Too Cold to Wade
— Knoxville Campaign —
On November 4, 1863, to divert Federal forces from Chattanooga, Confederate Gen. James Longstreet led two reinforced divisions from the city to attack Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's garrison in Knoxville. Burnside confronted Longstreet outside Knoxville, then withdrew to his fortification on November 12, and Longstreet besieged the city. In Chattanooga, after Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army defeated Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's forces at the end of the month, Grant ordered Gen. William T. Sherman to reinforce Burnside. As Sherman marched toward Knoxville, Longstreet withdrew on December 4. Sherman soon rejoined Grant.
Union Gen. William T. Sherman and his troops marched north from Chattanooga on November 28, 1863, to relieve the siege of Knoxville. Sherman led the XV Corps up the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad Line through Philadelphia toward Morganton on the Little Tennessee River. He planned to ford the shallows here at Morganton then continue to Knoxville. The corps arrived from your left on Morganton Rd, which is now under water and near where you stand.
Sherman discovered that the Morganton ford was 3½ feet deep and 240 yards wide, making it impossible for the infantry to wade in the near freezing temperature. Col. James H. Wilson, assistant inspector general from Grant's staff, supervised the construction of a bridge. The troops found two large flatboats and carried forty to fifty men across the river to serve as guards and a working party. Unoccupied houses and barns in Morganton were torn down to obtain wood for the bridge, which was finished on December 4.
Wet, cold, and poorly provisioned, the troops crossed the river. Sherman soon received word that Longstreet appeared to be retreating rather than risk being trapped by the advancing Union forces. Longstreet withdrew to northeastern Tennessee for the winter and later returned to Virginia. His retreat marked the end of the last serious attempt by the Confederacy to hold East Tennessee and the vital supply route between Atlanta and Virginia.
Morganton was a main antebellum shipping hub and business center on the Little Tennessee River. After the Civil War, railroads slowly replaced riverboats in local transportation and Morganton began to decline. In 1968, the Tennessee Valley Authority tore down 18 remaining houses, a store, an a church in preparation for the construction of Tellico Dam. The Morganton Cemetery where you stand now is all that remains. The rest of the town was flooded as a result of the Tellico Dam Project.
Col. James H. Wilson Courtesy Library of Congress
Gen William T. Sherman Courtesy Library of Congress
Gen. James Longstreet Courtesy Library of Congress