Opportunities Lost Before Knoxville – Burnside Makes Good His Escape

November 16, 1863 (Monday)

Burnside and his whiskers are welcome in Knoxville.
Burnside and his whiskers are welcome in Knoxville.

Though Ambrose Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio was based out of Knoxville, Tennessee, a division augmented by a brigade actually held tight to the Tennessee River near Lenoir’s Station. Burnside had grown nervous and seriously contemplated abandoning the city and thus East Tennessee completely. But the urgings of General Grant, commanding Union forces at Chattanooga, convinced him otherwise.

And so on the 14th, Burnside rode from his Knoxville headquarters to Lenoir’s. Nearby, Confederates under James Longstreet were crossing a rickety pontoon bridge in an attempt to besiege the Federals, or even drive them back across the Cumberland Mountains.

It took Longstreet until the 15th to begin his move. When it became clear to Burnside that he could not hold Lenoir’s, he ordered his forces to fall back to Knoxville. This was a fortuitous move, as the Rebels had begun a movement that may well have bagged a good chunk of Burnside’s forces.

From the Tennessee River, two roads led northeast to Knoxville. Longstreet understood that he had to quickly march on the road parallel to Burnside’s, overtake the enemy, cut him off, and fall upon him from the front and rear. Through the night of the 15th, Burnside evacuated Lenoir’s, trying to make good time to the junction of the two parallel roads, twelve miles away, near Campbell’s Station, where he figured that Longstreet would try to cut him off from Knoxville.

Fortunately for Burnside, he had started a vanguard for the junction that evening. By morning it had arrived, beating Longstreet’s troops to the ball. Two Confederate divisions, under Lafayette McLaws and Micah Jenkins, pursued the retreating Yankees, with McLaws taking the parallel Kingston Road, and Jenkins following Burnside directly upon the Lenoir Road. While Jenkins nipped at Burnside’s heels, McLaws’ troops had fallen behind. The roads were quagmires, slowing both armies to a sluggish crawl.

Jenkins takes the low road.
Jenkins takes the low road.

But just after dawn, as the cavalry dueled along the Kingston Road, Jenkins lead elements clashed with Burnside’s rear guard. Both were about two miles from the junction, and neither could long be held. The cavalry skirmish quickly devolved into a running fight, with the Federals falling back. The hasty deployment of Burnside’s troops was outflanked on both sides and forced to retire to a point nearly a mile in their rear (and nearly a mile from the junction).

Again the Rebels came, this time focusing on the Union left. The rear guard consisted of only three regiments. It was enough to hold back the Confederate advance, but more Rebel troops were coming quickly. The Northern troops held the high ground, and used it to good advantage, throwing their Southern counterparts back as they came. With this reprieve, the Federals again retreated.

Here, they were no longer alone. Another brigade had joined them, and together they formed a line covering both Kingston and Lenoir’s Roads. With the junction seemingly secure, the rest of Burnside’s forces made good their withdrawal toward Knoxville. Now, however, Jenkins unleashed another brigade of his own, crossing through the woods in an attempt to get behind the Union left and cut off the retreat. The same was tried on the Union left, but both were quickly caught, held and finally hurled back. Once more the Federals were able to retreat.

With the junction held, Burnside selected his next line of defense. Near Campbell’s Station, and along Turkey Creek, rose a high bluff. Here, he placed his artillery, and they had a wide view of the entire field before them. Now, with four divisions, the Federals could make a stand.

Here's a pretty approximate map.
Here’s a pretty approximate map.

It was only noon by the time Longstreet’s men made their appearance. Now that they were beyond the junction, only one road lead to the Federal position. As soon as they came within range, Burnside’s artillery opened upon them, doing great damage, but hardly slowing the steady advance.

On the Federal right was a woodlot. Around noon, Longstreet deployed McLaws’ Division to take advantage of the cover, and to outflank Burnside. On the left, Jenkins was about to attempt the same. McLaws was held up by a small string of Federal skirmishers, and Jenkins grew weary of the wait. He sent his own troops toward the Union right, hoping to advance them far enough that when they attacked, they would come in behind Burnside’s line. But it was not to be.

The Rebel flanking march stopped short. To make matters worse, when it finally stepped off, around 3pm, it moved to the left rather than to the right. This brought it in on the Union front rather than the flank or rear. This could have ended in a disaster, but by this time, Burnside, with both his flanks threatened, ordered another retreat.

This time, his position was held a mile east, at Loveville. By 4pm, Burnside’s troops were again ready to receive their guests. Once more the artillery dueled, and Longstreet was slow to advance, hoping to allow the guns to do as much damage as they could. But here, neither side won an advantage, though Longstreet’s Artillery Chief, E. Porter Alexander, described a grisly scenario.

McLaws plays catchup.
McLaws plays catchup.

A Federal gun fired a 20lbs. rifled shot “that cut both arms and one leg off a man. He was kneeling behind a limber on his right knee, facing to the right, and was putting a fuse in a shell placed on the ground, and using both hands. This shot struck one of the wheel horses in the chest, ranged through the length of his body a little downward, wrecked the splinter bar of the limber, and passed just under the axle and struck this poor fellow’s left leg above the knee, his left arm above the elbow, and his right arm at or below it leaving all three only hanging by shreds.” The man was alive when carried off the field, but died a horrific death soon after.

As before, General Jenkins’ Rebels tried to turn Burnside’s left flank, but the broken ground and the waning daylight made it nearly impossible.

When darkness fell, Burnside retreated east. Through the night, a soft rain fell upon the weary men, the walking wounded, and the silent dead, as they lumbered to the confines of Knoxville, sixteen miles away. Before dawn, they began to arrive. Longstreet’s Confederates camped where they fought.

The Federals lost 31 killed, 211 wounded, and 76 missing. The Confederate casualties were never fully reported, though Jenkins’ Division lost 174 men, killed, wounded, and missing.

While the day-long fight ended with Burnside fleeing toward Knoxville, Longstreet had missed his opportunity to destroy the Federal force before it was behind its fortified walls. Now what would have been a short battle in the open would become a siege that may stretch on for weeks, and the results were any body’s guess.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 1, p274, 333, 356, 358, 371, 384, 392; The Knoxville Campaign by Earl J. Hess; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Mountains Touched with Fire Wiley Sword; The Shipwreck of their Hopes by Peter Cozzens. []
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