- Ordered to return to Chattanooga -- March to Knoxville -- collecting subsistence stores -- a clever stratagem -- a bridge of wagons -- looking out for the personal comfort of the soldiers -- a leave of absence -- ordered to Washington -- parting with Sheridan's division.
The day after the battle of Missionary Ridge I was ordered in the evening to return to Chattanooga, and from the limited supply of stores to be had there outfit my command to march to the relief of Knoxville, where General Burnside was still holding out against the besieging forces of General Longstreet. When we left Murfreesboroa in the preceding June, the men's knapsacks and extra clothing, as well as all our camp equipage, had been left behind, and these articles had not yet reached us, so we were poorly prepared for a winter campaign in the mountains of East Tennessee. There was but little clothing to be obtained in Chattanooga, and my command received only a few overcoats and a small supply of India-rubber ponchos. We could get no shoes, although we stood in great need of them, for the extra pair with which each man had started out from Murfreesboroa was now much the worse for wear. The necessity for succoring Knoxville was urgent, however, so we speedily refitted as thoroughly as was possible with the limited means at hand. My division teams were in very fair condition in consequence of the forage we had procured in the Sequatchie Valley, so I left the train behind to bring up clothing when any should arrive in Chattanooga. Under these circumstances, on the 29th of November the Fourth Corps (Granger's) took up the line of march for Knoxville, my men carrying in their haversacks four days rations, depending for a further supply of food on a small steamboat loaded with subsistence stores, which was to proceed up the Tennessee River and keep abreast of the column.  Not far from Philadelphia, Tennessee, the columns of General Sherman's army, which had kept a greater distance from the river than Granger's corps, so as to be able to subsist on the country, came in toward our right and the whole relieving force was directed on Marysville, about fifteen miles southwest of Knoxville. We got to Marysville December 5, and learned the same day that Longstreet had shortly before attempted to take Knoxville by a desperate assault, but signally failing, had raised the siege and retired toward Bean's Station on the Rutledge, Rogersville, and Bristol road, leading to Virginia. From Marysville General Sherman's troops returned to Chattanooga, while Granger's corps continued on toward Knoxville, to take part in the pursuit of Longstreet. Burnside's army was deficient in subsistence, though not to the extent that we had supposed before leaving Chattanooga. It had eaten out the country in the immediate vicinity of Knoxville, however; therefore my division did not cross the Holstein River, but was required, in order to maintain itself, to proceed to the region of the French Broad River. To this end I moved to Sevierville, and making this village my headquarters, the division was spread out over the French Broad country, between Big Pigeon and Little Pigeon rivers, where we soon had all the mills in operation, grinding out plenty of flour and meal. The whole region was rich in provender of all kinds, and as the people with rare exceptions were enthusiastically loyal, we in a little while got more than enough food for ourselves, and by means of flatboats began sending the surplus down the river to the troops at Knoxville. The intense loyalty of this part of Tennessee exceeded that of any other section I was in during the war. The people could not do too much to aid the Union cause, and brought us an abundance of everything needful. The women were especially loyal, and as many of their sons and husbands, who had been compelled to “refugee” on account of their loyal sentiments, returned with us, numbers of the women went into ecstasies of joy when this part of the Union army appeared among them. So long as we remained in the French Broad region, we lived on the fat of the land, but unluckily our stay was to be of short duration, for Longstreet's activity kept the department commander in a state of constant alarm. Soon after getting the mills well running, and when the shipment of their surplus product down the river by flatboats had begun, I was ordered to move to Knoxville, on account of demonstrations by Longstreet from the direction of Blain's crossroads. On arriving at Knoxville, an inspection of my command, showed that the shoes of many of the men were entirely worn out, the poor fellows having been obliged to protect their feet with a sort of moccasin, made from their blankets or  from such other material as they could procure. About six hundred of the command were in this condition, plainly not suitably shod to withstand the frequent storms of sleet and snow. These men I left in Knoxville to await the arrival of my train, which I now learned was en route from Chattanooga with shoes, overcoats, and other clothing, and with the rest of the division proceeded to Strawberry Plains, which we reached the latter part of December. Mid-winter was now upon us, and the weather in this mountain region of East Tennessee was very cold, snow often falling to the depth of several inches. The thin and scanty clothing of the men afforded little protection, and while in bivouac their only shelter was the ponchos with which they had been provided before leaving Chattanooga; there was not a tent in the command. Hence great suffering resulted, which I anxiously hoped would be relieved shortly by the arrival of my train with supplies. In the course of time the wagons reached Knoxville, but my troops derived little comfort from this fact, for the train was stopped by General Foster, who had succeeded Burnside in command of the department, its contents distributed pro rata to the different organizations of the entire army, and I received but a small share. This was very disappointing, not to say exasperating, but I could not complain of unfairness, for every command in the army was suffering to the same extent as mine, and yet it did seem that a little forethought and exertion on the part of some of the other superior officers, whose transportation was in tolerable condition, might hare ameliorated the situation considerably. I sent the train back at once for more clothing, and on its return, just before reaching Knoxville, the quartermaster in charge, Captain Philip Smith, filled the open spaces in the wagons between the bows and load with fodder and hay, and by this clever stratagem passed it through the town safe and undisturbed as a forage train. On Smith's arrival we lost no time ill issuing the clothing, and when it had passed into the hands of the individual soldiers the danger of its appropriation for general distribution, like the preceding invoice, was very remote. General Foster had decided by this time to move his troops to Dandridge for the twofold purpose of threatening the enemy's left and of getting into a locality where we could again gather subsistence from the French Broad region. Accordingly we began an advance on the 15th of January, the cavalry having preceded us some time before. The Twenty-third Corps and Wood's division of the Fourth Corps crossed the Holstein River by a bridge that had been constructed at Strawberry Plains. My division being higher up the stream, forded it, the water very deep and bitter cold, being filled with slushy ice. Marching by way of New Market, I reached Dandridge on the 17th, and here on my arrival  met General Sturgis, then commanding our cavalry. He was on the eve of setting out to “whip the enemy's cavalry,” as he said, and wanted me to go along and see him do it. I declined, however, for being now the senior officer present, Foster, Parke, and Granger having remained at Knoxville and Strawberry Plains, their absence left me in command, and it was necessary that I should make disposition of the infantry when it arrived. As there were indications of a considerable force of the enemy on the Russellville road I decided to place the troops in line of battle, so as to be prepared for any emergency that might arise in the absence of the senior officers, and I deemed it prudent to supervise personally the encamping of the men. This disposition necessarily required that some of the organizations should occupy very disagreeable ground, but I soon got all satisfactorily posted with the exception of General Willich, who expressed some discontent at being placed beyond the shelter of the timber, but accepted the situation cheerfully when its obvious necessity was pointed out to him. Feeling that all was secure, I returned to my headquarters in the village with the idea that we were safely established in case of attack, and that the men would now have a good rest if left undisturbed, and plenty to eat, but hardly had I reached my own camp when a staff-officer came post-haste from Sturgis with the information that he was being driven back to my lines, despite the confident invitation to me (in the morning) to go out and witness the whipping which was to be given to the enemy's cavalry. Riding to the front, I readily perceived that the information was correct, and I had to send a brigade of infantry out to help Sturgis, thus relieving him from a rather serious predicament. Indeed, the enemy was present in pretty strong force, both cavalry and infantry, and from his vicious attack on Sturgis it looked very much as though he intended to bring on a general engagement. Under such circumstances I deemed it advisable that the responsible commanders of the army should be present, and so informed them. My communication brought Parke and Granger to the front without delay, but Foster could not come, since the hardships of the winter had reopened an old wound received during the Mexican War, and brought on much suffering. By the time Parke and Granger arrived, however, the enemy, who it turned out was only making a strong demonstration to learn the object of our movement on Dandridge, seemed satisfied with the results of his reconnoissance, and began falling back toward Bull's Gap. Meanwhile Parke and Granger concluded that Dandridge was an untenable point, and hence decided to withdraw a part of the army to Strawberry Plains; and the question of supplies again coming up, it was determined to send the Fourth Corps to the south side of the French  Broad to obtain subsistence, provided we could bridge the river so that men could get across the deep and icy stream without suffering. I agreed to undertake the construction of a bridge on condition that each division should send to the ford twenty-five wagons with which to make it. This being acceded to, Harker's brigade began the work next morning at a favorable point a few miles down the river. As my quota of wagons arrived, they were drawn into the stream one after another by the wheel team, six men in each wagon, and as they successively reached the other side of the channel the mules were unhitched, the pole of each wagon run under the hind axle of the one just in front, and the tail-boards used so as to span the slight space between them. The plan worked well as long as the material lasted, but no other wagons than my twenty-five coming on the ground, the work stopped when the bridge was only half constructed. Informed of the delay and its cause, in sheer desperation I finished the bridge by taking from my own division all the wagons needed to make up the deficiency. It was late in the afternoon when the work was finished, and I began putting over one of my brigades; but in the midst of its crossing word came that Longstreet's army was moving to attack us, which caused an abandonment of the foraging project, and orders quickly followed to retire to Strawberry Plains, the retrograde movement to begin forthwith. I sent to headquarters information of the plight I was in-baggage and supplies on the bank and wagons in the stream-begged to know what was to become of them if we were to hurry off at a moment's notice, and suggested that the movement be delayed until I could recover my transportation. Receiving in reply no assurances that I should be relieved from my dilemma-and, in fact, nothing satisfactory — I determined to take upon myself the responsibility of remaining on the ground long enough to get my wagons out of the river; so I sent out a heavy force to watch for the enemy, and with the remainder of the command went to work to break up the bridge. Before daylight next morning I had recovered everything without interference by Longstreet, who, it was afterward ascertained, was preparing to move east toward Lynchburg instead of marching to attack us; the small demonstration against Dandridge, being made simply to deceive us as to his ultimate object. I marched to Strawberry Plains unmolested, and by taking the route over Bay's Mountain, a shorter one than that followed by the main body of our troops, reached the point of rendezvous as soon as the most of the army, for the road it followed was not only longer, but badly cut up by trains that had recently passed over it.  Shortly after getting into camp, the beef contractor came in and reported that a detachment of the enemy's cavalry had captured my herd of beef cattle. This caused me much chagrin at first, but the commissary of my division soon put in an appearance, and assured me that the loss would not be very disastrous to us nor of much benefit to the enemy, since the cattle were so poor and weak that they could not be driven off. A reconnoissance in force verified the Commissary's statement. From its inability to travel, the herd, after all efforts to carry it off had proved ineffectual, had been abandoned by its captors. After the troops from Chattanooga arrived in the vicinity of Knoxville and General Sherman had returned to Chattanooga, the operations in East Tennessee constituted a series of blunders, lasting through the entire winter; a state of affairs doubtless due, in the main, to the fact that the command of the troops was so frequently changed. Constant shifting of responsibility from one to another ensued from the date that General Sherman, after assuring himself that Knoxville was safe. devolved the command on Burnside. It had already been intimated to Burnside that he was to be relieved, and in consequence he was inactive and apathetic, confining his operations to an aimless expedition whose advance extended only as far as Blain's crossroads, whence it was soon withdrawn. Meanwhile General Foster had superseded Burnside, but physical disabilities rendered him incapable of remaining in the field, and then the chief authority devolved on Parke. By this time the transmission of power seemed almost a disease; at any rate it was catching, so, while we were en route to Dandridge, Parke transferred the command to Granger. The latter next unloaded it on me, and there is no telling what the final outcome would have been had I not entered a protest against a further continuance of the practice, which remonstrance brought Granger to the front at Dandridge. While the events just narrated were taking place, General Grant had made a visit to Knoxville — about the last of December-and arranged to open the railroad between there and Chattanooga, with a view to supplying the troops in East Tennessee by rail in the future, instead of through Cumberland Gap by a tedious line of wagontrains. In pursuance of his plan the railroad had already been opened to Loudon, but here much delay occurred on account of the long time it took to rebuild the bridge over the Tennessee. Therefore supplies were still very scarce, and as our animals were now dying in numbers from starvation, and the men were still on short allowance, it became necessary that some of the troops east of Knoxville should get nearer to their depot, and also be in a position to take part in the coming Georgia campaign, or render assistance to General Thomas, should General Johnston  (who had succeeded in command of the Confederate army) make any demonstration against Chattanooga. Hence my division was ordered to take station at Loudon, Tennessee, and I must confess that we took the road for that point with few regrets, for a general disgust prevailed regarding our useless marches during the winter. At this time my faithful scout Card and his younger brother left me, with the determination, as I have heretofore related, to avenge their brother's death. No persuasion could induce Card to remain longer, for knowing that my division's next operation would be toward Atlanta, and being ignorant of the country below Dalton, he recognized and insisted that his services would then become practically valueless. At Loudon, where we arrived January 27, supplies were more plentiful, and as our tents and extra clothing reached us there in a few days, every one grew contented and happy. Here a number of my regiments, whose terms of service were about to expire, went through the process of “veteranizing,” and, notwithstanding the trials and hardships of the preceding nine months, they re-enlisted almost to a man. When everything was set in motion toward recuperating and refitting my troops, I availed myself of the opportunity during a lull that then existed to take a short leave of absence — a privilege I had not indulged in since entering the service in 1853. This leave I spent in the North with much benefit to my physical condition, for I was much run down by fatiguing service, and not a little troubled by intense pain which I at times still suffered from my experience in the unfortunate hand-car incident on the Cumberland Mountains the previous July. I returned from leave the latter part of March, rejoining my division with the expectation that the campaign in that section would begin as early as April. On the 12th of March, 1864, General Grant was assigned to the command of the armies of the United States, as general-in-chief. He was already in Washington, whither he had gone to receive his commission as lieutenant-general. Shortly after his arrival there, he commenced to rearrange the different commands in the army to suit the plans which he intended to enter upon in the spring, and out of this grew a change in my career. Many jealousies and much ill-feeling, the outgrowth of former campaigns, existed among officers of high grade in the Army of the Potomac in the winter of 1864, and several general officers were to be sent elsewhere in consequence. Among these, General Alfred Pleasonton was to be relieved from the command of the cavalry, General Grant having expressed to the President dissatisfaction that so little had hitherto been accomplished by that arm of the service, and I was selected as chief of the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac, receiving on  the night of the 23d of March from General Thomas at Chattanooga the following telegram:
I was not informed of the purpose for which I was to proceed to Washington, but I conjectured that it meant a severing of my relations with the Second Division, Fourth Army Corps. I at once set about obeying the order, and as but little preparation was necessary, I started for Chattanooga the next day, without taking any formal leave of the troops I had so long commanded. I could not do it; the bond existing between them and me had grown to such depth of attachment that I feared to trust my emotions in any formal parting from a body of soldiers who, from our mutual devotion, had long before lost their official designation, and by general consent within and without the command were called “Sheridan's division.” When I took the train at the station the whole command was collected on the hill-sides around to see me off. They had assembled spontaneously, officers and men, and as the cars moved out for Chattanooga they waved me farewell with demonstrations of affection. A parting from such friends was indeed to be regretted. They had never given me any trouble, nor done anything that could bring aught but honor to themselves. I had confidence in them, and I believe they had in me. They were ever steady, whether in victory or in misfortune, and as I tried always to be with them, to put them into the hottest fire if good could be gained, or save them from unnecessary loss, as occasion required, they amply repaid all my care and anxiety, courageously and readily meeting all demands in every emergency that arose. In Kentucky, nearly two years before, my lot had been cast with about half of the twenty-five regiments of infantry that I was just leaving, the rest joining me after Chickamauga. It was practically a new arm of the service to me, for although I-was. an infantry officer, yet the only large command which up to that time I had controlled was composed of cavalry, and most of my experience had been gained in this arm of the service. I had to study hard to be able to master all the needs of such a force, to feed and clothe it and guard all its interests. When undertaking these responsibilities I felt that if I met them faithfully, recompense would surely come through the hearty response that soldiers always make to conscientious exertion on the part of their superiors,  and not only that more could be gained in that way than from the use of any species of influence, but that the reward would be quicker. Therefore I always tried to look after their comfort personally; selected their camps, and provided abundantly for their subsistence, and the road they opened for me shows that my work was not in vain. I regretted deeply to have to leave such soldiers, and felt that they were sorry I was going, and even now I could not, if I would, retain other than the warmest sentiments of esteem and the tenderest affection for the officers and men of “Sheridan's division,” Army of the Cumberland. On reaching Chattanooga I learned from General Thomas the purpose for which I had been ordered to Washington. I was to be assigned to the command of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The information staggered me at first, for I knew well the great responsibilities of such a position; moreover, I was but slightly acquainted with military operations in Virginia, and then, too, the higher officers of the Army of the Potomac were little known to me, so at the moment I felt loth to undergo the trials of the new position. Indeed, I knew not a soul in Washington except General Grant and General Halleck, and them but slightly, and no one in General Meade's army, from the commanding general down, except a few officers in the lower grades, hardly any of whom I had seen since graduating at the Military Academy. Thus it is not much to be wondered at that General Thomas's communication momentarily upset me. But there was no help for it, so after reflecting on the matter a little I concluded to make the best of the situation. As in Virginia I should be operating in a field with which I was wholly unfamiliar, and among so many who were strangers, it seemed to me that it would be advisable to have, as a chief staff-officer, one who had had service in the East, if an available man could be found. In weighing all these considerations in my mind, I fixed upon Captain James W. Forsyth, of the Eighteenth Infantry, then in the regular brigade at Chattanooga — a dear friend of mine, who had served in the Army of the Potomac, in the Peninsula and Antietam campaigns. He at once expressed a desire to accept a position on my staff, and having obtained by the next day the necessary authority, he and I started for Washington, accompanied by Lieutenant T. W. C. Moore, one of my aides, leaving behind Lieutenant M. V. Sheridan, my other aide, to forward our horses as soon as they should be sent down to Chattanooga from Loudon, after which he was to join me.