Christmas in Knoxville, 1863

MERRY CHRISTMAS —  A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS STORY TO WARM US ALL: Revised and reissued from last year

Late in 1863, after Union General Ambrose Burnside had successfully fended off the challenge from Confederate General James Longstreet to take Knoxville, Tennessee, he was “rewarded” by being replaced by General John Foster.  There was very little fighting in the region over the next few weeks as Foster and Longstreet maneuvered against one another, to little effect, in the poor conditions of the Tennessee winter.

Foster’s key subordinate, General Jacob Cox, wrote to his wife that “The nature of the country is such that neither party inclines to take the offensive.” He added that the wretched environment his men had to bear while in winter quarters was worse than that he had experienced in West Virginia. Their morale needed constant bolstering, and part of Cox’s role as commander was “going through the regimental camps and giving such encouragement and cheer” as he could. The men bore up well, and “The spirit of the troops is magnificent. It would hardly be believed, but yet it is true, that these brave fellows lying here on the frozen ground, without shoes, clad in tattered rags, & fed on half rations are re-enlisting for a new term of three years by whole regiments.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the army’s officers did not suffer such privations.  In his memoirs, Cox wrote that in the days before Christmas his staff scoured the countryside for food.  They clearly were successful, because on Christmas day Cox hosted his staff and his good friend, Colonel Emerson Opdycke, who was stationed nearby as part of George Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, to a festive dinner.  Opdycke recalled that they ate “oyster soup, roast turkey, roast chicken, roast mutton . . . coffee with coffee sugar in it, and a pudding.”  He added, not surprisingly given Cox’s strict moral code, “but no liquors of any kind!”

Nearly a year later, on November 30, 1864, Cox and Opdycke would play the key roles in defending the Union forces against John Bell Hood’s attack at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee.

Below are pictures of Opdycke and Cox and a typical scene of Civil War dining.  Note the bottles of whiskey, which would not have been on Cox’s table!

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Author: geneofva

Author of "Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era," and of seven more Civil War books -- with more to come!!

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