Battle of Blountsville
Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio, undertook an expedition into East Tennessee to clear the roads and gaps to Virginia, and, if possible, secure the saltworks beyond Abingdon. On September 22, Union Col. John W. Foster with his cavalry and artillery engaged Col. James E. Carter and his troops at Blountsville. Foster attacked at noon and in the four-hour battle, shelled the town and initiated a flanking movement, compelling the Confederates to withdraw. Blountsville was the initial step in the Union’s attempt to force Confederate Maj. Gen. Sam Jones and his command to retire from East Tennessee. (NPS summary)
In an effort to free his left flank Burnside deployed troops to push to the Virginia border. Travelling northeast along the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad Colonel John W. Foster’s brigade ran into Confederate defenders at the Watauga River. At 0900 on September 22nd skirmishing began at Hall’s Ford where Foster’s crossing was “disputed by a heavy picket force of cavalry.” After a short fight the outnumbered pickets were driven in on the main body at Blountsville.
Here Colonel James E. Carter posted his 1200 men in a line supported by four artillery pieces. Inconclusive fighting lasted four hours until Foster decided to launch a flanking attack on the enemy position. The Confederates were dislodged by “a charge of the Sixty-fifth Indiana Mounted Infantry, Fifth Indiana Cavalry, and Eighth Tennessee Cavalry” just before darkness settled in. Union losses totaled 27, mostly in the 65th Indiana while the Confederates losses were much higher at 165. At least 50 prisoners and one artillery piece were taken by Foster’s men. Artillery fire started a fire that rampaged through the town unchecked while the fighting was going on and consumed “a great portion of it.”
This little fight is significant for the unusual correspondence that took place between the two army commanders prior to the event. On the 22nd Burnside sent a letter to MG Samuel Jones under a flag of truce asking that non-combatants be warned to leave towns and villages along the railroad. Having announced his intended route to the enemy Burnside suggested that “to avoid accidents” the civilian populations should be warned of his approach so that they may “remove themselves to a place of safety.” Burnside stated that military necessity might require him to fire into the towns but he would not do so until after 1700. After the end of the safe period at 1700 he would not be responsible for civilian casualties. BG John S. Williams answering the request “in absence of my superior officers” did not receive the letter until after 1600 and replied angrily. In fiery message Williams stated the “short space allowed” to make the warnings effectively negated the effectiveness of any attempt and therefore “does not seem consistent with the usages of civilized warfare”. Oddly Williams did not ask for an extension of the deadline. He asked only how such warnings might be made in such a limited time. Colonel Foster may or may not have known about Burnside’s diplomatic effort but the fight at Blountsville would certainly have violated the 1700 deadline. Foster, writing his report after learning of the correspondence did, however, emphasize that it was enemy shells that started the blaze.