across the Holston at Strawberry Plains commenced, I started on my return, via Cumberland Gap, Barboursville, London, and Richmond, to Lexington, Ky. The weather was intensely cold, the thermometer standing a portion of the time below zero; but being desirous of seeing what a portion of our supplies might be depended upon over that route, and it causing no loss of time, I determined to make the trip. From the personal inspection made, I am satisfied that no portion of our supplies can be hauled by teams from Camp Nelson. While forage could be got from the country to supply teams at the different stations on the road, some supplies could be got through in this way; but the time is nearly at an end when this can be done. On the first rise of the Cumberland 1,200,000 rations will be sent to the mouth of the Big South Fork. There I hope teams will be able to take [them]. The distance to haul is materially shortened, the road is said to be better than that by Cumberland Gap, and it is a new route and will furnish forage for a time.
In the mean time troops in East Tennessee must depend for subsistence on what they can get from the country and the little we can send them from Chattanooga. The railroad is now complete into Chattanooga, and in a short time (say three weeks) the road by Decatur and Huntsville will be complete. Steamers then can be spared to supply the present force in East Tennessee well, and to accumulate a store to support a large army for a short time if it should become necessary to send one there in the spring. This contingency, however, I will do everything in my power to avert. Two steamers ply now tolerably regular between Chattanooga and Loudon. From the latter place to Mossy Creek we have railroad. Some clothing has already reached Knoxville since my departure. A good supply will be got there with all dispatch. Then, if necessary, and subsistence can by possibility be obtained, I will send force enough to secure Longstreet's expulsion.
Sherman has gone down the Mississippi to collect at Vicksburg all the force that can be spared for a separate movement from the Mississippi. He will probably have ready by the 24th of this month a force of 20,000 men that could be used east of the river; but to go west so large a force could not be spared.
The Red River and all the steams west of the Mississippi are now too low for navigation. I shall direct Sherman, therefore, to move out to Meridian with his spare force (the cavalry going from Corinth) and destroy the roads east and south of these so effectually that the enemy will not attempt to rebuild them during the rebellion. He will then return unless the opportunity of going into Mobile with the force he has appears perfectly plain. Owing to the large number of veterans furloughed I will not be able to do more at Chattanooga than to threaten an advance and try to detain the force now in Thomas' front. Sherman will be instructed, while left with large discretionary powers, to take no extra hazard of losing his army or of getting it crippled too much for efficient service in the spring.
I look upon the next line for me to secure to be that from Chattanooga to Mobile, Montgomery and Atlanta being the important intermediate points. To do this large supplies must be secured on the Tennessee River, so as to be independent of the railroads from here to the Tennessee for a considerable length of time. Mobile would be a second base. The destruction which Sherman will do to the roads around Meridian will be of material importance to us