and encouraging. The disaffected were away, and with them disappeared their influence. The little army was bright and cheerful and ready for any work to which it could be called. General Grant made his visit to Knoxville about New Year's, and remained until the 7th. He found General Foster in the condition of the Confederates,--not properly supplied with clothing, especially in want of shoes. So he authorized a wait for the clothing, then in transit and looked for in a week; and that little delay was a great lift for the Confederates. We were not timid, but were beginning to think ourselves comfortable and happy, and were expectant of even better condition. We were receiving a hundred pairs of shoes a day of our own make, the hand-looms of the farmers were giving help towards clothing our men, promises from Richmond were encouraging, and we were prepared to enjoy rest that we had not known for a, twelvemonth. The medical inspector of the Cis-Mississippi District came to see us, and after careful inspection told us that the army was in better health and better heart than the other armies of the district. Before leaving General Foster, General Grant ordered him on the receipt of the clothing to advance and drive us “at least beyond Bull's Gap and Red Bridge.” And to prepare for that advance he ordered the Ninth and Twenty-third Corps to Mossy Creek, the Fourth Corps to Strawberry Plains, and the cavalry to Dandridge. The Union army-equipped-marched on the 14th and 15th of January. The Confederate departments were not so prompt in  filling our requisitions, but we had hopes. The bitter freeze of two weeks had made the rough angles of mud as firm and sharp as so many freshly-quarried rocks, and the poorly protected feet of our soldiers sometimes left bloody marks along the roads. General Sturgis rode in advance of the army, and occupied Dandridge by Elliott's, Wolford's, and Garrard's divisions of cavalry and Mott's brigade of infantry. The Fourth and Twenty-third Corps followed the cavalry, leaving the Ninth Corps to guard at Strawberry Plains. General Martin gave us prompt notice that the march was at Dandridge, and in force. The move was construed as a flanking proceeding, but it was more convenient to adopt the short march and meet it at Dandridge than to leave our shoe factory and winter huts and take up the tedious rearward move. The army was ordered under arms, the cavalry was ordered concentrated in front of General Sturgis, and the divisions of Jenkins and B. R. Johnson and Alexander's batteries were marched to join General Martin. McLaws's division under General Wofford, and Ransom's under General Carr, with such batteries as they could haul, were assigned to positions on the Morristown (Strawberry Plains) road, to strike forward or reinforce at Dandridge as plans developed. The men without shoes were ordered to remain as camp guards, but many preferred to march with their comrades. I rode in advance to be assured that our cavalry had not mistaken a strong cavalry move for one by the enemy. We found General Martin on the Bull's Gap road sharply engaged with the enemy, both sides on strong defensive grounds and using their horse batteries, but no infantry was in sight. General Martin was ordered to push on, gain the opposing plateau, and force the enemy to show his infantry. He found the enemy in strong fight, but got the plateau, when the enemy deployed in stronger force; but his  infantry did not appear. When asked to take the next hill, he thought it could not be done without infantry, but my idea was to save the infantry the trying march, if possible, and to that end it was necessary to push with the cavalry. He was called to send me a detachment of his troopers, and about six hundred came,--Harrison's brigade, as I remember. We rode away from the enemy's left, concealing our march under traverse of an elevated woodland, while General Martin engaged their front attention. At a secluded spot, a little beyond the enemy's left, the men dismounted, leaving their animals under guards, moved under cover to good position, deployed into single line, and marched for the second plateau. Part of the march was over a small opening, near a farm-house. The exposure brought us under fire of some sharp-shooters, but we hadn't time to stop and shoot. As our line marched, a chicken, dazed by the formidable appearance, crouched in the grass until it was kicked up, when it flew and tried to clear the line, but one of the troopers jumped up, knocked it down with the end of his gun, stooped, picked it up, put it in his haversack, and marched on without losing his place or step and without looking to his right or left, as though it was as proper and as much an every-day part of the exercise of war as shooting at the enemy. Presently we got up the hill, and General Martin advanced his mounts to meet us. We lost but two men,--wounded,--an officer and a soldier. The officer was at my side, and, hearing the thud of the blow, I turned and asked if he was much hurt. He said it was only a flesh-wound, and remained with his command until night. From that point we saw enough to tell that a formidable part of the army was before us, and orders were sent for the command to speed their march as much as they could without severe trial. When General Martin made his bold advance General Sturgis thought to ride around by a considerable detour  and strike at his rear, but in his ride was surprised to encounter our marching columns of infantry, and still more surprised when he saw a thousand muskets levelled and sending whistling bullets about his men, and our batteries preparing something worse for him. His troopers got back faster than they came. In trying by a rapid ride to find position for handling his men he lost a number of his staff, captured, and narrowly escaped himself. It was near night when the command got up skirmishers from the advance division, reinforced the cavalry, and pushed the enemy back nearer the town. Dandridge is on the right bank of the French Broad River, about thirty miles from Knoxville. Its topographical features are bold and inviting of military work. Its other striking characteristic is the interesting character of its citizens. The Confederates--a unit in heart and spirit — were prepared to do their share towards making an effective battle, and our plans were so laid. At the time ordered for his advance, General Foster was suffering from an old wound, and General Parke became commander of the troops in the field. The latter delayed at Strawberry Plains in arranging that part of his command, and General Sheridan, marching with the advance, became commander, until superseded by the corps commander, General Gordon Granger. Our plans were laid before the army was all up. Our skirmish line was made stronger and relieved the cavalry of their dismounted service. A narrow unused road, practicable for artillery, was found, that opened a way for us to reach the enemy's rearward line of march. Sharpshooters were organized and ordered forward by it, to be followed by our infantry columns. It was thought better to move the infantry alone, as the ringing of the iron axles of the guns might give notice of our purpose; the artillery to be called as our sharp-shooters approached the junction of the roads. The head of the turning force  encountered a picket-guard, some of whom escaped without firing, but speedily gave notice of our feeling towards their rear. General Granger decided to retire, and was in time to leave our cross-road behind him, his rear-guard passing the point of intersection before my advance party reached it about midnight. The weather moderated before night, and after dark a mild, gentle rain began to fall. When I rode into Dandridge in the gray of the morning the ground was thawing and hardly firm enough to bear the weight of a horse. When the cavalry came at sunrise the last crust of ice had melted, letting the animals down to their fetlocks in heavy limestone soil. The mud and want of a bridge to cross the Holston made pursuit by our heavy columns useless. The cavalry was ordered on, and the troops at Morristown, on the Strawberry Plains road, were ordered to try that route, but the latter proved to be too heavy for progress with artillery. While yet on the streets of Dandridge, giving directions for such pursuit as we could make, a lady came out upon the sidewalk and invited us into her parlors. When the orders for pursuit were given, I dismounted, and with some members of my staff walked in. After the compliments of the season were passed, we were asked to be seated, and she told us something of General Granger during the night before. She had never heard a person swear about another as General Granger did about me. Some of the officers proposed to stop and make a battle, but General Granger swore and said it “was no use to stop and fight Longstreet. You can't whip him. It don't make any difference whether he has one man or a hundred thousand.” Presently she brought out a flask that General Granger had forgotten, and thought that I should have it. It had about two refreshing inches left in it. Though not left with compliments, it was accepted. Although the weather had moderated, it was very wet and  nasty, and as we had taken our coffee at three o'clock, it was resolved to call it noon and divide the spoils. Colonel Fairfax, who knew how to enjoy good things, thought the occasion called for a sentiment, and offered, “General Granger--may his shadow never grow less.” The cavalry found the road and its side-ways so cut up that their pursuit was reduced to labored walk. The previous hard service and exposure had so reduced the animals that they were not in trim for real effective cavalry service. They found some crippled battery forges and a little of other plunder, but the enemy passed the Holston and broke his bridges behind him. Our army returned to their huts and winter homes. Part of our cavalry was ordered to the south side of the French Broad, and General Martin was ordered to press close on the enemy's rear with the balance of his force. General Armstrong followed the line of retreat, and by the use of flat-boats passed his cavalry over the Holston and rode to the vicinity of Knoxville. He caught up with some stragglers, equipments, ammunition, and remains of some caissons, and at last made a grand haul of a herd of eight hundred beef cattle and thirty-one wagons. Upon getting his cavalry back to Knoxville, General Foster crossed them over the bridge at the city below the French Broad to foraging grounds about Louisville, and called his Dandridge march a foraging excursion, saying that he was building a bridge to cross to the south side when we bore down against him. But the strategy of his tedious march by our front to find a crossing point at Dandridge and build a bridge in our presence, when lie could have crossed to the south side of the French Broad by his bridge at Knoxville and reached those foraging grounds unmolested, was not like Napoleon. He claimed that he recovered two hundred of the lost herd of beef cattle. In that our reports do not agree. It is possible  that his officers may have confounded that adventure with another. My explanation of the discrepancy-from memory — is that another of our parties undertook to get in a herd of swine, with which there was a smaller herd of beef cattle; that all of the latter herd were recovered, and the reports of the two adventures were confounded. On the 14th, General Vance came down from the mountains of North Carolina on a raid towards Sevierville. He captured a number of wagons, but was promptly pursued by the enemy, his prize recovered, and he and a number of his staff were taken prisoners, with the loss of a hundred or more horses and equipments. They were not a part of my command, and failed to give us notice of their ride. The first intimation we had of them was of their unfortunate adventure. On the 21st orders came from Richmond to send Corse's brigade back to Petersburg, in Virginia. It was so ordered, and Hodges's brigade was ordered to us from the department of West Virginia, in place of Corse's. To seek some of the fruits of our advantage at Dandridge, the roads being a little firmer, our leading division, under General Jenkins, was ordered on the 21st to prepare to march towards Strawberry Plains, and the Richmond authorities were asked to send us a pontoon bridge, tools of construction, and to hurry forward such shoes as they could send. On the 24th, as the Official Records show, General Grant sent word to General Halleck of our return towards Knoxville, that he had ordered General Foster to give battle, if necessary, and that he would send General Thomas with additional troops to insure that we would be driven from the State. He also directed General Thomas to go in person and take command, and said, “I want Longstreet routed and pursued beyond the limits of the State of Tennessee.” And he ordered General Foster to  put his cavalry on a raid from Cumberland Gap to cut in upon our rear. On the 26th we were advised of the advance of the enemy's cavalry up the south side of the French Broad to some of the fords above Dandridge. General Martin was ordered to cross in force below it, get in rear of the enemy, and endeavor to put him to confusion. He crossed with Morgan's division, and called Armstrong's to follow, but the enemy, finding opportunity to put his force against the division, advanced and made a severe battle on the 27th, which became desperate as developed until, in their successive gallant charges, our ranks were broken to confusion, when the enemy made a dash and got two of our guns and two hundred prisoners, driving us towards the river. General Armstrong crossed pending these operations and received the enemy's attack on the 28th. General B. R. Johnson's infantry division had been ordered near Dandridge, and crossed while Armstrong's command held the enemy. The latter was caught in battle from which there was no escape but to fight it out. Johnson's infantry crossed in time to march towards the enemy's rear before he could dislodge Armstrong. I rode a little in advance of Johnson's command. The enemy, advised of the approach of infantry, made his final charge and retired south towards Marysville. In his last effort one of his most reckless troopers rode in upon Headquarters, but Colonel Fairfax put spurs into his horse, dashed up against him, had his pistol at his head, and called “surrender” before the man could level his gun. The trooper was agreeably surprised to find it no worse. The enemy's move to Marysville left us in possession of the foraging grounds. On the 30th, General Grant urged General Foster's army to the offensive, and called for the cavalry raid through the Powell River Valley and Cumberland Gap  towards our rear, and General Foster called on General Thomas for a force of ten thousand infantry and working details to repair the railroad and bridges between Knoxville and Chattanooga. General Thomas was willing to respond to the call for troops, but asked timely notice so that he could call Sherman's forces from Mississippi to replace those to be sent and make a co-operative move against General Johnston at Dalton. At the same time General Foster called for a pontoon bridge to make his crossing of the Holston at Strawberry Plains, which was ordered. General Sturgis could not approve the ride through Powell River Valley, and expressed preference for a route through the mountains of North Carolina towards Asheville, to find our rear. General Grant had suggested raids from both these points on the 24th of January, but General Foster decided against the raid from Cumberland Gap, explaining that General Jones was at Little War Gap to intercept a column that might ride from that point. He found, too, upon counting his effectives for the raid, that he could only mount fifteen hundred men, and that our guards at weak points had been doubled. Our railroad was in working order on the 26th of January, and the part of the pontoon bridge ordered for us was on the road. General Jenkins was ordered with the leading division down towards Strawberry Plains to collect such material as he could, and be prepared to throw the bridge across the Holston as soon as it was up and ready for us. Notice was given General A. E. Jackson of indications of raids; to Captain Osborn, commanding scouts; to General Wharton; to Rucker's Cavalry Legion and Jones's cavalry; and General Vaughn was ordered to collect his command at Rogersville, to be prepared to threaten Cumberland Gap if the forces there should be reduced. Due notice was sent our outlying parties and scouts to be on the watch for the reported raiding parties, and the guards of bridges in our rear were reinforced.  On the 6th of February, General Grant reported from Nashville,--
On the 9th, Major-General J. M. Schofield arrived at Knoxville, and assumed command of the Army of the Ohio. General Grant reported on the 11th,--
General Schofield ordered preparations for the eastern raid continued, but to await further orders of execution, and reported that its execution would require all of his effective mounts, break his animals down, and leave him without cavalry. General Grant wired these several despatches from Nashville on February 12:
Later despatches from General Grant and Commander-in-Chief Halleck were as follows:
The raids ordered north and south of us were now given over. General Thomas made his advance towards Dalton, and retired, unsuccessful. General Halleck was right in his estimate of East Tennessee as a strategic field essential to the Union service, the gate-way to Kentucky, to the Union line of communication, and the Ohio River; but General Grant found it so far from his lines of active operations that it could not be worked without interrupting plans of campaigns for the summer, and giving his adversary opportunity to dictate the work of the year. He thought it better to depend upon the conservative spirit that controlled at the South, to draw the army in East Tennessee off to meet threatenings in Virginia and Georgia, when he was prepared for them. On the 10th of February, General Jenkins was ordered with his division at Strawberry Plains to use the pontoon and flat-boats in bridging the Holston River. Other columns were ordered to approximate concentration, including Wharton's brigade from Bull's Gap, and Hodges's brigade coming from the Department of West Virginia. Rucker's cavalry was ordered to Blain's Cross-roads on the west bank, and outlying forces were advised of the advance. General Jenkins was ordered to put some of the cavalry over to be in observation towards Knoxville, and a brigade of infantry as supporting force; batteries on the hither bank to cover the troops and the bridge in case the enemy was disposed to dispute our crossing, and await my arrival and further orders. The army being ready  for the crossing and move for Knoxville, inquiry was made of General Johnston as to the condition of affairs with the enemy at Chattanooga. In answer he said,--
Our scouts report that troops have been sent from Chattanooga to Loudon. They could not learn the number.On the 17th I asked the Richmond authorities for ten thousand additional men, and General Lee, approving our work, asked to have Pickett's division sent, and other detachments to make up the number. On the 19th I was informed from General Johnston's Headquarters that “eight trains loaded with troops went up from Chattanooga on the night of the 17th.” A telegram came on the 19th from Richmond to say that the additional troops called for could not be sent, and on the same day a telegram from the President ordered me to send General Martin with his cavalry to General Johnston. In reply I reported that the order depriving me of the cavalry would force me to abandon the move, then in progress, against Knoxville, and draw the troops back towards Bristol. Then came other despatches from General Johnston that the enemy was still drawing forces from Chattanooga, but no authority came from Richmond authorizing me to retain the cavalry, so we were obliged to draw back to fields that could be guarded by smaller commands. Referring to the proposed advance, General Grant said, “Longstreet cannot afford to place his force between Knoxville and the Tennessee.” It was not so intended, but to put the army alongside of Knoxville to hold the enemy to his intrenched lines, while the troops asked for would be employed in breaking the railroad and bridges between that point and Chattanooga. It was thought that the army at Chattanooga could not afford sufficient detachments to drive me from that work without exposing that position to danger from General Johnston at Dalton,  but upon inquiry of General Johnston if he could avail himself of such opportunity, he replied that he was ordered to reinforce General Polk, who was operating in Mississippi in front of General Sherman. Instead of reinforcing General Polk, the latter should have been ordered to General Johnston. That would have drawn General Sherman to General Thomas, but Polk, having interior lines of transit, could have been in time for Johnston to strike and break up the road and bridge. behind Thomas before Sherman could reach him. The break could have forced Thomas to care for his own position, and the want of the bridge behind him might have forced him to abandon it, in search of safe communication with his supplies. But the authorities could not be induced to abandon the policy of placing detachments to defend points to which the enemy chose to call us. We had troops enough in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, if allowed to use them in co-operative combination, to break the entire front of the Federal forces and force them back into Kentucky before the opening of the spring campaign, when we might have found opportunity to “dictate” their campaign. The enemy was in no condition for backward move at the time of my advance upon Knoxville, so simultaneous advance of our many columns could have given him serious trouble, if not confusion. The order for the return of Martin's cavalry to Georgia, and the notice that other troops could not be sent me, called for the withdrawal of the command east, where we could find safer lines of defence and good foraging. The order to retire was issued, and the march was taken up on the 22d of February, Jenkins's division and the cavalry to cover the march. He was ordered to reship the pontoon-boats, destroy trestlings, flat-boats, the railroad bridge, and march in advance of the cavalry. He inquired if he should cut the wires and crossings of small streams, but was ordered to leave them undisturbed, as the  enemy would not be so likely to trouble us when he found we were disposed to be accommodating. The march was not seriously disturbed. The enemy's cavalry, reduced by severe winter service, was in poor condition to follow, and the roads we left behind us were too heavy for artillery. A good position was found behind Bull's Gap, and the army was deployed to comfortable camps from the Holston River on the right to the Nolachucky on the left. The prime object of the second advance upon Knoxville was to show the strategic strength of the field, and persuade the authorities that an army of twenty thousand in that zone could be of greater service than double that force on the enemy's front or elsewhere, but they could not or would not hear of plans that proposed to take them from the settled policy of meeting the enemy where he was prepared for us.