by Orlando M. Poe, Brevet Brigadier-General, U. S. A.
It was determined by the Federal
authorities to make strenuous efforts during the summer of 1863 to effect permanent lodgments in east Tennessee
, both at Chattanooga
, not only for the purpose of interrupting railway communication by that route,1
but to afford relief to a section where Union sentiments were known to exist to a very considerable extent.
It was accordingly arranged that Rosecrans
should move from Murfreesboro
' against Bragg
, while a force should be organized in central Kentucky
to move toward Knoxville
The latter movement was intrusted to General Burnside
, who occupied Knoxville
on the 2d of September, 1863, with part of the Twenty-third Corps, and on the 9th received the surrender of the Confederate
force under General John W. Frazer
at Cumberland Gap
The greater portion of General Burnside
's force was now expected to move down the Valley of the Tennessee
to a connection (possibly a junction) with Rosecrans
, then at Chattanooga
or its vicinity.
This involved leaving Knoxville
to be held by a small force, and rendered it necessary to fortify the place.
Accordingly, as chief engineer, I was instructed to arrange for a garrison of 600 men, intended only to hold the place against a cavalry “dash.”
During the enemy's occupation of Knoxville
, a very small beginning had been made toward the erection of earth-works.
An insignificant line had been thrown up on the hill north-west of the college, and a slight epaulement
on the bluff overlooking the railway station.
Neither of these was of use in the construction of our works.
The plans for two works were submitted,--one, afterward known as Fort Sanders
, on the site of the imperfect work first mentioned; and the other, afterward known as Fort Huntington Smith, on Temperance Hill
in East Knoxville.
These plans were approved by General Burnside
, and work was at once begun by the engineer battalion of the Twenty-third Corps and a small force of negroes, but progressed slowly on account of the difficulty of getting suitable materials.
The forts were not entirely completed until after the siege of Knoxville
Meanwhile our lines were extended down the valley toward Chattanooga
By the 18th of September, a battalion of cavalry in the extreme advance reached Cleveland
, and the prospect for a junction was good until Chickamauga
put an end to further movements in that direction, and Sweetwater
became our outpost.
Early in October a force of the enemy under General John S. Williams
, coming from the eastward, moved down the railroad to the vicinity of Bull's Gap
, and pressed heavily upon our forces in that quarter.
With such troops as could readily be concentrated, General Burnside
attacked them at Blue Springs
on the 10th and drove them well back toward Bristol
On the 22d of October our outpost at Sweetwater
and our reserve at Philadelphia
were attacked successfully.
Subsequent operations and reconnoissances resulted in the determination to abandon temporarily the Valley of the Tennessee
south of Loudon
The troops were all withdrawn and the pontoon-bridge was transferred from London
, where General Sanders
's cavalry command crossed it to the south side of the river, on the 1st of November.
The abandonment of Loudon
had in view the occupation of a stronger position on the northern bank of the river from Kingston
's, where a pontoon-bridge was to be thrown across the Holston
and the line prolonged by the right bank of the Little Tennessee.
On the 13th of November it was ascertained that the enemy had constructed a pontoon-bridge at Huff's Ferry, near Loudon
, and were crossing in force to the northern bank of the Tennessee
At the same time General Wheeler
, with nearly the whole of his four brigades of cavalry, made a rapid night march and crossed the Little Tennessee with a view to cutting off Sanders
's command and occupying the heights opposite Knoxville
; or, as stated by Longstreet
, “failing in this, to threaten the enemy at Knoxville
so as to prevent his concentrating against us before we reached Knoxville
was foiled in this attempt, and soon withdrew to the north bank of the river, which he crossed at Louisville
He rejoined Longstreet
on the 17th of November, after the latter had fought the battle of Campbell's Station
Upon learning of Longstreet
's movement, General Burnside
took personal command of the troops available to oppose him. The operations of our forces during the next few days had for their object to delay the advance of the enemy to enable us to get our trains into Knoxville
, and to forward the defensive works at that place, where it had been determined to make a stand.
advanced from Loudon
in two columns, McLaws
's division taking the left road, leading to Campbell's Station
, and Hood
's division (commanded
), the one to the right, following the line of the railroad to Lenoir
's. The latter soon came in contact with the Federal
skirmishers and drove them slowly back, but failed to reach Lenoir
's that day. Every effort was made during the night to ascertain Burnside
's movements, but his bold and vigilant rear-guard succeeded in completely concealing them.
By daybreak the whole force was on the road, and when the Confederates
advanced they found Lenoir
The road upon which Burnside
was moving, followed by Jenkins
, intersects that along which McLaws
was advancing, about a mile south-west of Campbell's Station
It was therefore essential to the safety of his train, if not of his entire command, that Burnside
should reach the junction before McLaws
Just before daylight on the 16th of November, Hartranft
's division took the advance of Burnside
's column from Lenoir
's and pushed forward as rapidly as the roads permitted, followed by the trains and by the other troops.
, with full knowledge of the importance of seizing the intersection of the roads, was making every endeavor to get possession before the arrival of Burnside
He was opposed by a small force, but his march, like Hartranft
's, was impeded by the mud resulting from heavy rains.
It thus became a race for the position.
won by perhaps half an hour, and, turning west on the Kingston
road, quickly deployed his division in such manner as to confront McLaws
, and at the same time cover the Loudon
road along which our trains were moving.
During the movement from Lenoir
's rear-guard, composed of Colonel William Humphrey
's brigade, had several sharp encounters with Jenkins
's advance, in which Humphrey
handled his forces so well as to excite the admiration of both friends and foes, always standing long enough, but never too long.
Scarcely had Hartranft
's dispositions been made when McLaws
appeared and attacked, but Hartranft
steadfastly held his ground until the remainder of our troops and all our trains had safely passed.
The trains continued on the road to Knoxville
, while the troops were formed in line of battle about half a mile beyond the junction, with Ferrero
's division on the right, and White
's in prolongation to the left, whereupon Hartranft
withdrew from his advanced position and took his place in line on the left of White
A small cavalry force scouted the roads on each flank of the line.
About noon Longstreet
unsuccessfully attacked our right, and afterward our left center.
Later, taking advantage of a wooded ridge to conceal the march, he attempted to turn our left flank with three brigades of Jenkins
's division, but our scouts soon discovered and reported the movement.
had determined to retire to a new position about two-thirds of a mile to his rear, and this development but slightly hastened his withdrawal from the first line.
The difficult and hazardous undertaking was successfully accomplished in the face of the enemy.
All who saw it say that the troops moved with the greatest coolness, deliberation, and precision under a heavy and continuous fire.
's division promptly advanced to attack the new position, while Jenkins
continued his turning movement, but the difficulties of the ground
delayed him until nightfall and stopped his further progress.
attacked and failed to make an impression, and at the close of the action Burnside
remained in possession of his own ground until after dark, and then continued his movement to Knoxville
, the head of his column appearing there about daybreak next morning, November 17th.
He had gained his object and therefore was fairly entitled to claim a victory.
placed his whole loss in this important affair of Campbell's Station
at about 300.
reported his as 174.
It is probable that the losses on both sides, including McLaws
's, were about equal.
During the fight Burnside
had instructed me to select lines of defense around Knoxville
and have everything prepared to put the troops into position as fast as they should arrive.
I was well acquainted with the ground, and but little further examination was necessary to enable me to designate, in writing, the proposed location of each organization.
The topographical features of the vicinity of Knoxville
give that place decided strength as a military position.
[See maps, pp. 636 and 736.] On the northern or right bank of the Holston
, a narrow table-land, or ridge, beginning about two miles east of the town, extends down the river to Lenoir
's, some 24 miles. This ridge is generally elevated about 150 feet above the river, but with many higher points.
Its width at Knoxville
is about 1300 yards, and the valley bounding it on the north-west, parallel with the river, is perhaps 50 feet above that stream at the ordinary stage of water.
The East Tennessee
, Virginia and Georgia railroad is located along the valley, which was almost entirely clear of timber.
At short intervals the ridge is cut through by small streams emptying into the Holston
, two of which, called First and Second Creeks, run through the town at a distance apart of about one thousand yards. The main portion of Knoxville
, as it existed at the time of the siege, occupied that portion of the table-land included between the two creeks, the river and the valley.
East Knoxville was situated next east of First Creek
, upon an elevation known as Temperance Hill
East of Temperance Hill
, and separated from it by a depression in the ridge, is Mabry's Hill
, the highest ground on the north side of the Holston
within cannonrange of the town.
Beyond this the ground, with a few minor elevations, gradually descends to the level of the valley.
is immediately upon the bank of the river, south of Temperance Hill
Third Creek, a little more than a mile westward from Second Creek
, forms the south-westerly limit of another natural division of the ridge, including the hill north-west from the college.
North-westerly from the river are found successive ridges; the most important was occupied by the Confederates
, across the valley a mile from our line.
South of the Holston
the ground rises in a series of prominent points, or knobs, the highest of which is directly opposite Knoxville
on the prolongation of Gay street. These knobs — form a range, the crest line of which is parallel with the river at an average distance from it of about half a mile, with a wide valley beyond.
On the Knoxville side of the Holston
, our line rested upon the river about a quarter of a mile below the mouth of Second Creek
, extended from there
at an angle of about 82° with the river for 900 yards to Battery Noble,2
then, bending about 50° to the northward, continued a little more than 600 yards to Fort Sanders
, where it changed direction about 650 to the eastward, and, overlooking the valley, followed the crest of the bluff, parallel with the general course of the river for some 1600 yards to Battery Wiltsie, opposite the railroad station, including, in this part of the line, Battery Zoellner, between Fort Sanders
and Second Creek
, Battery Galpin, just-east of Second Creek
, and Fort Comstock, between Battery Galpin and Battery Wiltsie.
From the last named, with a slight change of direction toward the river, the line continued along the crest of the bluff, over Temperance Hill
to Mabry's Hill
, a distance of 2400 yards, including Battery Billingsley just west of First Creek
, Fort Huntington Smith on Temperance Hill
, Battery Clifton Lee and Battery Stearman in the depression between Temperance Hill
and Mabry's Hill
, and Fort Hill
on the extreme easterly point of Mabry's Hill.
From here it turned sharply to the southward for 1300 yards and reached the river at a ravine about 1000 yards above the mouth of First Creek
A continuous line of infantry cover connected all these positions, and dams were built at the crossing of First and Second Creeks which, by backing the water, formed considerable obstacles, especially in front of Temperance Hill
, where the line was parallel with the course of First Creek
for 1200 yards, and the pond impassable without brid ges.
A short interior line was established from Fort Sanders
to Second Creek
, near its mouth.
This included Fort Byington, built around the college.
Another line extended from Temperance Hill
to Flint Hill
, terminating in Battery Fearns.
On the south side of the river such of the heights (four in number) as were necessary to the defense were occupied by detached works with extensions for infantry cover, insufficient, however, to make the line continuous, or even approximately so. Fort Stanley
was built on the hill directly opposite Knoxville
, and a line of ordinary rifle-trenches was carried eastward from it across the Sevierville
road and to the adjacent height.
The hill nearly opposite the mouth of Second Creek
was occupied by Fort Dickerson, and the next one to the westward by Fort Higley.
The arrangements for the defense of the position on the north side of the Holston
were necessarily made in the most hurried manner.
The earth-works known as Fort Sanders
and Fort Huntington Smith, intended for a very different condition of affairs, were so far advanced toward completion when Longstreet
appeared before Knoxville
, that their use without modification was compulsory.
Neither of the plans was what it would have been had the works been designed for parts of a continuous line.
Especially was this the case with respect to Fort Sanders
, the trace of which was such that under the stress of circumstances its north-western bastion became a prominent salient of the main line, and notwithstanding the measures taken to remedy this objectionable
Map of the approaches and Defences of Knoxville, Tenn., showing the positions occupied by the United States and Confederate forces during the siege.|
feature, its existence caused us great anxiety.
The sector without fire of the bastion referred to (the one attacked) would have been a sector without fire for the line, but for the arrangements made on either side of it to overcome the defect as far as possible.
The fire thus obtained in front of this bastion was not all that, could have been desired, but the event proved.
that it was sufficient.
's renowned infantry failed to carry it by assault demonstrated that there were no very serious defects unprovided for.
As already stated, the head of Burnside
's column appeared at Knoxville
at daybreak on the 17th of November.
It was met near Third Creek, and the organizations were directed to their respective stations, formed upon the lines, and told to dig, and to do it with all their might.
By the middle of the forenoon all were hard at work.
The locations of but few of the organizations were changed during the siege, and these but slightly.
Except the incomplete forts, Sanders
and Huntington Smith, nothing in the way of defensive works had been previously contemplated.
Lines of rifle-trenches soon appeared, only to grow rapidly into continuous infantry parapets.
Batteries for the artillery were ready in the shortest possible time.
During the night of the 16th of November Sanders
had crossed his division of cavalry to the north side of the river and moved out on the London
road to cover our forces, approaching from Campbell's Station
, until they could get into position and make some progress in the construction of defensive works.
Slowly falling back as the enemy advanced on the 17th, he finally made a stand with one brigade of about 700 men under his immediate command, upon a hill just north of the Loudon
road, a mile from Fort Sanders
and about 800 yards west from where that road crossed Third Creek; while the other brigade (two regiments of mounted infantry), commanded by Colonel C. D. Pennebaker
, turned at bay where the Clinton
road crossed the ridge about a mile north-west from Fort Sanders
For the remainder of the 17th these commands stubbornly held their ground, in full view of our lines, the principal Confederate attacks being directed upon the position of Sanders
, who kept up a fierce and gallant contest with Longstreet
's infantry and Alexander
's guns, ceasing only with the darkness.
About 11 P. M. General Burnside
sent for me, and upon reporting to him at his headquarters at Crozier's house, I found him in conversation with Sanders
He asked me how long it would take to make the works defensible, and was informed that it could be done by noon of the next day, the 18th.
Turning to Sanders
he asked him if he would maintain his position until that time, and received an assuring promise.
accompanied me to my quarters, where we discussed the matter until after midnight, and then lay down upon the same blanket to get some rest, but before daylight he was called by the guard, and left to join his command.
As day dawned the attacks upon Sanders
were renewed, with the evident determination to dislodge him in the shortest possible time.
As hour after hour passed, and that cavalry continued to stand against the pressure, it excited the wonder of the rest of our army.
The contest was very unequal, and occasionally a few of our men would leave their position behind the piles of fence rails which constituted their only cover, with the apparent intention of retreating.
At such critical times Sanders
would walk up to the rail piles and stand there erect, with fully half his height exposed to a terrific fire at short range, until every retreating man, as if ashamed of himself, would return to his proper place.
He held his ground until noon as he had promised, and then, in accordance — with an understanding with me, continued to hold it, intending to do so until actually driven away.
At about half-past 2 he fell, mortally
The North-Western bastion of Fort Sanders, viewed from the North.
From a War-time photograph. |
wounded, and the screen which he had so stubbornly interposed between the enemy and our hard-working troops was quickly rolled aside.
Every spadeful of earth turned while Sanders
was fighting aided in making our position secure, and he had determined to sacrifice himself if necessary for the safety of the rest of the army.
Hence he maintained his position so strenuously, and but for his fall it is possible he would have held it until night, as I sincerely believe he meant to do. His fine presence, soldierly bearing, extreme gallantry, and unvarying courtesy attached to him the incongruous elements composing his command, and enabled him to handle it as he did on this occasion, when its behavior was certainly worthy the commendation it received.
The fort in front of which he fell was immediately named after him in commemoration of the service rendered.
Early on the 18th eight or ten of the enemy had established themselves in the upper story of the tower of a brick house which stood about 750 yards beyond Sanders
's line, and from this advantageous position greatly annoyed his command by their accurate fire.
He sent a request to Benjamin
, in Fort Sanders
, to try the effect upon these sharp-shooters of a few shots from his 20-pounder Parrotts.
The distance was 2500 yards, but Benjamin
's gunner put a shot directly through the compartment occupied by the sharp-shooters, badly wrecking it (as was ascertained by examination after the siege), and abating the nuisance.
During the whole war I saw no prettier single shot.
By the night of the 18th our infantry trenches on the north side of the river had been made nearly continuous, and our heavier works were well advanced.
The enemy's skirmishers pushed up in front of ours, and the siege was fairly on. On the 19th he extended to his left, and during the day threw shells into Knoxville
from a battery posted on the Tazewell
road, about a mile and a half from our main line.
On the 20th the enemy's offensive lines began to appear, his right approaching the river near Armstrong's house just west of Third Creek.
From there he extended toward the left across the valley and along the ridge beyond on a line nearly concentric with ours.
The earth-works on each side seemed to grow like magic, but we were
apparently doing more digging than they.
Indeed, they never constructed any works of consequence east of the Jacksboro' road.
A large brick house, with two log barns, stood within the enemy's skirmish line in front of Fort Sanders
, and served as cover for troublesome sharpshooters.
Why these buildings were not destroyed by us as we fell back I do not know, but it soon became evident that it must be done now, and the 17th Michigan Infantry was detailed for the purpose.
At 9 P. M. the regiment, passing to the rear and left of Fort Sanders
, advanced to our skirmish line where they halted a few moments to adjust the line, and again moved forward.
The enemy soon discovered the movement and opened fire, whereupon our men charged at a run, and quickly gained possession of the buildings; a baking-pan full of warm biscuits in the house indicating the completeness of the surprise.
A party of five volunteers under charge of Major F. W. Swift
had been formed to set fire to the buildings.
These were effectually fired, and our men were half-way on their return to our lines before the light of the burning buildings revealed the party to the enemy, who then opened a cannonade upon them.
Map of immediate vicinity of Fort Saunders.|
The siege and defensive operations progressed in the usual manner until the 22d, when we received information3
that the enemy was constructing a raft at Boyd's Ferry, on the Holston
, about six miles above Knoxville
by the course of the river, intending to set it adrift in the hope that it would reach our pontoon-bridge and carry it away, thus breaking our communication with the south side.
About dark we began stretching an iron cable boom across the river above the bridge, with a view to catching the raft.
The cable was about a thousand feet long, formed by linking together all the iron bars we could get, and was borne by wooden floats.
Under my personal supervision the boom was completed by 9 o'clock next morning.
On the evening of the 23d the enemy advanced upon our skirmishers in front of Fort Comstock and drove them back, but not until they had set fire to all the buildings in the immediate vicinity.
We regained the position next
Nearly due west from Fort Sanders
the enemy had advanced his line to within about 600 yards of the fort, and had thrown up a continuous line of infantry trench, with its right resting on the railroad and extending about 300 yards to the left.
Early in the morning of the 24th a detail of 169 men of the 2d Michigan Infantry attacked and carried this work.
After they had held it for some time without reenforcements, the enemy made a counter-attack in largely increased force, with lamentable results to us, our men being driven hack with a loss of nearly half their number.
Strange as it may seem, this sortie was made without my knowledge, and although I made considerable effort afterward to ascertain who was responsible for it, I never succeeded.
It would be difficult to conceive a more ill-advised movement.
It would have been proper if we had intended to bring on a general engagement, in which case the sortie should have been supported with our whole force.
If such was not the intention, the sortie should not have been made at all. Carried out in the manner it was, the affair was simply murderous.
This is strong language, but every word of it is justified by the unnecessary
loss of about eighty-three of our very best men. The notes which I made at the time show that if I could have found any one to stand sponsor for the order, my condemnation of it would have then been quite as decided as now.
About the same time the enemy crossed the Holston
below his lines and unsuccessfully attacked our forces on the south side of the river.
He established batteries of rifled guns on the heights nearly opposite the mouth of Third Creek (never occupied by us), distant about 2300 yards from Fort Sanders
, rendering it necessary to defilade this work against them.
The reports of a destructive raft being renewed, another boom, 1500 feet long, and made of long timbers fastened together at the ends by fifth chains from the wagon trains, was stretched across the river above the first one.
Prior to our occupation of Knoxville
, the enemy had begun the erection of an earth-work, called by them Fort Loudon
, on the site afterward occupied by Fort Sanders
A second growth of pines, averaging about five inches in diameter, thickly covered the hillside in front, and were cut down by them, leaving stumps perhaps eighteen inches high.
The necessity for using every possible means of obstructing the approach over the sector without fire in front of the north-western bastion of Fort Sanders
, included in the area covered by these stumps, was evident to every one, and became more
pressing as the probability of an assault at this point grew more apparent.
At this time Mr. Hoxie
, in charge of the railroad property at Knoxville
, informed me that he had a lot of old telegraph wire at the depot which he thought might be of service to us as an obstruction.
Its use as a net-work entanglement, by carrying it from stump to stump over the sector without fire referred to, was so obvious that no time was lost in putting it in place.
The part it played in causing the repulse was much overrated.
Owing to its rusty color, nearly that of the pine litter just under it, and the imperfect light of the foggy morning, it doubtless did have some effect in breaking up the coherency of the assaulting column, and may possibly have detained it long enough to permit the defense to deliver a couple of rounds more, a matter of some consequence.
The wet, foggy, and generally disagreeable weather of the preceding days still continued, when, at about 11 o'clock on the night of the 28th, our picket lines in front of Fort Sanders
were attacked with such spirit as to indicate an important movement, and after sharp skirmishing for some length of time were finally carried.
This was, in fact, the prelude to an assault upon the main work, and had for its immediate effect to put us on the alert and keep us in readiness for the serious business which we knew was close at hand.
The enemy's arrangements for the assault provided that it be made in two columns, from McLaws
's division, directed against the north-west angle of Fort Sanders
, the one on the left to be composed of Wofford
's brigade, in column of regiments, with the 16th Georgia leading; while the other, formed in like order, was to consist of Humphreys
's brigade, led by the 13th Mississippi, and closely followed by three regiments of Bryan
The attack was to be made with fixed bayonets, without cheering or firing a shot, and the men were to be urged to rush forward with a determination to succeed.
The sharp-shooters were to keep up a continuous fire into the embrasures of the fort and along the adjacent works, to prevent the use of artillery against the assaulting force and to disturb the fire of all arms.
's brigade, following the main attack, was to carry the works about a hundred yards to the left, and, in case the assault on Fort Sanders
should prove successful, was then to wheel to the left, and, followed by Benning
's and Jenkins
's brigades, sweep down our lines to the eastward.
But if the main attack should fail, Anderson
was to wheel to the right and endeavor to carry Fort Sanders
from the rear.
's brigade was to advance to the assault of the works on the right of the fort as soon as it had fallen.
The unassigned brigades of McLaws
's and Jenkins
's divisions, together with the brigades of Bushrod Johnson
, were to be held in readiness to follow up any success.
Thus the plan of assault had been well studied, carefully elaborated, and clearly formulated.
The preparations for resisting it were the wire entanglements already described, a slight abatis, the strong profile of Fort Sanders
, and the arrangements for both a direct and a cross fire in front of the salient not only from the garrison of the fort itself, but also from the troops occupying the adjacent intrenchments.
was laid out in strict accordance with the rules for constructing bastioned earth-works, but upon shorter exterior lines than were desirable.
It was built upon an irregular quadrilateral of which the western side was 95 yards, the northern 125 yards, the eastern 85 yards, and the southern 125 yards; the north-western bastion being traced in the right angle between the first two sides.
The western front was completed, and the two adjoining ones had been carried far enough to give us the advantage of their flanking arrangements.
The North-Western bastion of Fort Sanders, viewed from the South-Western bastion.
From a photograph. |
The eastern front had been intentionally left open.
Provision had been made by pan-coupes for an artillery fire along the capitals of the two completed bastions, and a 12-pounder gun had been placed in the one attacked.
The trace of the interior crest was so located on the slopes of the hill that when a parade of about forty feet in width had been formed, the undisturbed ground behind it served some of the minor purposes of a traverse.
The ditch was made twelve feet wide at the bastion faces, and from six to eight feet in depth, depending upon the accidents of the ground, the average being about seven feet. The result of this location of the interior crest and depth of ditch, was an unusually high relief to the work, especially at the north-western bastion.
The scarps were practically vertical, and the berme at the foot of the exterior slope was cut away.
The counterscarps were continued until they intersected, and all the material between them and the curtain excavated to the general level of the bottom of the ditch, thus obviating all dead angles.
A banquette was formed in the counterscarp at the north-western salient, of sufficient extent for the location of about forty men, whose fire could be delivered in the direction of the capital.
In addition to the ordinary flank fire, three 12-pounders were so located in notches in the immediate eastward extension of the northern front as to admit of their firing into the left flank of the assaulting column; and a fire, more or less efficient, could be delivered over the same ground from our intrenchments as far eastward as Battery Zoellner.
A similar fire into their front and right flank was obtained from our lines to the southward of Fort Sanders
as far as Battery Noble.
The garrison of Fort Sanders
at the time of the assault, usually estimated at about 500 men, consisted of Benjamin's and Buckley
's batteries and one section of Roemer
's (four 20-pounder Parrotts, six 12-pounder Napoleons, and two 3-inch rifled guns), and an infantry force made up of some 120 men of the 79th New York, 75 men of the 29th Massachusetts, 60 men of the 2d Michigan, and 80 men of the 20th Michigan.
About forty men of the 2d Michigan, under command of Captain Charles H. Hodskin
, occupied the banquette
in the counterscarp salient as long as the position was tenable, and then ran through the ditch to the southward; they entered the fort around the southeastern angle as they had been instructed to do, and took further part in the defense.
The number actually within the fort at the moment of the supreme struggle and repulse probably did not exceed 440 men. The discrepancy arises from the different ways of reckoning the limits of the fort, due to the open eastern front.
The smaller estimate includes only the troops that were within the bastioned trace.
Yet some very effective work was done against the assaulting column by the fire coming from the intrenchments beyond the original Fort Sanders
, and it has always seemed to me only fair that troops delivering this fire should be counted in estimating the strength of the garrison, in which case the total would be increased to more than three times the number given.
About 6 A. M. on Sunday, November 29th, the enemy opened a heavy artillery fire upon Fort Sanders
, to which no reply was made, because our limited supply of ammunition made it necessary to reserve it for use at a more critical moment.
The fire continued for about twenty minutes and then slackened, whereupon the columns moved to the assault, and were at once met by all the fire that could be concentrated upon them from our lines.
Encountering the wire entanglements, their organization was somewhat disturbed, but the movement was not seriously checked thereby, nor did the slight abatis retard it. Although suffering from the terribly destructive fire to which they were subjected, they soon reached the outer brink of the ditch.
There could be no pause at that point, and, leaping into the ditch in such numbers as nearly to fill it, they endeavored to scale the walls.
Having no scaling-ladders, a portion of the men, scrambling over the shoulders of their comrades, planted the battle-flags of the 13th and 17th Mississippi and the 16th Georgia upon the parapet, but every man who rallied to them was either killed or captured, and the flags were taken.
Meanwhile those who remained in the ditch found themselves under a deadly flank fire of musketry and canister, supplemented by shells thrown as hand-grenades from inside the fort, without the slightest possibility of returning a blow.
Advance and retreat were about equally difficult, and it needed but a very short exposure to convince them that if any were to leave the ditch alive it could only be by the promptest surrender.
Those who were able to walk were brought through the ditch to the south-eastern angle and there entered our lines as prisoners.
Such of the assaulting forces as had not entered the ditch fell back, at first sullenly and slowly, but flesh and blood could not stand the storm of shot and shell that was poured upon them, and they soon broke in confused retreat.
The assault had been gallantly made, but was repulsed in little more time than is required to describe it. When the result became apparent Longstreet
directed the withdrawal of the supporting brigade, but the order did not reach Anderson
in time to prevent his troops from pushing on as though the assault had been successful.
They swerved, however, somewhat to their left,
and attacked a short distance to the eastward of the designated point, only to meet with as decided, though not so bloody, a repulse.
The assaulting columns were rallied under partial cover some five or six hundred yards from Fort Sanders
and there reorganized, but no further open attempt to carry our lines was made.
Many reasons have been assigned for the failure of this assault, and there is some difference of opinion in regard to the matter.
Some of those opposed to us, of unquestioned ability and fairness, have attributed it to the warning given us by taking our picket line the night before, the insufficient use of their artillery, and the improper direction taken by two of the columns, resulting in their intermingling and consequent confusion.
The opinion has been confidently expressed that a subsequent assault would have been successful.
All this assumes, first, that we were not already vigilant and waiting for the attack; second, that a heavy and continued artillery fire would have greatly damaged and demoralized us; third, that the confusion arising from the convergence of the advancing columns would not have occurred again; fourth, that the works were “very faulty in plan and very easy to take by a properly managed assault” ; and last, but not least, that the troops of the enemy were better than ours.
The first of these assumptions is erroneous; the second greatly exaggerated; the
third might have been verified, but again might not; the fourth is correct only within the limits and to the extent already explained; and the last has no evidence to sustain it.
No one is more ready and willing than the writer to admit the excellence of the troops that fought us at Knoxville
They had few equals, and I believe no superiors.
But in making this admission I do not abate one particle of my confidence in the valor and persistency of those who opposed them.
They possessed those qualities in as high degree as General Longstreet
's men or any others, and the succession of events had only served to improve their morale.
It may fairly be doubted whether any disaster to our arms was imminent.
Again, the repulse may have been due to the existence of fewer faults in the works than supposed; to the measures adopted by us to remedy the faults
which did exist;4
to the passive obstacles of wire entanglements, depth of ditch and unusual relief of the parapet; to the enemy's error in deciding it to be unnecessary to provide scaling-ladders for the storming party; and, finally and emphatically, to a sufficient garrison of the coolest, bravest, and most determined men. Each of these reasons seems to me to have contributed its share to the result, and some of them were surely of much graver moment than any of those assigned by the other side.
The successful resistance of the 29th did not lead to any remission of labor on our defenses.
Work was continued by the troops with the energy that had characterized their efforts thus far, but the enemy gave little indication of a purpose to do anything further upon their works of attack.
On the 1st of December large trains belonging to the enemy were seen moving to the eastward, and again on the 3d and 4th and on the night of the 4th his troops were withdrawn and the siege was raised.
We had not yet heard the result of General Grant
's operations at Chattanooga
The signal defeat of Bragg
at Missionary Ridge
and the happy conclusion of the siege of Knoxville
confirmed our hold upon the direct line of communication between the enemy's forces east and west and achieved the permanent relief of the friends of our cause in east Tennessee
The conduct of the men who stood in the trenches at Knoxville
cannot be overpraised.
Half starved, with clothing tattered and torn, they endured without a murmur every form of hardship and exposure that falls to the lot of the soldier.
The question with them was not whether they could withstand the assaults of the enemy, but simply whether sufficient food could be obtained to enable them to keep their places in the line.
That they were not reduced to the last extremity in this regard is due to the supplies sent in by the loyalists of the French Broad
settlements, who took advantage of Longstreet
's inability to invest the place completely, and under cover of the night-fogs floated down to us such food and forage as they could collect.