In late fall of 1863, Longstreet moved his command toward Knoxville, attempting to drive Federal forces out of the city and to restore the rail link to Virginia. The high water mark of the campaign was the failed Confederate attempt to take Fort Sanders on November 29, 1863. Following the battle of Beans Station (December 4), Longstreet's men went into winter quarters in and around Rogersville and Morristown.
Longstreet's men complained mightily about their poor provisions that winter. A private in the Fifteenth Alabama recalled that: "The winter of '63-64 at Morristown, Tenn., was peculiarly hard. We had no huts, rations were scant and poor, as were blankets, clothing and shoes. We did not get a mail for three months. Plug tobacco could not be had..." Some supplies were brought via rail to Bristol, or, when the railroad was in repair, a little further south.
Longstreet also sent out foraging parties to scour the area for food and forage. While many of their scouts were confined to East Tennessee, it seems that on a few occasions, Longstreet's men ventured into western North Carolina. Wilkes County's Calvin Cowles wrote Governor Vance on April 4, 1864, that Longstreet's men had "come down through McDowell, Burke & Caldwell [Counties] & have nearly consumed all the grain they could pick up... What are poor day laborers to do for bread when every crib in the land is depleted to the lowest possible standard... I see a dark day ahead for the poor sons of toil and in fact for us all unless some unforseen good luck should happen." (UNC-Chapel Hill) A local Caldwell County historian wrote after the war that the Ninth Georgia Battalion was encamped next to the mill in the Patterson Community of Caldwell County. (Hickerson, Echoes of Happy Valley, 101)
James H. Greenlee, a McDowell County resident, noted the arrival of Longstreet's men in February 1864. He noted on February 23 that seventy or eighty "soldiers from Longstreets army here hunting up cattle[.]" The next day, they were still around, "washing there cloths and mending their shoes." On March 20, Greenlee wrote that there were "48 wagons from the army" getting their feed. (UNC-CHapel Hill) Governor Vance complained in a letter to Secretary of War James Seddon on March 21, 1864, about elements of Jenkins's cavalry in "about twenty counties" impressing food and forage. "I complain," Vance wrote, "that a large body of broken-down cavalry horses are in North Carolina, eating up the substance of the people in a region desolated by drought and reduced to the verge of starvation..." Seddon wrote Vance back on March 26: "I regret to learn from your letter of the 21st--inst. of the necessity for the impressments of corn in Burke County, N.C., to sustain the Artillery horses of Genl. Longstreet's command..." (North Carolina Civil War Documentary, 199-203) Longstreet's command pulled out of east Tennessee toward the end of April, and presumably took his foragers with him.
It would be great to know more about the activities of Longstreet's men in western North Carolina. Did they come down the French Broad River route, and into Asheville, and then scout east? Or, how about the route over Roan Mountain, into the North Toe River Valley, and then into Caldwell, McDowell, and Burke Counties? Maybe if we could find those fifty letters that local citizens wrote to Vance, complaining of the recent Confederate arrivals, we could learn more about the visit of these soldiers in western North Carolina.