On Dec. 21, 1863, a clear and icy cold Monday, Humphreys Mississippi Brigade and the 13th Regiment “left camp at Clinch Gap at 10 a.m. and marched 9 miles to Longs Ferry on the Holston River and camped,” Spartan Band diarist William H. Hill recorded.
The next morning at 8, the brigade crossed the river on an old ferryboat, dodging floating ice. On Wednesday, the 23rd, they marched to Russellville where Hill wrote that they “camped near McDonald’s Farm, 2 and 1/2 miles south of Russellville on the E. Tennessee and Virginia R.R. in Jefferson Co., Tennessee. We received orders to build houses as we will remain here until the spring campaign opens.”
The mountain winter weather was turning severe, with the mercury hovering not far above zero.
There was snow on Christmas Eve, and they heard “heavy cannonading in the direction of Knoxville,” Hill wrote. “The enemy are reported to be in large force 6 miles from here.”
He recorded no celebration on Friday, Christmas Day, just labor on the winter huts, as the weather steadily grew even colder, the snow continued to fall and food and warm clothing were scarce.
“This is a very dull Christmas,” Hill recorded. “The men can’t get any liquor to enjoy themselves with so they are spending the day working on their winter quarters.”
General Longstreet, meanwhile, had established his headquarters in a house in Russellville. General McLaws was in a home in nearby Hayslope.
On Dec. 29, Hill recorded, it began to sleet and on New Year’s Day, according to Tennessee historical records, the mercury plunged to 24 degrees below zero.