The engagement at Bean’s Station developed as a result of Confederate General James Longstreet’s retreat into East Tennessee following his repulse at Knoxville. Longstreet’s First Corps was detached from the Army of Tennessee following the Battle of Chickamauga to retake Knoxville from the Union Army of the Ohio, which was commanded by Ambrose Burnside. After the Confederate attack on Knoxville’s Fort Sanders failed, Longstreet retreated into East Tennessee on December 4.
The Confederate army passed through Bean’s Station and encamped near Rogersville. Upon learning that pursuing Federal cavalry at Bean’s Station was far ahead of supporting infantry, Longstreet attempted on December 14 to encircle and destroy his mounted pursuers. He enjoyed superior numbers and counted on surprising the Federals with a sudden retrograde thrust. The southern general also ordered his cavalry under the command of William Martin to move behind the enemy position at Bean’s Station to cut off their line of retreat. Longstreet’s encircling movement was tactically sound but subsequently failed in execution.
On the morning of December 14, Bushrod Johnson’s infantry division moved out, followed by Lafayette McLaws’s division and elements of Hood’s division. Col. H. L. Giltner’s cavalry brigade established contact with federal pickets before Bean’s Station by about 2:00 p.m., and the battle began. The Federal position, resting on both sides of the Rutledge Road, was centered on Bean’s Station Tavern, a large brick L-shaped hotel. The Federal commander, Brig. Gen. J. M. Shackleford, positioned his artillery behind a stream to the west of the hotel on either side of the road. Confederate forces advancing from the East also positioned their artillery batteries above and below the roadway. The ensuing artillery duel intensified during the afternoon, with Parker’s Confederate battery alone firing 375 rounds before nightfall.
The Confederate force, with Johnson’s Tennessee Brigade maneuvering below the road and Gen. Archibald Gracie’s Alabama Brigade above it to the north, was met with determined fire from Federal batteries behind the creek and riflemen inside the tavern itself. Confederate artillery batteries advanced to pour fire into the hotel, and Longstreet sent Kershaw’s brigade around Gracie’s northern flank to envelop the Union left. Federal commanders detected the movement and decided to execute a fighting retreat towards Rutledge. Although hard pressed, the Federals retired in good order, and were gone by nightfall.
On the morning of December 15, Longstreet pursued the Federals towards Rutledge, hoping to deliver them into the hands of Martin’s waiting cavalry. Unfortunately, Martin was not in position as planned due to a delaying confrontation with Federal cavalry at a river crossing, and the retreating Federal army managed to entrench behind some hastily constructed breastworks. Martin belatedly joined Micah Jenkins’s brigade for an attack on the Federal position, but Jenkins refused to advance without further reinforcement. Federal reinforcements from the direction of Rutledge forced the Confederate forces to withdraw back to Bean’s Station, and the action was over. Although Bean’s Station was a tactical victory for Longstreet, he failed to entrap the Federal army as planned.