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They had been routed at Chickamauga, reduced to eating acorns at Chattanooga. But on November 25, 1863, after two months of siege and suffering, the Army of the Cumberland took the offensive. Heavily reinforced by the recent arrival of fresh troops from Virginia and Mississippi, the same soldiers who had been swept from the field in September now stormed up the fiery slopes of Missionary Ridge, driving Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s entrenched army from a seemingly impregnable position.
They pursued the retreating Rebels into Georgia, as far as Ringgold, but their work was not yet done. One hundred and twenty miles to the northeast, another Union army, commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside, lay besieged at Knoxville. Burnside reported his troops only had enough supplies to last until December 3rd. If relief did not reach them by that date, he would be compelled to surrender the Union army’s tenuous foothold in east Tennessee.
Upon receiving this message, Major General Ulysses S. Grant abruptly halted the pursuit of Bragg’s beaten army and dispatched an aide, Brigadier General James H. Wilson, on a desperate mission. Accompanied by Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana and a small cavalry escort, Wilson left Chattanooga at 2:00 p.m., November 29th. The next day, after a mud-spattered, forty-mile ride, he reached Charleston, Tennessee, “a poor, miserable little place” on the Hiwassee River. Just before dark, he delivered orders directing Grant’s most trusted subordinate, Major General William T. Sherman, to hurry to Burnside’s relief “as rapidly as you can.”
Sherman might well have hesitated. It was nearly eighty miles to Knoxville. The weather was bitterly cold, the roads “villainous,” and his troops were out of rations. “But we learned that 12,000 of our fellow soldiers were beleaguered in the mountain town of Knoxville . . . ,” he later wrote; “they needed relief, and must have it in three days. This was enough . . . it had to be done.”
That night, while his men planked the partially destroyed East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad trestle spanning the Hiwassee River, Sherman made his headquarters at the Charleston home of Henry B. Henegar, a Union sympathizer. His stay at a two-story brick house on the south side of Market Street was short. Early the next morning, he mounted his little mare, Dolly, and carefully picked his way across the hastily repaired trestle.
Sherman was a stranger to most of the officers and men of his command, an improvised column of combat veterans from the XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the XIV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, and his own XV Corps from the Army of the Tennessee. Months of constant campaigning had worn out their shoes, and in their precipitate pursuit of Bragg, they had left overcoats, tents, knapsacks, and even blankets in Chattanooga.
But at daylight, Sherman’s 22,000 men were ready to march. “Many were absolutely without any sort of shoes . . . ,” noted Sergeant Edward Payne. “The ground was frozen . . . and the roads were rough and gravelly. Sometimes we marched on the railroad track, which was no better than the roads. It was a very common thing to see bloodstains on the road and the railroad ties, from the bare and lacerated feet of the men of our regiment, as well as of many others.”
Living on captured Rebel rations and whatever they could forage, fording icy creeks, and improvising two jerry-built bridges across the Little Tennessee River, Sherman’s five divisions toiled eastward, enduring hunger, hardship, freezing temperatures, and fatigue “without a murmur.” “An army composed of such can but be successful,” one officer wrote proudly of his men.
Ordered to push ahead “at whatever cost of life and horse flesh,” a brigade of blue-coated cavalry reached Knoxville on the night of December 3, 1863. The news of Sherman’s approach raised the Rebel siege and secured east Tennessee, adding further laurels to one of the most epic and inspiring winter marches in the long and illustrious history of the United States Army.
Dr. David Evans is the author of Sherman’s Horsemen and Random Acts of Kindness: True Stories of America’s Civil War.