Gen. Burnside’s Union troops were so hungry, according to some diaries and memoirs, they were stealing corn meal from the feed bags of the artillery and cavalry horses.
So when Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops arrived on Dec. 6 to relieve the Siege of Knoxville, he was disgusted to find Burnside and his commanders were living high.
“Approaching from the south and west,” Sherman wrote in his 1875 memoirs, “we crossed the Holston on a pontoon bridge, and in a large pen on the Knoxville side I saw a fine lot of cattle, which did not look much like starvation…
“I found Gen. Burnside and staff domiciled in a large, fine mansion, looking very comfortable….we all sat down to a good dinner, embracing roast-turkey. There was a regular dining table, with clean tablecloth, dishes, knives, forks, spoons, etc., etc. I had seen nothing of this kind in my field experience and could not help exclaiming that I thought ‘they were starving,’ etc.; but Burnside explained [that Unionists on the south side of the river had given him] a good supply of beef, bacon, and corn meal.
“Had I known of this, I should not have hurried my men so fast; but until I reached Knoxville I thought his troops there were actually in danger of starvation.”
Well, Burnside’s troops certainly were hungry, particularly the ones defending the crucial part of the perimeter at Fort Sanders. They were on short rations of hardtack, water and bread, while their commanders licked meat fat off their fingers at Burnside’s groaning table in the Crozier House mansion.
Gen. Sherman’s close friend Gen. Ulysses S. Grant later relieved Burnside for incompetence. Grant may have been thinking, in part, of this example of the Rhode Island general’s unconscionable behavior.