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Chapter 35: cut off from East and West.

As General Wheeler's note indicated doubt of the feasibility of the move towards General Bragg, it occurred to me that our better course was to hold our lines about Knoxville, and in that way cause General Grant to send to its relief, and thus so reduce his force as to stop, for a time, pursuit of General Bragg.

Under this impression, I ordered our trains back, and continued to hold our lines. The superior officers were called together and advised of affairs, and asked for suggestions. The impression seemed to be that it would not be prudent to undertake to join General Bragg. At the same time reports came from him to inform me that he had retired as far as Dalton, and that I must depend upon my own resources.

We were cut off from communication with the army at Dalton, except by an impracticable mountain route, and the railway to the north was broken up by the removal of bridges and rails for a distance of a hundred miles and more.

Deciding to remain at Knoxville, I called on General Ransom to join us with his main force, to aid in reinvesting it, or to hold it while we could march against a [510] succoring force if the numbers should warrant. On the 1st of December, Colonel Giltner, commanding one of General Ransom's cavalry brigades, reported that he had orders to join General Ransom with his brigade. On the same day a courier going from General Grant to General Burnside was captured, bearing an autograph letter for the latter, stating that three columns were advancing for his relief,--one by the south side under General Sherman, one by Decherd under General Elliott, the third by Cumberland Gap under General Foster.

When General Leadbetter left us on the 29th of November, he was asked to look after affairs at Loudon, and to order General Vaughn to destroy such property as he could not haul off, and retire through the mountains to General Bragg's army. Finding that General Vaughn had not been moved, he was ordered on the 1st of December to cross the river to our side with everything that he could move, and to be ready to destroy property that he must leave, and march to join us as soon as the pressure from General Sherman's force became serious. At the same time an order came from General Bragg that his cavalry be ordered back to his army. As I had relieved the pressure against him in his critical emergency, and affairs were getting a little complicated about my position, I felt warranted in retaining the cavalry for the time.

Reports coming at the same time of reinforcements for the enemy at Kingston, pressing towards General Vaughn at Loudon, he was ordered to join us. As he had no horses for the battery, he tumbled it from the bridge into the middle of the Tennessee River, burned the bridge, and marched.

Under the circumstances there seemed but one move left for us,--to march around Knoxville to the north side, up the Holston, and try to find the column reported to be marching down from Cumberland Gap, the mountain ranges and valleys of that part of the State offering [511] beautiful fields for the manoeuvre of small armies. The order was issued December 2. Trains were put in motion on the 3d, and ordered up the railroad route under escort of Law's and Robertson's brigades and one of Alexander's batteries. On the night of the 4th the troops were marched from the southwest to the north side of the city, and took up the march along the west bank of the Holston. General Martin, with his own and General W. E. Jones's cavalry, was left to guard the rear of our march and pick up weak men or stragglers. He was ordered to cross part of his cavalry to the east bank at Strawberry Plains and march up on that side, and General W. E. Jones to follow on our rear with his and the balance of Martin's corps. As we were not disturbed, we reached Blain's Cross-roads on the afternoon of the 5th, where we met General Ransom with his infantry and the balance of his artillery. On the 6th we marched to Rutledge, halting two days to get food and look for the succoring column by Cumberland Gap, which failed to appear. However, it was time for us to be looking for better fields of food for men and animals, who had not had comfortable rations for weeks. It seemed, too, that General Bragg's call for his cavalry could not be longer left in abeyance. To get away from convenient march of the enemy we went up the river as far as Rogersville, where we might hope to forage under reduced cavalry force. We marched on the 8th, ordering our cavalry, except Giltner's brigade, across the Holston near Bean's Station, General Ransom's command to cover our march, General Bragg's cavalry to go by an eastern route through the mountains to Georgia. We halted at Rogersville on the 9th, where we were encouraged to hope for full rations for a few days, at least; but to be sure of accumulating a few days' extra supply (the mills being only able to grind a full day's rations for us), every man and animal was put on short rations until we could get as much as three days supply on hand. [512]

On the 7th of December the Union army, under Major-General John G. Parke, took the field along the rear of our march, and reached Rutledge on the 9th, the enemy's cavalry advancing as far as Bean's Station. The object was supposed to be the securing of the forage and subsistence stores of the country; but of these movements we were not fully advised until the 11th. On the 10th of December, General Morgan's brigade of cavalry was attacked at Russellville while engaged in foraging, but got force enough, and in time, to drive the enemy away.

On the 10th a telegram from the President gave me discretionary authority over the movements of the troops of the department, and I ordered the recall of General Martin, and put his command between us and the enemy. On the 12th we had information that General Sherman had taken up his march for return to General Grant's army with the greater part of his troops. At the same time we had information of the force that had followed our march as far as Rutledge and Blain's Cross-roads, under General Parke, who had posted a large part of the force of artillery, cavalry, and infantry at Bean's Station, a point between the Clinch Mountain and the Holston River. The mountain there is very rugged, and was reported to be inaccessible, except at very rough passes. The valley between it and the river is about two miles wide, at some places less.

I thought to cut off the advance force at Bean's Station by putting our main cavalry force east of the river, the other part west of the mountain (except Giltner's), so as to close the mountain pass on the west, and bar the enemy's retreat by my cavalry in his rear,--which was to cross the Holston behind him,--then by marching the main column down the valley to capture this advance part of the command. My column, though complaining a little of short rations and very muddy roads, made its march in good season. So also did Jones on the west of the [513] mountain, and Martin on the other side of the Holston; but the latter encountered a brigade at May's Ford, which delayed him and gave time for the enemy to change to a position some four miles to his rear.

As we approached the position in front of the Gap, Giltner's cavalry in advance, General B. R. Johnson met and engaged the enemy in a severe fight, but forced him back steadily. As we were looking for large capture more than fight, delay was unfortunate. I called Kershaw's brigade up to force contention till we could close the west end of the Gap. The movements were nicely executed by Johnson and Kershaw, but General Martin had not succeeded in gaining his position, so the rear was not closed, and the enemy retired. At night I thought the army was in position to get the benefit of the small force cut off at the Gap, as some reward for our very hard work. We received reports from General Jones, west of the mountain, that he was in position at his end of the Gap, and had captured several wagon-loads of good things. As his orders included the capture of the train, he had failed of full comprehension of them, and after nightfall had withdrawn to comfortable watering places to enjoy his large catch of sugar and coffee, and other things seldom seen in Confederate camps in those days. Thus the troops at the Gap got out during the night, some running over the huge rocks and heavy wood tangles along the crest, by torch-light, to their comrades, some going west by easier ways. So when I sent up in the morning, looking for their doleful surrender, my men found only empty camp-kettles, mess-pans, tents, and a few abandoned guns, and twelve prisoners, while the Yankees were, no doubt, sitting around their camp-fires enjoying the joke with the comrades they had rejoined.

During our march and wait at Rogersville, General Foster passed down to Knoxville by a more southern [514] route and relieved General Burnside of command of the department on the 12th.

General Jenkins was ordered to follow down the valley to the new position of the enemy. His brigades under Generals Law and Robertson had been detached guarding trains. General Law, commanding them, had been ordered to report to the division commander on the 13th, but at night of the 14th he was eight miles behind. Orders were sent him to join the division at the earliest practicable moment on the 15th. He reported to the division commander between two and three o'clock in the afternoon. If he started at the hour he should have marched, six A. M. at the latest, he was about eight hours making as many miles.

Meanwhile, the enemy had been reinforced by a considerable body of infantry, and later it appeared that he was advancing to offer battle. General McLaws was ordered to reinforce our front by a brigade. He sent word that his men had not yet received their bread rations. He sent Kershaw's brigade, however, that had captured rations the day before, but then it was night, and the appearance of General Martin's cavalry on or near the enemy's flank caused a change of his plans. During the night he retreated, and we occupied his trenches. I could have precipitated an affair of some moment, both at this point and at Bean's Station Gap, but my purpose was, when I fought, to fight for all that was on the field. The time was then for full and glorious victory; a fruitless one we did not want.

The enemy retired to Blain's Cross-roads, where General Foster, after reinforcing by the Fourth Corps, decided to accept battle. He reported his force as twenty-six thousand, and credited the Confederates with equal numbers, but twenty thousand would have been an overestimate for us. He assigned the true cause of our failure to follow up and find him: [515]

General Longstreet, however, did not attack, in consequence, probably, of the very inclement weather, which then set in with such severity as to paralyze for a time the efforts of both armies.”

And now the weather grew very heavy, and the roads, already bad, became soft and impracticable for trains and artillery. The men were brave, steady, patient. Occasionally they called pretty loudly for parched corn, but always in a bright, merry mood. There was never a time when we did not have enough of corn, and plenty of wood with which to keep us warm and parch our corn. At this distance it seems almost incredible that we got along as we did, but all were then so healthy and strong that we did not feel severely our really great hardships. Our serious trouble was in the matter of clothing and shoes. As winter had broken upon us in good earnest, it seemed necessary for us to give up the game of war for the time, seek some good place for shelter, and repair railroads and bridges, to open our way back towards Richmond.

General Bragg hall been relieved from command of the army at Dalton by Lieutenant-General W. J. Hardee, who declined, however, the part of permanent commander, to which, after a time, General Joseph E. Johnston was assigned.

On his return from Knoxville, General Sherman proposed to General Grant to strike at General Hardee and gain Rome and the line of the Oostenaula. He wrote,--

Of course we must fight if Hardee gives us battle, but he will not. Longstreet is off and cannot do harm for a month. Lee, in Virginia, is occupied, and Hardee is alone.

But General Halleck was much concerned about the Confederate army in East Tennessee, the only strategic field then held by Southern troops. It was inconveniently near Kentucky and the Ohio River, and President Lincoln and his War Secretary were as anxious as Halleck [516] on account of its politico-strategic bearing. General Halleck impressed his views upon General Grant, and despatched General Foster that it was of first importance to “drive Longstreet out of East Tennessee and keep him out.” General Grant ordered, “Drive Longstreet to the farthest point east that you can.” And he reported to the authorities,--

If Longstreet is not driven out of the valley entirely and the road destroyed east of Abingdon, I do not think it unlikely that the last great battle of the war will be fought in East Tennessee. Reports of deserters and citizens show the army of Bragg to be too much demoralized and reduced by desertions to do anything this winter. I will get everything in order here in a few days and go to Nashville and Louisville, and, if there is still a chance of doing anything against Longstreet, to the scene of operations there. I am deeply interested in moving the enemy beyond Saltville this winter, so as to be able to select my own campaign in the spring, instead of having the enemy dictate it to me.

Referring to his orders, General Foster reported his plan to intrench a line of infantry along Bull's Gap and Mulberry Gap, and have his cavalry ready for the ride against Saltville, but the Confederates turned upon him, and he despatched General Grant on the 11th,--

Longstreet has taken the offensive against General Parke, who has fallen back to Blain's Cross-roads, where Granger is now concentrating his corps. I intend to fight them if Longstreet comes.

The failure to follow has been explained.

The summing up of the plans laid for General Hardee and Saltville is brief. Hardee was not disturbed. The ride towards Saltville, made about the last of the month, was followed by General W. E. Jones and came to grief, as will be elsewhere explained.

Upon relinquishing command of his army, General Bragg was called to Richmond as commander-in-chief near the President. [517]

Before General Hood was so seriously hurt at the battle of Chickamauga, he made repeated complaints of want of conduct on the part of Brigadier-General J. B. Robertson. After the fiasco in Lookout Valley on the night of the 28th of October, I reported to General Bragg of the representations made by General Hood, and of want of conduct on the part of General Robertson in that night attack, when General Bragg ordered me to ask for a board of officers to examine into the merits of the case. The board was ordered, and General Robertson was relieved from duty by orders from General Bragg's headquarters, “while the proceedings and actions of the examining board in his case were pending.”

On the 8th, without notice to my Headquarters, General Bragg ordered, “Brigadier-General Robertson will rejoin his command until the board can renew its session.” 1 On the 18th of December the division commander preferred “charges and specifications” against Brigadier-General Robertson, in which he accused him of calling the commanders of his Texas regiments to him and saying there were but “Three days rations on hand, and God knows where more are to come from; that he had no confidence in the campaign; that whether we whipped the enemy in the immediate battle or not, we would be compelled to retreat, the enemy being believed by citizens and others to be moving around us, and that we were in danger of losing a considerable part of our army; that our men were in no condition for campaigning; that General Longstreet had promised shoes, but how could they be furnished? that we only had communication with Richmond, and could only get a mail from there in three weeks; that he was opposed to the movement; would require written orders, and would obey under protest.”

General Robertson was ordered to Bristol to await the action of the Richmond authorities, who were asked for a court-martial to try the case. [518]

On the 17th the following orders concerning General McLaws were issued:

Special orders no. 27.

Headquarters near Bean's Station, December 17, 1863.
Major-General L. McLaws is relieved from further duty with this army, and will proceed to Augusta, Georgia, from which place he will report by letter to the adjutant-and inspector-general. He will turn over the command of the division to the senior brigadier present.

By command of Lieutenant-General Longstreet.

G. Moxley Sorrel, Lieutenant-Colonel and Assistant Adjutant-General. Major-General McLaws, Confederate States Army.

On the same day he wrote,--

Camp on Bean's Station Gap Road, December 17, 1863.
Lieutenant-Colonel Sorrel, Assistant Adjutant-General:
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of Special Orders No. 27, from your Headquarters, of this date, relieving me from further duty with this army. If there is no impropriety in making inquiry, and I cannot imagine there is, I respectfully request to be informed of the particular reason for the order.

Very respectfully, L. McLaws, General.

In reply the following was sent:

Headquarters near Bean's Station, December 17, 1863.
Major-General McLaws, Confederate States Army: General,--
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your note of to-day, asking for the particular reason for the issue of the order relieving you from duty with this army. In reply I am directed to say that throughout the campaign on which we are engaged you have exhibited a want of confidence in the efforts and plans which the commanding general has thought proper to [519] adopt, and he is apprehensive that this feeling will extend more or less to the troops under your command. Under these circumstances the commanding general has felt that the interest of the public service would be advanced by your separation from him, and as he could not himself leave, he decided upon the issue of the order which you have received.

I have the honor to be, general, with great respect, G. Moxley Sorrel, Lieutenant-Colonel and Assistant Adjutaut-General.

On the 19th, General Law handed in his resignation at Headquarters, and asked leave of absence on it. This was cheerfully granted. Then he asked the privilege of taking the resignation with him to the adjutant-general at Richmond. This was a very unusual request, but the favor he was doing the service gave him some claim to unusual consideration, and his request was granted.

The Law disaffection was having effect, or seemed to be, among some of the officers, but most of them and all of the soldiers were true and brave, even through all of the hardships of the severest winter of the four years of war. Marching and fighting had been almost daily occupation from the middle of January, 1863, when we left Fredericksburg to move down to Suffolk, Virginia, until the 16th of December, when we found bleak winter again breaking upon us, away from our friends, and dependent upon our own efforts for food and clothing. It is difficult for a soldier to find words that can express his high appreciation of conduct in officers and men who endured so bravely the severe trials they were called to encounter.

Orders were given to cross the Holston River and march for the railroad, only a few miles away. Before quitting the fields of our arduous labors mention should be made of General Bushrod R. Johnson's clever march of sixteen miles, through deep mud, to Bean's Station on the 13th, when he and General Kershaw attacked and pushed the enemy back from his front at the Gap before [520] he could get out of it. Honorable mention is also due General Jenkins for his equally clever pursuit of the enemy at Lenoir's Station; Brigadier-General Humphreys and Bryan for their conduct at the storming assault; Colonel Ruff, who led Wofford's brigade, and died in the ditch; Colonel McElroy, of the Thirteenth Mississippi Regiment, and Colonel Thomas, of the Sixteenth Georgia, who also died in the ditch; Lieutenant Cumming, adjutant of the Sixteenth Georgia Regiment, who overcame all obstacles, crowned the parapet with ten or a dozen men, and, entering the fort through one of the embrasures, was taken prisoner; and Colonel Fiser, of the Eighteenth Mississippi, who lost an arm while on the parapet. Not the least of the gallant acts of the campaign was the dash of Captain Winthrop, who led our once halting lines over the rail defences at Knoxville.

The transfer of the army to the east bank of the river was executed by diligent work and the use of such flat-boats and other means of crossing as we could collect and construct. We were over by the 20th, and before Christmas were in our camps along the railroad, near Morristown. Blankets and clothes were very scarce, shoes more so, but all knew how to enjoy the beautiful country in which we found ourselves. The French Broad River and the Holston are confluent at Knoxville. The country between and beyond them contains as fine farming lands and has as delightful a climate as can be found. Stock and grain were on all farms. Wheat and oats had been hidden away by our Union friends, but the fields were full of maize, still standing. The country about the French Broad had hardly been touched by the hands of foragers. Our wagons immediately on entering the fields were loaded to overflowing. Pumpkins were on the ground in places like apples under a tree. Cattle, sheep, and swine, poultry, vegetables, maple-sugar, honey, were all abundant for immediate wants of the troops. [521]

When the enemy found we had moved to the east bank, his cavalry followed to that side. They were almost as much in want of the beautiful foraging lands as we, but we were in advance of them, and left little for them. With all the plenitude of provisions and many things which seemed at the time luxuries, we were not quite happy. Tattered blankets, garments, and shoes (the latter going-many gone) opened ways, on all sides, for piercing winter blasts. There were some hand-looms in the country from which we occasionally picked up a piece of cloth, and here and there we received other comforts, some from kind and some from unwilling hands, which nevertheless could spare them. For shoes we were obliged to resort to the raw hides of beef cattle as temporary protection from the frozen ground. Then we began to find soldiers who could tan the hides of our beeves, some who could make shoes, some who could make shoe-pegs, some who could make shoe-lasts, so that it came about that the hides passed rapidly from the beeves to the feet of the soldiers in the form of comfortable shoes. Then came the opening of the railroad, and lo and behold! a shipment of three thousand shoes from General Lawton, quartermaster-general! Thus the most urgent needs were supplied, and the soldier's life seemed passably pleasant,--that is, in the infantry and artillery. Our cavalry were looking at the enemy all of this while, and the enemy was looking at them, both frequently burning powder between their lines.

General Sturgis had been assigned to the cavalry of the other side to relieve General Shackelford, and he seemed to think that the dead of winter was the time for cavalry work; and our General Martin's orders were to have the enemy under his eye at all hours. Both were vigilant, active, and persevering.

About the 20th of December a raid was made by General Averill from West Virginia upon a supply depot of General Sam Jones's department, at Salem, which was [522] partially successful, when General Grant, under the impression that the stores were for troops of East Tennessee, wired General Foster, December 25, “This will give you great advantage,” and General Foster despatched General Parke, commanding his troops in the field, December 26, “Longstreet will feel a little timid now, and will bear a little pushing.”

Under the fierce operations of General Sturgis's cavalry against General Martin's during the latter days of December, General W. E. Jones's cavalry was on guard for my right and rear towards Cumberland Gap. While Sturgis busied himself against our front and left, a raiding party rode from Cumberland Gap against the outposts of our far-off right, under Colonel Pridemore. As W. E. Jones was too far to support Martin's cavalry, he was called to closer threatenings against Cumberland Gap, that he might thus draw some of Sturgis's cavalry from our front to strengthen the forces at the Gap. Upon receipt of orders, General Jones crossed Clinch River in time to find the warm trail of the raiders who were following Pridemore. He sent around to advise him of his ride in pursuit of his pursuers, and ordered Pridemore, upon hearing his guns, to turn and join in the attack upon them.

The very cold season and severe march through the mountain fastnesses stretched Jones's line so that he was in poor condition for immediate attack when he found the enemy's camp at daylight on the 3d of January; but he found a surprise: not even a picket guard out in their rear. He dashed in with his leading forces and got the enemy's battery, but the enemy quickly rallied and made battle, which recovered the artillery, and got into strong position about some farm-houses and defended with desperate resolution. Finding the position too strong, Jones thought to so engage as to make the enemy use his battery until his ammunition was exhausted, and then put in [523] all of his forces in assault. Towards night the enemy found himself reduced to desperate straits and tried to secure cover of the mountains, but as quick as he got away from the farm-houses Jones put all of his forces in, capturing three pieces of artillery, three hundred and eighty prisoners, and twenty-seven wagons and teams of the Sixteenth Illinois Cavalry and Twenty-second Ohio Light Artillery. A number of the men got away through the mountains.

1 Rebellion Record.

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