Battle of Fort Sanders
In attempting to take Knoxville, the Confederates decided that Fort Sanders was the only vulnerable place where they could penetrate Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s fortifications, which enclosed the city, and successfully conclude the siege, already a week long. The fort surmounted an eminence just northwest of Knoxville. Northwest of the fort, the land dropped off abruptly. Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet believed he could assemble a storming party, undetected at night, below the fortifications and, before dawn, overwhelm Fort Sanders by a coup de main. Following a brief artillery barrage directed at the fort’s interior, three Rebel brigades charged. Union wire entanglements - telegraph wire stretched from one tree stump to another to another - delayed the attack, but the fort’s outer ditch halted the Confederates. This ditch was twelve feet wide and from four to ten feet deep with vertical sides. The fort’s exterior slope was almost vertical, also. Crossing the ditch was nearly impossible, especially under withering defensive fire from musketry and canister. Confederate officers did lead their men into the ditch, but, without scaling ladders, few emerged on the scarp side and a small number entered the fort to be wounded, killed, or captured. The attack lasted a short twenty minutes. Longstreet undertook his Knoxville expedition to divert Union troops from Chattanooga and to get away from Gen. Braxton Bragg, with whom he was engaged in a bitter feud. His failure to take Knoxville scuttled his purpose. This was the decisive battle of the Knoxville Campaign. This Confederate defeat, plus the loss of Chattanooga on November 25, put much of East Tennessee in the Union camp. (NPS summary)
Assault on Fort Sanders
The original plan for the assault on the Federal position at Fort Sanders called for the improvised mortars to open at sunrise on the 25th followed by the direct fire guns. Sharpshooters were to seize the advanced Union rifle pits and keep up a deadly fire on the embrasures to mask the approach of the main attack force. While all these preparations were in the works Longstreet learned that Bragg had succumbed to his appeal for reinforcements. Bragg had decided to reinforce him with two divisions from around Chattanooga. The bulk of the planned movement was recalled when the fight for Missionary Ridge exploded in the midst of the deployment. Longstreet decided to postpone the attack awaiting the promised reinforcements. Johnson’s and Gracie’s brigades began to arrive at Knoxville late on the 25th.
Accompanying these troops was BG Leadbetter, Bragg’s Chief Engineer. On Friday November 26th Leadbetter, Longstreet, and E. P. Alexander conducted a reconnaissance of the area north of Knoxville in hopes of finding an area better suited or the assault. After Wheeler’s cavalry drove in the Union pickets the three determined that a successful attack in “this quarter would be impossible.” The Confederate leaders unanimously decided to shift the focus of their attack back to Fort Sanders. The scheduled attack, using the previous plan, was again postponed on the 27th. On the 28th Longstreet announced that the plan was not only postponed again but drastically altered. Instead of a period of artillery preparation he insisted, probably at Leadbetter’s urging that a surprise attack by infantry only at dawn on the 29th would be the course of action.
Referring to a reconnaissance they had conducted on the 27th Longstreet wrote to BG Micah Jenkins on the 28th that “The work of the enemy is not inclosed (sic).The ditch is probably at some points not more than 3 feet deep and 5 or 6 feet wide…we so judged… in looking at a man walk down the parapet and over the ditch.” On this bit of information rested the fate of the attack. MG Lafayette McLaws was ordered to prepare his brigades for an assault. McLaws issued orders for Humphreys’ Brigade of Mississippi troops to form the right of the advance with Wofford’s Georgia Brigade on the left. Bryan’s Brigade would form the reserve. Jenkins would support the main effort with an attack on McLaws' left.
During the early morning hours of the 29th the Confederate picket line surged forward and pushed the Union pickets almost back into the fort. Sharpshooters were positioned to provide covering fire into the fort. The retreating Union pickets raised the alarm and the garrison quietly prepared for the assault they knew was inevitable. The defenders poured water out of their embrasures so that the frigid night air would form an icy crust on the steep parapet walls. The garrison was reinforced and confidently awaited the attack.
“As soon as it was light enough for them to see” the sharpshooters began to pour fire into the fort and the advance began. The two brigades moved forward through a light abatis and the wire tangle foot, which momentarily disrupted the move but served as no great obstacle. When they reached the fort they discovered that the reconnaissance reports were horribly wrong. They were faced with a ditch between 10-13 feet deep with near vertical sides. To escape the fire coming from the fort and to make an effort at scaling the walls the Confederate attackers crowded into the ditch. Like the railroad cut at Gettysburg and the outside works at Franklin the sanctuary proved a death trap. Flanking fire devastated the trapped men. The troops manning the fort at the point of assault improvised ways to add to the destruction. One artilleryman, unable to depress his piece enough to fire into the pit, began lighting the fuses and hand tossed the rounds over the wall. Artillery capable of firing into the deadly mayhem did so with triple loads of canister. The few Confederates that managed to claw their way to the top of the parapet were equally devastated. One Union officer dispatched an intrepid attacker by placing “my pistol six inches from his face and pulling the trigger three times.” Nearby another defender was beating back an effort to enter the fort with an axe.
The assault was mercifully called back. The bloody twenty minute effort cost the Confederates 813 casualties while the defenders suffered approximately 20. The siege of Knoxville was not over but no further efforts were made at the Union line. On December 3rd the threat of a relief column from Chattanooga caused Longstreet to lift the siege. Informed by Bragg that he was on his own Longstreet did not attempt to unify his forces with Bragg. Instead he moved off in the opposite direction.
- ORs – Vol. XXX & XXXI
- The Warrior Generals – Combat Leadership in the Civil War, Thomas Buell
- Mountains Touched with Fire, Wiley Sword
- Autumn of Glory - The Army of Tennessee 1962-1865, Thomas Connelly
- The Shipwreck of Their Hopes – The Battle of Chattanooga, Peter Cozzens
- Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, edited by Robert Johnson and Clarence Buel
- History of Pennsylvania Volunteers - 1861-1865, Samuel P. Bates
- The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, U.S. Grant