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Chapter 34: Besieging Knoxville.

  • Closing on the enemy's lines
  • -- a gallant dash -- the Federal positions -- Fort Loudon, later called Fort Sanders -- assault of the Fort carefully planned -- General McLaws advises delay -- the order reiterated and emphasized -- gallant effort by the brigades of Generals Wofford, Humphreys, and Bryan at the appointed time -- a recall ordered, because carrying the works was reported impossible -- General Longstreet is ordered by the President to General Bragg's relief -- losses during the assault and the campaign.

The enemy's line of sharp-shooters and Fort Sanders stood in our direct line of advance,--the fort manned by the heaviest and best field guns. Benjamin's battery, an old familiar acquaintance who had given us many hard knocks in our Eastern service, opened upon us as soon as we were in its reach. It was not until night of the 17th that our line was well established, and then only so as to enclose the enemy's front, leaving the country across the river to be covered when the troops from Virginia should join us.

When General McLaws advanced on the morning of the 18th he found the enemy's line of skirmishers-cavalry dismounted-behind a line of heavy rail defences. General Alexander was ordered to knock the rails about them and drive them out, and was partially successful, but the enemy got back before our infantry could reach them, so we had to carry the line by assault. Part of our line drove up in fine style, and was measurably successful, but other parts, smarting under the stiff musket fire, hesitated and lay down under such slight shelter as they could find, but close under fire,--so close that to remain inactive would endanger repulse. Captain Winthrop, of Alexander's staff, appreciating the crisis, dashed forward on his horse and led the halting lines successfully over the works. In his [498] gallant ride he received a very severe hurt. Neither our numbers nor our condition were such as to warrant further aggressive action at the moment, nor, in fact, until the column from Virginia joined us. Our sharp-shooters were advanced from night to night and pitted before daylight, each line being held by new forces as the advance was made. The first line occupied was a little inside of the rail piles.

It seemed probable, upon first examination of the line along the northwest, that we might break through, and preparations were made for that effort, but, upon closer investigation, it was found to be too hazardous, and that the better plan was to await the approach of the other forces.

When within six hundred yards of the enemy's works, our lines well pitted, it seemed safe to establish a battery on an elevated plateau on the east (or south) side of the river. Some of our troops were sent over in flat-boats, and the reconnoissance revealed an excellent point commanding the city and the enemy's lines of works, though parts of his lines were beyond our range. Some of our best guns were put in position, and our captured pontoon bridges down at Lenoir's were sent for, to be hauled up along the river, but impassable rapids were found, and we were obliged to take part of our supply-train to haul them. They were brought up, and communication between the detachment and main force was made easy. The brigades of Law and Robertson were left on the east (or south) side as guard for that battery.

The Union forces were posted from left to right,--the Ninth Corps, General R. D. Potter commanding. General Ferrero's division extended from the river to Second Creek; General Hartranft's along part of the line between Second and First Creeks; Chapin's and Reilly's brigades over Temperance Hill to near Bell's house, and the brigades of Hoskins and Casement to the river. The [499] interior line was held by regiments of loyal Tennesseeans recently recruited. The positions on the south (or east) side of the river were occupied by Cameron's brigade of Hascall's division and Shackelford's cavalry (dismounted), Reilly's brigade in reserve,--two sections of Wilder's battery and Konkle's battery of four three-inch rifle guns.

The batteries of the enemy's front before the city were Romer's four three-inch rifles at the university, Benjamin's four twenty-pound Parrotts and Beecher's six twelve-pound Napoleons (at the fort), Gittings's four ten-pound Parrotts, Fifteenth Indiana Battery of six rifle guns (three-inch), James's (Indiana) Battery of six rifle guns, Henshaw's battery of two (James's) rifle guns and four six-pounders, Shields's battery of six twelve-pound Napoleons, and one section of Wilder's three-inch rifle guns, extending the line from the fort to the river on the north.

In his official account, General Burnside reported “about twelve thousand effective men, exclusive of the recruits and loyal Tennesseeans.” He had fifty-one guns of position, including eight on the southeast side.

Fort Loudon, afterwards called for the gallant Sanders, who fell defending it, was a bastion earthwork, built upon an irregular quadrilateral. The sides were, south front, one hundred and fourteen yards; west front, ninety-five yards; north front, one hundred and twenty-five yards; east front, eighty-five yards. The eastern front was open, intended to be closed by a stockade. The south front was about half finished; the western front finished, except cutting the embrasures, and the north front nearly finished. The bastion attacked was the only one that was finished. The ditch was twelve feet wide, and generally seven to eight feet deep. From the fort the ground sloped in a heavy grade, from which the trees had been cut and used as abatis, and wire net-work was stretched between the stumps. [500]

General Burnside reported,--

Many citizens and persons who had been driven in by the enemy volunteered to work on the trenches and did good service, while those who were not inclined from disloyalty to volunteer were pressed into service. The negroes were particularly efficient in their labors during the siege. On the 20th of November our line was in such condition as to inspire the entire command with confidence.

General Poe reported,--

The citizens of the town and all contrabands within reach were pressed into service and relieved the almost exhausted soldiers, who had no rest for more than a hundred hours. Many of the citizens were Confederates and worked with a very poor grace, which blistered hands did not tend to improve.

On the 22d, General McLaws thought his advance near enough the works to warrant assault. He was ordered to it with assaulting columns supported by the division. General Jenkins was also ordered up, and General Wheeler was ordered to push his troops and his horse artillery forward as McLaws's attack opened, so that the entire line would engage and hold to steady work till all the works were carried. After consulting his officers, General McLaws reported that they preferred to have daylight for their work. On the 23d reports came of a large force of the enemy at Kingston advancing. General Wheeler was sent with his main force of cavalry to look after them. He engaged the enemy on the 24th, and after a skirmish withdrew. Soon afterwards, receiving orders from General Bragg to join him, leaving his cavalry under command of Major-General Martin, he rode to find his commander. General Martin brought the brigades back and resumed position on our left. Colonel Hart, who was left at Kingston with his brigade, reported that there were but three regiments of cavalry and a field battery, that engaged General Wheeler on the 24th. [501]

On the night of the 24th the enemy made a sortie against a point of General Wofford's line which broke through, but was speedily driven back with a loss of some prisoners and a number of killed and wounded. General Wofford's loss was five wounded, two mortally.

Our cavalry, except a brigade left at Kingston, resumed its position on the left of our line on the 26th. On the 23d a telegram came from General Bragg to say that the enemy had moved out and attacked his troops at Chattanooga. Later in the day he announced the enemy still in front of him, but not engaging his forces.

On the 25th I had a telegram from General Bushrod R. Johnson at Loudon, who was marching with two brigades to reinforce us, saying that the enemy was throwing his cavalry forward towards Charleston. This, in connection with the advance of the enemy towards General Bragg, reported by his despatch of the 23d, I took to be an effort to prevent reinforcements coming to us, or to cut in and delay their march.

That night General Leadbetter, chief engineer of General Bragg's army, reported at Headquarters with orders from General Bragg that we should attack at Knoxville, and very promptly. I asked him to make the reconnoissance and designate the assailable points. At the same time he was asked to consider that the troops from Virginia were on the march and would join us in eight or ten days, when our investment could be made complete; that the enemy was then on half rations, and would be obliged to surrender in two weeks; also whether we should assault fortifications and have the chance of repulse, rather than wait for a surrender. From his first reconnoissance he pronounced Fort Sanders the assailable point, but, after riding around the lines with General Jenkins and General Alexander, he pronounced in favor of assault from our left at Mabry's Hill. On the 27th, after more thorough reconnoissance in company with my officers, he came back to [502] his conclusion in favor of assault at Fort Sanders. I agreed with him that the field at Mabry's Hill was too wide, and the march under fire too long, to warrant attack at that point. He admitted that the true policy was to wait and reduce the place by complete investment, but claimed that the crisis was on, the time imperative, and that the assault must be tried.

Meanwhile, rumors reached us, through the telegraph operator, of a battle at Chattanooga, but nothing official, though outside indications were corroborative. In the afternoon Colonel Giltner, of the command from Virginia, reported with his cavalry, and next day (28th) General W. E. Jones, of that command, reported with his cavalry. The brigades from Chattanooga under General B. R. Johnson were at hand, but not yet up. The artillery and infantry coming from Virginia were five or six days march from us; but General Leadbetter was impatient.

General McLaws was ordered to double his force of sharp-shooters and their reserve, advance during the night and occupy the line of the enemy's pickets, and arrange for assault. The artillery was to open on the fort as soon as the weather cleared the view. After ten minutes practice the assaulting column was to march, but the practice was to hold until the near approach of the storming party to the Fort. The assault was to be made by three of McLaws's brigades, his fourth, advancing on his right, to carry the line of works in its front as soon as the fort was taken. Three brigades of Jenkins's division were to follow in echelon on the left of McLaws's column, G. T. Anderson's, of his right, leading at two hundred yards' interval from McLaws's, Anderson to assault the line in his front, and upon entering to wheel to his left and sweep up that line, followed by Jenkins's and Benning's brigades; but, in case of delay in McLaws's assault, Anderson was to wheel to his right and take the fort through its rear opening, leaving the [503] brigades of Jenkins and Benning to follow the other move to their left.

The ditch and parapets about the fort were objects of careful observation from the moment of placing our lines, and opinions coincided with those of reconnoitring officers that the former could be passed without ladders. General Alexander and I made frequent examinations of them within four hundred yards.

After careful conference, General McLaws ordered,--

  • First. Wofford's Georgia and Humphreys's Mississippi brigades to make the assault, the first on the left, the second on the right, this latter followed closely by three regiments of Bryan's brigade; the Sixteenth Georgia Regiment to lead the first and the Thirteenth Mississippi the second assaulting column.
  • Second. The brigades to be formed for the attack in columns of regiments.
  • Third. The assault to be made with fixed bayonets, and without firing a gun.
  • Fourth. Should be made against the northwest angle of Fort Loudon or Sanders.
  • Fifth. The men should be urged to the work with a determination to succeed, and should rush to it without hallooing.
  • Sixth. The sharp-shooters to keep up a continuous fire into the embrasures of the enemy's works and along the fort, so as to prevent the use of the cannon, and distract, if not prevent, the fire of all arms.

General B. R. Johnson was in time to follow the main attack by General McLaws with his own and Gracie's brigades (two thousand six hundred and twenty-five effectives).

The order was given for the 28th, but the weather became so heavy and murky as to hide the fort from view of our artillery, so operations were put off until the 29th.

On the 28th reports were brought of an advance of Union troops from the direction of Cumberland Gap. The cavalry under General W. E. Jones was sent to arrest their march pending operations ordered for the 29th, and [504] he was authorized to call the artillery and infantry marching from Virginia to his assistance if the force proved formidable.

After arranging his command, General McLaws wrote me as follows:

Headquarters Division, November 28, 1863.
It seems to be a conceded fact that there has been a serious engagement between General Bragg's forces and those of the enemy; with what result is not known so far as I have heard. General Bragg may have maintained his position, may have repulsed the enemy, or may have been driven back. If the enemy has been beaten at Chattanooga, do we not gain by delay at this point? If we have been defeated at Chattanooga, do we not risk our entire force by an assault here? If we have been defeated at Chattanooga, our communications must be made with Virginia. We cannot combine again with General Bragg, even if we should be successful in our assault on Knoxville. If we should be defeated or unsuccessful here, and at the same time General Bragg should have been forced to retire, would we be in condition to force our way to the army in Virginia I present these considerations, and with the force they have on my mind I beg leave to say that I think we had better delay the assault until we hear the result of the battle of Chattanooga. The enemy may have cut our communication to prevent this army reinforcing General Bragg, as well as for the opposite reason,--viz., to prevent General Bragg from reinforcing us, and the attack at Chattanooga favors the first proposition.1

Very respectfully, L. McLaws, Major-General.

In reply I wrote,--

Headquarters, November 28, 1863.
Major-General McLaws:
Your letter is received. I am not at all confident that General Bragg has had a serious battle at Chattanooga, but there is a report that he has, and that he has fallen back to Tunnel Hill. Under this report I am entirely convinced that our only safety is in making the assault upon the enemy's position to-morrow at daylight, and it is the more important that I should [505] have the entire support and co-operation of the officers in this connection; and I do hope and trust that I may have your entire support and all the force you may be possessed of in the execution of my views. It is a great mistake to suppose that there is any safety for us in going to Virginia if General Bragg has been defeated, for we leave him at the mercy of his victors, and with his army destroyed our own had better be, for we will be not only destroyed, but disgraced. There is neither safety nor honor in any other course than the one I have chosen and ordered.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, James Longstreet, Lieutenant-General Commanding.
P. S.--The assault must be made at the time appointed, and must be made with a determination which will insure success.

After writing the letter it occurred to me to show it to General Leadbetter, who was stopping at our Headquarters, when he suggested the postscript which was added.

The assault was made by the brigades of Generals Wofford, Humphreys, and Bryan at the appointed time and in admirable style. The orders were, that not a musket should be discharged except by the sharp-shooters, who should be vigilant and pick off every head that might appear above the parapets until the fort was carried. The troops marched steadily and formed regularly along the outside of the works around the ditch. I rode after them with the brigades under General B. R. Johnson until within five hundred yards of the fort, whence we could see our advance through the gray of the morning. A few men were coming back wounded. Major Goggin, of General McLaws's staff, who had been at the fort, rode back, met me, and reported that it would be useless for us to go on; that the enemy had so surrounded the fort with network of wire that it was impossible for the men to get in without axes, and that there was not an axe in the command. Without a second thought I ordered the recall, and ordered General Johnson to march his brigades back to their camps. He begged to be allowed to go on, but, [506] giving full faith to the report, I forbade him. I had known Major Goggin many years. He was a classmate at West Point, and had served with us in the field in practical experience, so that I had confidence in his judgment.

Recall was promptly sent General Jenkins and his advance brigade under General Anderson, but the latter, seeing the delay at the fort, changed his direction outside the enemy's works and marched along their front to the ditch, and was there some little time before he received the order. In his march and countermarch in front of the enemy's line he lost four killed and thirty-three wounded.

As a diversion in favor of the assaulting columns, our troops on the south side were ordered to a simultaneous attack, and to get in on that side if the opportunity occurred. They were reinforced by Russell's brigade of Morgan's division of cavalry, and Harrison's brigade of Armstrong's division, dismounted, General Morgan commanding. This demonstration had the effect anticipated in detaining troops to hold on that side that were intended as reserve for the fort.

Just after the troops were ordered back it occurred to me that there must be some mistake about the wire network, for some of our men had been seen mounting and passing over the parapets, but it was too late to reorganize and renew the attack, and I conceived that some of the regimental pioneers should have been at hand prepared to cut the wires, but all had been armed to help swell our ranks.

Since reading the accounts of General Poe, the engineer in charge of the works, I am convinced that the wires were far from being the serious obstacle reported, and that we could have gone in without the use of axes; and from other accounts it appears that most of the troops had retired from the fort, leaving about a hundred and fifty [507] infantry with Benjamin's battery. Our muskets from the outside of the parapet could have kept the infantry down, and the artillery practice, except the few hand-grenades, prepared at the time by the artillerists. Johnson's brigades would have been at the ditch with me in ten minutes, when we would have passed over the works. Hence it seems conclusive that the failure was due to the order of recall. It is not a part of my nature to listen to reports that always come when stunning blows are felt, but confidence in the conduct of the war was broken, and with it the tone and spirit for battle further impaired by the efforts of those in authority to damage, if not prevent, the success of work ordered in their own vital interest: a poor excuse for want of golden equipoise in one who presumes to hold the lives of his soldiers, but better than to look for ways to shift the responsibility of a wavering spirit that sometimes comes unawares.

After the repulse, General Burnside was so considerate as to offer a “flag of truce” for time to remove our killed and wounded about his lines.

About half an hour after the repulse, and while yet on the slope leading up to the fort, Major Branch, of Major-General Ransom's staff, came with a telegram from the President informing me that General Bragg had been forced back by superior numbers, and ordering me to proceed to co-operate with his army.

Orders were issued at once for our trains to move south, and preparations were begun for a move of the troops after nightfall. In the afternoon word came from General Wheeler, authorized by General Bragg, that I should join him, if practicable, at Ringgold. But our first step was to be relieved of the threatening from the direction of Cumberland Gap. General Martin was sent to reinforce General Jones, with orders to hurry his operations, and return in time to cover anticipated movements. His brigades which had done their clever work on the south side [508] were withdrawn to go with him. When he came up with Jones, the latter was severely engaged, but it was then night, too late for other operations.

Their arrangements were made during the night and battle renewed at early dawn and severely contested, the Union troops giving from point to point until they crossed the ford at Walker's and were beyond further threatening. They lost some fifty killed and wounded and one company captured at Colonel Graham's camp.

Generals Martin and Jones joined us in good season after their affair of the morning. Their loss was slight, but not detailed in separate reports.

Confederate loss in the assault822
Union loss in the assault673
Confederate losses during the campaign1296
Union losses during the campaign1481

1 Rebellion Record, vol. XXXI. part i. p. 491.

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