After the failed first-light attack on Fort Sanders, General Burnside offered his old West Point classmate General Longstreet a flag of truce.
“The morning being very cold and frosty, and the enemy’s wounded in our ditch and in front of the fort crying for help,” Burnside wrote in an after-action report, “I sent out a flag of truce, offering the opportunity of caring for their wounded and burying their dead. General Longstreet gratefully accepted the offer, and a cessation of hostilites till 5 p.m. was agreed upon. Their slightly wounded were exchanged for our slightly wounded lost in previous affairs and their dead sent to their lines.”
As was customary, the dead were buried in two mass graves, on the battlefield, one for officers and one for the privates. Those wounded who could walk rejoined their units. The buried later would be removed to a city cemetery, though few would be identified.
Meanwhile, General Micah Jenkins, commanding Hood’s Division, urged Longstreet to let his division try Fort Sanders. This time, Jenkins said, the attackers should be equipped with ladders to get from the deep ditch to the top of the northwest bastion’s parapet.
Longstreet, however, had received orders from Richmond that, because General Bragg had been defeated at Chattanooga and was retreating to northern Georgia, Longstreet’s troops should join Bragg immediately.
General McLaws later wrote that Longstreet held a council of war with his generals to decide what to do next.
“…the question was submitted as to the best course to be pursued whether to join General Bragg or to change our base looking toward Virginia. The council was informed by General Longstreet that he had received a telegram from President Davis directing him to join General Bragg, if possible, with his forces.
“Several telegrams, or one at least, from General B., was shown, wherein it stated that General Bragg’s army had retired toward Dalton, Ga., the exact point I do not recollect, and intimating that if he (General L.) could join him it would be desirable, but he could not expect any assistance from General B, in making the effort.
“Such is my recollection, the officers in command at [Loudon] and below, showing that the enemy were advancing toward [Loudon], were also submitted to the question, then, whether we should attempt to join General Bragg, or change our base toward Virginia, I was called on for my opinion, being next in rank to General L.
“I submitted that our first duty was to endeavor to join General Bragg, as the President directed, and General Bragg intimated as being his desire, and in discussing that question I argued against making the attempt, for the reason that we could not go by the route we came, but would have to choose one farther to the east, and there was none in that direction that did not lead through a rough, mountainous, and desolate country, where neither forage nor subsistence could be obtained for the men and animals. That snow, as we could perceive, had fallen over that country, which would add to the difficulties of the march, as many of our men were without shoes, and our sick would be unable to keep with us.
“That in all probability the command would have to be divided in order to obtain subsistence, in which event it would be a long time before we could be united again, so as to be of efficient service, and that the mere fact of retiring in that direction would have a very bad moral effect upon our troops, as we would thus abandon East Tennessee to the enemy, and the fainthearted would despond and perhaps leave us, especially those of that class in the regiments from Tennessee, and at the same time the enemy, having nothing to oppose them in East Tennessee, could re-enforce General Grant at Chattanooga with nearly their entire force from Knoxville, and thus enable him to push on before our forces could possibly join General Bragg, even in the unserviceable condition they would be in after the long and tedious march over the desolate country we would be compelled to travel.
“On the other hand, if we remained in East Tennessee, with our base changed toward Virginia, our force would act as a constant menace upon General Grant’s flank and rear, and compel him to keep one equally as large in and about Knoxville to watch our movements.
“That we owed it to the people of East Tennessee, who had been loyal to us, to afford them some protection and not abandon them suddenly to the enemy. That the effect upon our troops would be beneficial, and that we would by remaining relieve Georgia and the whole South, excepting East Tennessee, from the burden of subsisting our forces, at a time, too, when the relief would be very sensibly felt; and that if we did have to draw heavily upon the resources of East Tennessee we would be drawing from a population the large majority of which were inimical to our cause, and which would be much better than necessitating us to oppress those farther south who were entirely loyal.
“There was no dissent from these views and the army was withdrawn toward Virginia. I do not claim that my views were the cause of that course being adopted, but I merely place my opinion upon record. I have no doubt but any other member of the council would have given the same opinion and have more forcibly expressed it.”
At 10 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1863, a clear and cold Friday, “All of our army withdrew from the siege of Knoxville,” Spartan Band diarist William H. Hill recorded, “and commenced the retreat towards Virginia.
“We could have reduced Knoxville and captured Burnside’s entire army if General Bragg had not fallen back and let the enemy get in our rear at Loudon and let the enemy get possession of the E. Tennessee and Georgia R.R., cutting us off from our communication with General Bragg’s Army and our base of supplies for this country has been overrun by the enemy and cannot now subsist our Army so we are compelled to retreat to procure supplies.”
The withdrawal attempted stealth. Camp fires were left burning to deceive Burnside’s troops, the fires that didn’t succumb to the cold downpour of “cats & dogs” that began about sundown, according to artillery chief Edward Porter Alexander.
“That was a hard night’s march,” Alexander later wrote. “…the killing feature is the perpetual halting & moving…”
They marched all that black night in the pouring rain, eighteen miles to Blaine’s Crossroads, lit by impromptu fires along the way. “The men would set fire to the fences as they stood, at the angles where the rails crossed…& during that night we frequently saw miles of fence on fire at a time.”