150 Years Ago This Week: More fighting in Virginia and Tennessee

December, 1863

The major fighting at Chattanooga was over by Thursday, Nov. 26. Maj. Gen. George Thomas and Maj. Gen. William Sherman, with their respective Union armies, pursued Gen. Braxton Bragg’s army into north Georgia and ran into Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s rearguard Confederate units near Ringgold; there was also severe fighting at Chickamauga Station. There, the Union troops halted and Gen. Bragg pulled his battered army together.

At Knoxville, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and his First Corps were preparing an assault. In Virginia, Maj. Gen. George Meade and his Union Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River in an attempt to turn the right flank of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army. In southern Culpeper County, fighting occurred at Morton’s Ford and Raccoon Ford on the Rapidan. The two armies squared off, with some 85,000 Federal troops facing some 48,500 Confederates.

The next day, Gen. Lee moved some of his units south toward Mine Run. Intense fighting broke out there; Maj. Gen. William French’s corps was late in coming up and delayed attacking with the majority of his troops when he found the Army of Northern Virginia in a firm position. Gen. French’s troops took a wrong road, and ran headlong into the Confederate troops under Maj. Gen. Jubal Early.

While another 280 Federal rounds were fired at Fort Sumter on Nov. 27, in Ohio, Maj. Gen. John Hunt Morgan and several of his officers escaped from the Ohio State Penitentiary at Columbus, where they had been imprisoned since their capture on July 26. The Confederate officers made their way south to Confederate territory, and Gen. Morgan resumed command of his troops.

Presumably the officers tunneled their way out of the cellblock and climbed over a wall, but rumors persisted that the tunnel ended in a blind wall, and that money had changed hands to allow them to escape. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger was ordered by Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant to take his two Federal divisions and hurry to reinforce the besieged Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside at Knoxville.

From Richmond, a greatly perturbed President Jefferson Davis advised Gen. Bragg to concentrate his troops rapidly and prevent a Union assault in Georgia; it was an almost impossible task for Gen. Bragg to accomplish given the circumstances. In Virginia, the Union offensive in the Mine Run campaign had flickered out, and both armies withdrew to establish their winter quarters.

At dawn on Sunday, Nov. 28, Gen. Longstreet’s corps attacked a Union stronghold at Fort Sanders, near Knoxville, in an attempt to take the city before Union reinforcements could arrive. The ground and steep sides of the earthen fort were frozen and sleet-covered. Again and again the Confederates advanced, and at one point placed the Confederate flag on the parapet of the fort.

With substantial losses, including some 200 Southerners captured in the deep ditch around the fort, the Confederates finally withdrew before superior Union reinforcements under Gen. Granger arrived. This was Gen. Longstreet’s last major attempt to penetrate Knoxville, and now there was nothing to do but plan the return to Virginia. In Washington, President Lincoln finally arose from his sickbed after his bout with variola or mild smallpox.

On the last day of November, Gen. Bragg gathered his defeated army in northwest Georgia; at Chattanooga, Gen. Grant solidified his position and ordered more of his troops to Knoxville. From Richmond, the Adjutant General of the Confederate army, Gen. Samuel Cooper, telegraphed Gen. Bragg at Dalton, Ga.: “Your request to be relieved from command of the Army of Tennessee has been submitted to the President, who, upon your representation, directs me to notify you that you are relieved from command, which you will transfer to Lt. Gen. William Hardee.”

The month of December, 1863, opened with the continued bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Gen. Meade’s army retired across the Rapidan and prepared to go into winter quarters in Culpeper County. Gen. Longstreet’s troops were still around Knoxville, and occasional fighting took place in the vicinity at Maynardville, Tenn.

On Dec. 2, suffering from typhoid fever, Confederate spy Belle Boyd was released from Old Capitol Prison in Washington and ordered to Richmond and to stay out of Union lines. Gen. Bragg turned command of his army over to Lt. Gen. Hardee, who would command the army only temporarily. Gen. Bragg’s officers were glad to see him go; though the general was a fine disciplinarian and a dedicated soldier, he was also a commander under whom few of his subordinates could operate successfully.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.