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East Tennesseans to the rescue of Union soldiers in Knoxville

Ned Jilton • Feb 26, 2020 at 7:30 PM

While doing some reading for the column on Camp Nelson a couple of weeks ago, I came across an interesting story about how the people of East Tennessee, working with the 17th and 13th East Tennessee Cavalry, help save Gen. Ambrose Burnside and the Union army at Knoxville.

In November, 1863, Confederate Gen. James Longstreet laid siege to Knoxville in an effort to starve out Gen. Burnside’s Union forces. And it was coming very close to succeeding.

An early effort by Michigan troops to run flat boats, like the one in front of Netherland Inn, up the Holston and French Broad rivers to gather supplies was quickly abandon, leaving the boats behind when they were spotted by Longstreet’s soldiers. Because of this, the Union army was cut to one-fourth rations and even then only had enough food for a few more days.

Gen. Burnside now turned to Capt. George W. Doughty and the East Tennessee cavalry to save the day.

Capt. Doughty, an East Tennessee native, had been recruiting men for the 17th East Tennessee cavalry. Many of the men he signed-up were East Tennessee Confederates that had been conscripted into the Rebel army and were captured at Cumberland Gap.

These conscripts were ready to join Capt. Doughty and become “Galvanized Yankees” but they feared that if the cavalry ever surrendered they would be shot as deserters, just as members of the 2nd East Tennessee Mounted Infantry had been after the recent fight at Rogersville.

Capt. Doughty made the men a promise that he would never surrender. And from then on it was always understood that any men sent out with Doughty would either return or die.

The 17th arrived in Knoxville with a company of men. Shortly thereafter the 13th East Tennessee arrived from Camp Nelson with a company. With neither being up to strength, it was decided the two would combine under the command of Capt. Doughty and were to scout the banks of the Holston and French Broad rivers by order of Gen. Burnside.

After reporting on Longstreet’s movements, Doughty sent couriers riding to find the loyal people in East Tennessee and asking them if they could send “all the subsistence for either man or beast that could be found.”

The people of East Tennessee quickly responded.

With part of his men guarding the banks of the river, the rest collected the flat boats abandon by the Michigan troops and begin loading them with flour, bacon, hogs, cattle and a variety of produce and then began floating them downriver to the soldiers in Knoxville.

The cavalrymen turned boatmen stopped just short of Longstreet’s forces and waited for night. Under the cover of darkness and later morning fog they floated forty flat boats past the Confederates guarding the river and landed safely at a pontoon bridge within the Union lines. They had been in the saddle ten days and ten nights to accomplish their mission.

With the Union soldiers in the city resupplied and Gen. William T. Sherman on the way from Chattanooga with reinforcements, Gen. Longstreet gave up the siege and moved to the Hamblen County, Hawkins County area where he put his forces into winter quarters.

Gen. Burnside later wrote “When the siege was raised we had five times as many rations as when it commenced, and could have held out at least a month longer!”

Later, Capt. William Rule would write in the “Standard History of Knoxville” that “These supplies were contributed by the loyal citizens in the immediate sections of the country whose loyalty to the United States government never abated, and whose faithfulness saved the city and caused its final abandonment by the Confederate forces. All these provisions were secured and sent down the river by Capt. G.W. Doughty and his men who remained on the river during the siege.”

One last note. When Capt. Doughty called on the farmers of East Tennessee to send what they could to feed the soldiers in Knoxville, he promised they would be payed. According to the regimental history of the 13th East Tennessee Cavalry, “This promise was sacredly kept, and the farmers received their pay.”