Most of the senior officers had already left on furlough, despite continued cannonading and rifle firing for several miles around nearly every day, when General Longstreet issued a Dec. 27, 1863 order on the subject for the junior officers and enlisted men.
“Sunday. Cloudy and moderate,” wrote Spartan Band diarist William H. Hill that day. “Commenced raining at 3 p.m. and continued all night. Firing all day in the direction of Knoxville.
“General Longstreet has ordered that 5 men from every 100 shall have furloughs for 30 days, those who have been good soldiers and never been home on a furlough to have the preference. All men who are detailed on permanent duty are not allowed furloughs.”
It had been snowing since Christmas Eve and, despite the rain Hill mentioned, it would continue to snow for another week. Men such as Private Lucius M. King of the Spartan Band who were lucky enough to get furloughs (though they would face a long, circuitous journey home to Mississippi to avoid the Union army) had to walk north all night through the snow, their bare feet wrapped in rags, to Bristol, Tennessee to catch a train.
Those lucky enough to borrow a horse might have made it over the mountains, but they’d have to watch for roving bands of bushwhackers. Historian Robert K. Krick explained:
“The inhospitable denizens of eastern Tennessee…were ardent Unionists or at least no better than neutral concerning the war….[and they] represented a very real mortal danger in some instances.
“Loosely organized bands of savage bushwhackers struck at weakly defended foraging parties and sometimes killed them all, including unarmed wagon drivers.”
Those who did not win furloughs but had to stay behind spent at least some of their time in what Krick called “the ceaseless search for food” when corn meal wasn’t available from division headquarters. Corn was collected and ground by local mills, but some men had to make do with an ear or two of unground corn.
On Dec. 30, the 13th Regiment was called out for picket duty and sent to “Longs Ferry on the Holston River,” Hill recorded. “They will be there about 3 days.”